They are very sad people, aren’t they? Running up and down the line, waving the flag with the yellow trim or the red trim. (How do they decide who gets which? Is there any code of seniority here?) To become a linesman is not a sign of a personality deficiency - it’s a personality disqualification. What can they get out of it? No-one ever chaired a linesman off the field, cheering wildly and chanting his name. No-one ever celebrated his achievements or recalled a particular offside decision with fondness after many years. No. Quite the reverse. If his name is known at all, it is for the purposes of ritual vilification and abuse. What child puts ‘running the line’ at the top of its list of ambitions?
Obviously every rule has its exception - and in the case of linesmen it’s the wonderful Russian official who made such an excellent decision in the World Cup Final at Wembley in 1966, when Geoff Hurst’s shot hit the crossbar and rebounded so far over the line it’s hard to see what the Germans were going on about. Who could forget Motson interviewing this excellent gentleman last year as they reviewed the video evidence. “You see,” said the ageing Russian, stroking his Joe Stalin moustache, “how the ball is clearly crossing the line.” For once Motson was lost for words.
One of the troubling aspects of linesmanship is the money involved. Travelling expenses only. So far as we can tell, no bungs in the Welcome Break for Johnny Linesman, although it seems perfectly fair to speculate on whether the investigation into the Venables affair will turn up something more than a train fare in the back pocket of the person who failed to spot Vinny Samways four miles offside in Rangers’ game at Tottenham last season.
On the face of it, there appear to be two possible explanations: bribery or gross stupidity. In the absence of hard evidence for the former, the latter must be favourite - because no-one has yet caught the linesman with the Swiss bank account. We haven’t heard of the linesman who winters in the Caribbean, skis in Gstaad and hits the gaming tables in Monte Carlo; and the Sunday papers have still not splashed pictures of ‘Well-respected linesman RF Ashworth (yellow trim) seen here leaving Annabels with Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell after a fun night out on the town’. But just ask anyone who has ever been near a football match and you can turn up any amount of evidence for the proposition that linesman are insufferably dim.
But, hold on - perhaps there is something we’ve overlooked here. If it’s not the money and it’s not the social status, then there must be some other deep-seated motivation for these creatures running up and down a pitch on a Saturday afternoon contributing zero to the action. What they do bring to a game - almost any game you care to remember - is misery. They know full well, as well as anyone else, that a player is only offside if he is in an offside position when the ball is played - and yet they consistently give players offside just because it looks offside. QED.
But a linesman is not just someone who likes to spoil other people’s fun. He is someone who enjoys inflicting pain on football supporters. He is someone who gets a thrill from causing sorrow, distress and anger to thousands of people at once with one little wave of his flag. He is a sadist. You see, they always try to conceal this with their innocuous list of hobbies, which emerge from the programme notes on the days they actually get to referee a game. ‘Gardening and all sports.’ Gardening, eh? Note that no official ever puts down ‘football-supporting’ or ‘watching games’ as an interest. Seems fairly reasonable on the surface.
But what is it that gardeners do? They rip up plants, they destroy the natural habitat they find, and they try to impose their own view of order on nature. They kill slugs. They devise traps and nets to prevent birds from feeding. It’s a small step indeed from persecuting innocent wildlife to persecuting innocent human beings on a Saturday afternoon. If you’re not convinced by the fact that all linesmen are serial gardeners, and therefore poorly adjusted individuals who wreak their revenge every week on the likes of you and I - and, frankly, this may be a less than watertight argument - then consider this: no-one forces them to do it, they don’t make any money out of it, there is no kudos whatsoever that goes with the job, so far as anyone is aware, and yet there is apparently no shortage of these specimens prepared to take it on.
Perhaps there is a kind of perverse pride in knowing you were responsible for cancelling out what would have been the Goal of the Season - or perhaps they just get off on winding people up. Do they hang around after the game for a drink with the players and go back home boasting about how they are on first name terms with Bradley Allen? It’s not easy to visualise, is it? Alan Hansen managed to sum it all up a few weeks ago on Match of the Day, just after he’d finished telling Des yet again how Liverpool are nowhere near as good as they were when he was playing. The learned panel were poring over another piece of linesmanship buffoonery and, after the usual cringing platitudes about it being a difficult job, Hansen posed the $64,000 question, “Who’d be a linesman?” Indeed Alan, and why? The answer is because they are nasty small-minded sadistic individuals who love messing up people’s weekends. There, that’s told them.
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