A sore, itchy eye sent me into the local chemist this week to find out what ailed me, determine the nefarious nature of the exotic ‘itis’ which was doubtless at work and — no need to break it to me gently, madam, I can take it — find out how long I had left to live.

Turned out it was just a ‘sty’, a word I hadn’t heard in years and, frankly, a thing I thought had gone the way of Wanderly Wagon and Green Shield stamps.

When I was young and easy under the apple boughs, a sty — or ‘shty’ to give its proper pronunciation — would have been a close relative of a ‘blast’ (or ‘blasht’) which, as I recall, used to be the catch-all term for anything causing redness of the eyeball, not excluding copious quantities of porter.

It was prompted by such recondite considerations that, gazing into the middle-distance through my one good eye, I fell to pondering how the language of football has changed and how much of value has been lost in the modern compulsion for anyone even vaguely associated with the game to sound as if they’ve eaten a Uefa Pro Licence manual for breakfast, all “quantitative analysis on how to optimize scoring opportunities” and whatever you wouldn’t be having yourself.

Take the self-explanatory and perfectly serviceable word ‘stopper’, for example. In the press box in Dalymount Park recently, I was shocked to hear one of my younger journalistic brethren bestowing this ancient and revered name on one of the goalkeepers.

You can see where he was coming from, of course — stopper as a diminution of shot-stopper — but for those of us who are a bit longer in the tooth, a stopper will only ever be a centre-half, sometimes ‘teak-tough’, not infrequently ‘burly’ but always, without exception, ‘no-nonsense’.

Gone the way of the stopper too is the standard formulation which used to be employed in newspaper photo captions to describe his preferred modus operandi.

I refer to the splendidly euphemistic “...despite the attentions of...” as in: “Manchester United’s George Best controls the ball despite the attentions of Chelsea’s Ron Harris”.

And if the picture happened to show the stopper they called ‘Chopper’ attempting, as was his wont, to go that bit further and actually disembowel the same Bestie, the sub-editor would immediately proceed to DEFCON 1 and upgrade the caption to read “...despite the close attentions of Chelsea’s Ron Harris.”

Another prime target for the ‘hatchet-man’ was that uppity type, the player with ‘an educated left foot’. Never an educated right foot, for some reason, but in any case, the left foot which was once capable of giving tutorials in the Sorbonne appears to have gone into permanent retirement, perhaps spending its twilight years in a cardigan, puffing on a pipe, pottering about in its allotment and railing against the decline of empire.

Hey, and whatever happened to ‘crack’? There was a time when there was virtually a legal obligation in the West to refer to any team from ‘behind the Iron Curtain’ as ‘crack’ but, unless Mr Putin succeeds in his tenacious efforts to roll back time, the days of ‘crack East Europeans’ and their ‘ashen-faced supremos’ seem to have followed the Soviet Union onto history’s scrapheap.

While we’re at it, who remembers ‘dribbling’?

The aforementioned Georgie was the best at it, his ‘body-swerve’ — something else you don’t hear much of nowadays but far more aesthetically pleasing than ‘step-over’ — a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Now, it’s all ‘quick feet’ and ‘slaloming runs’ instead, the sort of clunky stuff which could never hope to inspire romantic poetry of the higher kind, such as the sensual couplet penned by the great John Cooper-Clarke: “He makes love like a footballer/ he dribbles before he shoots.”

No, they don’t write ‘em like that any more.

They don’t ‘make’ goals anymore either, they provide ‘assists’, an import from the US which, while it might suit these stat-obsessed times, fails miserably to convey the creative essence of a ‘defence-splitting through ball’.

Another innovation, the increasing emphasis on nutrition, has sounded the death-knell for the ‘half-time orange’ though I suppose it can’t be held responsible for the disappearance of its fruity relative, the ‘banana kick’, which is what we nippers used to call that made-in-Brazil free-kick — sorry, I mean ‘set-piece’ - when Rivelino unveiled its physics-defying properties before our disbelieving eyes at the World Cup finals in Mexico in 1970.

Sports science has also sucked the sorcery out of the ‘magic sponge’, one of whose great domestic exponents was legendary Hoops’ physio Billy Lord. As Paddy Mulligan once described him to me: “A wonderful, wonderful man, with his sponge, massaging the wrong leg and dropping cigarette ash on your knee. Sure he nearly set himself ablaze one night in Boston with a cigarette in the bed.”

Progress, eh? Thanks for nothing, Arsene Wenger.

From choppers to stoppers - the evolution of football talk

Meanwhile, the ‘poacher’ has lost out to the ‘fox in the box’ and ‘house’ has been replaced by ‘man on’ — consider, please, the costly accumulation of vital seconds in the heat of battle which have been lost on account of that extra syllable — while, in what might well amount to the greatest mass extinction event since the fireball did for Dino, all the great ‘wily’ baldies seem to have disappeared off the face of the pitch.

Or if they haven’t, the follically-challenged now spend fortunes on the appliance of science to spare their blushes or else opt to go the full shiny monty as a kind of brutalist fashion statement.

Back in the day, the best they could manage was a couple of unruly tufts above the ears or, if desperate enough, they might simply abandon all hope and succumb to the Bobby Charlton comb-over, the only coiffure in history which could make even the mullet look cool and sophisticated.

As to why, back in the same day, a footballer in his prime could easily look like he was well past 50, the journalist Frank Keating advanced an interesting theory in relation to one such player in a glorious piece he wrote about his beloved Fulham in the 50s and 60s, noting their ranks included one Eddie Lowe, “the statutory baldy at wing-half, alleged to have lost all of his hair overnight through the shock of reading one of Walter Winterbottom’s coaching pamphlets on peripheral vision”.

Which, come to think of it, is roughly where we came in.


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