Matt Nation offers a brief lesson in the correct and incorrect uses of some important footballing terms

There exists a type of elderly gentleman – a neighbour, perhaps, or one’s maternal grandfather – whose singular unpleasantness lends credence to the argument that the good old days were not all they are cracked up to be. Yet when spoken of by third parties, their overall lugubriousness is interpreted as old-fashioned plain speaking that the younger generation cannot even begin to understand. Mercifully, most of these elderly gentlemen are not former footballers, for the additional cap-doffing, spittle-licking and general kowtowing that occurs when anyone of a certain age plays football as well is as widespread as it is obscene as it is wrong.

A good example of the “age before beauty” phenomenon is Steve McMahon. Although his England caps are testimony to his technical merits, the young McMahon probably remains in most people’s memory as the sort of bilious rough-house who would start a punch-up with his father-in-law at his own wedding reception. Anyone believing that football is not a job like any other need only go and see McMahon on a Saturday afternoon to have their theory shot to pieces. He is so extreme that rumours have yet to be proven unfounded of lexicographical think-tanks pushing for “McMahon” to be recognized as an adjective meaning “never having seen the funny side of anything, ever”. Providing, or even experiencing, enjoyment was clearly never part of his contracts.

Nevertheless, despite these shortcomings – and, more crucially, for a media hero, his having given away a goal for England in the 1990 World Cup – McMahon, purely because he is old, is now fêted as a fond reminder of how it used to be done then, and a guiding example of how it should be done now. After creaking his way through a Swindon game this season, he was described in a chirpy, almost complimentary, style as a “vintage model” who “rolled back the years to the delight of the crowd”, as though it were an honour to see a thirty-seven-year-old, as opposed to a twenty-seven-year-old, going apoplectic in front of the referee. Chancing a few quid on the phrase “playing the best football of his career” appearing in the press before the season is out could solve your financial worries in one fell swoop.

Different, yet equally disturbing, depths were plumbed by Jimmy Hill during the televised FA Cup tie between Chelsea and Liverpool earlier this season, when he referred to Mark Hughes as a “warhorse”. Even the most recent passenger on the footballing gravy train knows that Mark Hughes is not a warhorse. Just as the putrid elderly gentleman next door is disqualified from being an agreeable old man by dint of not having been an agreeable young man, a more mature player cannot become a warhorse if he was never a warfoal in the first place.

Warhorses, as any schoolchild could tell you, are identifiable primarily because of their physical appearance. They are too big, have a face like the rear bumper of a stock car and suffer from acute abdominal problems that make even the largest pair of shorts appear to function as a tourniquet. Reversing the idea that skimpy underwear adds to the erotic appeal of an otherwise bare body, such shorts make you want to see the warhorse naked, if only to see his suffering alleviated. With a few exceptions, warhorses play for teams that come to the attention of the big teams only when they knock them out of the cup. Warhorses move with the elegance of a skydiver whose parachute has refused to open, they openly foul goalkeepers and defenders in both penalty areas and take a route to goal which is as purposeful as the return to the parental home of a child with a sub-standard school report. Warhorses are loved by their own fans for their ineptitude, regarded with amused tolerance by everybody else and cannot wait for the aging process to commence so that they can revel in Jimmy Hill referring to them as old warhorses.

Notwithstanding a complexion resembling a cricket ball that has been tampered with, Mark Hughes, on the other hand, is none of these things. His physique is uplifting enough to make you want to start dancing when you see it; he has played for some of the top teams in Europe; he moves with the single-mindedness of a cormorant diving for his lunch, commits fouls that are invisible to the naked eye and can do chest passes, often to the exclusion of anything else. He is loved because he is very good at football and, irrespective of the age at which he dies, will always be 28 years old.

Jimmy Hill’s artlessness has been ingrained in the national psyche for so long that knowledge of it will soon be a requirement of the National Curriculum; however, that he has now revealed himself to be an out-and-out charlatan who, despite having spoken in football platitudes for decades, still doesn’t know his warhorses from his thoroughbreds, is yet another reason to place him under house arrest whenever football is on television.

For the most that Mark Hughes is is a “stalwart”, as are Pearce, Waddle, and all the others who will never see thirty again. The last great warhorse – Billy Bonds, obviously – was put out to grass ten years ago. He has been succeeded by a few “veterans”, even fewer “troopers” and an abundance of “curmudgeonly old gits”, but there haven’t been any warhorses since then, nor is there likely to be a resurgence. And don’t let the sports pages or the blandishments of Jimmy Hill and his band of flunkies bamboozle you into believing that there will be. Ask your maternal grandfather, he’ll tell you.

From WSC 124 June 1997. What was happening this month

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