Football P - P The Weather: A Pseudo-Meteorological Study

Weather is a lot like football. It's a complex subject, often reduced to lazy clichés by those who don't understand it but really enjoy looking at it. Of course, we don't boo when it rains nor do we consider it a #nicetouch if the sun pops out at a convenient moment, but we do Instagram our snow and we'll always have a little gasp (yes, even you) when we hear thunder. Why are big, dark clouds always "ominous"? Erm, anyway...

The hope-filled opening day of the season apart, blazing sunshine does not constitute "perfect conditions" for any sane footballer. From bone-dry Sunday league pitches accommodating dehydrated huffers-and-puffers, right up to finely-tuned elite athletes being forced to drink lots take on fluids, British footballers are often seen to wilt in any significant heat.

World Cup USA '94 set a benchmark for thermoactivated football drama, with the red faces of dubious holders of Irish passports sharing centre-stage with a range of amusing baseball caps:

Pitchside thermometers suddenly pop up out of nowhere at these points, while the metric system goes out of the window - 100°F sounds much more dramatic than 37.8°C, after all.

Much more conducive to exciting football, rain is responsible for a suitably plentiful supply of football clichés. Light rain makes for a greasy pitch (or playing surface, as it should be known whenever under particular scrutiny), upon which the ball is able to zip around. Goalkeepers must be tested by shots that "pick up pace" as they skid across the turf, thereby defying basic physics. Players wearing the wrong boots (sorry, footwear), however, will only be allowed to slip over (sorry, lose their footing) once before the co-commentator fulfils his obligation of sternly policing such matters, often involving a semi-tirade on the "state of these modern boots these days". 

Fig 1.0 - the cold, wet Wednesday night in Stoke.

Heavier downpours edge proceedings closer to farce. Farcical conditions (much like an early red card) are a fatal threat to the game as a spectacle. If the heavens open sufficiently before kick-off, an anxious wait is required while the referee completes his emphatic routine of dropping the ball onto the sodden turf while a committee of sighing/chuckling* club officials (*delete according to fixture congestion) congregate in the centre-circle. While the finer details about the potential risks of sanctioning a game in such conditions are rarely explored - drowning, presumably, isn't one of them -  it is unanimously agreed that the safety of the players is paramount.

It all sounds so violent in the winter months. The Big Freeze annually plays havoc with the fixture list - and frequently decimates it - as matches fall victim to (or fall foul of) the cold snap taking hold up and down the country.

Fig 2.0 - the rarely-seen orange ball (beloved of Actua Soccer enthusiasts). 

Heartwarming moments remain, such as the sight of the orange ball (greeted with the same amount of delight as when a goalkeeper goes up for a corner) or the lauding of local volunteers and ground staff - again, the job of the patronising co-commentator - as they do everything to get this game on. Unfortunately, though, it's not the playing surface that's the problem - it's those damned, "treacherous" roads around the ground (or the approach roads, if it's modern, out-of-town Lego stadiums in question.)

Even if the game is allowed to go ahead, the problems aren't over. The low winter sun, the stealthiest and least-documented of modern football's dilemmas, makes life difficult for cap-averse goalkeepers and spoilt armchair fans alike.

Stay safe out there, you hardy souls.


How to Co-Commentate.

The French call them "consultants", in Italy they provide the commento tecnico, while in Scandinavia they're known as "expert commentators". Ostensibly, co-commentators are employed for their inside knowledge but, more often than not, they appear to be masters in the art of stating the bleeding obvious. 

There's not much chance of you becoming a co-commentator if you don't have a regional accent and haven't had a journeyman career in and around the top flight. However, if you do possess the relevant qualifications, you may be interested in a step-by-step guide to your new career. These instructions will prepare you for any scenario or eventuality that requires your verbal intervention. What to say, how to say it and what not to say - it's all here.

Firstly, you're allowed to rely on clichés. You're not the experienced, slick media professional who's sat alongside you in the gantry. You can refer to an untidy challenge as "six and two threes" (if you're feeling adventurous) or suggest a player has "if anything, hit that too well" as the ball rockets over the bar. 

