The language of football



A glossary of football terms

The new English football season is upon us. The white-shirted heroics of Kane, Sterling and Grealish seem like a distant memory, and we will soon be seeing them all back in different-coloured shirts again. Oh wait...

Whichever foreign language you are studying, you may or may not be familiar with the nomenclature of English Sunday-league football. All but inscrutable to the outsider, I am herewith offering a translation service, in case you ever find yourself on the touchline of a windswept pitch one Sunday morning. Depending on the type of learner you are, you might choose to actively use this newly-acquired vocabulary, by giving the ref’ or the oppo’ a good earful; or you may merely note it for passive comprehension purposes. Either way, you will feel like less of an outsider in this heavily coded world.


At this point, an apology for the un-PC way of putting phrases exclusively in the masculine form. I am as supportive of women's football as it is possible for a man to be, but, having only ever played and mostly only watched the male form of the game, this is my point of reference. By way of redemption I chose an action photo of a girls' game. I'd love to watch a women's match, partly to see whether they warn each other of an approaching opponent by actually shouting the phrase borrowed from the man's game: “Man on!” Or, less commonly, "Man up ya!"


While Google has pages full of recognised terminology and even slang terms relating to the beautiful game, a cursory search would not enlighten the interested enquirer as to the meaning of such commonly heard bons mots of praise, encouragement, warning or threat as those listed below. So je vous en prie :


1. Winners!

Cry of encouragement for one's team mate to make every effort to win the ball, usually with his head, as it comes down from a high pass.


2. Loads of.

An abbreviation of the phrase, "loads of time", the meaning of which is instantly clearer: You have plenty of time to decide what to do with the ball, as there are currently no opponents near you.


3. On yer bike!

An exhortation to run very fast. This would usually be in the context of doing so with the ball, but it could also be used to encourage defenders to track back* or even a teammate to make a run off the ball*. Favourite expression of Martin Keown, ex-Arsenal and England, and sometime Match of the Day pundit, ironically never renowned for his turn of pace.


4. Come on lads, a bit of pride.

A simultaneously plaintive and defiant call, heard when one team has conceded so many goals that there is no chance of levelling the match, but at least one member of the team wants to prevent the result from resembling a rugby score.


5. Back stick

Far post. The area on the opposite side of the goal from where the current ball carrier is approaching. Usually called by the attacking player who wants the ball passed to him.

Antonym: near post (for some reason seldom changed to "near stick")


6. Stand 'im up

Don't dive in with (a reckless tackle); try to force your opponent to an area of the pitch where the threat is minimised, until a teammate comes to your assistance. “To sit someone down” has the neatly opposite meaning: to bamboozle the defender with such ball-trickery that he actually overbalances while trying to tackle you.


7. One to do

[Shouted to a teammate who is running with the ball at the opposing defence] You only have one defender between you and your destination - usually the bye-line or the goal itself - and we have every confidence that you will be able to get past him; there is no need to pass the ball at this point.


8. Want it there!

Direct instruction to a teammate to make himself available for a pass, or rather that he should have done so but unfortunately the moment has gone. There is an undertone of disapproval that the player is not being adequately eager to receive the ball. Note: An extremely rare (some would say “non-standard”) phenomenon in English: the imperative form of a modal verb.


9. [Come on lads, you’re] Ball watching!

The tendency of a player or players to be playing inefficiently due to focusing too much on the ball instead of the situation or movement of other players, and an injunction to rectify the situation.


10. I got two 'ere

I seem to be expected to take responsibility for marking two opponents, and I resent it.


11. You're both being sucked in the same hole.

You [two defenders] are both being drawn to the same area of the pitch. When this immediate danger has passed, please return to your correct positions.


12. That's all they've got!

A deliberately provocative term of derision, usually called out by way of encouragement to one's own teammates when the opposing team have resorted to the much frowned-upon tactic of simply hoiking the ball down the pitch without employing more aesthetically pleasing tactics of pass-and-move*. (See "tippy-tappy", another time)


13. In the ‘ole (cf No.11)

A notional role in the formation of a given team, which describes the position taken up in the gap between the midfield and attacking players. As it is an unofficial term, rather than a fixed position on the teamsheet, any player might drift into the ‘ole for periods or indeed brief moments of the game. The role is often fulfilled by the most glamorously famous of players, temporarily taking leave of their designated responsibilities – on the wing, as centre midfield, or any of the more orthodox attacking positions.


Explanatory notes

1. To track back: to assume defensive responsibilities by running back towards one’s own goal, usually after an attack has broken down

2. To (make a) run off the ball: to selflessly run in a way that draws an opposing defender out of position to allow more space for a teammate to exploit

3. Pass-and-move: the self-explanatory tactic of high-tempo, high-percentage possession-based football, made famous by the great Barcelona team(s) of recent years and my namesake, Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal.

*Do these really need explaining? I'm beginning to think that anyone who doesn't know, or cannot work out the meanings of these expressions probably stopped reading a while ago anyway

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