The nutmeg. Impudent, cherished, ornamental. Arrogant, even. It is an act of rebellion and a splash of art. It awakens the humdrum match and embroiders the turf with glitter. It is a playground aim and a wistful thought about baggy-trousered evangelists conjuring and beguiling on sepia afternoons. It is a status symbol flaunted by the gifted winger, and a Molotov Cocktail hurled boldly through the eye of a needle. It is hedonism and affection in a cruel cruel world, a glowing thought that footballers can still shake free from order to enlighten and entertain.
Here is a spontaneous act of disobedience. The crowd seldom sees it coming, the defender is in a different time zone. He is flummoxed and befuddled, a toddler lost in a supermarket. The nutmegger has twisted him and turned the pitch hazy. He is humiliated and defeated, a flailing leg reacting late and hanging in the air like a suspended drawbridge. Beyond a hefty turn and chase in pursuit of his tormentor and his dignity, the only escape is a crude killjoy foul. A full-back’s arm and shoulder are locked rigid and thrust between creator and ball, the flame snuffed. Two arms aloft claim innocence, a sprawled victim cries murder.
Yet that full-back has his own variation on the theme, for the nutmeg is varied and motley. He is the methodical practitioner, a father in the back garden preparing and executing the nutmegging of a son. His chunky version will rarely be enacted, and certainly only on one of those ambrosian Saturday afternoons when everything clicks. He is closed-down by some apathetic winger, shapes to clout the ball but instead scrolls it beneath his jumping opponent and meets it on the other side. The crowd cheer like guests at a surprise party. It does not rank high in the pantheon, but a nutmeg it is. As such, it is as valid as the side-stroking of a pass between tree-trunk legs, and the stellar vintage that is spooling a ball through a goalkeeper’s bent knees.
Majestic beyond these, though, is the deft nutmeg which anticipates a tackler’s every breath and defies trigonometry. Here, the slight player has the whip hand and draws most blood, enticing an opponent close and rolling the ball with an inner heel deployed like the flipper bat on a pinball machine. He smuggles that ball through an impossible angle, a cave wrought from a golf hole. It is majestic and argues poetically why this game is an art form and not a science.
This treat sustains, its appeal base and intrinsic – hark the young cries of ‘Megs!’ across park and field. It helps that ‘nutmeg’ is such a pleasing, gallus word that can be rolled around and savoured, and a treasured entry among those value-leaden football words that bond fans across interminable weddings and hellish sales conferences. The nutmeg is a rare delight to luxuriate in