"It's fair to say I didn't actually eat worms," said Sean Dyche in January, after being accused of eating worms. Do you remember this? Does anyone remember this? It doesn't seem to have been featured in any of the end-of-season round-ups. Can we talk about this? When Sean Dyche was accused by a Danish former teammate of eating worms in training? "It was a bit of banter I used to have," Sean Dyche explained, in a press conference he had to give to explain that he never ate worms. "I've done it here and Watford, too – that you get a nice big, juicy worm hanging out of your mouth, look as if you're chewing it and then spit it out, wash your mouth with water." Can— why is nobody talking about this? Constantly? How is Sean Dyche still in a job? How is it possible he came up for a weirder reason for a worm to be in his mouth beyond ‘he was eating worms’?
Listen, this is just foreplay. You know where this is going. When Sean Dyche ate worms, we discussed which of the Premier League managers would be most likely to eat a worm, if pushed to. Sean Dyche, worm eater, came out on top. This year is a World Cup year and the England squad has just been announced. You know where I am going with this. Twenty-three boys, 23 of our brave English boys. Our Lions. Our Lion Boys. Our Brave Lads. Our Brave, Brave Boys. You know where I am going with this. The Lads, Our Lads. You know where this is going. Listen: which of the 23 of them would most likely eat a worm? Come on. Think about it. Some of them would eat a worm, wouldn’t they? But not all of them. Here’s who would eat a worm:
"Not eating a worm," Kyle Walker is saying, perfect cosy Nike tracksuit, perfect clean Nike trainers, bouncing onto a perfectly made grey-felt blanketed bed in the England training dormitories. He sucks on a sports-cap Lucozade. "No way, mate, nah." Kyle Walker cycles through 900 consecutive WhatsApp chats with an array of Instagram baddies. "Go ask someone else," Kyle Walker says. "And fuck off."
I like Dele Alli, because he fundamentally has the same spirit and energy as that cross-armed boy outside the off license nearest to your house in town, the one who always asks you if you can get him and his mates a big cider bottle, yesmatecomeonmate, the kid balancing perfectly on a BMX in an adidas anorak, the kid who you can never tell if he's going to be nasty to you or nice. "Hey mate," Dele Alli says, his pesky little smile, and you don’t know if he’s going to pelt you with coins or ask you to follow his rap crew on Instagram. "Hey mate, do you mind getting us some ciggies?" You demur. "No problem, mate." You got away with it, this time. One time Dele Alli followed you into the Spar and shoulder-barged you into the bread aisle when you bent over to pick up some crumpets. One time Dele Alli followed you home secretly from a distance and let down all the tires on your car. He blows hot, Dele Alli, and sometimes he blows cold. Last time you came here he offered you a chip from the warm paper package crumpled open in his hands. The time before that he called you "Europe’s biggest nonce". You never can get a read on him. Work up the courage. "Would you," you say to Dele Alli, hood up and sat on some bike railings outside, suddenly surrounded by 15 ominous-looking lads in grey tracksuits. "Would you eat a worm, Dele?" He stares at you for a second. Chooses how to toy with his prey. "Fuck off, mate," he says. "I'm not eating a worm."
Ah, the Sweet Baby Rashford. The perfect sweet baby child. Would you eat a worm, Marcus Rashford? "No worms for me, please!" Marcus Rashford says. He is a good boy, and he does not eat worms. He eats his greens and his vegetables and the pasta the team doctor says he has to eat to grow big and strong. He sits on his Manchester United single-sized duvet cover and beneath his Manchester United wall-sized posters and clicks on his Manchester United lamp-sized lamp-shade and diligently does his maths homework. "Marcus!" Marcus Rashford’s mum calls up to him. "Your tea's ready!" It’s Marcus’s favourite: potato smilies w/ turkey dinosaurs and red sauce. "Yum!" he says. Don’t corrupt sweet baby Rashford. Don’t make him eat your vile content worms.
I feel like Nick Pope has secretly been at the back of the minibus on every stag-do I have ever attended, being wonky-looking and slightly too large, like it legitimately would not surprise me if I’ve had between two to three pints with Nick Pope once – maybe I went paintballing with him? – and just forgot all about him, forgot to ever ask what he did or where he lived, assumed he was just one of my mate's works-in-finance uni friends who's quietly doing a Masters, just bought a new-build in Essex. I never actually established whether Nick Pope would eat worms or not because we both stood at the bar so long that we ran out of things to say to each other, but also got too awkward about it to actually walk away from the conversation dearth we were having, so just stood quietly leg-dancing to party music at 2PM in the afternoon until we both, in perfect unified silence, caved and looked at our phones.
