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Guest Post – The silly language of football

Rovers player/coach Bill Robertson barking out some instructions

Bill Robertson

By Cordwainer Bull

Part of the joy of football is its language of silliness, incomprehension, and mindless verbiage.

From fans to coaches to players, listen anywhere around the winter football traps and you’ll be assailed by a rich audio tapestry of idiomatic utterances, vacuous commands, and trite phrases.

Talking bollocks is the macaroni and cheese of football. It’s a kind of comfort food for our ears. You simply can’t beat the nonsense that gets talked at football matches.

While it hardly incubates our imagination, these empty, predictable lines of patter have become such an integral part of our game, that they almost assume the somnolent charm of an old music hall gag. “Oh, they’re doing that one! Yes, I know that one.”

Indeed, you can play your own game of Bullshit Bingo by checking off a line of these cliches across any weekend.

Here is a collection of platitudinous garden-variety football phrases I personally love to hate.

Please reply with your own favourites, along with a deconstructed analysis.

“We’re taking it one game at a time”. Typically expostulated by the gaffer when his team is doing better than expected, and these days is commonly accepted as a fundamental tenet of cross-code sporting wisdom, well beyond football. Funnily enough, you never hear anybody say: “let’s focus on two games at a time”. And yet there are a lot of weekends – Easter, Queen’s Birthday, Anzac – where there would appear to be a strong case for doing exactly that, and exploring an extended, broader strategic approach with personnel, tactics, logistics, etc taking into account more than just one match.

“Unlucky.” Usually uttered after the striker’s shot from point blank has swerved away for a throw in. Unlucky is football code for “you are untalented but at least you tried”. Normally it excuses incorrect judgement, poor technique, or just plain lack of ability. Next time you hear a player or fan shout “unlucky”, try substituting the word “incompetent”. You’ll be surprised how much more the game makes sense if you do this.

Second phase.” The single most curious utterance in football. It always conjures up images of Richie McCaw peeling off the back of a ruck. It’s a chestnut of Kiwi coaches, particularly at northern league level. It is usually shouted as just the two words, as if that is explanation enough for the adjustments all players need to take. Funnily enough, you never hear anyone yelling “first phase” or “third phase”. It is only the second phase which is ever important. Best leave the phases to the electricians.

“But I got the ball.” Grievously spouted with an affected injured air at an unsympathetic referee after a mongrel defender breaks the leg or shatters the kneecap of an opponent with a ridiculous lunge. At best is accompanied by making a ball gesticulation with the hands. Founded in the philosophy that the ends justifies the means, and possession is nine 10ths of the law. “Getting ball” does not guarantee it is a legal challenge.

“Pick up the runner” Usually uttered at a defensive corner or free kick, and even though it is addressed to nobody in particular, it somehow sounds reassuring that your defence is at least aware the opposing team may not be as stationary as them. All the same, it’s an imperative that always conjures visions of Melbourne’s Purana Task Force dealing with another Underbelly gangland killer.

“Number up.” A variation on pick up the runner, it’s supposedly a defensive exhortation to employ man-to-man marking. But for me it only ever summons a mental image of Melville’s Harry Noorland selling tickets in another of his Lotto raffles.

“You’re too deep.” Usually addressed to the back four, though occasionally the midfield. Seldom addressed to the coach, unless he is Declan Edge.

“We need more width.” Width is one of those curious football qualities. Every team hankers for it. When was the last time you heard a player or coach say: “We need more narrowness”? Funnily enough, nobody ever wants width in terms of a player’s physiology, but it is desperately sought in terms of a player’s movement. Perversely, those who play with width are invariably the slimmest on the pitch.

“You have to take your chances at this level.” An enduring football mantra, its status heartily reinforced by the fact it never seems to matter what the actual level is. Even in Sunday businesshouse second division you have to take your chances. Because if you don’t, two things are equally as certain. “You can’t have any complaints” and “you will be punished”.

“A bad time to concede.” Usually aired when the opposition have scored just before half time, or immediately replied after your own team has scored. But to better understand the empty meaningless of this phrase, let’s make a canonical list of the good times to concede. Thought so.

“You’re too square.” In the late 1960s kids used to tell their parents this. But it’s since become a stock, cover-all back-four criticism in football. It can be used almost any time a defender is beaten in any manner. And there is no more fundamental defensive crime. The positional failings of your fullbacks are obvious to all. They are prone to being overly rectangular in their approach.

“For a big lad, he’s good with his feet.” There is a curious default expectation that anyone over 6 foot will have dysfunctional lower motor neurons and be crap with both feet. It takes so much longer for the messages to get from the brain to the feet, perhaps. So we are naturally astonished when he can not only pass the ball, but also dribble. Less common is the inverse observation: “For a little guy he’s crap with his feet”.

“We’ve just come from there.” Is there any bigger technical crime in football than going somewhere with the ball that you have just been? Usually uttered after possession has been lost. Never ever used when ball is drilled back into the 6-yard box. Even if you have just come from there.

“Play what is in front of you.” The sad fact is most players see very little in front of them, let alone to the side of them. Famously, one evening Jeff Coulshed had his late ’80s Waikato women’s team play the trees at Innes Common in a bid to get them to get their heads up. The trees won 4-0.

