Twenty-two players on the field repping two teams corralled by two managers.
Equals twenty-six. Twenty-six letters of the English alphabet.
I wonder if those twenty-six names present in one game of football have ever seen a unique letter at the beginning of each one?
I asked myself one dreary Saturday morning.
And then I fell. I fell deep into a hole that I am only emerging from days later. I cancelled appointments, missed birthdays, weddings, holidays, bat mitzvahs, and a still-life drawing class.
And was it worth it?
Let’s find out.
To find every letter of the alphabet represented once in a game of football when it came to the surnames of the twenty-two players and two managers, plus the common names of the clubs (as in ‘Bournemouth’ instead of ‘A.F.C. Bournemouth’.)
Because this wasn’t something I wanted to dedicate the rest of my life too (but we’ll see), I set the confines of a league I am familiar with, the English Premier League. It’s got a fairly recent start-date (comparatively) of 1992, and figures/statistics are readily available.
It all began when I was walking my dog. The thought occurred to me that Abel Xavier must be the only player I can name whose got an ‘X’ at the start of their name. Then I thought about more uncommon letters. Pablo Zabaleta, John Utaka, Franck Queudrue — they all popped to mind, and just before I pictured them sharing a winning Srabble board, and just after I pictured them sharing a bed, I pictured them sharing a pitch. Did they all overlap? No? Then let’s find who did.
I was toying with the idea at first. Granit Xhaka staggered into my head, and since my recent memories of the league are stronger, I went with him and his Arsenal side managed by Emery or Wenger. It couldn’t be Arteta, see, because his name begins with A, and so does Arsenal. There’s a few stumbling blocks early doors, but not enough to deter me.
I carry on down and try and knock a ‘Q’ out early. None are popping to mind, so I have a gander when QPR were last in the league, and… Aye well, it’s a league cup fixture.
This first attempt gets far enough that I might actually think I’ll do it. Nedum Onuoha and Matt Ingram take care of some tricky letters, Gedion Zelalem is still on the Arsenal books, and Eberichi Eze is only an ‘E’ but sounds like he should be more.
Even with these intially looser parameters it didn’t pan out. ‘T’, ‘U’, ‘V’, and ‘Y’ all evaded me, but that just made me want them more. I went after them, set my rules, and buckled down.
This led me to the 06/07 season with Middlesbrough and Fulham. Specifically the former. They had the aforementioned Xavier on their books, as well as Yakubu, Viduka, Turnbull, and (Ugo) Ehiogu. It goes without saying that the ‘U’ would remain out of reach.
And Fulham only came in to put Queudrue forward. The rest of their side was lacking the etymological diversity necessary for victory. That’s always been the issue with their midfield.
At this point, I’d cornered a little market. The ‘X’ family. Not a family I broke up with, but the three players throughout Premier League history whose names begin with ‘X’. And for extra cover, none of them have played at the same time as either of the other two.
The first was Abel Xavier, then came Xisco, and finally, Granit Xhaka.
But I’d forgotten about clubs and managers! Exeter might be as close as we get to a club, but we’d had our first ‘X’ manager this very season! He was Watford’s man in charge so is obviously now an ex-manager, but Xisco Munoz surely counted as he went by simply, Xisco.
So, figuring recency brings higher orthographical diversity, I set about trying out this Watford side with Xisco at the helm. They could have Domingos Quina in midfield, with Etebo and Louza, Hungbo and Sarr on the wings supporting Pedro. Rose and Ngakia are playing either side of defence with Troost-Ekong and Kabasele in the middle, protecting Bachmann in the net.
I didn’t even have to think about their opponents. Crystal Palace have Zaha, it’s them. Plus, they’re managed by Vieira. The Eagles gave me Guaita, Ferguson, Andersen, Jach, Mitchell, Imray, Dreher, Olise…
And that’s when I lost my mind on’Y’.
I’m sure you can already tell that I had to dip into the academies to fill some letters, but nowhere in two youth academies and first teams, hell, I’m willing to bet no-one on the wait staff at Selhurst Park has a surname beginning with ‘Y’.
The letter was starting to ring true…
Then I remembered Ashley Young so I pivoted to Aston Villa over Palace, which I was more than happy to do as I remembered Selhurst Park had shunned me after an interview without so much as a stock e-mail stating their decision a few years prior.
Dean Smith’s boys gave me my ‘Y’, as well as other tricky boys like Vassilev (recalled from loan) and Ings. But even with Onodi and Zito coming up from the academy, as well as Foster and Baah subbing in for The Hornets, ‘U’ still ran free.
I went back to my ‘X’s.
I chased them around a bit, but my planning and mapping was haphazard. It looked like a lazily optimistic tactics board from two decades ago.
Abel was getting me nowhere, so I turned to Xisco and his first season with Newcastle, the 08/09 season.
I bashed together a makeshift side that included the likes of LuaLua, Zamblera, Owen, Viduka, and Given, managed by Joe Kinnear, and then assembled the other 08/09 Premiership sides whose names (and manager’s names) were left over.
With a list of the remaining letters, I made a lovely chart and went through those club’s 08/09 seasons, ticking off the letters they could manage. Hodgson’s Fulham and Mowbray’s West Brom were missing five, Portsmouth were missing four, and Man U were missing only three: ‘Q’, as well as the usual suspects ‘U’ and ‘Y’.
