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Sporting idioms

Heather, a trainer at the school, has written about her favourite football team and sporting idioms.

"Having fretted (worried) about my football team, the mighty (strong and powerful) Chelsea, potentially not winning any silverware (cups or trophies) this season, I was very happy to spend the sunniest day so far this year watching Frank (Lampard) score the winning goal against Everton in the F.A. Cup final. I love sport, none more than football, which started me thinking about how many sporting idioms we have in English. Although there are idioms that originate from a variety of sports, many used in the UK are from boxing, football, cricket, golf and horseracing.”

See if you can guess the meanings of the idioms below before you read the explanation.

Horse racing

'Back the wrong horse' refers to betting money on the wrong horse. 
This means making a bad or inappropriate choice.

'Neck and neck' is when the horses are side by side. This means exactly even in competition or comparison.

'Horses for courses' refers to owners needing to choose the right horse for the right race course. This means different people are suited to different things or situations.


'Level playing field' refers to the game of football only being fair if the pitch (where you play football) is level (one end is not higher than the other). This means a fair situation.

'Moving the goal posts' If you move the goal posts half way through a game of football it changes the original aim of the game for the players. This means to change the aim or rules after something has started.


'Sticky wicket' After rain it is difficult to play cricket as the ground on the grass is sticky. This means an awkward situation.

'(Just) not cricket' Cricket is seen as a very gentlemanly, fair game and therefore something is seen as unfair if we use this expression.


'Par for the course' Par is the normal number of strokes that it takes to get round a golf course. Therefore this means what is normal.

'(Not) Up to par' This is the expected level of achievement.

'On a par (with)' Equal to something.


'To throw in the towel' When a boxer is in trouble the fight can be stopped by the trainer by throwing a towel into the boxing ring.  This therefore means to give up.

'To be saved by the bell' refers to the bell ringing at the end of each round which temporarily stops the fight. This means to get out of a difficult situation at the last minute.

'Below the belt' refers to a low illegal punch in a match. This means something is unfair or not following the rules.

See if you can understand this dialogue between two salesmen discussing a new position available at work.

Frank: Hey Ashley, have you heard the latest?
Ashley: Yeh, the position of Sales Manager has come up again.
Frank: I’d heard that Adams was on a sticky wicket.
Ashley: Yeh, apparently the board said that he wasn’t up to par and asked him to resign but he told them he wasn’t ready to throw in the towel so they sacked him!
Frank: No way…that’s just not cricket. So who do you think’ll get it this time? 
Ashley: Apparently, Redknapp from the South West sales team has applied again.
Frank: Well, that’s par for the course. Any serious contenders?
Ashley: I think that Ferguson has a chance, his presentation last month really impressed me.
Frank: Seriously, the man’s an idiot!
Ashley: Well, that’s a bit below the belt but maybe he isn’t really up to par.
Frank: I’ve always rated O’Neill, he’s been the top salesman for the last six months.
Ashley: No, you’re backing the wrong horse there; he’d never go into management
Frank: I’ve got it - Ancelotti! Hard working, respected and the board love him!
Ashley: Too true, Horses for courses I say!
Frank: Although could be neck and neck between him and Ferguson, I believe he’s applied and I think he’s on a par with him in experience. So Ashley, what are you up to?
Cheryl: Hi Ashley, ready to go?
Ashley: Sorry Frank, catch you later…Thanks Cheryl, saved by the bell, didn’t want to tell him that I’ve applied for the job!”

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