Football idioms: Back of the net

By Oli Pritchard July 1, 2018
Football idioms

Moving the goalposts. Photo: keithminer, Flickr

The beautiful game has inspired some beautiful language. We kick around some football idioms so that you can banter with the best of them.

Four years ago, Colombia returned to the World Cup and we celebrated with some football vocabulary. This time, we’re looking at some useful football idioms and phrases that you can use to impress your English-speaking friends and sound like you really know what you’re talking about. These aren’t necessarily the most useful footy phrases, but they’re some of the most fun!

We’ve separated them into the ones that are used only with football, and the ones that apply outside of the beautiful game. And remember, if all else fails, use famous commentator Alan Partridge as a reference.

Actual football idioms

Squeaky bum time

In the final minutes against Senegal, Colombia might be waiting for a goal…or defending a lead of one goal. That’s known as Squeaky Bum Time, a phrase coined by Alex ‘Sir Purplenose’ Ferguson of Manchester United. Although he originally intended it to mean the end of the season, it applies to any time where the end is coming and nerves become a problem. There’s also Fergie Time, which applies to the mysterious extra minutes added on to matches to allow a Manchester United victory.

Route one football

This is when a team chooses to not pass the ball short, but just hit it directly towards the strikers. Expect to see this from less technical teams. It’s not always pretty to watch, but it can be very effective with the right players.

Put it away

This refers both to games and goals. When a striker scores a goal, we say he has put it (the ball) away. When a team scores a goal that almost certainly guarantees victory, they have put it (the game) away. It’s no longer a problem. Also, you can put a game to bed. For example, in 2014, the Germans put their semifinal to bed after 10 minutes, but then carried on to humiliate the hapless Brazilians.

Put it in the mixer

This is used when a team is desperate, usually in Squeaky Bum Time. ‘The mixer’ is the penalty area, where anything could happen. It basically means you put the ball into the penalty box and hope that something will happen. When the game is tense and everyone is nervous, it can be surprisingly effective.

Trying to walk it in

This is when a technically very talented team tries to pass the ball without looking dangerous or taking a shot. It often means the fans become frustrated and want to see an opportunity for a goal, especially if the game is close. Believed to come from North London, specifically Islington.

Miss a sitter

This is used when a player misses an easy chance to score. It comes from hunting, because a bird that is just sitting down and not flying is very hard to miss. Best example would be Israel and Liverpool legend Ronnie Rosenthal. Also, you can say “my Grandma could’ve scored that”, especially if your Grandmother is more Marta than Rooney.

Go down like a sack of shit/potatoes

Sometimes, in very, very rare cases, a football player jumps on or collapses to the ground to try to receive a free-kick, even when there was no foul. It’s hard to believe that such morally excellent sportsmen would do this, but it does happen. It’s called a ‘dive’. To really emphasise how much we hate cheating, we often use this expression to highlight someone’s lack of morals.

Couldn’t trap a bag of cement

Describes a player that is not so good at controlling the ball. Trapping the ball means to control it with a single touch. The idea is that even a big, heavy bag of cement which doesn’t move would be a problem for this player.

Knocking on the door

This is when a team is creating a lot of chances, and you feel that a goal is going to come soon. It’s like knocking on a door – eventually, someone will open the door, and you will score. The guest, in this case, is a goal.

They (or he) can’t buy a goal

When a team (or player) is doing everything right, but just can’t score, we say this. They’re knocking on the door, but there’s no answer. The idea is that, even if they were corrupt, they couldn’t even pay for a goal. That’s pretty bad.

Idioms that came from football

Moving the goalposts

This is easy to understand. It means to change the rules of something after the game has started. Just imagine what would happen if someone moved the goalposts in a game of football! It can also be ‘shifting the goalposts’.

Playing away from home

This means to cheat on your partner. It comes from football – when teams go to another stadium to play a match. In this case, it means that you have left your house to ‘play’ in someone else’s house. Normal for a football team, but not in a marriage!

Keep your eye on the ball

This means to focus on the most important thing and not be distracted. For example, David Ospina needs to keep his eye on the ball and not be distracted by his failing career at Arsenal.

Play the ball, not the man

This means to focus on the argument that someone is making and not their personal life or appearance. For example, if you criticise the 45th US President for his tiny oompa-loompa hands, you’re playing the man, not the ball.

Know the score

This means that you understand everything that is happening. Not all football pitches used to have scoreboards, so if you arrived late or went to the toilet you might not have known what the score was: you would be ignorant. Your fault, though.

A game of two halves

This comes from football matches that can be very different before and after half time. For example, a manager like John Sitton might really encourage his players with an inspirational talk at half-time. We use it more generally to talk about things that change a lot. For example, I might say this to a student that gets a low grade in an exam: They can do better in the next exam.

A red card offence

Just as in football, a red card means something is not acceptable. For example, taking a beer from the fridge without offering everyone else a beer, that’s a red-card offence. You sometimes hear people say yellow card, but it’s not as common.

To score an own goal

This means to do something against your personal interest. Just like when Andrés Escobar famously made this mistake in 1994, this can be very serious.

And finally…

They think it’s all over (…) well it is now!

It’s not really a saying, but every England fan knows this piece of commentary. When the three lions were winning against West Germany, Sir Geoff Hurst broke forward to put the game to bed. That remains England’s sole tournament victory, so it’s now normally held up when we make a limp exit on penalties.