Terminology: Welcome to the world of stoppers, schemers and tight-ends

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The Independent Online

Have you ever given a thought to the terminology of sport? Like why they save "love" instead of "nil" in tennis. Who woke up one morning and said: "Whoopee, I've got just the way to make cricket even more of a mystery to those damned yankees. Let's see how they get on with 'silly point' and 'forward short leg' and 'bowling a maiden over'." I guess it did not happen that way but it all happened sometime, somewhere.

Have you ever given a thought to the terminology of sport? Like why they save "love" instead of "nil" in tennis. Who woke up one morning and said: "Whoopee, I've got just the way to make cricket even more of a mystery to those damned yankees. Let's see how they get on with 'silly point' and 'forward short leg' and 'bowling a maiden over'." I guess it did not happen that way but it all happened sometime, somewhere.

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 a stopper, then," a sportswriter of the day said. "Correct," Chapman replied.

I was about to say that the stopper wore five 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 in 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 other, I told the story of a famed Fleet Street columnist who was still sold 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 of that period.

On arriving for the game, Arsenal's manager, Bertie Mee, saw that his players were all wrongly numbered in the match programme. "Just go with whatever number is besides 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 a 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 did not 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 is getting damn 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 the scoring system in tennis must have been invented by Lewis Carroll. Data systems with nets. Why would you guess the first point would be scored 15? The second, 30? And the third, 40? Six games win a set. But only if you stay two games ahead of your opponent. Why? There is sure to be an answer out there 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 in football 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 try and work out what the guy was up to. You knew right away 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."

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