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Obscene And Heard

September 23, 2012

One of the things about supporting a small club in a lower division (OK, the bottom division) is that you spend a lot of time standing on terraces in small grounds. And one of the advantages of this is that you can actually hear a lot of the specialised language spoken by the practitioners of the beautiful game. Or, at this level, the OK-looking in a good light and after a few drinks game.

Before the new ground was (nearly) built at Field Mill I’d perch against a barrier near the halfway line for maximum exposure to the advice, instructions and expletives of manager Andy King. This was always entertaining as King enjoyed good rapport and plenty of banter with the home fans, and not only concerning his rapidly disappearing thatch.

Old Trafford may be awesome, but with Alex Ferguson about five miles away from most seats you can barely see his back, let alone hear what he is grunting through his chewing gun. 2,500 people, on the other hand, can’t make a lot of noise, and often, especially during moments of the greatest ennui, they can actually go very quiet.

So when Cardiff were trying to find a way past slow-moving, granite-hewn, one-man wall of defence Brian Kilcline, you’d expect them to vent their frustration in verbal form. You might hope for something as cultured as a piece of Match Of The Day-style analysis from someone called Alan – maybe ‘right, lads, pull him out of position and we’ll exploit the space between Kilcline and the other centre back, and flood forward into the yawning gap that opens up’. (Cue on-screen graphic of a shaded square shape.) Instead, at one of those moments when the whole ground simultaneously decided to go silent, we heard the echoing yell ring out “Get fucking Kilcline”. A much simpler methodology, drawing an ironic cheer from the crowd, who knew that Cardiff had got the wind up. I don’t think they ever did manage to ‘get’ the aptly nicknamed Killer.

Adrian (‘Ady’) Boothroyd was an intelligent right back and a soon-to-be bright, embryonic manager, and it was fascinating back in those mid-90s days to see him still trying to perfect his craft. One Saturday afternoon warm-up before a meaningless end-of-season game I saw Kingy out on the pitch in his tracksuit drilling Boothroyd in a new way of imparting spin to the ball, kicking over it to increase the pace but reduce the flight. Boothroyd practised it over and over again, and I was amazed not only at King’s skill (and coaching ability) but also at the player’s willingness to learn something from the older man. King’s regular instruction to Ady during matches as he fired in crosses on his characteristic overlaps was “whip it”. So regular, in fact, that the crowd often told him before King got a chance. So here was Boothroyd, in his late twenties, learning another way to whip it.

I’ve always wished that TV football programmes would supply a lip-reader to let us viewers know what the players are saying to each other and to the referee. I know there’s a lot of ‘get tight’ and ‘second ball’, and I’m sure this means something important. Sometimes it’s easy to guess the words, but for those that don’t begin with ‘f’, it usually isn’t. At Field Mill, however, you got the full aural effect – no audio-description needed. I know that conversation with the referee often centres on his eyesight, ancestry, body mass index, hair coverage, moral standing or colour. But amazingly, I discovered at Field Mill that players don’t always curse the official. I once heard the erudite Boothroyd deliver the most considered, polite and quasi-legal challenge to a referee’s decision: “Surely not!”

Boothroyd, as a right back, would spend half the match as the closest recipient of his manager’s usually unintelligible instructions. I know that players often pretend not to hear what’s being screamed (or see what’s being mimed) by ex-playing managers frustrated by their latter-day impotence on the touchline. Often these are third-party directives to give team-mates some vital piece of news or information. Boothroyd’s default response was “I’ve told him” before running off. There’s no answer to that, as Kingy discovered.

Whilst verbal communication between team-mates is to be encouraged, it has the disadvantage that its audience includes the opposition. The number of substitutes a team can name has risen in line with inflation from one to two, to three including a goalkeeper, to any old three, to three out of five, and now three out of pretty much anyone who lives in the EU. In the days of ‘any old three’, you’d think most teams would either include a substitute goalie, or at least have in mind someone who would go between the sticks (or what Alan Hansen calls ‘the goals’) in an emergency. Not Mansfield Town, not Kingy. When Stags’ keeper was carried off in some no-hope Auto Windscreeen Shield tie, we expected a fairly swift donning of the green jersey by one of the subs or even onfield players. But no. Cue lengthy debate about who it should be, and careful appraisal of the merits of several candidates for the position before they were for various reasons discarded from the selection process.

By some mystical rite akin to puffs of smoke rising from the Vatican, the gloves were destined for the frozen hands of midfield linchpin John Doolan, the one player you wouldn’t have wanted stuck in the wrong 18 yard box. But Scouser Doolan had already blown any suitability for the task facing him by loudly broadcasting, in tones of rising panic: “But I’ve never been in goal in me life”. Oh. A bit like the “I can’t swim” confession in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. The West Terrace was instantly filled with dread, and the opposition bench, sited just in front of them, with a fresh sense of endless possibilities and a hatful of goals.

Tactical instructions, like words of encouragement or abuse, can often be overheard and thus, as David Coleman used to say, ‘telegraphed’ to the opposition. Phil Stant had been a cult hero at Mansfield, largely for his 26 goals in the 1991/1992 promotion season, but also for giving every semblance of madness, and not just through his various entertaining hairstyles. His exploits and personality had earned him the nickname, probably unwelcome to most people, of Psycho. Returning to Field Mill as a Bury player, he inevitably destroyed his former club in a 5-1 win and annoyingly received a standing ovation from the home crowd as he left the pitch early. (I don’t mind sportsmanship, but that’s taking it too far.)

But at the pause for a throw-in, while an injured player was being attended to, you could hear him plot the next goal from a position near the halfway line. Then, as if watching an educational video, you could follow him and his team-mates execute those precise instructions and admire one of Stant’s four goals that afternoon. “Give it Jonno”, Stant enjoined several times (believed to be a reference to Bury player Lenny Johnrose), before outlining what Jonno should do with the ball when it had been thrown to him. (This mainly involved passing it to Stant himself and being on hand if he needed to dispose of it). Whatever the details, it worked a treat, and Psycho, displaying latent coaching potential here, himself went on to manage, albeit at Lincoln.

But my favourite piece of Stags verbiage occurred not on the pitch, but in the dressing room. No, I never got in there. Never really fancied a communal bath in muddy water myself. Characters would arrive at Field Mill and, like O’Neill Donaldson, stay briefly but remain in the memory for much longer. Cyrille L’Helgoualch was a Frenchman, and God knows how he landed at Mansfield Town. But he briefly illuminated the club with some stunning performances and one great long-distance goal against Rochdale. Before the ground was rebuilt, you’d pass the frosted windows of the home dressing room in the West Stand on your way out of the ground, and even see players’ suits hung up on pegs through the glass. Cyrille’s English wasn’t great, and probably neither was his knowledge of dodgy early 70s novelty singles. So one spring afternoon it was somehow touching, and perhaps a little bemusing to him, to hear the strains of Nice One Cyril coming loud and clear through the open dressing room windows. Yes, it had been a nice one. Just one request, if it’s not too late: let’s have another one.

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