At the end of my last year of under age footy, I was a teenage footballer at the crossroads. Unlike the majority of my under 17 teammates, my body had not filled out into something that had muscle mass and core strength. Instead, and to my frustration, I was a 16 year old trapped in a 14 year olds body – a 10 stone weakling wholly unsuited to the physical demands of senior football. Moreover, I was only modesty talented, and by the seasons end, barely holding my place in our team. Add to this my growing appreciation of the maxim ‘discretion before valor’ (which, it just so happens, was egged on by my growing cowardice!) and you had a kid ready to let go of his dream to one day play VFL. But the thing is, 16 year olds don’t give up on dreams just like that. As you’d expect (and just as Hollywood would have it), messing with my head was every cheesy feel good story where an underdog triumphed. And then there was Robbie Flower’s scrawniness. “Damn it, if a man in a 15 year olds body could play VFL, than so could I” bull-horned my inner Rocky Balboa. Mercifully, my inner Rocky Balboa proved as poor a motivator as Sly Stallone proved an actor, and before his pep talks could put me in harms way, I sensibly hung up my boots. I kidded myself at the time that it was just a sabbatical, that, “by God, I’d come back to finish what I’d started,” but deep down I knew otherwise. Either way, it was just as well I opted out for the time being at least as it saved my wiry baby-bird body from a punishing year of senior footy. Hell, if I’d foolhardily gone on, it would have been a bruising year matching up against ex cons and king-hitting undesirables. This was the Footscray District League, damn it – a league with more tattoos and piercings per player than any other league (and this in an age when that actually meant something, by fuck!) Worse, I would been languishing in its 3rd division – a division with the toughest hombres this side of the Pecos; a division with players pooled from socio-economic depressed Sunshine, Braybrook and Pentridge. And, by gum, how do I know so much about the calibre of footballer you’d find in these ranks, I hear you ask? Well heck, I went on to umpire them.
Becoming an umpire is not an easy decision to make. I mean, not only is it giving up on your football dream in the most defeatist of ways, it’s downright unsexy. As you’d expect, just like any kid, I wanted more than anything to appeal to chicks (or so we called them back then.) Being dressed in a white polo shirt, arching your body effeminately when paying frees and running backwards is not exactly David Lee Roth, damn it. Indeed, it’s more Bolshoi ballet than anything, and as I deliberated over whether umpiring was an option during my “sabbatical,” all these thing were swimming round and round in my head. Tantalizingly, also swimming round was the lure of $40 if I umpired all weekend, and with this being a tidy sum of money in 1981 (and with there then being big fat $ signs in my eyes), I greedily crossed over to officialdom’s vile ranks. (And just in case you’re wondering, when you lose your soul this way, you do feel 21 grams lighter!)
Before I could sign up as an umpire, I had to break it to St Albans’s 3rd Division coach that I would not be a starter for the new season. I thought a phone call would be easier for the two of us, and after summoning up the fortitude to deal with his disappointment, I made the call. “Peter who?” he said flummoxed. I repeated my surname. “Oh,” he said, now having a vague idea who I was. I then explained that I’d be taking a sabbatical from football and yadda yadda yadda. By the third yadda I had sensed that he’d completely tuned out; this being confirmed when he’d signed off by saying, “well good luck with that Robbie,” and then giving me a “gotta run” midstream of my scripted farewell. (And for the record, it came in at 500 words (500 heartfelt words!) I got out around 50 before I heard the dial tone. Not bad for someone with no theatrical training, I now reason.)
My football career on – cough – hold, I threw myself into umpiring. The first thing to do was buy a pair of white boots. That was the best and only good thing about being an umpire in 1981. As a footballer, you didn’t dare wear white boots, let alone try them on at a sport store. White boots were the domain of flamboyant types like Phil Carman and anyone who dared wear them was being pretentious and flashy. Of course, like any kid, being pretentious and flashy was exactly what I wanted to be, but as was the case then (but isn’t now?), I like most other kids didn’t have the guts to be so. As an umpire, though, I had am excuse for buying white boots – even if it was really only to run around like a dick paying frees! Away from umpiring, though, I wore them with my treasured Richmond footy jumper when playing around the yard. Blind turning around imaginary players, I was a degree closer to the glamour forward I’d always wanted to be, snapping miraculous goals in my shiny white puma’s. I kicked 100’s of them, all with seconds to go in matches, all from difficult angles, and all getting my beloved Tigers over the line. It was great, it was being 13 again, and it was fulfilling my long-coveted white boot fantasy (and being 16 at the time, it is all very embarrassing when I think about it now!)
In my first season as an umpire, I started by doing boundary duties for the seniors on Saturdays and field duties for the U11’s on Sundays. I got $20.00 for each game. I trained a couple of nights a week mostly running laps at an oval in Kingsville. Some nights we practiced bounces and throw ins and sometimes we had meetings regarding the interpretation of rules. I don’t remember being quizzed about whether I knew the rules or not before my first game; I do recall, however, that I was observed by an advocate who was ready to step in should I be incompetent. That didn’t prove to be the case (although some of the uglier parents would argue otherwise, I’m sure) and after dishing out my first rites of passage ‘holding the ball’ (and doing so with a smug smirk!), I was up and running.
In my first year as an umpire, I took it all pretty seriously. I turned up to training as required, was attentive and respectful, and hand on heart, unequivocally on the straight and narrow. When I gave votes at the end of games I agonized over which players were most deserving. Even the little things like checking players studs before a game I afforded the appropriate attention. By the next season, though, things had changed markedly. I soon found that even when I missed mandatory training I was awarded games. This, I later found out, was because there was a shortage of umpires, and in then wilily realizing that I held the whip handle, I thought I’d test it out by not training whatsoever. When I was still awarded games after weeks and weeks of ringing in absent with what had to be the lamest excuses they’d ever heard, I realized I could go hog-wild. Redeemingly, I didn’t actually go hog-wild after that, per se, as I don’t have that in me, but what I certainly did was unravel further. This then translated into a very regrettable incident after one game: a very very regrettable incident.
Umpiring an U13 match in my second season, I had taken a dislike to a flashy blonde headed kid who was clearly vote chasing. He was reverential towards me to the point of it being sickening and when it came to awarding votes after the game I was not feeling my usually fair-minded self. The kid had had a shitload of possessions, kicked several goals and was clearly the best on ground by a street. Had he been unassuming, it would have an easy decision. But, as I’ve illustrated, he was too eager to please and it so bugged me. Now I know, personality traits shouldn’t come into play in these deliberations, but of course they do. Just as a player who mouths off an umpire is discriminated against, so is a player who sycophantically compliments an umpire (well in my upside down world they are!) The kid complimented me at least a half dozen times about decisions I’d made. He also shut up teammates that backchatted me. It was just all too much. Had it been my first season I may have agonized about denying him what was rightfully his, but this was my second season. This was the year I didn’t train, the year I smuggled a girl in the rooms half time one match, and the year I didn’t bother following up on players I’d reported coz going to the tribunal was a pain. Little vandal that I was, I decided to not only deny him, but to make a mockery of the best and fairest system. I awarded the votes to a kid who’d had only 2 kicks and 1 handball. I did this because I loved the ring of 3 votes for 2 kicks and 1 handball (and still do.) I remember having a good laugh about it at the time and really revelling in sabotaging the integrity of the leagues B & F. I was 18, immature and because of the dearth of umpires, running amok in a consequence free microcosm. Like any kid, I was pushing the boundaries over what I could get away with, and once I’d pushed past the umpires association’s mandatory training boundary, I was ready for the next one. It was only natural (well, for an immature, rambunctious bad-egg like me, it felt only natural!) Either way, natural or not, it’s what I did that day, and I only did it coz I’d got past that first boundary. If I hadn’t, I’m sure I wouldn’t have crossed another. It’s just the way these things work (or is it?)
Anyway, redeemingly, as I mentioned earlier, I don’t have it in me to go hog-wild, so this was the only time I vandalized the U13’s B & F count that year. But as I just breezed over a few sentences ago, I was derelict elsewhere.
In the later half of this season, I got into a bad habit of officiously reporting smart talking punks. It was a knee jerk reaction that was more about spooking the kid than it was about playing an authoritative figure, but damn it, I enjoyed it on both levels. Like, whenever one of these smartarse little shits pushed me too far, I reveled in the act of putting them in my book. What I loved most was then watching their smug smirks crumble into ashen expressions. Their shoulders would then slump and they’d struggle to fight back tears. Talk back now you little fuck, I’d think; call me a maggot now you smart-mouthed turd! The derelict part was that I wouldn’t then follow up on it. After the game, I was required to notify the league of the report, but as this involved paperwork and a trip to the tribunal, I avoided what would have been an impost on my time. As far as I was concerned, watching the kid wilt was enough for me; pursuing it further was too much trouble – and pesky, especially considering tribunal night was a great TV night back then! (Like, there was no way I was gonna miss Who’s the boss for the principle of a thing like this, damn it!)
In my third, and thankfully, my last year as an umpire, I made my way up the ranks and by seasons end was awarded my first, and what turned out to be my only, senior game. It was a division 3 game at Parkside, and as I was now 19, I had a physique that was a little more adult like. All the same, grown up as I was becoming, I was no match for the thugs and ex cons that stormed out that day; both physically and temperamentally.
My troubles started early on in the match when a player or two tested me out with a little backchat. The key to keeping control of a football match is to snuff out backchat the moment it starts. If you let them get the better of you in these early exchanges, all hell can break loose. And that’s pretty much what happened. With the game fast running out of my control during the third quarter, I helplessly looked on as a player shook a goal post while another shot for goal. The player missed the shot and moments later, I had half of his teammates in my face. They remonstrated that he be given another kick and that the post shaker be reported. That, of course, should have been my adjudication, but rattled as I was, I let the point stand. The game from there descended into lawlessness. I felt like I was at the helm of a frigate in stormy seas. Every decision I made had players throwing their heads back in disbelief. “You’re fucking kidding,” they’d bemoan; “you’re not an umpires areshole,” they’d tack on anarchically. Sensing that I was in danger, I was afforded extra escorts during the three quarter time break. This particularly pissed me off, coz I liked to nick off to the rooms for a smoke at three quarter time if I could manage it. Doing so under these circumstances, though, would have been foolhardy so I stayed put with my minders. I then got through the last quarter without too many headaches, even wrestling back a little control, but as I walked off after the final siren, the damage I’d done earlier came back to bite me. Sniping me from left, right and centre was both teams disgruntled supporters. Indeed, had it not been for the burly escorts that flanked me either side, I would have been torn to shreds. We eventually made it past the angry mob and after hastily changing into my civvies, the escorts then rushed me out the rooms to my car. I then shot down the road, whipping up gravel and dust as I sped off. It was a close shave and the scariest thing I’ve ever been through. Needless to say, I then had to change my Y fronts when I got home.
When quitting umpiring, like anything, you probably should adhere to some protocols, but whatever courtesy’s there are, I didn’t follow. I simply didn’t turn up the next year. I was now earning real money in a proper job and had no need for the measly pocket money umpiring offered. The acquaintances I’d made when I boundary umpired senior games were little more than that and in no way approached the kind of camaraderie I built with footballers. I had nothing against saying goodbye to these people but there just wasn’t a sentimentality there to drive me to do so. I mean, we never shared victories or defeats or anything, we just officiated. It was all so very sterile; all very hollow. But, or course, that was just my experience. I’m sure many people have had enriching experiences as umpires and have made great friends and acquaintances. I’m sure they got into it for the right reasons and that they achieved lifelong dreams of umpiring grand finals and making a difference. Every winter, they’re out there, giving up there time, taking abuse, explaining their dodgy decisions, fending off remonstrating players and dodging old ladies brandishing umbrellas. Having experienced how thankless their work can be for 3 years, I can only tip my hat to them.
When I now dwell on my time as an umpire, I mostly wonder about that U13 vote count. Did my vandalism impact on who won the medal that year? It kills me now to think that my desecration that day may have cost that kid a medal. I sincerely hope it wasn’t the case. If it did, however, I wonder how the kid took it? He would have known full well that I gave the votes to someone undeserving and did that then cripple him with cynicism about how unfair this world is? On the other hand, maybe he learnt a valuable lesson about kissing arse? Who knows? And what of the little trundler who got the votes? Surely this would have been the only time this kid received a best on field. Maybe it made a difference to his life? Maybe he dined out on it then and still does so to this day? If he does, he lives a life in denial of course, because we both know his 2 kicks and 1 hand ball that day were undeserving of such recognition. His wry comeback to that might be, “Quality before quantity.” But to that I say, your 2 kicks dribbled little more than 15 yards and your handball missed its target. Where’s the quality? To that I hope he would say … well, I don’t know. I just hope that it’s something that tops me; something that puts an end to all these speculations that sometimes whir round and round (and round!) in my head.
And now with the coda out the way, I can share a little something else; now, after taking so so much, I can give a little back
When you boundary umpire, you’re called upon to do some really weak-arsed shit, the weakest being the little bit of pageantry required when making your way to the edge of the centre square. The act takes place after a goal, and after you’ve returned the ball to the field umpire you are first required to swivel mid air as you switch from running forward to running backwards. As you then continue backwards to your spot, you tend to run in a springy way, and once there, the spring in your step propels you to run on the spot for a couple more steps. In short, as I said earlier, it’s all very weak-arsed and all very effeminate and a very very bizarre thing that all boundary umpires do. Anyway, as I was doing as much in my first season, I was trying to make an impression on an umpires advocate who was looking on from the bleachers. In doing so, I really over accentuated the maneuver and added at least an extra half dozen steps as I ran on the spot. It was then that I noticed that I was being observed by a toothless, mangy half back flanker. The half back flanker looked like a Biker and had tattoos, piercings and a long beard. Had I seen him on the street, I would have given him a wide berth (and then run like hell as he passed!) Anyway, the half back flanker looked at me as though it was first time he’d noticed this bizarre little thing that us boundary umpires do. He was only a few yards away and I’ll never forget the look he gave me. At first it was bemusement, but then it rapidly descended into one that accommodated disgust, repugnance, homophobia and disdain. Now feeling naked, I then looked on as he shook his head in bewilderment. He then mumbled something under his breath, probably something to do with me being a douche-bag or perhaps something to do with questioning my manhood. Whatever it was, it made his half forward flanker opponent laugh. The field umpire then bounced the ball and the two of them bounded towards the action. I, of course, scurried for the boundary. The game continued and that was that. What kills me now is that he saw that side of me: the side that wanted to make an impression; the side that was happy to do the weak-arsed shit that boundary umpires are called upon to do. For him, I will always be that person; I will always be an effeminate, little douche-bag who over accentuates when he runs on the spot. That’s the price I’ve paid for that lapse; that’s the price I’ve paid for doing something that compromised me in oh so many (many!) ways. The thing is, you’d just think I would have learnt something from it.