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


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.

Bear in mind that in Gaelic games, the athletes do not exactly conduct themselves with the kind of decorum that would cut the muster at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Club. They do not formally issue a challenge when they doubt the correctness of a linesman’s decision. The crowd does not amuse itself with a slow, ironic handclap while the linesman makes up his mind. No, outright and instant anarchy is the preferred GAA means of debating a sideline ball. So any hesitation on the part of the linesman gives carte blanche to up to a dozen highly adrenalised players and apoplectic managers from both teams to surround and scream blue murder at him. The crowd follows suit. Within seconds, the linesman becomes the loneliest guy on the planet. His comrade manning the line on the opposite end of the field can do nothing but gaze across in silent solidarity.

In this moment, the linesman in the eye of the storm lives on his wits. His duty is to point one way or the other and it can’t be a watery, hesitant kind of signal either. He has to be absolute – even if he hasn’t a bull’s notion as to the right call.

Under the kosh
The worst crime of all is to reveal his thoughts

through his flag and to change direction mid-signal. That drives teams and spectators over the edge altogether and the day is lost. From then on, every single move of the linesman is subject to bitter and unending scrutiny. In short, it becomes a nightmare. To be over-ruled by the referee is the final humiliation.

The finest linesmen are like bomb disposal experts. They stay calm in the midst of danger, keeping their flag firmly pointed in whatever direction, maintaining a serene, distant expression that communicates to all that protest is futile. And just like that, the mob evaporates. The players disperse, the manager’s retreat, the sideline ball is taken and the linesman is once again left in splendid isolation. It is a remarkable gift.

Nobody cares about this. There is no Linesman Welfare Association. There is no awards night. You never hear respectful radio bulletins announcing that such and such a linesman has decided to hang up his flag after 40 years of service. You never hear about the graveside eulogies for the great linesman from yesteryear. They never get singled out for praise in the Sunday Game . And yet they are a vital part of the show. The thousands of perfectly correct line calls that they make Sunday after Sunday under extraordinary pressure are never remembered. Instead, wronged teams and their supporters will fixate upon the one missed call, sometimes for years, convinced that that was the ball that could have made all the difference to the game and to their lives.

Of course, some linesmen are destined for the more glamorous life of calling the shots with the whistle. For them, the trials of the sideline are but an apprenticeship. But countless others spend their years keeping order on the fringes, knowing that the day that nobody pays any attention to them is as good as it can get for the linesman.

And they wouldn’t have it any other way.

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