What Does Gaffer Mean in Soccer?

The British certainly have a way with words, which is especially prevalent when it comes to some of the expressions and phrases used in soccer.

For example, you may have heard managers stating that “they’re over the moon” when describing how happy they are with their team’s performance in a match.

Such idioms are part and parcel of the game, as they’ve merged into the sport’s overall culture and been assimilated by players, coaches and fans alike.

However, there’s one particular term that brings up a lot of confusion.

When it’s used in a certain context, a person may not even know what’s being referred to whenever the name is mentioned.

Alright, that’s enough suspense for one day!

The word, or rather, the topic of this article concerns the “gaffer” expression.

What does “gaffer” mean when used in a context that relates to the beautiful game?

Here’s your answer…

The term “gaffer” is a commonly used word in Britain that’s used to refer to a “boss” or person in charge. Soccer players like to use it when addressing their coach or manager.

Read on for more information about this popular name!


What does the slang “gaffer” mean?

Gaffer is an English term that’s been used for many years.

It refers to a “boss” who’s an authoritative figure within a business or an organization.

That person would have their subordinates performing various roles and duties, which is why gaffer is used as a connotation of the phrase “go for” in slang terms.

Are you a little lost?

Well, picture the following example.

You have a manager in a company who diligently performs one of their responsibilities of ordering employees around and making sure they execute certain tasks.

That manager would demand that workers “go for client meetings” or “go for business development sessions”.

Because they’re constantly telling other people what to do – more particularly what to “go for” – that’s where the name derives its meaning.


Where did the term “gaffer” originate from?

The word “gaffer” comes from as far back as 16th century England, as it was an expression coined up by laborers to address the head of such an organized group.

Essentially, the working class would use the term to make reference to the senior person in the group who would be responsible for handing out orders.

What this means is that if you set foot on a construction site and ask to see “the gaffer”, you’re not looking to meet the owner of the project.

Instead, who you’re after is the person in charge of providing orders to the rest of the working contingent.


Why is a soccer coach called a gaffer?

Drawing on from the points above, it’s relatively easy to see why soccer coaches were and still are referred to as “gaffers”.


1. Working class traditions

what gaffer means in soccer - respected coaches or managers

For starters, the history of the sport dates back to an era where professional players were part of the working class in society.

Soccer players at that time would work other blue-collar jobs just to make ends meet, particularly because soccer salaries back then were nowhere near as high as they are now.

This article does a fantastic job of pointing out how the game – in its organized form – was born out of England’s grim looking industrial towns, back when pictures and videos came in black and white.

Connecting the dots even further, the expression was in those days used to signify people who had earned respect within rural communities.

And because soccer managers were people who had gained the trust and respect of their players through their experience in being a qualified instructor, they were called “gaffers” to mark or signify that high regard.


2. Old man colloquialism

On a separate note, the term “gaffer” was used colloquially as a reference to an old man, which a lot of soccer managers were at that period in time.

Let’s extrapolate the data from one particular year in time and see how this point makes sense.

Zoom all the way back towards 1960.

Look at the top teams in English soccer today – Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal. 

Then picture the age of the managers who used to be in charge of these teams back in 1960.

You’ll see something quite interesting:

Ages of Managers at Top English Clubs in 1960

NameTeamAge (Years)
Les McDowallManchester City48
Bill ShanklyLiverpool47
Ted DrakeChelsea48
Matt BusbyManchester United51
George SwindinArsenal46

All of the aforementioned managers were in their mid-forties and early fifties when they were in charge of managing these prestigious clubs.

It would be pretty rare to find a manager in their early thirties coaching a top side back then.

Whereas when you look at how soccer has developed today, you come across many young coaches doing exemplary work in a very competitive sport.

Some notable examples include:

So, it’s clear to see how the word “gaffer” entered and became firmly ingrained within the sport’s lexicon.

Samuel Waihenya
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