I find it frustratingly ironic that ‘usual’ begins with a ‘u’.
At this point, I abandoned ship. I sat in the dark of my hole waiting for the comedown to end, but as soon as it did, I went right back to my dealer.
I was going back in with a clear(er) mind and a clear(er) idea of what I wanted to do.
Three ‘X’ players. Abel Xavier. Xisco. Granit Xhaka. We’ve already established Xisco Munoz can’t work.
I would map when those three players were active in the Premier League, and therefore, when I could get this twenty-six letter game of two halves to work.
The seasons I was left with were:-
- 2019/2020 (up to 20/12/19 when Arteta came in as Arsenal manager)
The timeframe was set. Now I had to cross-reference those three ‘X’ players with other rare-lettered professionals. My three other rare-letter lists were entitled ‘Q’, ‘U’, and ‘Z’.
Looking back, I absolutely should have done ‘Y’ and spared myself at least a little emotional turmoil.
Those rare-lettered players were then narrowed down based on time in the top flight, making sure they co-ordinated with the listed seasons above. This trimmed a few (Hakim Ziyech, Mike Quigley et al) and allowed me to take my second shortest rare-letter list, the ‘Q’ list, and list the clubs and seasons those remaining ‘Q’s represented.
By doing this I had a list of fifteen clubs from which two could be found to face each other to hopefully get our twenty-six letter game. The three ‘X’ players represented Everton, Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, and Arsenal. The ten remaining ‘Q’ players represented Huddersfield, Chelsea, West Brom, West Ham, Fulham, Watford, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United, Coventry, and Sunderland in the appropriate seasons.
Two of those teams would have to face each other in one of those seasons to create the ultimate etymological game of Premiership football.
I followed suit with the ‘Z’ players, now adhering to stricter guidelines than I did with the ‘Q’ list, but it was with the ‘U’ list that I ultimately realised, and was forced to acknowledge, the now obvious universal truth.
In a sentence I always thought I’d have to say one day…
The Everton full-back was the only player on the ‘U’ list that corresponded with anyone from the ‘Q’ list, and therefore, anyone from the ‘Z’ list as well. Whatsmore, he was a teammate of Abel Xavier.
Hold the phone.
That means I can get an ‘X’ and a ‘U’ on the same side. An Everton side from either 1999/2000, 2000/2001, or 2001/2002.
Now I had to find the common sides between the ‘Q’s and the ‘Z’s. West Ham’s Zabaleta and Quina didn’t overlap with the necessary seasons, and the same goes for Zaza. Zamora and Quashie were closer but much the same for The Hammers. Bobby Z was also just too late to The Cottagers to catch Franck Queudrue and they were both too late to catch this bus. Middlesbrough were ever so close, with Christian Ziege rocking up in 1999/2000, but Queudrue not making an appearance at The Riverside until 2001/2002.
That left Coventry.
Of all sides, of course it’s Coventry. It always never is.
Defender Barry Quinn turned out in sky blue in the 1999/2000 and 2000/2001 seasons, while Ysrael Zúñiga turned a trick or three at Highfield Road in the 2000/2001 season.
We had our teams.
We had our seasons.
We even got rid of some tricky letters early doors.
Everton vs. Coventry in the 2000/2001 season.
This is all that can work.
But does it?
Coventry and Everton take to the field.
Two down already there…
The Sky Blues could field Kirkland, Davenport, Breen, and Telfer to go with Zúñiga and Quinn. Maybe throw in a Williams, a Froggatt, a Guerrero and a Palmer for good measure. The Toffees send out Myhre, Osman, Nyarko, and Jevons to join Unsworth and Xavier in battle. Ryan ‘Thank Christ for the Youth Academy’ Valentine is also a necessity for them.
Alexandersson, Hughes, Lester, and even Rooney pull us close and leave just one Coventry player needed, plus… Two extra.
I forgot about the managers.
This is the only Premiership fixture that works. Therefore it seems right that this possibility is undone by two Sssssscots named Smith and Strachan.
Two of the letter ‘S’ have never been good news, but this might be the worst.
Repetition ain’t allowed, and in the only fixture that even threatened to work, it was over before it even started really.
As I go on, filling in the blanks despite knowing there is no satisfaction at the end of my task, I see that the two sides are missing two letters anyways.
They are missing a ‘Y’ and an ‘I’.
As in, Y did I do any of this?
Why couldn’t Gordon Strachan be called Gordon Ytrachan? A strong, Scottish name. Couldn’t Thomas Mhyre have dropped his ‘M’? What if Gary Naysmith swapped his ‘y’ with his ’n’, Gary Yansmith is a lovely name. Alex Nyarko looks like it’s made up anyways, so no-one’ll notice that scrapped ‘N’.
Is it another case of irony that Zúñiga’s first name is Ysrael?
The irony only layers on more when you realise that that’s a word that should normally start with an ‘I’.
There was an Israeli Everton player playing for them that season called Idan Tal. Now I don’t know a lot about Israeli customs but I’m asking them to make it so first names are last names.
I’m begging. I’ve reached that stage. Acceptance seems a million miles away.
I’m going to return to society now.
This has been a failure.
But failures don’t have to remain failures. They can be resurrected time and again, in different settings, by different people, with different parameters… Until success is reached.
Until that time… If it ever comes…
HOLY SHIT, I DIDN’T GET BACK INTO QPR.
Keep it streets ahead,