Linesmen: Unsung county heroes of Gaelic games

For the humble linesman, going unnoticed is the aim of the game

Linesman Dickie Murphy shows how it’s done

Linesman Dickie Murphy shows how it’s done

Sat, Apr 19, 2014, 14:00

Is there a more heroic or lonesome figure in the entire cast of the GAA than the humble linesman?

We take these men for granted. Wander through the GAA stadiums of Ireland and you will find many a buffed plaque or splendid bronze icon commemorating feted players or influential administrators without ever happening upon a single statue or tribute to the thousands of anonymous linesmen who lived and died every time they pointed their flag east or west. The Spanish say the life of the torero has its perils but at least they arm their bullfighters with swords. In the GAA, the linesman is sent out into the seething arena equipped with little more than his flag, his wits and his instantaneous ability to decide who last touched the ball.

Trials endured by the GAA referee are often the subject of earnest and solemn discussion, and even after a disgruntled losing manager indulges in a spot of mild character assassination, he will generally assent that the referee has a damnable job and can’t get it right all of the time. But referees, generally speaking, are bristling, assertive fellows who present themselves with military neatness and an unmistakable sense of who is in charge. Referees have become personalities in their own right, sometimes with stylistic quirks, joshing with star players and adopting expressions of regret or reproach as they flash cards. It is surely only a matter of time before referees are introduced by name over the public address system as they take the field – ideally to the synthesiser refrain of Snap’s I’ve Got The Power .

But don’t the linesmen break your heart when they take to the field; all but invisible among the warrior hurlers, gallant footballers and the peacock strut of the man in black? What can the linesman do but accept his role as one of life’s observers, literally stuck on the sideline silently watching on as other men chase the fame and the glory?

Big game role
Unnoticed, the linesman takes his place on the edge of the action, executes a few

calf stretches and perhaps a few practice signals with his flag. You can tell that he has prepared well; the uniform and sometimes even the flag starched and laid out the night before, the ear piece in place lest the referee need to consult him.

It is easy to imagine him setting off early on the morning of the match, in high spirits as he motors along, maybe with something soothing like Glen Campbell (“I am a linesman for the county . . .”) playing on the sound system as he contemplates his role in the big game.

A perfect day for the linesman is when he spends the afternoon parading himself in front of anything up to 80,000 people and nobody notices he is there. There is an art in this too. It can’t be easy to sprint up and down the sideline, literally chasing a ball you are not allowed play with without feeling and looking slightly daft. But the best linesmen somehow manage to blend into the overall picture so that the audience forgets about them.

The golden rule of politics – if you’re explaining, you’re losing – also holds true in the craft of GAA linesmanship. In some ways, the official has it easy. Unlike his international brethren, he does not have to deal with the intricacies of the off-side rule. But the nightmare scenario for any GAA linesman is the questionable line call. And the calls are almost always questionable. It is not like association football, where John Terry, say, will hoof a clearance high into the stands, therefore eliminating all debate from the equation. In Gaelic games you can have anything up to half a dozen players converging on the sideline to hunt down a contested ball. Nobody has the faintest idea who last touched it when it eventually rolls out of play and so all eyes turn to the linesman.

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