All slow-motion replays are your territory. It's your job to confirm if the shot got a nick on its way through or if the goalkeeper did, in fact, get fingertips to it. Committing to a call before you see the replay is done at your own risk; if the replay proves you wrong, you'll need to awkwardly dig your heels in and refuse to concede defeat. The most dignified way of doing this is to admit some slight wrongdoing, but not enough to warrant a penalty/free-kick. Minimal contact? A coming-together? Nothing in it. After a while, you'll be oblivious to just how annoying this is for your viewers.

Offside decisions? If it's close, but you can actually tell whether it's offside or not, just say it's "borderline" or "touch and go". Don't use the visual tools at your disposal to decide one way or the other - that's not what the viewers want at all. What about that tackle, then? Clumsy more than anything. Don't forget the "more than anything" suffix here - no-one will prompt you to expand on what that "anything" actually is, lest you slander the player by mentioning exactly what it was that his tackle wasn't. While the game flows, it is the co-commentator's responsibility to keep an eye on any injured players and provide updates on their freedom of movement, on a vague scale ranging from "gingerly" to "much better now".  

"...for me." Keep that ready for really desperate moments where you've been made to look stupid, but want to at least spare your fellow commentator from ridicule. I mean, it's a game of opinions, right? Don't worry too much about research, though. Sky Sports regular Alan Smith, for example, relies on a watertight formula of size + nationality to demonstrate his knowledge of the top players, be they big Belgians or little Spaniards.

Keep it light-hearted when appropriate. Make jokes about your own playing career, your lax attitude to training, or the commentator's playing ability. Or his age -go on, joke about how he'll be able to remember that far back when he mentions something that happened a long time ago! But avoid the temptation of Lawrensonesque over-quipping - this isn't Come Dine With Me.

Right, ten minutes in - which team has made the brighter start? It's the question on everybody's lips. If you can't work it out, just say they're "cancelling each other out" so far. Or the markedly creepier-sounding "feeling each other out". Have the bookies' favourites "got going yet"? "Not getting going" is easy to spot - they need to have failed to open the scoring. 20 minutes is the magic benchmark - if the underdog hasn't conceded in this all-important window, everything is going to be fine. Except you've shifted the goalposts for them - now they need to get to half-time. Speaking of which, you must become an amateur psychologist just before the break and judge which manager will be the happier of the two.

Sometimes, the most important statistic isn't in the top left-hand corner of our screens. When you're really struggling for an angle, up will pop the possession stats for the preceding 5-10 minutes. "Look at that!" you can exclaim, as we all do just that. Tell us whether that's what we could have expected or not. Later on, we'll see the epic two-part drama of the shots/shots on target statistics. The sheer tension as we wait to see how many of those 12 shots actually troubled the goalkeeper. A player shoots over the bar - he was leaning back. They always are.

Around five times a game, you'll be called upon to offer us The Bigger Picture as the commentator nips away to the loo. Halfway through the first half, on the stroke of half-time, the start of the second period, on the hour mark, and in the dying moments - you'll need to sum up what you've seen so far. Has it been a classic? Has one manager asked his team for "more of the same" in this second 45? As the time ticks on, will the other manager be thinking of a change? You can slide your way in to your observation, as the play enters a lull, with a wistful sigh that informs the viewer that you're about to offer your lengthy views on the action so far. 

Do not describe players as short or slow - that's rude. They're "not the tallest" or "not the quickest". Why on earth co-commentators feel the need to shield the (obviously otherwise unsuspecting) public from the physical deficiencies of footballers is beyond comprehension. Is it some sort of PFA membership-inspired solidarity? Is it in fact a well-disguised challenge to Usain Bolt or the world's tallest man, Turkish part-time farmer Sultan Kösen, to take up football? Does Kösen have a good touch for a big man

Congratulations, you're now a fully-trained peer of the Andy Townsends, Jim Beglins, Gerry Armstrongs, Davie Provans and Alan Smiths of this world. You're a combination of amateur comedian, psychoanalyst, anatomist and ex-footballer. 

Perhaps it's not the easiest job in the world after all.


Where Are the New Clichés?

Like goalkeepers, we don't seem to be producing clichés in the same numbers any more. Or are we?

What is a football cliché? It can be a single word (derisory, for example), a phrase ("if anything, he's hit that too well..."), any vague concept of widely-received wisdom ("They're guilty of trying to walk the ball in like Arsenal!"), something visual (that grimace on a striker's face after he's shot wildly over the bar with a teammate in a better position) or simply behavioural (fans applauding instinctively when a defender completes a basic header back to his goalkeeper, under no pressure.)

