Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Shinty's Untouchables-the Goal Judges

Lochaber 1 Glenurquhart 0

It is a dull afternoon in Lochaber and the midges dance in clouds above the daisies which mark out the pitch as undercut. Pine trees draw away the natural light from a pitch which is surrounded by high netting to prevent shinty balls flying off the little plateau where the park is situated and disturbing the new immigrants in their freshly built and expensive residences. A scatter of cars has parked on the far side and will disgorge a handful of spectators when the game begins : in the meantime the threat of midges keeps them inside their vehicles. Both teams are out on the field going through their own versions of pre-match Tai Chi. The referee ,sombre in black, has already picked out two reluctant souls-camp followers of either team -and has just invested them with their badges of shame. Orange flags on small sticks. Without them the game can hardly function: with them in place there is every chance that the ref will be able to deflect conflict from himself. He will ask them to make decisions but will not feel himself obliged to pay attention to what they say. These two guys are in fact his newly appointed and hapless goal judges.
Standing up beside the top goal miles away from friendly faces and the loutish solidarity of the terrace (or wire fence as it is in Spean) the Goal Judge is peculiarly alone and vulnerable. His deadly enemies are the four forwards and five defenders who will be in close proximity to him throughout the afternoon. His ally ,the referee ,will be at the very best a distant figure, blowing the whistle and making incomprehensible decisions. They are incomprehensible simply because the action is happening too far away to be clearly visible. Every three or four minutes there is a flurry of activity near the goal which the judge is monitoring and a weird experience it is- there are pushes and shoves off the ball usually from the backs but the Judge wont give them. That is the prerogative of the ref. The Judge keeps his eye peeled for the ball being kicked in the box, whether it is a bye or corner and of course off sides which as everyone ought to know is when the forward goes into the D before the ball comes in.
The problem is that whenever there is a cross ball, the goalie and full back always shout “Sides” Now it does not matter which goalie or full back is there : that is what they all shout. If you have seen it you give it: if you cannot see the D because the line is too faint you may not give it- and there are endless variations of a close call in 90 minutes of shinty . Worse than that that even in the most innocent of cases of a miscall the defenders put the Judge under pressure long after the situation is closed.
There is another draw back too-the Judge cannot really see the whole pattern of the game. The far end of the pitch might as well be in Serbia for all that he can know about the happenings there. When Keith Neville scored there was a flurry of movement as if on a distant battlefield and then a shout of triumph. The goalie roared encouragement as did Lochaber full back Ricky Fraser : the judge surmised a goal to have been scored. It apparently was.
Half time conversation revealed it to have been a good goal in the sense of being well taken but that the goalie had claimed it off for “Sides”. It most probably wasn't. Goalies never lose fair goals -in their heads the forwards are always offside.
On the other hand when there is an attack the Judge watches the ball come in but with half an eye to an offence .Thus,when the right winger has the ball the conscientious Judge is looking along the D to see if the unwary forward will step in-a habit that definitely removes pleasure from the business of spectating.
You see the game through a fish eye lens and also have the added pleasure of disturbing the midges in the long grass as you hunt for a wayward shinty ball There are stock fences topped with barbed wire to climb and you must never forget to keep an extra ball in your pocket to throw out onto the field when a forward has just blasted the incumbent into the middle of the Lochaber countryside and it disappears forever from view. Given that we are in Lochaber, it is more than probable that 1000 years from now some futuristic archaeologist will come across hundreds of these wayward shinty balls preserved in the peat hags which surround the pitch and speculate as to their ritualistic origins.
To the game- at the end of the particular first half tunnel where the Judge viewed the action the Glen had a fair bit of territory but little direct impact. I counted four balls which Morrison had to deal with- two of them from Arran Macdonald . The rest whistled harmlessly past. Of the four, Morrison cleaned away three very neatly the fourth broke out to the forwards and let us say did not end up as a goal when it should have.
A number of other attacks showed good shinty, nice passing, some excellent bits of skill but the backs eventually knocked the forwards out of the way which is what they are meant to do and belted the ball up the field. In one skirmish David Smart took a heavy hit near the knee but it did not seem to hold him back and he put up a number of neat balls though, in the end , they remained unconverted.
In the second half, Lochaber did not do much better-they did have a flurry of corners and the goalie had to get his hand to three shots which he dismissed well-he did not give the incoming forwards second phase chances, but then he rarely does.
Gregor , Stewart and Girv dug in and were pretty ruthless with the Lochaber forwards; they knocked them out of the way which is I suppose is what they are meant to do while Andrew Macdonald played stylish accurate shinty and simply gave the buckshee forward no chance to excel. It was a typically robust and skilful Glen defensive performance.
There was one shot of note- Sean Nicholson had an excellent drive from the right which rocketed at the goalie-he put up his club and deflected it for a corner. Excellent-but its what he went to goalie school for : that is why he has been Scotland‘s under 21 keeper and if we could only produce a Premier standard side to match him, it is why he would be Scotland’s senior keeper too.
At the other end the distant shouts and roars plus the fact that the Lochaber forwards did not see the ball for a considerable spell indicated that the Glen were playing a bit up front too. They certainly were. But they did not score. Again.
Still respect to the goal judges. They had to observe that pain at close quarters.

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