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24 February 2017

I could have sworn that the Lincoln City striker was my dustman…

Watching a game on tenterhooks to see if the manager picks his nose.

By Hunter Davies

Too busy thinking about other things, so didn’t at first realise that I was witnessing possibly the greatest event in the history of civilisation. Or since 1863, when the FA was formed.

I had tuned in to watch Burnley v Lincoln City for the pleasure of seeing if the former’s manager, Sean Dyche, is ever going to pick his nose in public. His hand goes up to his nose every 30 seconds, gives it a rub, then when he’s about to start poking around inside, he thinks better of it, only to start again a minute later. He clearly can’t help it – it’s a nervous tic, which all managers have, though some hide it better.

Then I started studying the Lincoln team, none of whose phizogs, mannerisms or walks I know. By this stage in the season, I am pretty familiar with every regular Premier player, having grown accustomed to his face, his smile, his ups and downs. When it’s a Cup match with a team from a lower division, in this case a non-League team, the players are strangers. I would not recognise any of them in my porridge.

Then I saw someone I swore was our dustman, large and beefy, with Bobby Charlton hair. I thought he must have wandered on to the pitch from the burger bar – but, no, he was a Lincoln forward, the 16-stone Matt Rhead. Even on the couch, cradling my Beaujolais, I could hear Burnley fans shouting, “You fat bastard.”

Lincoln’s captain was called Waterfall, another player I hadn’t come across before, one of those footballers who spend their whole life in the lower divisions, becoming local legends, if they last long enough, but completely unrecognised elsewhere.

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I googled his first name, and oh, my God, it’s only Luke. Luke Waterfall, how romantic is that? Straight out of Mills & Boon. Did he assume that name when he went into show business, Lincoln City Division?

I started thinking of all the fab new names in football, a source of endless reverie when the game is dull. I’m allowed to do this when watching on my own. When watching with my son or anyone else, I impose house rules, which state that all conversation must be linked directly to what is happening on the screen.

Jesus at Man City, what a gift from, er, God for the headline writers. He arrived in January for £27m, a bargain already, especially if he continues to work miracles, har, har. It says “Jesus” on the back of his shirt. His first name is Gabriel, after the archangel, presumably. The sub-editors will have fun with him for years – “Jesus saves”, “Jesus wept”.

I remember waiting in the 1970s when the Scottish player Gerry Queen joined Crystal Palace. I knew that events would turn him into a headline. Then he got a red card: “Queen sent off at Palace”.

The all-time classic football headline was used in February 2000, when Inverness Caledonian Thistle beat Celtic 3-1. The result, one of the biggest upsets in Scottish football, led to the Sun headline

Super Caley go ballistic

Celtic are atrocious

In a lifetime of subbing, you don’t get many occasions when all the planets align so exactly.

The new names that I’ve been enjoying this season include Dunk at Brighton. Haven’t noticed him walking into a headline yet, and I can’t imagine what it will be – something to do with “Dunking donuts”, or “Dunk and disorderly”?

I’ve always liked Robert Snodgrass, now at West Ham. His name sounds so Dickensian. And Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk – wow, my Hollywood hero. Harry Winks at Spurs: what a shame he wasn’t given shirt number 40. When Jeffrey Schlupp appeared in the Leicester line-up last season, I couldn’t wait to decide if his name would fit a verb, a noun, a term of abuse, or a form of semi-sleeping, such as the way I schlupped on the sofa watching Burnley v Lincoln.

Then, blow me, I was wakened violently from my reveries. Just before the end, Lincoln scored – making them the first non-League team to reach the FA Cup quarter-finals in 103 years. And I was watching, sort of . . . 

This article appears in the 22 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit