If you know the origin of sledging, write to A N Wilson

Here we are, at a vital stage in the season, with Man Utd being really excellent, and fans suddenly deciding that though we have to hate them, as that's what football is all about, if they thump Inter on Wednesday and go on to win the European Champions' League, well, we'll hate them only a little bit from now on. And Chelsea's foreign legion, we'll be giving them a small cheer next week as well.

Gosh, I am looking forward to both matches. And yet as I sit here, floating and flickering around in my little mind are two piddlingly trivial football topics. One is not quite so little. Seven pounds in weight, to be precise - little Brooklyn Joseph Beckham.

My niece Lindsey from Leighton Buzzard is staying with us at present, recently graduated, doing a course, and getting a feel of the Big City. She thought life in our household was metropolitan and exciting enough, because we have pine floors and wine with every meal, and the other day she saw a tramp in the street who turned out to be A N Wilson. But the best was travelling to town on the C2 bus and seeing a notice saying "Queue for Brooklyn". Proof that she really was at the very heart of the universe. Looking out from the bus she saw hundreds of fans queuing outside the Portland hospital, hoping for a view of either the proud father, a Spice Girl or perhaps even the baby himself. She nearly spotted Sporty Spice. Or it could have been David. They are about the same build.

If Brooklyn grows up to be a footballer, he'll be in good company. Just think of all the other geographical names - Edinburgh, Yorke, Dublin, Sutton, Dundee, Barnes, Hamilton, Southgate. (Justin Edinburgh, by the way, is known as Leith. 'Cos he's just in Edinburgh . . .)

When Beckham first arrived on the scene, I thought from his accent his name was Peckham. It would have looked good on a team sheet, Brooklyn Peckham - the first double geographical name in football.

They named him Brooklyn because that's where Posh discovered she was pregnant. Did Chelsea Clinton get her name for similar reasons? Bill and Hillary got engaged in England, in the Lake District near Ennerdale Water, so Hillary herself told me a year ago, oh yes. Perhaps something significant happened in Chelsea when they were passing through London.

The other word buzzing in my brain has been "sledging". That came out of the Graeme Le Saux-Robbie Fowler handbags-at-ten-paces row. Sorry, that could be construed as homophobic. The row also raised the allegation of a south v north confrontation. Not heard that recently. At one time, northern fans were convinced the national newspapers were only interested in London teams and London-based players. The return to glory of Man Utd has stopped all that, hence the queues for Baby Beckham.

But it was the term "sledging", meaning verbal abuse on the field of play, that really puzzled me. "Winding up" I can understand, as that is fairly graphic. But where did "sledging" come from? Is it sexual slang, or something to do with drugs? (My editor tells me it's used in cricket, but he doesn't know the derivation either.) It seems so far removed from sledging on snow; it could come from sledgehammer, but even then, it's a bit of a jump. I don't get out a lot these days, so if you do know the precise derivation, then do write. Not to me. To A N Wilson. He doesn't get many letters, poor sod.

Now that's out of the way, let's think about Man Utd on Wednesday. It was very exciting, that first leg, so exciting that the commentator got carried away and coined a new word. Talking about the money at stake, he referred to financial "incentatives". Big Ron was on fine form and only had about 15 goes at pronouncing Djorkaeff. He was clearly worried about saying "jerk off". If Youri is playing on Wednesday, let's hope Ron has made up his mind about his surname.

Ruud Gullit, before the match, warned everyone that Italians are cheats, doing terrible things like shirt pulling, pushing and kicking. The brutes. I do hope such actions never catch on over here. This attitude was reflected in the Old Trafford crowd, who were heard singing, "Same old Eyeties, always cheating". That's become a common chant this season, first used against Arsenal.

In the first leg, we were told something else about the Italians - that they can't take the English weather. The inference being that it's always sunny in Italy. Which is cobblers. The Mediterranean in winter can be just as wet and cold and nasty as England is.

I happened to turn on Channel 4 last week and saw Juventus, playing at home, in Turin. You could hardly see the match for the rain and the mist. One of their players, Fonseca, was even wearing gloves. At home, in "sunny Italy".

My worry about Wednesday's match is Man Utd's midfield. Scholes had a poor game in the first leg, never got a grip, and Keane is not the dominant presence he used to be. The defence has got better, now that Stam has grown into his game. The two strikers are on top form, well supported by Giggs and Beckham on the flanks. The problem is a lack of a top-class creative midfield player. Sheringham, alas, is now persona non farta. Beckham could do it, but is more useful playing wide, getting in his crosses. Butt and Scholes appeared at one time to be the future of Man Utd's midfield, but have not progressed. England have the same problem. But Man Utd are a better team than this time last year, and a lot richer, now we know they have the highest income of any club in the world. On Wednesday, I'm sure we'll all be shouting for them. "Come on you Readies . . ."

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Yanks go home . . . but not just yet