John B Keane: Young men commit themselves to follies

IT ALL BEGAN on a misty Sunday afternoon. I was standing at a street corner with a friend. There was nothing to do apart from going to the pictures or visiting a pub. It was one of those days when a person is better off in bed because nothing seems to be happening anywhere.

IT ALL BEGAN on a misty Sunday afternoon. I was standing at a street corner with a friend. There was nothing to do apart from going to the pictures or visiting a pub. It was one of those days when a person is better off in bed because nothing seems to be happening anywhere.

Then quite unexpectedly a car pulled up and a friend of ours stuck his head out of the window.

“Will ye do umpires?” he asked. He was to be the referee.

We jumped at the opportunity. In those days a drive in a car was worth something even if it meant that you had to play the part of umpire in a match in surroundings where umpires were regarded as fair game for all comers.

In fact, there were some districts where young men were expected to belt umpires before they could be regarded as bucks just as in Africa young Zulus had to kill lions before they could be regarded as warriors. Another thing about umpiring is that it attracted all types except the right types, that is to say the well qualified type who knows what umpiring is all about.

It is not the type who leans against the post half-asleep or spends the afternoon conversing with girls or others at the back of the goals.

Anyway, we were glad of the diversion so we headed for the village where the match was to take place. On arrival we repaired to a hostelry where we partook of some liquid refreshments. My friend over indulged himself to some extent as the liquor was free and was being paid for by some committee or other.

After an hour or so word arrived that the game was about to begin. We repaired to the pitch and in a short while were in charge of one of the two sets of goalposts.

There were two flags, the white one for signalling points and the green one for signalling goals. This was good because an umpire with a flag has a certain amount of authority. It’s almost the same as an armband or a badge.

Umpires who have to look in their pockets for a handkerchief to do the signalling have nothing like the same authority and are looked down upon by both players and supporters. The drill, of course, when there are no flags available is to use a white handkerchief for signalling points and a coloured one for goals.

Another important factor is the size of the stick to which the flag is attached. If it is no more than a cipín then it cannot afford much protection whereas if it is a stout stick agitators will think twice before assaulting or badgering its owner. The sticks attached to our flags were purely token and worthless as weapons.

As I said we took up our positions and were as alert for scores as a fowler is for a sitting duck. The tide of battle flowed this way and that and we were called upon now and then to signal occasional points and wides. There are some games where incidents never occur and there are others which are destined to disrupt into bedlam from the very beginning. It was well into the second half before there was any inkling of the trouble that was to come. The sides were level and the crucial stage had come.

Then suddenly a high lobbing ball was sent into the square by an astute centre forward.

Everybody in the goalmouth went for it. The ball eluded them all and made its way to the back of the net.

Did I say net? Not intended, I assure you. Just a slip of the tongue. The ball found its way past the backs, the forwards and the goalkeeper and went directly between the posts for the only goal of the game. How well it had to happen at our goals.

My companion, who was in charge of the green flag by virtue of seniority, had no hesitation at all in raising it. It was a decisive, if foolhardy, move. He might have consulted me but he did not.

If he had I would have shaken my head because one of the forwards was inside the square. Yet he was that kind of man. To him a goal was a goal and there were no technicalities. The moment he raised the flag he was struck on the jaw. He dropped without a sound to the ground. Being human I naturally drew a clout at the man who struck him. I contacted and somebody else, in turn, struck me. There followed ten minutes of highly enjoyable, uninterrupted fistic exchanges.

In the end sanity was restored and the goal was disallowed. We shook hands all round.

The referee, however, was a man of some experience. He blew the whistle five minutes before the game was due to finish. He wisely decided that some other referee deserved the honour.

Nowadays I often look back on that afternoon and I think how unwittingly young men commit themselves to follies.