Moving the goalposts
One of the (many) pleasures of being retired is that I have escaped the dread pall of management speak. “You’ve moved the goalposts” was the cry of many a manager when they realised that budgets and targets painstakingly agreed at the start of the year had been adjusted by fiat and that their chances of getting their bonus had gone out of the window. Moving the goalposts is a figurative way of describing that a target has been changed to give one side an advantage.
Some authorities seem to think that it is a very recent neologism, basing their claim on a report in the Jamaican newspaper, the Gleaner, which quoted the British Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, Nigel Lawson, as saying, “I see no reason to move the goalposts at all”. But that is not the start or the end of the matter.
Some of most popular team sports like football, rugby (both codes) and American football, use goal posts positioned at either end of the pitch, and the object, either in whole or in part, is to get the ball inside or over them. The posts are supposed to be perfectly aligned with each other and sporting maestros perfect their techniques to be able to put the ball into the requisite spot from all angles and parts of the pitch. If one set of goalposts are out of line then that puts the team defending them at an advantage.
The most infamous occurrence in professional football occurred in September 2009 when IFK Gothenburg goalkeeper, Kim Christensen, was pictured nudging the goalposts he was guarding with his shoulder to make it less than the regulation width of eight yards. In Sweden goalposts rest on the ground rather than sunk into the earth. The referee, Stefan Johansson, only noticed the discrepancy midway through the first half and as he wasn’t sure it was Christensen who was the culprit, he took no action other than moving them back to the right width.
Those of us who follow teams blessed with players who couldn’t hit the proverbial elephant’s backside with a banjo often console ourselves when a shot goes flying into the stands missing the target by a country mile that someone must have moved the goalposts. Alternatively, to accommodate a collection of wayward shooters, the posts could be shifted to an area that the incompetents might be able to reach. This seems to have been an idea popular with Scottish football supporters. A match between Forfar Athletic and Montrose, it finished goalless of course, was notable for the waywardness of the Montrose forwards, leading the Forfar Herald, in its edition of February 21, 1946, to observe; ““Shift the goalposts”, said someone as the seasiders repeatedly finished wide of the mark”.
The Forfar forwards were not averse to demonstrating their own incompetence. When they were playing Stirling Albion, the Forfar Herald, in their report on March 11, 1948, was left to remark that there were “occasions when the old gag, “shift the goalposts”, could justifiably be applied to the home finishing”.
We rarely hold general elections in December. The one held in 1923 was significant in that it marked the end of the Liberal Party as one of the two main political parties in parliament. Disenchanted with the first-past-the-post system, they tried to introduce a bill promoting proportional representation. In the ensuing debate the Socialist MP for Glasgow, Springburn, George Hardie, was reported in The Scotsman on May 3, 1924 as saying, “the Liberals, having been beaten, not only wanted to change the rules of the game, but wanted to shift the goal posts because they could not play any more”. They are still trying.
What are we to make of all this?
The phrase has probably been around since at least the beginning of the 20th century, in popular speech if not in the written form, and is likely to have existed almost as long as organised games involving fixed goalposts. It is more than likely, too, that it was Scottish in origin.