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7 December 2023

At its midpoint, this season is shaping up to be one of football’s oddest

So far we’ve seen Dickensian midfielders, a blizzard of coaching jobs, and the return of peep-hole socks.

By Hunter Davies

Another season half-over, and what have we learned ? Or what have we not learned. Will Man City pull it off again? Are Spurs back to being Spursy? There are just so many unknowns.

Shirt sponsors. What the hell do they all mean ? On the front of Chelsea shirts it says Infinite Athlete. Can’t be a reference to their players, who have mostly been lumps all season. SBOTOP on the Fulham shirts sounds rude, like a kid trying to scrawl “bottom on top”. Nottingham Forest proudly proclaim “Katyan” on their fronts. But what is it? A country? A science-fiction story? An eastern European pop star?*

Advertising slogans have become just as confusing. “Believe in Magic.” It must be a soft drink, or a soft copy writer. “Better Never Stops.” Total bollocks.

[See also: If you watch football with me, you need to respect my rules]

Nice names. They do cheer me up. Marvelous Nakamba of Luton – can’t wait for him to come on and make me smile. Or for Schlupp of Palace to be substituted, so I can shout out: “Schlupp off!” Well, it amuses me. My fave new name is young Hayden Hackney of Middlesbrough. Straight out of a Victorian novel.

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Sensible pitch-side adverts. They do exist. I like it when they are easy to understand, such as the one at Coventry City which announces “FH Brundle, Steel Floors”. Though I wonder how many fans watching the game will have a sudden desire to get one.

Love hearts of the season. Over whom the back pages have gone all drippy. Jude Bellingham – they are just so in love with him. And the Spurs manager, Ange Postecoglou – whose name I have still not got my tongue round, but it’s been kissy-kissy with him as well for most of the season.

Commentator of the season. Ally McCoist, please don’t change, please remain yourself, please continue as you once were. “I have to say, it really is, it really is, I have to be honest with you, it really is…”

Disappearing player. What has happened to Mason Mount? Poor lad. So much was expected of him when he moved from Chelsea to Man United. Has he been swallowed?

Reappearing Wally. Erik ten Hag of Man United has been under fire all season, so it was reassuring to see him sitting on the bench being comforted by his personal priest, a white-haired, elderly man with a dog collar and a cloak. Then I realised, oh my God, it is Steve McClaren.

Mystery mumblings. Newcastle United’s manager, Eddie Howe, is one of my heroes. I do like him writing everything down in longhand in his notebook. He has now got into the habit of putting his hand over his mouth whenever talking to his assistant, the ever-tanned Jason Tindall, who also covers his mouth . I wonder what they are saying. “Where are we going tonight, eh, Jase? I fancy a curry.” Or is it, “Oops, sorry, think I’ve got heartburn.”

Specialist coaches. There are now so many little helpers, hence the packed rows of very serious persons behind the bench. Loads of video techies and physios, but also specialist footer trainers. We have long had goalkeeping coaches, but now the top clubs have full-time throw-in coaches, corner coaches, free-kick coaches… Coming soon will be celebration coaches, to rehearse how players will celebrate a goal, and getting-on-the-bus coaches to help them wear the right sort of headphones.

Sexy sox. Do you remember Kyle Walker used to wear socks with holes at the calves? I assumed his lovely fat calves needed fresh air, though they are not as yummy as Jack Grealish’s. I always wondered who had cut the holes for him. Then it seemed he gave them up. But lo, they are coming back. I spotted Conor Gallagher of Chelsea with holes in his socks. Is he being sponsored by a sock manufacturer who wants to sell loads of holey hosiery at Christmas?

* To save you sleepless nights over Christmas: Infinite Athlete is some sort of gibberish-sounding sports techie firm. SBOTOP is a betting company. Kaiyun – not Katyan, which is how it looks to me – is also a betting firm. Now you know. Sleep well

[See also: When I met Bobby Charlton]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special