Thrup'ny headers and milk bottles? Very much so

Right, so you watch a lot of football, think you know a thing or three, understand the language of the lads, can tell a sick parrot from a clean sheet, know a tap-in from a one-two, can tell a stopper from a striker, can spot a 4-4-2 formation from a 9-9-9 call. Well done.

Can you therefore translate the following three phrases which are actually used by footballers, among themselves, as opposed to thrown around on the back pages or bandied around by clever-dick columnists in weekly mags such as . . . well, the name escapes me.

1) When a player is said to have been "window cleaning", what does it mean? And what position does he play?

2) When a manager refers to a new signing as a "milk bottle", is that good or bad?

3) What is a "threepenny" or "thrup'ny header"?

The language of football changes all the time, as it does inside all closed communities. Each club has its own references and phrases, myths and legends, which are meaningless to outsiders. And they come and go all the time. Only the language of our distinguished television commentators seems to go on and on and on, as they repeat their favourite phrases and observations, from birth to death, till you could strangle them, or their vowels. On the other hand, it does give you something to do during a really boring match, laying bets with yourself on how soon Ron Atkinson will say, "I tell you what".

Ron is my all-time favourite. I thrill to his use of language, his pet phrases,or his pet use of phrases that no one else uses in quite the same way or with the same inflection. At present, his top ten include "nice and bright", which refers to any early half-decent bit of play; "give and go"; "pumped up for this"; "I'm just wondering"; "very much so"; and "I've seen them given".

I'm surprised Ladbrokes, Hill's or Coral's haven't opened a book on how often he will use each of these phrases in a given time. They are used by other experts as well, but not mangled in quite the same way.

He also has some words that are peculiar to him. "Put the reducer in." That means to give someone a good kicking. It's pure Ron, derived perhaps from a long-forgotten culinary instruction on how to reduce some substance to a pulp. I don't think I've heard anyone else ever use that phrase.

"He nominated it." That's Ronspeak for a pass that goes direct to the person it was intended to reach, at least I think that's what Ron means. "He hasn't read the script" or "doesn't look too clever": two Ronisms for someone making a mess of something or not playing well.

"Opportunitism" is, I think, his own creation and should be in the dictionary by now. So should "acres of time". Of all his recent outpourings, that's one of his simpler ones, yet so awfully profound.

Andy Gray is second in the ranking for falling in love with his own cliches, but they are not quite as colourful as Ron's.

"It's as simple as that" and "I have to say" are pretty meaningless, little more than clearing of the throat.

If Trevor Francis says "Noo-castle" again, I will throw something at him, but that's a matter of pronunciation. "Educated left foot" or "cultured right foot", which I thought had been ridiculed out of existence, have both been used by David Pleat and Garry Nelson this season.

"A lesson for all young players there." Do I not hate that phrase, as Graham Taylor must have said. People such as John Motson and Barry Davies use it, turning all sanctimonious and pompous. Football, life, the whole damn works, everything is a lesson for all young players, so please stop saying it.

I usually turn the sound down when it's Motty anyway. I hate his silly laugh, which he will pause and give in the middle of a sentence, when nothing, har har, is in the least bit, her her, funny or amusing, hur hur.

Most strangulated use of language I've heard this season was Mark Lawrenson talking about Christian Ziege of Middlesborough: "He's an excellent free teeth taker." Though not quite on the level of Bob Wilson's classic, "He's pissed a late fitness test".

I've been looking out for mixed metaphors this season, but they've not been up to the standard of the past, such as Glenn Hoddle's "No one's shirt is cast in stone"; or Steve McMahon's "I've got irons in the fire and things up my sleeve"; or Craig Brown, on John Spencer's injury: "His hamstring is making alarm bells in his head."

But the season has still a long way to go, and I'll be taking each match as it comes, looking for pearls. Actually I won't. I'm now off to the West Indies for three weeks and I'm bound to miss some classic language while I'm away, even though I'll be searching desperately each day for the latest world-shattering developments, such as Spurs results.

In the meantime, here are the answers to my three questions:

1) "Window cleaning" is how a coach describes a goalkeeper who flaps at crosses and misses them.

2) "A milk bottle" refers to a player on whom you are not likely to get your money back. I heard Jim Smith use it the other week.

3) "Thrup'ny header" is slightly archaic, but still in use, for Garry Nelson said it on the radio two weeks ago. It refers to a header that goes totally the wrong way, off the edge of your head. The old threepenny coin, you will remember, had several edges, hence the reference.

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 17 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to keep us puffing