“The referee is going to be the most important person in the ring tonight besides the fighters.” George Foreman
About an hour before every game of AFL footy, the three field umpires of the day wander into the change rooms of both teams and shake every player’s hand. It’s a quaint tradition in a place and time where quaint traditions are on the decline.
Loyal readers will understand my fondness of such a ritual (I do have a thing about shaking hands), but I sometimes wonder if we have failed to build on that relationship between players and umpires in the modern era. I often think back to an almost mythical football time where both teams and umpires might gather in a pub or social club after the final siren to talk about the day’s play over a glass or two. But as my vinyl record collection suggests, I do tend to live in the past.
Footy umpires get a hard time, too hard for the most part. I sympathise with them because I used to be one.
My wife scoffs when I tell people my very first job was as a field umpire in the Warragul and District Junior Football League. “You’ve never worked!” she says. She might have a point.
My time with the whistle was only brief – one season – and I probably would have done it for free. I got paid though – $12.50 a game – and most weekends I would umpire two games, the under-12s and the under-14s. Twenty-five dollars a week was a lot of money to me back in 1997; a bag of mixed lollies was my biggest outgoing.
This week marks the 2014 community umpiring round in the AFL, and as a former member of the umpiring workforce, I thought I could share a few memories of my time out in the middle in the all-white uniform.
Winters in the Warragul area can be bitterly cold and I remember that 1997 season being a brutal one. Because the under-12s started at 8.45am, I’d have to drag my poor old dad out of bed pretty early to make it out to Buln Buln, Hallora, Neerim South or wherever I’d been sent to that week. Dad never seemed to mind; he’s a kind and patient man, my father.
One of my school mates, Brad Nott, was my co-umpire and we’d go into each team’s rooms before the game to meet the coaches and the players and pretend to be adults.
I found myself mimicking what I remember our own junior football umpires doing before games. The best example of this would be when we would ask the young players to lift their boots for us to run our hands over the studs. Looking for what I was never quite sure, but I’d seen umpiring stalwarts Mick Rooney and Norm Dorling do it for years.
It wouldn’t have mattered if a kid had strapped a razor blade to his boot, because my hands were that numb from the cold I couldn’t feel a thing. And besides, most of the kids were about eight years old and more intent on throwing mud at each other than they were about hurting the opposition. Still, every week, we’d line these kids up with military precision and scrape their boots with blue, icy hands.
Umpiring under-12s was more like herding sheep than it was about keeping an eye on taggers and paying free kicks for holding jumpers behind the play. I wish I had a dollar for every time I yelled, “Play on! Knock it out! Keep it moving!” I’d have made a lot more than $25.
I do look back on those mornings fondly and it did give me a different look at the game that was about to consume my life. Umpiring any game is a tough gig, but I think umpiring a game of AFL football would just about be the toughest.
I took the first tentative steps of my own AFL career as a player at the Western Bulldogs’ affiliate Werribee Tigers in 2000. During one of those early games I watched on as my teammate Andrew Wills took up the debate with our field umpire, and I decided to join in.
The umpire turned to me sharply and said, “Rob, I’ll listen to Andrew because he’s played 100 games of league footy. You haven’t played any. Stay out of it!” It was a great lesson about respect that I never forgot.
Some 15 years later, the Dogs were playing the plucky newcomers of the competition, GWS, in Canberra. The Giants’ resident pest Jacob Townsend was trying to ruffle my feathers with a miscellaneous repertoire of scallywag tactics when the umpire of the day came over and told the youngster to “show some respect, he’s a veteran of the game”. This only served to increase Townsend’s output, but I appreciated the thought from the ump nonetheless. Footy has a funny way of coming full circle.
For anyone going to the footy this week, at any level, raise a glass to the umps. Footy needs them.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.