The Squinting Eye - A side-angled look at our beloved sports IV


This was first published on the An Fear Rua website!

If you too had poor sight and lumbago you wouldn’t be any better

IT’S all too easy to vilify those two men standing by the goal posts in their white coats. What those spectators yelling insults don’t realise is that these men often have to contend with disabilities. One umpire wears thick bottle-lens glasses and a misshapen hat; his sight is not as sharp as it used to be and he is easily dazzled by the sun. The other man is overweight if not obese, with snow-white hair; he finds that straining his neck to look up directly overhead can lead to dizziness.

Now the sliotar comes soaring across from an acute angle, high above the top of the goal-posts. Is it a point? The goal-keeper does the usual business, waving widespread arms at the side of the goal. The player comes thundering in, gesticulating to the nearest umpire to raise the white flag. The players and supporters of each side roar at the two umpires. “It’s over the bar, you blind bollix.” “That’s gone wide, you big fat fool”

What a dilemma for the these poor fellows! They are villains no matter what decision they take. They go behind the goalposts to decide what to do, while the derisive cries of spectators’ rings in their ears. What a dreadful situation for anyone to find themselves in! “We’ll decide it’s a wide but the next one like it we’ll give a point”.

Their decision is greeted with raucous cries of derision. Even the supporters of the side given the advantage are less than complimentary; their side will be playing into that goal in the second half.

Some people think it’s the easiest job in the world to stand beside the goal and raise the green or white flag. If only they realised how difficult it can be.

“I hate to be in charge of the white flag when points are going over by the new time,” says one well-known umpire, often seen in Limerick. He gets a twinge in his shoulder from pulling up the flag and after he has waved it briefly, pressing it back into the ground. After all, like many of his esteemed colleagues, he has the free travel pass and it is the time of life when old injuries assert themselves in twinges.

There are some corner backs who are forever fumbling the ball in the corner, invariably letting it slip over the end line. That means that the umpire has to go all the way along the corner to indicate where the 65 is to be taken from. On a recent occasion in Wexford Park, there was laughter as a heavy umpire in a frayed and soiled coat made his way to the corner. He was meant to hurry over to raise his arm, but all he could manage was a shambling canter, barely above the speed of a stroll. And it seemed something of an effort for him to raise his arm; he managed to get it to a 90% angle, rather like the Fascist salute of old.

There is another umpire familiar to those who attend matches in Ballinasloe. On his own admission he does not relish standing beside the goal on warm summer days. His glasses tend to fog up. On one famous occasion he was actually wiping them with his handkerchief when a ball flew into the net and he was totally dependent on the judgement of his colleague on the other side of the goals.

On a drenching wet day at Parnell Park an umpire, pack-pedalling awkwardly to judge the flight of the ball over the posts, tripped and fell on the flat of his back into a muddy pool. The whole place erupted with laughter. And on another occasion in Thurles the umpire’s oversize cap fell down over his eyes as he raised his head to watch the ball. “Buy him a proper cap for God’s sake,” yelled some wag from the stands.

Many umpires are not in the least bothered either by abuse or witty remarks flung in their direction. One well-known man said, “It doesn’t bother me in the least because I’m totally deaf in one ear and the hearing in the other isn’t too great either.”

What the fault-finders and comedians fail to appreciate is that most umpires take their task very seriously. This was illustrated not so long ago in St Brendan’s Park in Birr. It was a boring, one-sided game. The spectators were yawning, chatting among themselves. Then, however, they were treated to a memorable spectacle by the umpires. It happened when a goal went in but it seemed a square ball. The umpires disagreed over it. They began to shout at one another. Four letter words began to be used. Next thing fists were flying. The crowd enjoyed it immensely, falling round the place laughing.

An enterprising local photographer took a marvellous shot of the melee; the goalkeeper is between the two combatants, his mouth twisted as he uses both arms to keep them apart.

That picture went all round the world. It ended up on the Internet. A friend saw it being stuck on the wall of a seedy, sweltering bar in Port Moresby in New Guinea; the fuzzy-headed blacks sitting around roared with delight, even if they did not fully understand what it was all about. Those two dedicated umpires had their moment of international fame and fair play to them.