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4 March 2017

My latest football gripe? The receiving line when a player is swapped out

A big cuddle for the manager, a kiss for his room-mate and a slap of the hands for the trainee sitting at the back and the junior video analyser.

By Hunter Davies

In the final of the League Cup – formerly called the Milk Cup, Waste Disposal Cup, the Keep On Truckin’ Cup and the Autosuggestion Cup – occurred one of the clichés of our time. Southampton’s Manolo Gabbiadini, having scored two fine goals, was substituted towards the end. He wandered slowly off, looking at interesting blades of grass, contemplating a stray cloud. This is normal when a team is leading or, as in this case, hanging on to a draw. The player being subbed spins out the remaining time by taking for ever to leave. Gabbiadini, while still on the pitch, managed a cuddle for Shane Long, the sub taking his place.

It doesn’t actually use up time, because the ref adds extra on. If you do it too blatantly, you can get booked, but it works as an annoyance. It pisses off the other team, which gets ratty and frustrated. One of them pushes you, and you immediately go down in a heap. The crowd goes mad.

The new cliché, though, is what happens after a player has finally left the pitch. Instead of meekly taking a seat, getting someone to budge up, he goes walkabout, along the rows of the bench, making sure that he shakes hands with everyone. A big cuddle for the manager, a kiss for his room-mate and a slap of the hands for the trainee sitting at the back and the junior video analyser.

The bench – which is a generic name for mass groupings of football and football-related personages behind the scenes – is no longer a single bench. It takes up half the stand, serried ranks reaching to the sky, with everyone in lovely tracksuits and with very serious faces and/or laptops.

All this money in football, which rewards humble Premiership journeymen with £300,000 per week, also enables them to afford hundreds of background staff you have never heard of. I read recently that Arsenal now employ 600 staff – 600!

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It seems it was only last year when top clubs managed with a manager who was also the club secretary, plus an old feller with a towel round his neck who carried a wet sponge. OK, perhaps it wasn’t last year but 1908. Near enough.

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It’s not just the money but modern technology that has done it. And, as we all know, modern technology expands to give itself more importance, more functions, more jobs.

The whole squad – as well as the physios and techies – has to be acknowledged, which now takes so long that when a particularly popular player leaves the pitch, he is still shaking hands and having cuddles long after the game has ended, the stadium has cleared and all the other members of the first team are back on the coach. Fortunately, the team’s helicopter pilot will wait to whisk him off to his lovely mansion and his lovely wife in his gated community.

When did all this start, this mass love-in on the bench? I think we picked it up from Europe. You know how emotional these foreign Johnnies can be. And they’re now all over here. Players have seen other players doing it on TV, so they copy it, getting upset if they get missed out. The other day, I watched some ten-year-olds on Hampstead Heath and they were all solemnly exchanging high-fives as they trooped off.

The equivalent verbal cliché, now so awfully common, is home-grown. I think our native TV commentators began using it to hide that we aren’t much good, not these days. On TV, they’ve long been busy telling each other that they’re looking forward to this game, are you, yes, I am looking forward to it – then, when it starts, how really, really good it is. To make us feel glad to be watching, they then tell us that it’s “world class”.

The simplest goal is now world class. A header that hits the bar is world class. A free kick that manages to go over the wall is world class. Almost every save is now world class. I have even heard a throw-in being described as world class.

So the commentators missed a trick in that Cup final. The camera had gone back to play by the time Gabbiadini was finally seated, but I’m sure that all of his many handshakes were world class.

This article appears in the 01 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again