He’s hit it too well.” Stock phrase exclaimed when your striker has hit a shot straight to the goalkeeper. It reinforces the football mythology that it is more somehow advantageous to misthit your strikes on goal. Yet how many teams have even considered having a training session where they work on not hitting it too well? Don’t pay me, just a thought.

“Talk it up.” From the school of thought that a lot of yap will always do the trick. It’s a rallying cry, most often said with the speaker clapping his hands and trying desperately to prime the pump of motivation. Sadly those who yell this generally have no appreciation of the difference between communicating useful information and just making a lot of noise because it makes them feel better.

“The lads gave it 110 per cent today.” It’s complete bollocks insofar as it is a mathematical impossibility. You can’t give more than 100 per cent. That’s what “per cent” means. And yet, because it has been traditionally so important within the Kiwi context, given we tend to value endeavour (“Get stuck in”) more than ability in our football, let’s at least finish by trying to defend the indefensible. It is possible to justify this once you have set a baseline of some sort of definition of what counts as 100 per cent effort. If you assume that 100 per cent is the maximum amount of effort that can be consistently sustained, from this benchmark, it’s obviously possible to give less than 100 per cent. So it must be also theoretically possible to give more, insofar as this effort can only be sustained inconsistently, for short periods of time. Then again, let’s not encourage the cliche mongers.

[Cordwainer Bull is a former Waikato United and Waikato FC programme columnist. His hobbies include playing dead, duct tape art, and collecting banana stickers. His favourite player was Paul Steffe.]


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Enzo Giordani

A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.

23 replies

  1. Top notch stuff. I enjoy “You have to hit the target/test the keeper” – as if it would be preferrable for everyone to blast it straight at the keeper rather than aiming for the corners

  2. “Keep going!!” As if everyone was considering calling it a day and hitting the pub in the 75th minute.

    “Man on!” Always amuses me in women’s football.

    “They’ve been doing it all day ref!” I’ve heard this as early as the second minute.

    With the scores level: “whoever scores next will have a big advantage!” Ummmmmmm – yeah.

  3. Or “where’s the advantage there, ref?”, uttered by the fouled player after he’s had time to go past another 4 players, nip into the club rooms for a pint and some chips then return to blast the ball over the bar from 2 metres out! Or “how is that offside?”, screamed by goalkeeper from 80 metres directly behind where the incident happened.

  4. Moments after taking the lead, captain jogs back to half way telling his team-mates “it’s 0-0 lads”.

    Clearly it isn’t, and I suspect players aren’t less willing to concede a goal even if it is.

  5. “Straight in lads!” as the other team kicks off. As opposed to waiting for a bit, then getting in.

  6. “We go again”…because apparently if players aren’t told this they won’t bother next week.

  7. Move up or “push” a coach or goalkeeper will yell at the back line to get to half way!

  8. We once had a yank in our team, I can’t remember his name, but I do remember that he was from Tennessee and used to babysit Reece Witherspoon (who would forget such detail). He had his own lexicon of soccer-speak. “Super cross-field diagonal, Rod” was a memorable one along with “great D” and “that PK save gave us a shutout”. He gave our Anglo-centric cliches a whole bunch of additional options. But the best utterance I ever heard was actually off the field was the player’s G/F (when a spat broke out) screaming to me “don’t let Xxxxx get into that fight Rod, he’s got a plate in his head!” Our team used that term often after that…. of course.

  9. There’s a growing lexicon of modern day, new fangled street terms coming into the accepted vocabulary of absolute bollocks spoken at matches.

    “A worldy.” (World class finish)

    “Tekkers.” (Great technique)

    “Tikkaboo Son!” (Take a bow son)

  10. Love this advancing new world of modern-day bollocks…

    But just as new flowers blossom, so do others die off.

    I can’t help but reflect on how the following two terms are quickly drifting out of the lexicon and are seldom used these days….

    Enigma: An enigma was a player with undoubted ability but also a poor attitude, someone who would run hot and cold. Back in the day he was easily identifiable by untucked shirt and rolled-down socks. Also known as a fanny dancer.

    Utility player: A player who is crap in any number of positions, but never quite dominant enough to be considered a specialist in any single role.

  11. 2-0 is the most dangerous lead. Bollocks! If it was, no team that went up 1-0 would try to score a second goal. And a team that conceded first would immediately score an own goal to make it 2-0.

  12. “Well in!” Bruce.

    I particularly like “Ohh, unlucky!” which usually means “Nice idea, Poor technique, better luck next time mate…”

  13. Great article! How often have I bit my tongue when off target shots were greeted with enthusiastic shouts of “unlucky ” or ” great shot!”. No – it wasn’t ! It missed the target!

  14. There’s a special sub-genre of these for meaningless coach’s comments in post-match interviews. Some of my favourites are:

    “We want to win every game” – I should bloody well hope so!
    “We showed great character” – In other words you played like crap but at least you tried.

    And Roma coach Rudi Garcia’s maddening quote this morning after the umpteenth dismal result in a row “I couldn’t have asked for any more from my players” – Yes you bloody could have!!! You could have asked them not to concede three goals and drop two points!!!!!!!

    I actually translated a few of his bullshit utterings in an earlier post here:

  15. “Goalkeepers union”

    “All keepers are suppressed strikers”

    Why is Dewhurst’s voice in my head?? Love your work Dewy.

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