Why shouting and swearing is park football's birdsong

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If you’re in any way serious about it, playing football usually turns out to be a surprisingly intense business.

Sunday league, five-a-side or even a pick-up park match - they all engage your senses aggressively. This might not be a high-speed experience, or a demonstration of minutely-honed skills. But it is usually very loud. This is pretty much guaranteed. There will be shouting. Amateur football is noisy football: the noisier the better; and the more successful, the noisier.

It's pretty much compulsory to shout things, or at the very least to bark or mutter or urgently harangue. Not shouting at all can have the opposite effect it would do in other areas of your life. Not shouting can even seem a little creepy, a little bit exhibitionist. So go ahead and shout something and remember also that there is a way of doing this properly. You need to shout. But you also need to shout right.

Mainly shouting is all about a clannish sense of belonging. There is a great accumulated oral history of Things To Shout. The jobbing player, the stand-in or the new recruit can gain instant acceptance by running through his own repertoire. It’s like birdsong.

To the outsider these might sound like aimless noises, primal blurts of man-snarl. But for those involved they have great depth of meaning. Or at least some meaning. Or at least a meaning that comes to life in context.

Where else would someone shout, in all seriousness: “Big red head on this come on got to want it!” Or “Switch it switch it switch it switch it no!! No! NO!!”. Or “John’s on! Send it! John’s on! Send it! John’s on! Send it!” These are words of comfort and words of welcome. They tell you exactly where you are. 

While the classics are always out there, playing on an endless loop (“Get rid!” “Send it!” “Tight!” “Looking!”), this is an ever-evolving language. Television has had an influence in recent years and it is now common to hear new kinds of shouts.

Often these tend to be more self-consciously learned and zingy, the language of the new TV cliché: “Tempo!”, “Quality ball!” “Movement!”, “Options!” Not so long ago I heard someone shout “Pressurise the ball-carrier!”, as though quoting from a Trevor Brooking-approved coaching manual.

I’ve also heard “Man in the hole!”, “Find space!” and “Two banks of four!” This is a more European-leaning, tactically literate school of shouting. It doesn’t, strictly, make any difference to what’s happening on the pitch. But I think we all feel a little better hearing some of these thrown into the mix.

There is of course a dark side to shouting. There are murky elements. There is, mainly, a lot of swearing. This is a place where swearing is accepted, tolerated, and even encouraged.

You might not normally be the kind of person who’s given to screaming “FOR F**K’S SAKE F**KING DON’T F**K ABOUT” in an otherwise very quiet place surrounded by strangers – such as a supermarket checkout queue, or the brief hush before the curtain goes up at your five-year-old daughter’s primary school nativity play.

But football does give you this freedom, particularly park football where there is no need to observe the niceties of leisure centre etiquette, or to tone down your on-field persona for the benefit of the yogalates ladies who are already hanging around holding rolled-up mats and looking offensively serene.

It’s in the early morning park environment that swearing reaches its full expression, a natural background timpani like crickets chirruping in the pampas or tinny mobile-phone R'n'B on the night bus. We’re not just talking any old swearing. This isn’t a free-for-all. There are rules. Mainly it’s all about use of the word “f**k”.

“For f**k’s sake.”
“F**king yes.”
“F**king now.”
“F**king send it.”
“F**king hold it.”
“F**king f**k!!
“F**k no.”
“F**k off.”
“F**k’s sake.”
“Watch the f**king... F**k!”

It’s important to note that this isn’t really swearing. It’s not really “f**k”. It’s punctuation more than anything else. F**k just fits the rhythm of the game. It stretches a sentence and fills a space where your brain is temporarily disengaged. It’s like taking a breath. You can spit it out. You can scream it. F**k is very football.

There can still be misunderstandings. I used to play with a Scottish winger called Johnny. During one game he was called for a foul throw by the referee and reacted by screaming “F**K OFF!!!”. He was sent off as the ref, quite logically, assumed he was being violently insulted.

Except that, in parts of Scotland, “F**k off” means “F**king hell”. It’s a curse, not an insult. We had quite a long discussion about this before Johnny actually left the field and eventually there was a grudging acceptance that he was the victim of a cultural misunderstanding. The f**king idiot.

But this is the nature of football shouting. It’s a huge part of the game and a culturally rich oral tradition. It’s a chance for men – who often get a bad rap on this kind of thing – to really express how they’re feeling deep down inside. Even if, it turns out, they’re often just feeling quite cross or let down, or simply in need of a proper, peer-group approved, tribally significant shout.

Elsewhere on The Sharp End:
Football: fighting minus the fists (mostly)
Why tactics say a lot about humanity
What your kit says about you (and others)
Why winning means nothing and everything
The manager – parent, pastor, secretary, dictator

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