BACK in the day, my first book as a commissioning editor was to publish the autobiography of the football referee, David Elleray.

It says something about how old I am that one of the major incidents in the book was an infamous tackle by Roy Keane on Alf-Inge Haaland: this year, the hottest prospect in world football is Haaland’s son, Erling.

David Elleray might have hung up his whistle, but now has a greater influence on the game as technical director of IFAB, the International Football Association Board. You might not have heard of IFAB, but if you’re a football fan, you’ll be familiar with their work.

They’re the body that sets the rules of the game: every time you swear at the telly for your favourite striker being ruled offside for a stray armpit hair, that’s IFAB in action. I’d hold my hands up as one of those who continually bemoan the ref, VAR and the linesman for not knowing what they’re doing.

This weekend, in one of those rare lapses of judgment, I found myself experiencing what it was like to be a linesman myself. My daughter had a football match and with the officials one short, the call went out to the parents to see who’d step up.

Before I knew what I was doing, I found myself having volunteered, being handed a flag and given a cheery ‘good luck lino’ by the referee.

How hard could running the line be? I’ve been watching football since I could crawl. But as the whistle blew and the game began, I suddenly became acutely aware of how little I knew about officiating. I mean, I knew which way to point the flag if it was a throw-in or for an offside, but there was a lot more pointing to do for goal kicks and corners: I needed a crash course in the language of soccer semaphore, and fast.

Officiating, I also realised, required a serious amount of concentration. Switch off to watch the game for a second and you were in serious trouble. Also, teenagers can run really fast. I sort of knew that anyway, my daughter whips my butt at Parkrun, but to check offside, you really have to keep up with the run of play. To make my job harder, the opposition striker was properly useful, playing off the shoulder of the last defender and leaving me staggering for breath to keep up.

Standing behind was another father, one of those deep-voice types, helpfully offering a running commentary of my performance. Foul throw! That’s over the line! How was that offside? After years of shouting at officials myself, I was finally getting a taste of my own medicine.


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