Graham Carbery – a man who stood up

Former VFL boundary umpire, Graham Carbery, died on Wednesday after a long illness.  Carbery umpired 145 VFL games, including five finals.  He loved umpiring.  His career was different to every boundary umpire in VFL/AFL history.

Most boundary umpires retain anonymity.  They gather the ball, throw it in and run around the boundary.  When their career is over, they shift back into society, a former boundary umpire no less.

Carbery never had anonymity.  He was always remembered for being head-butted by Phil Carman in 1980.  Since that moment, he was forever etched into infamy.  He endured criticism, that he provoked the incident by chesting Carman and was to blame for the head-butt.

He remains an integral figure in Carman’s history.  No one had ever head-butted a boundary umpire.

Carbery is remembered for much more.

I never met him.  I knew nothing about him, aside from the head-butt incident until I was writing Fabulous Phil.

I was desperate to interview Carbery for the book but he was a hard man to find.  It took me months of basic internet searches before I researched his advocacy work for Australia’s gay and lesbian community.  It was then I realised Carbery was gay.  I emailed the president of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives with a request, to put me in touch with Carbery.

Not long after the email was sent, Carbery called me.  He was polite and cheeky.  ‘I hear you’re looking for me,’ he said.  ‘It could be one of two things.  My advocacy work for the gay and lesbian community or the Phil Carman head-butt.’

When I mentioned Carman, Carbery laughed.  ‘I haven’t talked to a journalist about this since the week it happened.’

I asked if I could call him back from a studio for an interview.  Carbery said no.  He explained his reasons.  A few days after Carman was suspended for 16-weeks for the head-butt, a journalist approached Carbery, offering a story about the gay VFL umpire.

‘That was the hook,’ Carbery said.  ‘But it became clear all he wanted to talk about was the head-butt.’

Carbery felt there was more to his life than the head-butt.  He was gay.  In 1980, he was an advocate for the gay and lesbian community.  That was more important than the head-butt, so he shut down the interview.  A short story was published about the gay umpire who had been head-butted.  That weekend, while umpiring during an Anzac Day game, Carbery was subject to homophobic abuse.

As the season went on, the abuse continued.  It kept on until he retired.

For decades, Carbery refused to talk to journalists about the head-butt.  It was a single moment in his life.  He said he had long moved on.  His life was better spent advocating for equal rights for the gay and lesbian community.

I listened to him and understood.  I thought he was going to reject an interview.  In desperation, I told him I would portray the incident accurately.  His words.

‘The Footy Show have asked me on several times but I’m not interested,’ he said.  ‘But because you’re a serious journalist with the ABC, I’ll talk to you.  But I can’t do it today.  I need a day to collect my thoughts.’

I almost laughed at his words, serious journalist, and offered a time, 2pm the following day.  When I called him from an interview booth at the allotted time, my hands shook.  I thought he wouldn’t answer.

Carbery said hello.  I hit record.  The interview ran 37-minutes.  From my perspective, his interview was pivotal to the book.  It was his first in-depth interview about an incident he longed to forget.

He told me he loved football but was hopeless at playing.  He loved running and umpired to stay involved.  He had an on-field view of some of the best VFL games ever played.

Throughout the interview, Carbery stayed on topic.  He talked about the head-butt, the tribunal hearing and the aftermath.  He opened up about the negative affect his sexuality had on Alan Nash, his director of umpiring and the abuse he received from the crowd.

Carbery mentioned that he followed Richmond.  We laughed.

‘I’d love to see them win a premiership one more time,’ he said.

After the interview, Carbery asked for the transcript.  He was the only person I interviewed for the book who wanted a transcript of interview.  The next day I emailed the full transcript.  The following day, he called me and said it was factually correct and he had no issues with the interview.

He copied and posted the transcript of Carman’s Supreme Court appeal against his 16 week suspension.

In September last year, the Herald/Sun ran a story about Carman’s book.  I had asked the journalist not to mention Carbery.  Those invested in the book wanted to keep Carbery’s interview a secret.

When the story was published, Carbery was mentioned.  I called him.  He had read the story.

‘You might get calls from journalists about it,’ I said.

‘I’m not talking to anyone else,’ Carbery said.  ‘I only talked to you because you’re an ABC journalist.  If you were a commercial journalist I would’ve said no.’

Carbery obviously listened to the ABC.

We talked a couple of times this year.  In April I told him the book release had been delayed.  In June, I called him and said the book was about to be released.  I also had a message to pass on.

‘Phil wants to know if you’ll meet him,’ I said.  ‘Not for a media event, just to say hello.  Over lunch or a beer.’

‘No,’ Carbery said.  ‘I’m happy to leave it in the past.’  He sounded tired.

‘Do you want a copy of the book?’

‘Not at the moment.  I’m in hospital, recovering from major heart surgery.  I’m not sure when I’ll be released.’

