From hat-tricks to handbags to early doors: what are the origins of the strange language of football?

Football phrases roll off the tongue so naturally that we barely stop to think about how weird and wonderful some of them are. Where do these odd idioms come from? And can FFT really stake a claim to one?

MINNOW

  • A small fish in football’s massive pond.
  • "Their superb cup run has banked more than £110,000 for the non-league minnows.” - The Guardian, 2005.

Over the moon

Football folk who aren’t sick as a parrot may well be over the moon. The phrase’s origins lie with the 18th-century nursery rhyme Hey Diddle Diddle, in which, of course, a cow jumps over the moon.

Its first use in football is credited to Alf Ramsey, who said, after managing Ipswich to the league title in 1962: “I feel like jumping over the moon.” Then in 1970, when Keith Weller was transferred from Millwall to Chelsea, he declared himself to be “over the moon about the move”.

Park the bus

This figurative definition for the defensive tactic of getting as many players behind the ball as possible was introduced to British football by Jose Mourinho during his first season at Chelsea in 2004.

After being held to a goalless draw by Spurs, the Special One told reporters: “As we say in Portugal, they brought the bus and they left the bus in front of the goal.” Ahead of the return match later that season, Mourinho said: “We bring the bus this time. We are going to try to win but maybe we need to park the bus.” The tactic worked – Chelsea won 2-0.

Scored a hat-trick

AT SIXES AND SEVENS

  • A team in a state of disorder and confusion. Derived from ancient dice game 'hazard', in which sixes and sevens were difficult scores.
  • “The Preston team, through injury and illness, was all sixes and sevens.” - The Daily Express, 1900.

In the 1860s, while association football was being invented, popular magician John Henry Anderson, ‘The Wizard of the North’, wowed theatre crowds with his “demon hat trick” – the original rabbit-from-a-top-hat illusion.

But the sporting origin of this idiom can actually be found in cricket. In 1858, after Heathfield Harman Stephenson took three wickets in consecutive balls for the All-England XI against Hallam in Sheffield, a collection was held to honour his feat, with the proceeds used to buy him a hat. The cricketing treble soon became known as a ‘hat-trick’ and, by the end of the Victorian era, the phrase had transferred across to football.

In 1899, The Yorkshire Herald described a match between York Wednesday and Malton Swifts in which a chap called Hough, having already scored two goals, “got the hat-trick by scoring number three”. In the early years, players “got the hat-trick”.

By the 1950s, they “scored a hat-trick”. In more recent years a further distinction has developed. In 2001, The Times reported that Norwich striker Mark Robins had scored “with head, right foot and left foot respectively to complete a ‘perfect’ hat-trick”.

Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink

Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink scored a perfect hat-trick against Tottenham in 2002

Missed a sitter

BOTTLE IT

  • Loss of footballing nerve. Derived from the Victorian phrase 'no bottle', meaning 'useless'.
  • “Nasri is paid £150,000-a-week, but he bottled it in the wall.” - The Daily Mail, 2012.

Another cricketing term, ‘missing a sitter’ originally meant dropping an easy catch. “A ‘sitter’ is a catch which falls absolutely into the hands,” explained Tit-Bits magazine in 1898.

Within a few years it was being used in football. In a 1913 report of a match between Brighton and Bristol Rovers, The Daily Express wrote, “The crowd of 5,000 fairly gasped when Woodhouse missed a ‘sitter’.”

Early doors

The use of this phrase, as in “they’ll be looking to grab a goal early doors”, was a favourite of linguistically creative pundit Ron Atkinson. However, its origin long predates Big Ron.

At popular Victorian theatres, ‘early doors’ were special entrances at which patrons could pay extra to avoid the subsequent crush. The practice ended in the early 20th century, but the expression survived. The first man to use it in a football context was probably Brian Clough, who, speaking to The Observer in 1979 about his relationship with his players, said, “Early doors it was vital that they liked me.”