Aw, look at his mercurial face
During the long summer months, it’s not unusual for a fan to seek solace in highlights packages and totally subjective countdowns of greatest goals, players, madheads, misses or donkeys. Interspersed with footage of Kanu scooping a chance over the bar and David Bentley attempting a rabona are typically rare gems of insight from… and here we go again… ‘experts’. And it’s from within these throwaway opinions, amid these throwaway pieces of programming, that it’s possible to learn not only precisely fuck all, but actually to get even stupider.
With the Olympics doing nothing to alleviate the negativity surrounding Messrs' Bright and Lawrenson, it’s fair to say punditry isn’t what it could or should be – a role in which talking bollocks doesn’t seem to be so much accepted as actively encouraged. Regular readers will know that the use of ‘literally’, for example, is a particular Magic Spongers bugbear. But even when ‘literally’ spills out of the mouths of idiots, it is just a touch of over-exuberance, and, if we are being generous, a lack of thought in the heat of the moment. It still literally means ‘literally’ though, which is precisely what makes it all the more ludicrous, as you can see from a cursory visit to our very own Literally Corner.
But the usage of another word has pervaded into the minds of the soundbite-happy regurgitators to such an extent that its meaning actually appears to be accepted as something completely different in football from that in other walks of life. That word is ‘mercurial’.
In one such programme as those described above, Iain Dowie was given the task of eulogising about arguably the Premier League’s greatest import, Thierry Henry. Not renowned for his eloquence at the best of times, Dowie went for the safe route – let’s call it the ‘Shearer’ – of picking what he thought was one synonym of ‘good’ and repeating it:
“He was almost unplayable, at the peak of his mercurial powers’, he began, badly. “I think mercurial is a too-often used word”, he continued, before proceeding to shoot his opinion so fiercely in the foot it must have wondered whether it would ever walk again, “but he had mercurial pace, mercurial ability and a mercurial love of the game, and I think that’s very important.”
Unfortunately for Dowie, ‘mercurial’ isn’t a synonym of ‘good’. It’s used extensively as such, but it isn’t. To be mercurial is to be changeable; volatile; fickle; flighty; erratic; and probably hasn’t been applied correctly since it explained Eric Cantona in the early 90s. And wingers since the dawn of time.
In the interests of balance, it might also imply that something contains the properties of the God Mercury – a winged-sandled messenger and god of trade, thieves and travel – which means that Dowie may have been invoking Henry fucking off to Barcelona, though this seems pretty unlikely as it requires some form of NOT STATING THE OBVIOUS.
Being mercurial wouldn’t be an attractive trait in a footballer, where consistency of performance is a prized asset, as long as that consistency is high level. Being erratic and changeable doesn’t sound like a player who’ll be getting 8 or 9 in the papers every Monday – which, if not the reality, was clearly the reputation Dowie was trying to convey (the footage accompanying his sermon was not of Henry doing something brilliant then something shit, followed by falling over, but of him scoring hatfuls of amazing goals).
Perhaps when Henry started his career at Arsenal, this would have applied – a lightning turn of pace there, a trick or cheeky finish there. It’s a very winger-esque quality – you could see Nani, for example, being described as mercurial, while you’d never ascribe the quality to Paul Scholes. Or Arsenal’s all-time leading goalscorer Thierry Henry. So there, Iain Dowie. The only thing mercurial about your description was the face it was coming out of. In that it could switch from looking like a collapsed flan one moment, while the next resembling a human testicle under a magnifying glass.
Nike, most bizarrely of all, appears to have built a whole brand from the word somehow becoming attractive to the impressionable footballing punter. The Nike ‘Mercurial Miracle’ -a boot - being a personal favourite. A changeable and volatile miracle? I’ve been to church before, thanks, and it was fucking mental enough.
There are more too. The Nike ‘Mercurial Glide’ is another strange footwear concept, presumably enabling to one to run around the pitch like Andres Iniesta for 20 minutes, before making all of its studs different lengths and reducing a player to a stumbling, hopelessly uncoordinated passenger on the pitch. Or Andy Carroll.*
Let us not forget either the slightly sinister Nike ‘Mercurial Blade’ shin pads, which frankly, given their real meaning, sound like the last fucking thing you’d want anywhere near your legs. There’s also the Mercurial Victory (‘we’ve won! Oh wait, we haven’t’. We’ve won!’ Oh wait-‘) and the Mercurial Vapor (which sounds like a byword for extravagant farting) as well as the downright fucking stupid Mercurial Fade and Mercurial Magia footballs.
When did mercurial ever mean brilliant? How can you even have a mercurial love of the game? Pedantic questions perhaps, but then this blog is nothing if not completely appalled by the seemingly unquestioning use of ex-players to comment on matches, highlights and nostalgia-ridden retrospectives.**
Specifically, this isn't even a problem with incorrect grammar (don’t even get us started) – the word’s still at least used as an adjective – but that it has been assimilated and ameliorated into the football lexicon as meaning something different from what it connotes in the real world. And if we were worried about our ex-player-pundits ruining the game for us before, the fact that they’re now wantonly changing the meaning of words should have those alarm bells ringing louder than ever.
*Obvious, yes, but that doesn’t make it any less true does it. Andy Carroll is the biggest donkey ever. He cost £35m. Even the best actual donkey in the world would probably only cost about £10,000. If that. And it’d have a better touch, and not only because it’s got twice as many legs as Carroll. It’s actually unlikely that doubling the number of Andy Carroll’s legs would make Andy Carroll any better at controlling a football.
** This blog is also EXTREMELY sweary and has a very high opinion of itself.