Making the game beautiful: Clichés, corridors of uncertainty and the language of football

Yahoo Sport UK
Back of the net: Is this a good hat for a big man?
Back of the net: Is this a good hat for a big man?


Football is much more than just a game. In fact, as the previous sentence illustrates, the sport is also a series of clichés that bring it to life in a peculiar way like no other. There are said to be 6909 languages globally. Let’s make that 6910, because here is a collection of words that are memorable, universal and so beautiful as to be near poetry in their ham-fisted glory.

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It’s a popular theme too. BBC Radio 4 recently discussed football’s “linguistic microclimate”, debating the phrases that cloud the minds of managers, players, pundits and fans. Starring Yahoo Sport’s own Adam Hurrey, it was fascinating to hear him describe this language as “detritus…utterly useless information”, particularly given the existence of his book on the topic. But Hurrey is, of course, correct, as a key translator of such “conversational lubricant”, which simultaneously informs, entertains and astounds. So, let’s open up football’s unique dictionary like a knife through butter.

A is for “Almighty goalmouth scramble”

Few things in football are more exciting than a goalmouth scramble. So it’s important to add a suitably overblown appendage that does such a moment justice. Almighty is good but how about “Colossal” or “Apocalyptic”?

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B is for “Back of the net”

Here’s a phrase that’s actually made its way into mainstream language. In fact, you’re actually much less likely to hear this at a match than from the eloquent lips of one particular former pundit.

C is for “Corridor of uncertainty”

This cliché originated in cricket before being adopted by football commentators as the area of the six-yard box where goalkeeper and defender are blinded by a brilliant light that only a goal can extinguish.

D is for “Disciplinary tightrope”

It’s a shame players facing suspension don’t actually walk a disciplinary tightrope. Perhaps when John Terry finally retires he could make a return at half-time during boring games and manoeuvre across a high wire suspended over a paddling pool full of crocodiles?

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E is for “Embarrassment of riches”

Describes the sort of fulsome stable of talent Real Madrid are accustomed to shooing with their squad of galácticos. Pep Guardiola might also be deemed red-faced in the full-back positions after spending £130 million last summer on three players.

F is for “Fergie Time”

Sir Alex Ferguson’s footballing legacy is as massive as his wine cellar. This contribution to the game’s lexicon was inspired by his incessant haranguing and gum-laden mastication about the amount of injury time added by officials. Amazingly, his antics actually seemed to have an impact.

G is for “Good touch for a big man”

The suggestion here seems to be that being very tall and able to control a ball are mutually exclusive, presumably because big players have a greater distance in which to coordinate their head and feet. So how do we explain Peter Crouch in full flow?

H is for “Hatful of chances”

The language of football journeys into strange places, including hats full of scoring opportunities. Is this the same location where Mario Balotelli stored all those open goals he missed at Manchester City?

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I is for “Injection of pace”

Few things, other than Jurgen Klopp’s management skills and transfer policy, destroy defences like pace and this description does justice to the narcotic explosion experienced when a footballer pushes the plunger.

J is for “Just handbags”

Describes that moment when players square up after an ugly challenge only to recline from violence for fear that it might damage their participation in the game/hair. Actual on-pitch fighting is known as “Proper suitcases”.

K is for “Killing the game”

Not a tactic involving mass slaughter of the opposition but an attempt to nullify their attacking options and preserve a certain scoreline. Interestingly, Jose Mourinho likes to “kill a game” but would never “park the bus”.

L is for “Lost the dressing room”

Experienced by most managers and occurs when players start looking in the other direction when the boss speaks or getting his name wrong on purpose. It’s a different scenario to losing the dug out, which once befell Ron Atkinson.

M is for “Mass of bodies”

Somewhat alarmingly, a shot can apparently be fired through a mass of bodies. In plain English, this means there are numerous other players in the way of the ball, none of whom are actually dead.

N is for “No right to score from there”

Why say “a tight angle” or “that was a long way out” when “he’s got no right to score from there!” is available? Because this is a game about hype, drama and beating the keeper from impossible angles, just like Álvaro Recoba.

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O is for “One game at a time”

Imagine trying to take two games at a time. Or six. That would present many problems tactically and physically, so perhaps there is wisdom in arguably football’s most overused, lamest cliché.

P is for “Ploughing a lone furrow”

Another poetic example of football’s descriptive elegance. This illustrates a team playing with one striker rather than Zarya vs Volyn in 2011’s Ukrainian Premier League, which brought new meaning to the moniker “Tractor Boys”.

Q is for “Queuing up at the back post”

When was the last time you saw anyone “queuing” inside the box? Pushing, grabbling, wrestling and fighting are common but such politeness has no place in football unless The Queen has come up for a corner.

R is for “Relegation dogfight”

As Sunderland will attest, it’s never too early in the season for a dramatically framed “relegation dogfight”. However, have there ever been so many teams facing this abject fate as in Serie B last month?

S is for “Silence the boo-boys”

Another phrase with seemingly zero relevance to the English language other than sport’s back pages, footballers are always doing battle with unidentified but probably quite aggressive “boo boys”. Sometimes, they fight back.

T is for “The managerial merry-go-round”

Also known as “the Jobcentre Plus gaffer shimmy” or “defenestration of the deluded”, this terminology explains the 91-game average lifespan of Premier League managers.

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U is for “Unceremoniously dumped”

Generally used to describe a giant-killing, it’s fair to say that most of the Premier League teams already out of this season’s Caribou Cup actually departed quite ceremoniously.

V is for “Victory from the jaws of defeat”

Rather like the yips and dartitits, the jaws of victory and defeat have been taunting football managers for years and can be seen opening and closing hungrily at the exact moment a 2-0 lead is cancelled out during a match.

W is for “Win a penalty”

Although it’s not actually possible to “win” a penalty, cheating the referee is a particular skill and surely one of the first things set to be taught at the rumoured Dele Alli Football Academy. Add this clip to the curriculum, Dele.

X is for “XG”

A phrase that started appearing on Match of the Day this season, to the confusion of, well, everyone. The XG metric aims to predict how many goals a team will score and is perfect for when the actual score just isn’t enough.

Y is for “You’ve never won f*** all”

Where to start? Not only a double negative, this grammatically insane phrase also taunts opponents for their failure to ever lift a trophy AND features a swear word. To paraphrase every commentator, that takes real aplomb.

Z is for “Row Z”

An imaginary black hole within the stadium complex where the ball can be dispatched during the final seconds of a tight match. Tricky wingers have also been kicked into this unforgiving hinterland by an “agricultural” tackle after one too many flip flaps.


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