GLOSSARY / Tel's squaddies are odds-on to sweep up

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IS Terry Venables a gambler 1 , a general or a cleaning lady? The papers took different views on Tuesday, when they reported the announcement of his first squad selection as the England football coach.

'Terry Venables dealt an exciting three-card trick,' wrote the Sun, commenting on the inclusion of Le Tissier, Le Saux and Anderton, a card-sharp image that was also used by Today, in which he 'gambled on a trio of reformed problem boys', and the Times, in which he 'put his cards face up on the table . . . and left everyone uncertain how he will play them'. Though nobody actually used it, the word 'reshuffle' was hanging around in the wings here, a playing-card metaphor more familiar from the world of politics.

Elsewhere, journalists had picked up Venables' verbal cross - his description of the squad as an 'elite group' - and set off for a military goal. The Guardian suggested that there was going to be 'no time for sergeants, still less for mere squaddies' in Venables' new 'officer corps'.

Another newspaper invoked the name of the SAS (rather optimistically, you had to think - stun-grenades and armoured Land Rovers would obviously be helpful in the coming friendlies against Denmark and Germany, but I doubt whether Fifa officials will permit it).

In a literal sense, describing your selection as an 'elite' is simple tautology 2 - the word means 'that which is chosen or selected' (it has etymological connections with the word 'elect'). Even in a metaphorical sense, it strikes you as a little redundant, as if any coach might turn up and say: 'Well, I've tried to make the team represent the whole range of footballing ability, it's only fair to let the less talented players have their turn.'

Here Venables was presumably using 'elite' for its connotations of concentration and exclusivity, as a way of defending his pared-down squad, but it also conveyed a little flare of politically incorrect defiance, the suggestion that he wasn't afraid to be better than the next man (or, more accurately, the last one).

Whether in politics or sport, the language of selection usually recoils from naming the deed - the hurtful preference of one person over another. Venables applied an anaesthetic by suggesting that he could have chosen from at least 50 players - so virtually every footballer, bar those he actually dumped, can nurse their illusions - but at least he gave a proper name to those he finally picked.

And it must be easier to face the fact that you're not part of an elite than to be told you're rubbish, the implicit suggestion of the other popular metaphor employed on these occasions - that of the new broom 3 or the clean sweep. 'The new broom has swept out much of the debris from the World Cup while retaining enough of the old guard,' wrote our own correspondent, getting in housekeeping and war.

Another writer, rather falling over his own feet, admired Venables' strategy because it would allow him to 'lump a whole host of players into the broom cupboard without prompting talk of a clean sweep'. It wasn't exactly clear what was happening here - what implement would you use to sweep away brooms anyway, and isn't it going to end up a bit crowded in the cupboard?

Oddly enough, given the ailing health of the national game over the past few years, not one press journalist fingered Venables as a doctor. I expected to find some talk of 'fresh blood' - a metaphor that the Oxford English Dictionary identifies as emerging from the language of bloodstock and breeding, but which I suspect must have as much to do with transfusion, given that it emerges only towards the end of the 19th century, after the practice has established itself. (By some quirk, the technology it replaced lives on in the language - long after 'blood-letting' was recognised as debilitating to individuals, it is still sometimes regarded as healthy for institutions.)

Perhaps, though, both the journalists and the coach felt enough blood had been spilt - at least until the next time we lose, that is.

1 Probably from the Old English gamenian, to sport, to play. Cf gambol.

2 From the Greek tauto, the same and logos, saying.

3 From the Old English brom, bramble, broom. Thus a brush made out of the plant.