During the football season, you will normally find me on a Friday evening down in Tolka Park or whatever far-flung ground the mighty Shels are playing in that weekend. It is an activity that I rank slightly ahead of breathing in my list of The Most Important Things in Life, coming a very close second to Counting my Money and Bemoaning the Lack Thereof.
Part of the fun of following three-dimensional football, (rather than the over-hyped version of the sport served up on Sky,) is the great enjoyment to be got out of hurling abuse at the referee and the ludicrously-termed “referees assistants.” A rose is a rose by any other name, and linesmen (and women) are still the lowest species of homo sapiens known to exist on the planet, despite attempts by the football authorities to re-market and re-model them.
Naturally, as a football supporter, I have the prerogative to vent my spleen on a trained individual who is in a much better position to make a split-second pressurised decision than I am. I can spot things from eighty yards away that he (or indeed, she) has failed to notice at a distance of three feet from the action. It is a football truism that the supporter is always right and the linesperson is always wrong. And long may it continue.
Recently, though, I got the opportunity to run the line at a local game, and thus was able to experience the trials and tribulations of the linesman from a different perspective. I went up to our local pitch to watch my son playing for Littlepacers against Malahide, a team they curiously seem to play every week. “Who are you playing this week, son?” “Malahide, Dad.” Either I’m imagining it, or it’s the joint smallest league in the world. The Scilly Isles, apparently, only have two teams. One of them wins the League, while the other prides themselves as being Cup specialists! But I digress.
Littlepacers very vocal and knowledgeable coach proffered me the flag as I arrived, and I accepted with alacrity. My chance at last!
Now, those of you who have attended junior football matches know that a linesman’s job – sorry, I’m going to continue to call him a linesmen – in these circumstances, is to stand chatting to his mates and wave the flag airily and vaguely whenever the ball goes out of play. Sure, the ref can decide who it touched last. And as for keeping up with the last defender, well, that’s far too much like hard work.
I, however, was going to break the mould. I was going to be strictly impartial and absolutely correct in everything I did. I was going to draw the ref’s attention to off-the-ball incidents, I was going to prove it’s possible to get offside decisions right and I was going to run that line without cause for reproach.
And, for the first ten minutes, I did pretty well, though looking back, that might have been because all the play was in the Littlepacers’ half. But then the black and white stripes broke and in a swift flowing move, the ball was up my end. It was then I recognised the big hurdle that a linesman has to face. He must keep one eye on the last defender, one eye on the attacker and one eye on the kicker. Not an easy feat for mere bi-optic humans, but I made my decision in an instant. Up went the flag, straight, bold and decisive.
Unfortunately, the ref had his back to me and failed completely to notice my moment of glory. Now what do I do, I thought? Do I continue to stand here like a lemon until he eventually notices me fifteen minutes later and comes over to ask what on earth I’m flagging about? Or do I say, sod it, put my flag down and get on with it?
In the end I chose the latter. Which was just as well for Littlepace, because Borner found Borky who crossed it for Deano to head home. Amid much backslapping and hair-tousling, the team made its way back to the centre-circle, as the Malahide manager went apoplectic on the far touchline, screaming something about the flag being up for offside. The ref glanced in my direction but I just shrugged – as linesmen in Tolka Park often do – though I was a little disconcerted that the Littlepace manager gave me the thumbs up as I trooped back to my position.
My feelings of guilt were assuaged somewhat by Malahide knocking in two goals before half time. They were a much larger and stronger team and the Littlepacers complained bitterly at half time that half of the opposition were “bangers.” Why they should be likened to sausages was anyone’s guess, but our manager wasn’t taking that as an excuse and lambasted the team for their generosity in defence.
My own view of our poor performance rested largely on the fact that there was no “Macker” in the Littlepace team. It is a well-known fact that every Irish team worth its salt needs to be able to count a “Macker” among its ranks. Our manager however seemed to be more interested in galvanising the lads into action than recruiting any prospective Mackers.
And to be fair to them, they came out for the second half and tore into their seaside opponents like whirling dervishes. I was getting good exercise trying to keep my sizeable girth up with the play, and in fact was concentrating on my duties so hard that I never noticed the small child sitting by the touchline eating handfuls of soil. They don’t tend to do that at Tolka, you see. Anyway, I went flying through the air like a human cannonball, while the child just looked up, unconcerned.
Darren had seen me though. “Hey, look at your Da, Neil!” he yelled, completely forgetting to get into the box for Eddie’s cross. Several other Littlepacers turned around and burst out laughing.
“It was a dive, ref!” yelled Borky, who was actually a descendant of the famous Anglo-Hibernian family of Burke. “Hey Neil, your Da got tackled by a two year old!”
I picked myself up with all the dignity I could muster, which wasn’t easy with a broad mud stripe running from forehead to kneecap, and glowered at him. “I’ll have you for that!” I shouted at him, as the ball sailed harmlessly into an unpopulated Malahide penalty area. The ref turned around and arched a disbelieving eyebrow at me.
And sure enough, my opportunity came late on in the game. Borner – a member of the Clan Byrne – played a long ball out of defence and Borky, running through, beat the offside trap with a perfectly timed run. Or did he? The linesman’s flag was up like a ramrod and it wasn’t budging, equaliser or no equaliser. The referee’s whistle blew loud and shrill and Borky, who had just coolly rounded the keeper, booted the ball into the empty net in disgust, and was promptly yellow carded by the ref.
As he stomped back, he looked over at me and I gave him a big mud-splattered grin. There! Don’t mess with me, sunshine! My great triumph at having bested a sixteen-year-old boy was short-lived however, when our assistant coach snatched the flag roughly from my grasp. Over his shoulder, the manager was looking daggers at me, and I decided that perhaps it was an opportune time for me to withdraw. Making a big show of looking at my watch in open-mouthed astonishment, I turned on my heel and departed.
Unfortunately I haven’t managed to make it back to cheer on the Littlepacers since that episode. Each week the Gods conspire against my attendance, singling me out on Sunday mornings for such jobs as weeding the garden or trimming my nasal hairs. Its probably best I stay away for a bit anyway.
The experience though has given me much greater understanding of the difficulties a linesman faces. The job is a thankless one, performed under impossible circumstances in the knowledge that whatever decision you make is bound to be wrong. And when the Eircom League recommences this month, am I going to be so quick to hurl abuse at the poor unfortunate running the line?
Oh yes! Can’t wait.