New candidates for cliché have to endure a certain period of overuse before they can qualify as such, as well as being overwhelmingly true, or widely believed to be so. In the past, this process could have taken years or decades. The now-antiquated concept of a second period of 45 minutes being starkly contrasted with the first has gone through the entire lifespan of a football cliché, and is now the black dwarf in the many galaxies of received wisdom. 

As the discussion of football proliferates, compared to the 20th century at least, this process is perhaps accelerated. It is only recently that Stoke usurped Rochdale as the unpleasantly inclement midweek venue, zonal marking has been taking a bashing for as long as someone noticed it, players over six feet tall have always had their deftness of touch questioned but never have they managed to confound these doubters as they do now. Corridors of uncertainty arrived on loan from the cricket world with a view to a permanent transfer, sometime in the 1990s, while taking on fluids became the new drinking in c.1994, as pitch-level temperatures soared at the World Cup in the USA.

The 140-character limit of Twitter accommodates new phrases, in much the same way as the space-starved Ceefax and Teletext once did.  Examples such as "nice touch" or "classy", snappy ways of expressing your approval for a moment of footballing decency (however sickly sweet), are on the rise. The cringeworthy latter quality is now conspicuous by its absence, with high-horse-riding guardians urging miscreants to "stay classy" whenever a ill-judged press release threatens to unmask a club as morally bankrupt. 

Footballers are trendsetters, and the moment they hashtag something, it's gift-wrapped for their following millions. Ashley Cole's glorious #BUNCHOFTWATS entered the football lexicon, mainly for purposes of lampoonery, as football fans now seek to inject humour (to varying degrees of success) into a notoriously straight-faced national sport. Twitter jokes/gifs/photoshops are now the language of the modern fan, with every possible celebratory scenario that John Terry could gatecrash now crudely mocked up for "the lolz". Retweets can help propagate a new cliché, in the same way that bloke in the pub repeating something about Teddy Sheringham's relative lack of pace that he'd garnered from Football Focus the week before managed to osmose into anyone within earshot in 1993.

"Worldy" - a term originating in the playing community, meaning "world beater" - has caught on, often abbreviated further to simply "world" whenever a goal or save should warrant such incredulous praise. "Big" Ron Atkinson attempted to introduce his own set of catchphrases in the mid-90s, some of which managed to prevail, while "tekkers" looks set to withstand the backlash and dig its heels in.

No terrace wit may be delivered to a tune other than that of the Beach Boys' dreary "Sloop John B", thanks to Liverpool's fifth European triumph and Phil Brown's Hull avoiding the drop. The minute's applause was born out of sheer mistrust towards a small minority of idiots to immaculately observe a minute's silence and has become commonplace. Dr Richard Steadman earned a reputation as the most clichéd medical professional the game has ever seen, but has had a quiet last couple of years, possibly since the Serbian horse placenta woman arrived on the scene.

On the pitch, waving the imaginary card is still the latest established hand-signal you'll see. Giant circular hand movements to indicate that a tackle won the ball are a product of the TV-aware era of players, as is the outwardly-rotating double claw to signify an opponent has dived. A forefinger from each hand cycled with the other has denoted the need for a substitution for decades now, while referees imploring players to turn straight round at half-time of extra time predates the Macarena by many years. Pointing to the sky after a goal is a recent melodramatic development, as footballer's tragic personal lives become our business whether any of us wish it to be. Disappearing from view is the shirt-name point, usually with both thumbs while turned away from the crowd, possibly to avoid being instructed to "stay classy". There is no indication as to what the next hand-signal will be, but if goal-line technology is introduced, a TV-screen gesture (similar to cricket/rugby officials) may become quickly popular with players with an easily-triggered sense of injustice.

The more tactically-aware football supporter now knows what a false nine is. Everyone now plays 4-3-3 (or a corruption of it, all turning into a 4-5-1 without the ball) up and down the country, much like the mid-90s saw an obsession with 3-5-2, or the 2000s and the seemingly neverending search for Claude Makélélé clones in defensive midfield berths. Diminutive Spaniards ferreting behind a lone striker are now the flavour of this decade. Perhaps full-backs will soon become more tactically significant than ever before, which may spell bad news for the more agricultural Andy Wilkinsons of this world, but Southampton's Luke Shaw may find himself hot property.