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Declan Lynch: Caught offside by the 'stop relaxing' posse


I freely admit that I don't know the offside rule -- in rugby. I hope that no-one will hold this against me, and I would argue that this gap in my knowledge says nothing about my general level of intelligence, or that of my gender. It's just that, basically, I don't give a damn about rugby.

If I cared about the game, I presume that I would have no trouble at all with the offside concept. And if you think about it for roughly two seconds, you'd realise that the same goes for women who care about football. Indeed, if they care about it enough to become a Premier League referee's assistant, chances are that their understanding of offside is as good -- if not even better -- than that of, say, Richard Keys.

And when you consider that their male counterparts are getting so many of the big decisions wrong, the idea that a female official might somehow lower the standard is completely illogical. Which is one of the reasons why the ancient prejudices of Keysy and Andy Gray were not just hostile towards women, they also presented their own gender in a very poor light. Logic, reason, consistency, accountability, these are the virtues of which men are most proud. That such an obvious train of thought should pass them by, tells us that they must be very far gone.

Because the offside rule is the easy part of this imbroglio. Thereafter, it's complicated.

Keysy and Graysy, in their massive, massive foolishness, have drawn the 'stop relaxing' brigade down on all of us, disturbing us in our most holy places of worship, creating a climate of fear.

As soon as the terrible news broke, my thoughts were with all the other denizens of the press box, men who could most charitably be described as Old School, who would now be forced to pretend that they are deeply troubled by issues of gender balance and equality.

I could hear them now, calling for positive discrimination in football like they would once have called for last orders in El Vino's. And I pitied them.

One false move now, and their lives would be destroyed. It was agonising to watch some poor devil of a sports journalist on Sky News, trying to sound like a new man, explaining that women have such a deep involvement with football, the game would hardly exist at all without them doing all those jobs in the ticket-offices and so forth. . . you could see his life flashing before him, as he realised that he was describing the role of women in football in almost exactly the same patronising terms as the Catholic Church praising the crucial role that women play, cleaning the church and arranging the flowers and making the sandwiches.

He could have pointed out that the dismal bullying tone of the recorded conversation between Keysy and Graysy, might be saying as much about the corporate culture of Sky as it does about the culture of football. Only a couple of weeks ago, in a piece about the 20th birthday of Sky Sports, I was writing about its "smart-casual corporate ethos which is never too far away in tone and texture from what can righteously be described as Evil".

I argued that Sky has "a capacity to withstand its own awfulness, its view of life as seen from the executive washroom, a kind of inane moralising, and a rigidly enforced culture of comatose punditry".

I rest my case.

After all, the ugliness did not end with Keys and Gray talking themselves into TV oblivion. They were clearly stitched up, good and proper, by an enemy or enemies within. And that wasn't too pretty either.

But if this was an outbreak of savagery among the smart-casual brigade, it also had some old-fashioned football values.

Luck, for example, played its part, when Sian Massey made that massive, massive call which led directly to a goal for Liverpool. If she had made the wrong call, and flagged for offside as the vast majority of her male counterparts have been doing in similar situations, the exchange between Keys and Gray would still have been deeply stupid, but the context would be altered, and a slightly different light would have been cast upon it. Instead, their words were quickly seen in the harshest possible light, exposed and ridiculed, due to a decision which depended for its success on a matter of milliseconds -- ah yes, in the land of the big-swinging-TV-mickeys, as in football, the margins can be terrifyingly thin.

Nor is there anything inherently wrong with men finding the appointment of a female official to a Premier League match a tad unusual. It's a bit like a devout Catholic going to Mass in rural Ireland and discovering that the priest is from Swaziland. There's nothing wrong with it, as such, but it just takes a bit of adjustment after a lifetime of the old routine.

It is the same sort of conditioning which makes men fear the arrival of female football commentators into their well-ordered lives.

The very tone and timbre of the female voice on Match of The Day can be profoundly disturbing for men, rendering them deaf to all but the words that they least want to hear at that time ... stop relaxing ... stop relaxing ... stop relaxing.

Yet it is perfectly possible that there are female commentators out there who can make the breakthrough, just as the great male commentators of the Seventies swept away the old BBC upper-class-twit style. Again, their male counterparts of the present day are not exactly putting up a cast-iron case for their gender, and in fact most of them are piss-poor.

Indeed, it's a sad thing that it has taken so long for women to officiate in the Premier League, if only because it might have curbed the incessant bullying of an Alex Ferguson, whose intimidation of referees and linesmen has probably won a few league titles for Man Utd that they would not otherwise have won.

It would be nice to see Fergie afraid of the referee, for a change. And after what happened to Keysy and Graysy, I suspect that he, and a lot of bully-boys like him, will be afraid.

Massively, massively afraid.

Sunday Independent