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Will it be early doors for England?

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World cup fever is gripping England, the flag of St George is everywhere and for the next month we will all be grimacing at football commentators’ abuse of the English language.

There are the statements of the bleeding obvious, such as “It’s a game of two halves”. And the nonsensical quotes, such as John Greig’s “Celtic manager Davie Hay still has a fresh pair of legs up his sleeve”. But do not forget the footballing idioms that have become so woven into the fabric of the English language that the British Council has produced a guide to them so that overseas visitors can understand the locals.

“Getting the ball rolling” and “moving the goalposts” are commonly used and abused in meeting rooms all over Britain. “Playing away” and “about to kick off”, on the other hand, are more likely to be found in tabloid newspapers and pub banter.

But the expression that has always tickled me is “Big Ron” Atkinson’s favourite, “early doors”, which refers to the early part of a match. Obviously meaningless to the average foreign student, and nonsense when literally translated, this expression has an interesting history.

“Early doors” predates Big Ron by around a century and originated at the theatre. Show bills and advertisements would urge patrons to arrive early to avoid the last minute rush outside theatres shortly before performances began. Around the 1870s theatre-goers who were prepared to arrive early began to be charged a small premium in return for being allowed to choose their own seat in unreserved areas.

G. K. Chesterton recorded the expression’s use as a battle cry by soldiers going over the top in the 1914–18 war: “If they had only heard those boys in France and Flanders who called out ‘Early Doors!’ themselves in a theatrical memory, as they went so early in their youth to break down the doors of death.”

Theatres seem to have stopped their early-doors practice during the early 1920s, only for the phrase to be reinvented for use in football. Brian Clough, then manager of Nottingham Forest, was one of the first recorded users of the expression in 1979, the year his team won the European Cup.

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