When I’m taking photographs of grassroots football it’s one of the few times I enter the mythical ‘zone’, senses focused entirely on what’s going on before me, the rest of the world elsewhere. Obviously I’m concentrating visually, but when there’s a break in the game I can switch that attention off. When you find yourself stood there, purposeless, you begin to notice the sounds – a lull in the breeze, the ripple of a linesman’s flag, the sharper snap of a corner flag in the wind, the crash of a wayward ball through foliage. This is what you take in when you’re located in a field with your thoughts.
Yet always the dominant sound is the voices of the players. I don’t know much about acoustics but sometimes, depending on the weather and the terrain, those voices – ‘winners!’, ‘blue head on this!’, ‘back door!’, ‘gamble!’ – can fill the air around.
‘We need voices!’, always. And the horsepower behind those voices is always one question – ‘Where’s the talking?’, and the acceptance that The Talking is a crucial part of the team’s performance. To admit that ‘We’ve gone quiet!’ is to question the very soul of the team.
This is language stripped down to the functional. In sociolinguistics it’s a register, a language variety associated with a particular activity, or a professiolect, designed to convey thoughts in a precise and effective manner. But where does it come from? How does it spread and evolve? How does it differ across region, time and playing standard?
We know that someone, somewhere, probably in one of those medieval village ‘mob’ games, must have been the first person to shout ‘man on!’. The ur-shout. Economic, informative, it would surely have caught on quickly. But with a hotchpotch of different versions of the game across the country there must have been diverse versions of The Early Talking.
When the Victorians codified the game, allowing geographically distant teams to play each other, there presumably would have followed a cross-pollination of language. As styles of play developed within the new laws, so that language is likely to have become more homogenised. Such is the uniformity of The Talking today that there are resources designed to introduce foreign language speakers to concepts such as ‘asking questions’ of the opposition and ‘time!’ (which is handily described as ‘the opposite of man on’).
But has an equivalent register evolved in different parts of the football-playing world? Will a gobby French gardien, as a well-beaten opposition prepare to restart after conceding yet another, be bellowing ‘Encore zéro-zéro! Nous allons encore!’? There are surely also quality-specific versions of match talk. At some higher level of the game, the park goalkeeper’s yell of ‘no bounce!’, for example, would presumably be redundant. And while we might be aware of the famous teams and players of the past, we don’t know what they had to say for themselves on the pitch. We’re unlikely to ever know which examples of The Talking have become extinct through the whims of fashion, gone the way of the magic sponge.
Yet if match talk is affected by fashion, then it’s also an inherently conservative language. How hard it must be to come up with a new phrase that sticks, even with your immediate teammates. Naturalists have shown that there are dialects and unique phrases in songbirds according to location. The older birds don’t take the younger ones aside and teach them, but the youngsters learn by example. So while a kid playing in a park may imitate a famous player’s goal celebrations or quirky way of wearing socks, they’re only learning the language by being within it, playing alongside older players.
I would argue that ‘man on’ and ‘the opposite of man on’ are the only two genuinely helpful bits of The Talking. At this level it’s that two second gap between ‘Time!’ and ‘Get Rid!’ that best captures the flavour of sport played in a state of controlled panic. Hence most match talk seems primarily to stress the urgency of getting the ball as far away as possible as quickly as possible. The rest is just a background hum of motivational white noise.
And maybe that’s its real function. An incessant, comforting, ritualised yap, just to remind everyone that they’re not out there on their own, and we’re all in it together.
This article originally appeared in ‘Get Some Chalk On Your Boots! The Sounding Cultures of Football‘, edited by Paul Whitty, published by SARU, Oxford Brookes University.