Stop Making Sense

We follow a sport smothered in cliché & to be frank, it makes IBWM as sick as a parrot. Here's Andrew Thomas...

The mainstream of English football discourse is littered with phrases that, while not as notorious as the most clunking of clichés, are certainly prevalent enough to have become standards. At last night's talk – really more of an exchange of anecdotes, though entertaining nonetheless – on the language of sport at the British Library, the most intriguing section was a call and response exercise between the chair, Martin Kelner at his most avuncular, and the audience. 

“What's the collective noun for missed chances?” he asked. “Hatful”, chorused the pews. “What's the appropriate adjective for a goalmouth scramble?” “Almighty”, they rumbled, safe in the knowledge that everybody present knew the script. And there were plenty of other examples throughout the evening. Left feet are cultured; right feet, rarely. Chairmen loosen the purse-strings, or release funds, or occasionally splash the cash, but never do anything as tritely functional as spend money. 

Language of this kind plays an important role in establishing the credentials of the speaker. To employ the usual (for which you should read: accepted; for which you should in turn read: correct) terminology is to assert your right to discuss the matter at hand, in much the same way as a doctor becomes trustworthy as soon as she points to an x-ray and says “transverse fracture”, rather than “ouchy bit”. The distinction, of course, is that where medical language is prescriptive in function, footballing language is, or is at least meant to be, descriptive. There is an important medical difference between a transverse fracture and a linear fracture; there may be no qualitative difference at all between the relative eloquence of a left and right foot, except that it is generally accepted that right feet don't need no education. 

The inevitable consequence of operating within a constrained lexicon is that the power of the words themselves is stultified and diminished. The first evocation of an “almighty goalmouth scramble” must have struck terror into the hearts of readers or listeners; fresh minds flooded with apocalyptic imagery. Now, such cataclysms are banal. The power of a metaphor is umbilically linked to its rarity: when the almighty happens every week, it becomes the mundane. 

These words – once magnificent, now solid and safe – are the tartan blanket and mouldering slippers of English football. How fares the game? She abides. Her goalmouth scrambles remain almighty; her new managers are still, to a man, unveiled; they then run the rule over transfer targets. Her clubs still hover above relegation trapdoors; her big men have good touches; and, with the appropriate release of funds, her kitties may yet become warchests. 

Contrast this turgidity with an anecdote from Ian Hawkey’s marvellous recent book on African football (available here). The first live commentator on televised football is faced with a tricky question: how to explain a slow-motion replay to a watching populace unfamiliar not only with the tropes of football broadcasting but also, by and large, with television in general? His answer, like all perfect answers, destroys the question (and gives Hawkey the title of his book). “Let’s watch that again,” he says, “with the feet of the chameleon”. 

Back in England, there is hope. The internet is teeming with writing that finds fresh ways of bringing football to life, and there are journalists and broadcasters within the mainstream media who are dedicated in their eloquence and entertaining in their invention. Yet the central pillars of English football broadcasting remain stuck in the dusty echo chamber, comforted and becalmed by the familiarity of it all. As we reinvent the coverage of our sport (read Juliet Jacques take here), so must we revitalise our language. In the words of Samuel Goldwyn, let's have some new clichés.

Andrew is on twitter @TwistedBlood   & to read more, head to the Twisted Blood blog.