Adrian Chiles: Make no mistake, penalties bring out the cliche in all of us

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The Independent Football

Of all the broadcasting I'm lucky enough to do, the hardest job of the week is writing the script for the film of all Saturday's goals in Match of the Day 2. If ever you scoff at the cliché-ridden pap that normally goes with these items then just try doing it yourself. You will write cliché-ridden pap. In my first week on the programme I couldn't wait to get stuck into this script. I'd show them how to do it, I thought. My hands hovered over the keyboard like Barenboim about to tackle Rachmaninov. But no words came. No music, anyway.

Of all the broadcasting I'm lucky enough to do, the hardest job of the week is writing the script for the film of all Saturday's goals in Match of the Day 2. If ever you scoff at the cliché-ridden pap that normally goes with these items then just try doing it yourself. You will write cliché-ridden pap. In my first week on the programme I couldn't wait to get stuck into this script. I'd show them how to do it, I thought. My hands hovered over the keyboard like Barenboim about to tackle Rachmaninov. But no words came. No music, anyway.

Atouba scored against Newcastle. "Long-range strike?" suggested someone behind me. What pish, I thought. Although, I could think of nothing better. Someone else scored from slightly nearer the goal. "Clinical strike?" the same voice suggested. No, no, no. I can do better than this. But, in fact, I couldn't.

Goals from close range present a particular problem, especially penalties. For some reason the scorer of a penalty is always said to have "made no mistake". Bizarre, not least because you never see it inverted: "Stuart Pearce made a mistake". And where or when else in life do you ever hear anybody remark that you've made no mistake about something? "Lovely steak and chips darling, thank you. You made no mistake there."

I know for a fact that "made no mistake" is at least half a century old because above my toilet hangs a framed copy of the Sunday Despatch from 2 May 1954, the day after West Brom beat Preston in the Cup final. Ronnie Allen is pictured scoring a penalty or, as the caption puts it, he "made no mistake".

Another one that drives me potty is what we might call the abject, stupid, pointless, football club journalistic synonym. It goes like this: "Arsenal stretched their unbeaten run to 700 games last night. The north London club haven't lost for 10 seasons." The north London club? Why? Or, even worse, the Highbury club? Never in a million trillion years would any Gooner stand at a bar and say: "Yes, I'm a big Arsenal fan. I've been supporting the Highbury outfit since 1973."

"Outfit" compounds the crime. My all-time favourite was a story on Ceefax about Barrow Town where, at the second time of asking, the club was referred to as "The Holker Street outfit".

I've been harbouring these scornful thoughts for a number of years now, so imagine my delight when I was sent a book this week which examines the "football lexicon" - the book's title. There are fascinating questions raised in it as well as many hugely entertaining cheap shots such as:

"Another day: In immediate post-match press conferences, even though the manager is being asked to comment on this particular day, he starts talking about another one: 'On another day we could have had three or four.'"

Similarly:

"Aplomb: A goalscorer is said to finish with aplomb when it looks as though he knows what he is doing. A finish 'without aplomb' is never remarked upon."

Dr John Leigh co-wrote the book. He lectures on French literature at Cambridge University. He's obviously very clever, but almost certainly penniless, too. So that's reason enough to buy the book, as well as the fact that it's absolutely brilliant.

I called up Dr Leigh and, despite his stratospherically high IQ and exhaustive research, it's clear there's many questions for which he still has no answers. "Why is it", he said with the air of a man raising a subject that's long baffled him, "only headers are free?"

"Eh?"

"Well, if a player's unmarked and the ball lands on his head it's a free header. But if it comes to his feet it's nothing of the sort."

"Good point."

"And what's the origin of fair-weather fan?"

Another good question. Was there once a fan who said "Pa, it's coming down stair-rods. I ain't going today"? Is there this "literal" origin to the expression, or has it always been metaphorical? I was in Cambridge recently and most people there do seem to walk round with dreamy looks on their faces. This must be the kind of stuff swimming round their minds.

Dr Leigh says it all began as a mickey-taking exercise, at which level it certainly works, but it's more sophisticated than that. "Ambition", he points out, actually means "money". How many times have we heard a player cite "lack of ambition" as the reason for leaving a club and then describe his new employers as a "club with ambition"? Rough translation: "My new club's paying me more than the last one."

Thank goodness footballers have developed this linguistic trick because it sounds awful when they forget to use it. There's a trailer running on Radio 5 Live at the moment for a feature about Birmingham City's youth team. The young rascals are asked to choose "money or medals". The answer? "Medals. Medals. Money. Money. Money. Money. Money." Avarice beats achievement 5-2.

It's also sad to consider that certain managers and players will always be let down by the language used to describe them. For example, only strikers and, at a push, midfielders will ever be described as being "on fire". Defenders and goalkeepers? Never. Pity poor Rio Ferdinand. This afternoon he could defend his legs off, and even score a goal, but never ever will he be described as being "on fire". He simply cannot, as a defender, ignite.

Similarly, only international managers are said to have "thoughts". "John Smith isn't in the squad this time but he's in my thoughts." However, if Smith's club manager decides he's not in his thoughts he won't say that, he'll say: "Sorry, but the lad's not part of our plans."

And why is it that you're "picked" for your club side but "selected" for your national team? And when things go wrong you'll be "dropped" by your club but "omitted" by Sven.

All in all, I've found this conflation of football and academia highly stimulating and I want more of it. I'm anxious to speak to anybody brilliantly academically clever and also obsessed with football. And by brilliant, I mean brilliant. My qualifying standard for this is four 'A' Grades at A level; a first-class degree - Oxbridge, obviously - and preferably some postgraduate gobbledegook, too. Go on clever clogs, get in touch.

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