"Not here to fuck about," Ruben Loftus-Cheek is saying. He’s wasted enough time at Chelsea, thanks. Been sat on enough benches. Skipped entire age-groups of competitive football to burst into first teams, only to get ignored because they bought Pedro. No. Nah. He’s made the World Cup now, and he’s not fucking about with this. "I'm not eating worms," Ruben Loftus-Cheek is saying. We're all eating worms in there, Ruben! Come on! Gareth Southgate said he might come down! "Let him eat worms, then," Ruben Loftus-Cheek says. He puts on the most gigantic pair of headphones in the known world and listens to audio transcripts of domineering central midfield displays. He’s not going to eat your worms.
"Could eat a worm, yeah," John Stones is saying. "Is everyone else eating them?" You’re walking down a corridor with John Stones, smooth in City-branded sliders and fresh socks, and he only falls over or turns around uselessly on the spot once every 20, 25 steps now. "What’s everyone else saying?" He looks earnest, and expensive, and confused. A few people are eating the worms, yeah, you tell him. Few people leaving it. "Are they?" John Stones says. He hollows his mouth and scratches one cheek for a really, really long time. You can almost hear his mind whisper in on itself: What Would Otamendi Do? "I'm leaving it then," John Stones says, finally. "Yeah. No thanks, but: yeah, I’m leaving it."
Raheem Sterling understands the question but he doesn’t love the prospect. "A worm?" he’s saying. "One worm?" Just one, if you want, yeah. Or two. You can eat as many worms as you like, Raheem. You’ve had the season of your life, mate. Bomb on. "I'm not sure," Raheem Sterling says. "Did Nike say I should do it?" I’ve not asked Nike. "What about Pep? Did Pep say anything about worms?" Pep Guardiola expressly forbid you from eating worms. "Right," he says. "Yeah. No, OK, no thank you then."
Butters would eat a worm, yeah, but only if you incorporate it into England training, because he’s desperate to seize the #1 spot from Jordan Pickford. "Set up a four-man wall, let me arrange it," Jack Butland says, eating his dinner with his goalkeeper gloves on. "Then give me 50 shots against Adam Lallana kicking a bucket of worms instead of a football." First few shots somehow pound into Harry Maguire without him flinching, so they drop the wall idea and make it a corner routine. "That’s more like it, yeah," Jack Butland says, collecting mouthfuls of worms out of the air as they are lofted high over him towards the back post. "Is the gaffer watching?" He’s not, no. You ate worms for nothing, mate.
If you think Jose Mourinho isn’t making Danny Rose eat a bucket of worms on Day #1 of training after his inevitable summer transfer to Manchester United then you know nothing about football, sorry. "Eat worm," Jose Mourinho’s saying, while the rest of the squad watches on. (Juan Mata is sobbing.) "Eat all worm." Scott McTominay ate the worms, Danny, and look what happened to him. Eat the worms, mate. Eat the worms if you want to win the Premier League.
"What?" Danny Welbeck is saying, creasing his face slightly. "You want me to eat what?" Worms, you say to him. He looks confused. Olly Giroud ate one, you explain. Then suddenly his tone shifts: he grabs a neat handful of worms and sucks them towards his face, making that horrible desperate chewing sound – ong–om–ong – lots of worms falling on the floor, in fact most of them patently missing his mouth, but bless him, bless him. He does try hard.
"Play left-back?" Fabian Delph says, jogging on the spot. "Yeah, I’ll do it. Centre-mid? Yeah. I’ll do that and all." You have to sit on the bench for this game, Fabian, and the next ten consecutive games. "No, probs, yeah, no, yeah," Fabian Delph is saying, doing shuttle runs down the Etihad touchline long after the final whistle has blown. "I’ll just stay here, warmed up, ready." Does Fabian Delph ever go home, or does he just find a small enclave within the stadium where he curls up like a fox, cradled under a wad of Kevin de Bruyne’s discarded zip-thrus, lightly snoozing and sleep-jogging on the spot? It’s impossible to say. Eat the worm and you can start the next match, Fab. Does he eat it? He eats it, yeah. He slurps it down like spaghetti.
"What’s wrong with eating worms?" Eric Dier is saying, hands stretched above his head, applauding an invisible crowd. Well, it’s just not entirely normal, Eric, you explain to him, people don’t normally eat live worms. He slowly blinks and grunts. They did a team-building exercise where the whole team went to a Russian shooting range and Eric Dier was eerily, eerily accurate with a gun. "Do they not?" Nobody wants to room with Eric Dier because he doesn’t close his eyes when he sleeps, just squints silently at the ceiling. He rubs his beard and thinks about it for a second, repeats the question back to himself. "Would I eat a worm?" he whispers. He is an absolute fucking nutter. He turns to you and you hear, distantly, a sound like a metal filing cabinet falling over. Like a bullet being loaded in a gun. "Yeah," he says, eyelids flickering slightly. "Yeah, I’d eat a worm."
"What’s wrang with worms, like?" – Jordan Henderson, Champions League lifting Liverpool captain, 2018.
