Giving football’s metaphors a certain je ne sais quoi

England’s club managers were in the relegation zone of figurative musing until José, Arsene and all spiced things up.

Duleep Allirajah

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English football, we are frequently told, is in the doldrums. England’s wretched World Cup campaign painfully underlined just how far we are lagging behind our rivals. This year not one single English player was shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or, the world footballer of the year award. Says it all.

The general consensus – one I don’t happen to share – is that Johnny Foreigner is to blame. They come ‘over here’, stifle the development of homegrown talent and import nasty foreign habits like diving and spitting. Dirty foreign bastards. And they wear alice bands.

We can argue till kingdom come over whether foreign imports have had a detrimental impact on our domestic game. But if there’s one aspect of English football which has unarguably benefited from the foreign invasion, it’s the football metaphor. Let’s face it, soccer metaphors were in a wretched state in the 1970s and 80s. Never mind ‘30 years of hurt’, how long did we have to endure the same stodgy fare of unimaginative clichés, like ‘sick as a parrot’ and ‘over the moon’?

When they weren’t trotting out tired Ron Manager-style banalities, the English were mixing their metaphors horribly. ‘I can see the carrot at the end of the tunnel’, Stuart Pearce once said. Ray Wilkins’ most notable contribution to the English language was the quote ‘We could be putting the hammer in Luton’s coffin’. The poverty of the post-match interview was memorably satirised in the Monty Python sketch in which British goalkeepers recited poems about the river Yangtse. (Peter Shilton, Leicester: ‘O Yangtse. O Yangtse, Beautiful river, River full of fish.’)

But the metaphorical landscape has been transformed in recent years – and it’s the foreigners who have led the way. Take Rafa Benitez, for example. His metaphors are a damn sight more entertaining than his Liverpool team were. When former owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett suggested that Liverpool’s problems were caused by Benitez’s poor transfer dealings, the Spaniard retorted cryptically: ‘White liquid in a bottle has to be milk.’ This week, Rafa was at it again. Responding to Roy Hodgson’s claims that he had inherited a squad full of ‘expensive failures’, Benitez said: ‘Some people cannot see a priest on a mountain of sugar.’

The revolution in English football metaphors can be traced back to Eric Cantona’s gnomic proclamation: ‘When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.’ No one quite knew what he was on about, but that didn’t matter. This was a game-changing moment. Football interviews would never be the same again.

Cantona’s seagull utterance spawned a new era of metaphorical creativity. Arsene Wenger demonstrated that a well-executed metaphor could be an important weapon in a managerial war of words. When Fergie dismissed Arsenal’s 2002 title-winning side as ‘scrappers who rely on belligerence’, Wenger blew him out of the sky with a metaphorical Exocet. ‘Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home.’ Whoosh. Boom. Take that Fergie! The metaphor wars had commenced.

The Premier League’s biggest character in recent years was José Mourinho. His press conferences were always hilarious. No surprise then that Mourinho was a skilful exponent of the allegorical arts. He memorably compared Arsene Wenger’s obsession with Chelsea to voyeurism. ‘There are some guys who, when they are at home, have a big telescope to see what happens in other families’, said Mourinho. ‘He speaks, speaks, speaks about Chelsea.’ On the hit-and-miss science of spotting young talent, Mourinho used fruit as allegorical device. ‘Young players are a little bit like melons’, explained the Special One. ‘Only when you open and taste the melon are you 100 per cent sure that the melon is good.’ Judging by the dearth of homegrown talent graduating through the ranks at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s melon-buyers should have their taste-buds examined.

Mourinho used another culinary analogy – omelettes and eggs – in a thinly veiled criticism of Roman Abramovich’s demands for sexy football: ‘It depends on the quality of the eggs’, said Mourinho. ‘In the supermarket you have class one, two or class three eggs and some are more expensive than others and some give you better omelettes. So when the class one eggs are in Waitrose and you cannot go there, you have a problem.’ Mourinho might have been right but his omelette-making days at the Bridge were numbered. He was given the boot a few weeks later and Avram Grant was installed as omelette chef.

What then of homegrown metaphors? The foreigners are performing metaphorical gymnastics, but what about the Brits? Are those eloquent foreign coaches stifling the development of the homegrown metaphor? I don’t think so. Sir Alex Ferguson has overseen Manchester United’s evolution from a traditional English 4-4-2 to a more fluid Continental system. He is also becoming more adventurous in his metaphorical style. Would Fergie of old have attempted the extended cow metaphor he used to question Wayne Rooney’s desire to leave the club? I doubt it. ‘Sometimes you look in a field and you see a cow and you think it’s a better cow than the one you’ve got in the field’, said Ferguson. ‘It’s probably the same cow and it’s not as good as your own cow.’ As metaphors go, it’s not the most lyrical. But it represents progress. This, after all, is a man who once said: ‘The lads have run their socks into the ground.’

You only have to listen to Blackpool boss Ian Holloway to realise that English managers can compete at the highest metaphorical level. He has a metaphor for every occasion. After a good result he once declared that he was ‘as chuffed as a badger in mating season’. Conversely, when results weren’t going his way, he chirped: ‘If I fell in a barrel of boobs, I’d come out sucking my thumb!’

There are countless Ollie soundbites to choose from, but a strong contender for a Metaphor Bafta was his extended metaphor on winning ugly. ‘Some weeks the lady is good looking and some weeks they’re not’, explained Holloway. ‘Our performance today would have been not the best looking bird but at least we got her in the taxi.’

Genius. Short metaphors, long metaphors – Holloway does the lot. Cantona may have raised the bar, but Holloway is reaching new, Olympian heights.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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