In the beginning, nobody had a problem with the positions in football. There was a goalkeeper, two full-backs, three half-backs and five forwards. Then the great Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman created a new position by pulling the centre-half back to block surges through the middle. "A sort of stopper then," a sportswriter of the day said. "Precisely," Chapman replied.
I was about to say that the stopper wore No 5 but remembered that the numbering of shirts came later. When it happened, everything was quite simple. The full-backs were allocated No 2 and No 3, the centre-half No 5, and so on. However, confusion was caused when coaches started messing around with systems of play.
If the No 9 dropped back into midfield, which is how Hungary deployed Nandor Hidegkuti in the 1950s, he was described as a deep-lying centre- forward. On the basis of tradition, England's No 5 Harry Johnston went looking for Hungary's No 9, which was one of the reasons why England were thrashed 6-3, their first home defeat by a team from outside the British Isles.
Recently, at some function or another, I told the story of a famed Fleet Street columnist who was still on the notion of position by number when Arsenal played a European Cup tie in Norway during the Highbury days of Frank McLintock, Bob McNab, John Radford and other luminaries.
On arriving for the game, Arsenal's manager, Bertie Mee, saw that his players were numbered wrongly in the match programme. "Just go with whatever number is beside your name," Mee said.
Known for the depth of his imagination, the columnist sent back the amazing tale of every Arsenal player, apart from their goalkeeper, Bob Wilson, playing out of position. To make matters worse, he invented corroborative comment from Mee. "Something I've always wanted to try," the Arsenal manager was alleged to have said. Arsenal's written response was that they didn't mind if he wanted to make an idiot of himself, but would he please refrain from making an idiot of their manager?
Getting back to the matter of terminology, who, I wonder, put names to the positions in American football? "Tight End" is a beauty, so is "offensive lineman". Apart from "hooker", rugby has nothing like them. The game has become difficult to follow but the positions are easy: full-back, threequarters, scrum-half, outside-half, forwards. Recently, I was asked to point out the positions in Aussie Rules. Hadn't got a clue. Similar with hurling.
Somebody once said that the scoring system in tennis must have been invented by Lewis Carroll. Data systems with nets. How could you guess the first point would be scored 15, the second 30 and the third 40? Six games win a set. Why? There is sure to be an answer but I've never been bothered enough to search for it.
Sometimes, of course, terminology has to keep pace with tactical development. I do not know who came up with the term "sweeper" but it was pretty much perfect. The role was there in the mind's eye. Similar with wing-backs. As applied to creative inside-forwards, one of my favourite terms was "schemer". You did not have to work out what the guy was up to. You knew what to expect when a player was billed as "a ball-artist" or a "fast-raiding winger".
When commentators say "back stick", I cringe. What was wrong with "far post"? Why do they keep going on about playing in the "hole"?
"What does that mean?" one of my grandsons recently asked. "Don't bother your head," I replied, "just keep your eyes on the game."Reuse content