I wondered his age.  He had to be 70.  ‘I’ll be in Melbourne in two weeks.  I can come and see you, bring a copy of the book if you like?’

‘Matt, I’m not sure I’ll be out of hospital.’

The weekend I was in Melbourne for the launch of Fabulous Phil at a Footy Almanac function, I didn’t call Carbery.  I didn’t want to intrude on his recovery.  In the weeks after the book launch, I thought about calling him.  I didn’t.

On Friday, it was John Harms, in an email, who asked if Carbery had died.  I had no idea.  I punched Carbery’s name into Google.  The Age had run a small obituary.  It was Carbery.  I emailed John back.

I found space at work and called Phil.  ‘Graham Carbery is dead,’ I said.  ‘It happened Wednesday.  There was a notice in The Age today.’

There was a long pause before Phil spoke.  ‘That’s sad news.  How?’

I explained that I wasn’t sure, but said Carbery had recently had major heart surgery and was in hospital for a stretch.

Phil was silent for a while.  ‘Same thing happened to my dad after open heart surgery.’  He sighed.  ‘I never got the chance to thank him for the interview and apologise for the head-butt.  He didn’t want to meet me.’

‘He didn’t.  He wanted to leave it where it was.’

I went back to work.  Rattled.  I never met Carbery.  He only talked to me because I once worked for the ABC.  Carbery had a much bigger story to tell, but he snipped his life into one incident for me.  Silently, I thanked him for breaking decades of silence.

Phil sent me a text.  Going for a counter lunch to have a drink for him.

Carbery died without reading the book.  I’m sure that won’t upset him.  He died without meeting Phil again.  That won’t upset him either.  Carbery wanted to leave that incident in the past.  He could’ve lived off the infamy.  He chose not to.

After I interviewed Carbery, I thanked him for his time.  I would like to thank him again, for speaking about a moment of football madness he longed to forget.

Graham Carbery stood up to Phil Carman.  He stood up to the taunts and insults from VFL crowds.  He stood up to Alan Nash.  And he stood up to an unforgiving society.  He wrote a book, A History of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

Carbery should be remembered for standing up.  The head-butt was but a moment in his life.


Read Matt Watson’s profile of boxer Jeff Horn.

Read more about how Matt Watson went about writing Fabulous Phil.

About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…


  1. A life lived with dignity and purpose. The 80’s were a terrifying time for gay people – on many fronts. Vale’ Graham Carbery. Well said Matt.

  2. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Fascinating read,Matt I haven’t read that part of the book yet I do admit as a umpire I always felt,Carberry contributed to the incident occurring did he exspress any remorse re his own actions that day ? RIP Graham Carberry ( can you give me a ring Matt ? ) thank you

  3. Thanks Matt for this story, 2 things I didnt know about Graham Carbery! I am putting him on the Richmond Virtual Duffle Coat right now.

  4. Danae Gibson says

    Thanks Matt, great stuff. So many parts of a puzzle fall in to place now.
    We will give GC an honourable mention on JOY 94.9 this week.

  5. Thanks Matt. I think this is an important piece, with a sense of the complexities, and a respect for the wishes of all those involved. I am grateful that you took the time to write this piece. Importantly, it is a moment to reflect on the life of Graham Carbery.

  6. Paul Young says

    Thanks Matt, fascinating commentary on Graham Carbery. Like JH says, it’s much appreciated.

    I did see him once in person although I didn’t speak to him. It was in 1981, he was collecting his hand made leather umpiring shoes from Hope Sweeny at Hope’s shop in Johnson Street Collingwood. He was a household name because of the head butt incident so he was easy to recognise.

    RIP Graham Carbery.

  7. Bronwyn Mills says

    I remember Graham as a wonderful friend and colleague, during our teaching careers. He was a passionate teacher who cared greatly for his students.

    I also remember vividly ” that incident”; with Phil Carmen being a close friend of my brother in law and Graham being a friend of mine. I could not fathom that the two people I knew off the field were the same two men; and that they would become part of football history.

    I am happy that Graham spoke before his death; and that Phil had a beer for him.

    Condolences to Gary and Graham’s family.

  8. matt watson says

    Thanks John,
    I really appreciate your words and that you alerted me to his death.

    Paul, that is a great memory.

    Bronwyn, thank you for sharing your memory. My condolences to you and all who knew Graham.

  9. Graham was so much more than that one particular incident.

    He created the Aus Gay & Lesbian Archives, probably without realising the incredible importance to Victorian society & especially the G&L community it was to later become.
    Remembering that when he created the Archives in the 1970s, we young gays were illegal, underground & nothing more than uncomplaining punching bags for anyone with a mean streak or sore head – including those in a uniform.
    This era was followed by the utter horror of the AIDS decimation & the seemingly endless & ongoing political fights for equality.

    As a Collingwood Cheer Squad member in the heady late 1970s, we had no time for the men in white. But back then, some of the bigger Cheer Squads were also the unofficial support groups to many early & mid-teen gays, who all quietly ