Know your oignons

I was at this neighbourhood party -- middle-class mums, their kids in their fave strips, with their own names on the back, such as Rupert, which you never see on a real footballer -- when I got talking to this yummy mummy. Her two children were in the full Arsenal gear but they didn't seem too interested in football, playing instead with stupid hand-held computer things, while we had found a telly and were watching Torquay v Barnet. She turned out to be a real enthusiast.

I must have suggested, not very subtly, that her kids were suffering from the pushy-parent syndrome -- not, in this case, to pass the common entrance exam but the common entrance to a normal social life today: to acquire a superficial devotion to a famous team, plus kit,
which is enough to let you fit in anywhere, any time.

To prove how wrong I was, she called over her two kids. "Name three Croatians who play for Spurs." Smart question. She knew by now I was a Spurs fan and that I'd be thinking the kids would be totally ignorant of Spurs. But immediately they reeled off the three names - Modric, Kranjcar, Corluka.

“A Ghanaian who has joined Sunderland?" They got that right as well: Asamoah Gyan. "Bolton's Hungarian goalkeeper? "Adam Bogdan, of course." Her Arsenal question - "Name five current Arsenal players who have played for France" - had me stumped. I could name only Clichy, Diaby, Nasri and Sagna. But they got a fifth player straight away.

When I was eight, I was self-taught in football matters as pater and mater had other things to worry about, such as fighting Hitler and spinning out the mince and tatties. But I acquired an excellent knowledge of football grounds and could name all 92 in England, plus Scottish ones. Palmerston Park? Home of Queen of the South. Easy. I was also ace at the nicknames of clubs. Falkirk, for instance, are known as the Bairns; Everton as the Toffees; West Ham as the Irons. These nicknames live on mainly in boys' comics and football quizzes -- rarely on the terraces. Actually, that's a lie.

Did I not hear West Ham fans the other day at the Emirates singing: "Come on, you Irons"?

The point is that kids have always loved memorising daft football facts. It used to be strips and badges. Magazines and comics would publish page after page of illustrations that young fans would test themselves on.

Our knowledge was insular. Did not England and Scotland rule the football world? I could name the Scotland XI, the "Wembley Wizards", who beat England 5-1 in 1928: Gallacher, James, Morton, Law, Harkness - oh God, forgotten the rest. But I did know them.

Older football fans often moan about these foreigners coming into our game, taking our money, stealing our women, speaking proper English and not getting drunk - but they have provided a much-needed boost to children's general knowledge. Now, who on earth is the fifth French international at Arsenal? Squillaci, of course, who I'd assumed was Italian. What a dum-dum.

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 22 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Advantage Cameron