I can’t tell whether Kieran Trippier would eat worms or not, because to me he’s just two pumping full-sleeve arms that play more-or-less at right-back for Tottenham Hotspur, and that’s it. I always wonder how lads in their mid-twenties get sleeves designed up, because they don’t seem to like anything enough to have it committed into their skin forever in the form of a tattoo. “What about a microphone, like an old-style microphone?” you’re asking Kieran Trippier, and he’s just nodding. "What about loads of, like, smoke effect and some stars?" He agrees, yeah. Could we get some women's faces in there. "You want women’s faces?" He nods. "Any particular women?" He’s not bothered. Just any woman. "Worms?" you ask. "Can we get some worms in there?" Yeah, he says, yeah. Not bothered. Listen, can we do it all in one session?
Yeah, Harry Maguire eats worms. Big time. The only thing that makes Harry Maguire’s desire to eat worms in any way notable or different from those around him is: he’s the only one who would eat those worms scoffed out of the ground like a pig.
Phil Jones is a monster made of clay, and as such isn’t capable of making decisions such as "would you or would you not eat a worm". Instead, he is just two unblinking blue eyes that only squint close to blast a Really Big Header away from the box or contort themselves into ugly shapes in an attempt to header the ball off the ground, nobody ever really telling the Jones-beast that football is a game played w/ the legs, he just learned headering in Year 6 and got carried away. Would he eat worms? No, not exactly. Would he absorb them as part of a sort of cross-field trail of destruction? Yes.
Gary Cahill perennially has the spirit and energy of a man who has just pulled his front door open on Halloween night to say, "What’s all that knocking?" in a very firm voice, and eating worms is no different. He’d eat a worm, yeah, but he’ll not like it. "What’s it for, this?" he says, six worms in. "Charity thing for your school or summat?" No Gary, it’s just eating a worm. "Yeah," he says. "Let me know if you’re doing sponsored car-washing, all them Jeeps need doing."
Jesse Lingard is absolutely essential to the England squad because – I believe – he is the only member of the team who naturally bathes in and understand banter, banter is built into his bones and into his blood, and as a result, yeah, he’d eat a worm, but he’ll only do it if he gets 100k+ concurrents on Facebook Live and can share and replay the clip on Snapchat. Him and Baby Rashford stream themselves playing FIFA for a half-hour beforehand to work up the numbers. Jesse Lingard chokes on worms while doing the Milly Rock. Keeps merking Gareth Southgate on Instagram. That sort of thing. Make him captain imo.
Trent Alexander-Arnold is sat quietly in Gareth Southgate’s office. "Did you eat worms, Trent?" he asks him. T.A.A. just nods quietly, mouth wobbling, trying not to burst. Gareth Southgate lets out a quiet, disappointed sigh. "Did Jesse Lingard make you?" Trent just starts shaking in his chair, lets out a single, high "y– yeah". Get his mum down. He’s had a big day.
Thomas Turgoose in This is England would eat worms and so therefore would Jordan Pickford because they are the same fucking person.
Jamie Vardy vibrates as he talks and won’t make direct eye contact as he nervously kicks a can against a wall and relentlessly nutmegs you. "Would I eat a worm?" Jamie Vardy says, worm residue visible and gummy in his teeth. "Would I fuck." It’s just there was a big bucket of worms in the canteen fridge earlier, Jamie, and now there isn’t. You were the only one who left training early, because of your hand. He looks shifty, puts his weight on one foot to the next. He flicks a lighter against a grey-flint brick wall. "Yeah, and what?" he said. "And what if I ate a worm?" When did you last sleep, Jamie Vardy? "Don’t know."
Ah, sorry, confession: I told Harry Kane four years ago that eating worms would make him better at scoring goals in football, and he’s been doing it diligently ever since. "Is this enough, boss?" he texts me, every morning, doing a dead-eyed little Harry Kane thumbs up by a white cereal bowl filled with worms. Sometimes I tell him no, and that he needs to work more worms into his diet, somehow. "Spooned some through some pasta, boss," he texts me. "Rolled some into a protein ball and popped it in one."
Sometimes, over this season, as he struggled to get to 30 goals behind the rampant Mo Salah, he’d call me in the middle of the night. "I'm eating all my worms, boss," he kept sobbing. "But the goals just ain’t going in." And I would boom back: more worms. I would estimate Harry Kane has eaten one-hundred, maybe one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand worms in his lifetime as a direct result of me. "I can’t stop," he said, in the blue-black dark of the night, voice lowered to a panicked whisper. "I can’t stop eating the goal snakes." I’m using this public forum to finally say it: I’m sorry, Harry Kane. I’m sorry I made you eat all those worms.
BONUS ROUND: GARETH SOUTHGATE
Gareth Southgate would eat a worm if he absolutely had to, but he’d get comprehensively out-eaten by the Colombia manager in the first knockout round and have to leave the country immediately after the tournament because of All The Death Threats.