Perfect pitch

Phrases from footie have long seeped into the language, writes <em>Hunter Davies</em>

I was listening to Today on Radio 4, which I never miss, love the betting tips, when on came the new Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols. He was congratulated on getting the gig and he modestly, nicely, deflected the compliment. “I will give it my best shot,” he replied.

Heh up, I thought, as I’d only been half listening, has he taken over at Newcastle United? A club with 13 managers so far this season will surely try one more before it’s too late.

Then in the Independent, which I also never miss, as I like to support worthy charities, Dominic Lawson was going on about Brown’s spin doctors. “They only go for the man, not the ball.”

In the current Private Eye, an old-fashioned, traditional magazine, where you don’t expect sloppy, modern clichés, and certainly not of a football variety, they had a piece about a journalist who had avoided being chucked out of a meeting. “Guardian politics reporter Nick Watt nearly took an early bath at the G20.”

Amazing that football, after all these decades, should still be generating new similes, metaphors, aphorisms, which get picked up by people from all walks of life, from clerics to political commentators who are trying to be cool or add colour.

All three football phrases are relatively modern – 1970s, I would guess. Players now always promise to give it their best shot, because they’ve heard other players
saying it. An early bath has always existed, but I would suggest it was TV commentators in the 1980s
who gave it common currency. Same with going for the man, not the ball. That sounds like early
Ron Atkinson, circa 1987.

But almost from the beginning of football, many of its phrases passed into the language.

“Kick-off” quickly grew to mean the start of anything, not just a football game. “A political football” was in use in the House of Commons in the 19th century, referring to a topic that got kicked about, from end to end, but didn’t actually go anywhere.

“Moving the goalposts” is a very good image. “Level playing field” is also widely used, but
I think that could well have come from cricket, early doors. (“Early doors”, that’s middle-to-late Ron Atkinson.)

When it comes to people or things, countries or ideas which are said to be in “a league of their own” or “in a different league” or “playing in the big league”, I suspect that general usage did not start until after 1888, when the Football League was first formed. Before then, football consisted
of friendlies or cup matches. Obviously, the word “league” did exist, derived from the Latin ligare (“to bind”), but it was the creation of football leagues that made the expression emotive and understood by all.

My favourite of all the phrases that originated in football is one which arose in the early 1930s.
It was when the BBC first started broadcasting football games on the radio. The Beeb realised there would be a problem trying to describe a game with lots of players, lots of movement, to people sitting at home, unable to see what was happening. To help them imagine it, the Radio Times printed a plan of a football pitch split up into boxes, marked one to eight. One commentator would describe the actual play while another said which square the ball was on. I have tried for years to get this copy of the Radio Times. When play broke down and it was a goal kick, the commentator would say, “Back to square one.” So hurrah for football, enricher of the language.

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 27 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rise of the Geek