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11 February 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:26pm

Football’s new developments: headbashing, long johns and the mystery of the short corner

Hurrah for football snappers – spending their lives on their knees in the rain – for brilliantly capturing Man United’s Jones’s reaction to an own goal.

By Hunter Davies

Just back from four weeks in the Caribbean – very nice, thanks, especially when on the remote island where I was staying, Bequia in the Grenadines, there arrived out of the blue a colleague, Antonia Quirke, this esteemed organ’s radio columnist. Only ever met her once in ten years, and that was for five minutes at Broadcasting House. She is young and attractive and lives on a houseboat, is lively and fun, so what a surprise when she suddenly moved into the same hotel as me, Bequia Beach (eat your heart out, Mr Lezard).

After that I lost much of my normal holiday desire for trailing into a nearby town in the evenings trying to find a pub showing live Prem football. Which means that now I am back, I have been gorging on Match of the Day box sets. Is there such a thing? I mean watching all the MOTD progs I recorded while away.

Spurs’s second goal in their defeat of Man United – oh, that was sublime. Surely you remember it? It was made more delicious by the fact that it was a perfect own goal by United’s Phil Jones. I have always considered him a lump, but his shot was pure art.

They always say that to really enjoy success in life your rivals must suffer, which is horrible. I, of course, would never say it. But in football, a moment of joy when your team scores is made ever sweeter by the humiliation of an opponent. I sat rewinding the tape and laughing for ages.

Then I noticed a strange thing. On the plane I had seen, on the back pages of the newspapers, a close-up of poor old Jones banging his poor old head against the stanchion of the goal post. I was looking forward to seeing that on TV but Match of the Day did not have it. Had the producers decided it was morally unfair to embarrass him further? Or did their dozens of ace TV cameras not catch it? I suspect the latter. So hurrah for our football snappers, spending their lives on their knees in the rain, as they have done for more than 130 years – they had captured that instant image which so amused millions across the football universe. Apart, of course, from fans of Man United.

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Another shot I lingered long over was of Swansea’s Jordan Ayew, in the game against Leicester. He got tackled, fell over – and his shorts came down. Cue crude laughter as the fans nearest waited for a close-up of his tackle. Instead we got the benefit of admiring his long johns – or long combs as they were once called. My father always wore them in the winter, long white fleecy-type women’s drawers that came down to his knees. In those days, no houses had central heating. Ayew’s were longish and white, but neater, tighter than old-fashioned combs, and no doubt made of state-of-the-art super-Lycra to protect his pecks and monitor his blood pressure. Coming soon to a football store near you.

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One interesting development I noticed while watching those wall-to-wall games was that Man City now almost always take short corners. I had not been aware of that before I went away. The ball goes only two yards to another player, often back down the field, and then gets passed across to someone who has been lurking on the edge of play, and wham: back of the net.

It has always been clear to most fans that many of the traditional corny corners high into the box go straight into the goalie’s hands, or are headed away easily by a defender, yet teams still persist in doing them. I reckon 50 per cent are immediately cleared while only 10 per cent end in a goal. I just made those figures up but I bet when the pointy-headed video geeks, whom all top clubs now employ, get round to analysing every corner ever taken, anywhere, my figures will be roughly correct.

City’s manager, Pep Guardiola, has realised that by taking a short corner you keep possession, allowing a clever and well-drilled team to manage a clear and dangerous direct shot on goal. Or is it because he currently has no bullet-headed centre forward to throw himself at a high corner, as Joe Royle used to do in the Seventies? I might discuss this with Antonia, next time we meet over a rum punch. 

This article appears in the 07 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry