Almanac Footy: Who loves wearing fluoro-green socks? The life of an ex-footballer turned umpire.



My last day as a footballer was nothing special. Training with the ANU Griffins Football Club on a Thursday night deep into a Canberra winter, I heard a small snap at the back of my calf and collapsed to the ground like a sack of potatoes. Achilles, the middle-aged man’s curse! And that was it. No clapping as I left the ground or cheers of appreciation, just a cold, dark reality that my days as a footballer were over.


So what next?


After playing a reasonable level of football in Sydney in my uni days, then playing down the NSW south coast, becoming president and coach of a startup club, I thought I’d done it all except win an illustrious premiership, which was what had coaxed me back into playing prior to snapping my Achilles. As a new business owner with little to no time, how could I stay in the football arena in some way?


It was then proposed to me that I should consider being a club/community umpire. No doubt the umpiring fraternity in AFL Canberra is a rare breed which consistently struggles to fill numbers for games. So, this was a great way for me to give back to the football community and stay involved.


There is the saying, “You don’t make friends with salad”. Certainly, some similarities to umpiring can be taken from this statement, although vegetarians and vegans alike are more accepted in this day and age.


As I understand it, umpires should take a backstage to players on the field and, off the field, should be seen and not heard. I’m not sure Canberra’s AFL umpire prodigal son, ‘Razor’ Ray Chamberlain follows these principles. However, at a recent lunch in Canberra where ‘Razor’ presented, he did make a good point around the fact that umpires, players, supporters and officials/administrators should be seen as a whole in terms of driving solutions to shortages of community umpires in regional leagues, thus ensuring that all parties in football communities provided the same level of support and constructive feedback that any human being would expect in a public sporting environment.


Let’s get to it, life as a regional community/club umpire ain’t an easy job but it is good value and you regularly have a chuckle at the behaviour of players and supporters. So I’m thinking, am I really like that?


For me, the new interpretations of holding the ball rule and deliberate out of bounds have caused a positive and negative effect on the game of Australian football in the community. First of all, every time someone gets tackled now there’s this echo from players and supporters across the ground, ‘HE or SHE dragged it in!’, no matter the circumstance. The other is ‘Deliberate out of bounds’, even if the ball went out from a falcon off someone’s head.


‘BALL’ and ‘Deliberate’ calls by players and supporters have become so entrenched in the game that it’s almost a joke, provoking huge laughs from players and the crowd when umpiring decisions are handed down. It’s almost gladiator-style from Colosseum days but, instead of the thumbs up or down from the emperor, it’s the umpire with his arm cocked to deliver the ‘Deliberate’ ruling which provides some theatre to local football arenas.


As an umpire, it’s been a pleasure to watch the women’s game evolve locally. Simply put, the workload involved in umpiring a game from a few years ago is a lot less than now. A couple of years back, officiating a lower division women’s game was like watching a flock of seagulls fighting over a sauce-covered chip and not having to move far from the centre square to officiate. Now, the game is more free-flowing, providing a more end-to-end transition style with skill levels much improved.


I had the pleasure of watching a recent Melbourne Demons’ draftee, Jacqueline Parry, apply her skill in the ANU Griffins side. She outgrew the skills of ANU, joined the NSW Queanbeyan Tigers across the border and was then drafted to the AFL. Jacqueline sliced through the pack like a hot knife through butter. Her kicking style was so skilled and elegant yet powerful, one of the highlights of my umpiring career to date.


Obviously, every player is an expert when it comes to umpiring during the game. Men and women alike seem to have their own versions of official rules that they bring to the table. I have found that men seem to not argue the point too much around certain things but women, on the other hand, will really argue their point of view. Then, when the ruling is explained, they are extremely apologetic for even bringing it up in the first place. I’d say, in short, they have more chit chat than men but it’s done in a more empathetic and understanding way.


When I talk about umpiring to people who are not in the footy community, the first question is usually: “Have you sent anyone off before?” Over the last three years I’ve had one really bad send off which I’ll try to capture in the written word.


It was the Preliminary Final of the women’s Second Division in Canberra. It was a howler of a day, wind-wise. Kicking into the wind, the ball would end up behind you while kicking with it, the women were kicking 40 to 50 metres on the fly. The game ended in a draw at full time and went into overtime which required a quick peek in the handbook because I had no idea.


Anyway, leading into full time there was a kick into the half-forward flank and the woman in front spot took a contested grab reaching out in front of herself. I marked the spot and the woman who took the mark, a very solidly built half-forward, cocked her elbow and swung it round with a full-blooded blow across the spoiling opposition player’s face, busting her nose and sending blood flying everywhere.


Initially, I was shocked considering that my experiences umpiring women to that point had accommodated players being assertive and competitive yet empathetic to the opposition’s objectives of winning a game. I stood there stunned until reality kicked in. Then I was like an English policeman chasing a burglar down the street, whistling repetitively. I think I was trying to talk through my whistle. Eventually I rustled round in my budgie smugglers for my slightly sweaty yellow card and sent her off with a report to follow.


My Grandfather was always hounding me that I should not be playing football but umpiring because it’s good money with few injuries. As I consider the enjoyment I am getting from umpiring now and the fact that I’ve had several surgeries, broken bones and soft tissue injuries from playing footy, perhaps I should have listened to my elders.


I’d definitely recommend to any kids out there or ex-footballers to give umpiring a go. It certainly helps with leadership, communication (both verbal and visual), decision making on the run, the ability to take on non-constructive feedback and how to build a pretty thick skin from verbal, non-threatening abuse….most of the time.


It’s been good fun to date and, no doubt, with current health concerns around the country, being able to officiate a football game is a blessing in itself. My heart goes out to the other regional competitions which have been cancelled this year, especially our friends in metro Melbourne and regional Victoria.


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  1. Nicole Kelly says

    Thanks Jeremy. This is a great piece. Umpiring must be one of the most difficult jobs around…I’m glad to read you still get a laugh from it.

  2. Great article. Fun to read and gives a wonderful perspective of the difficult job umpires have.

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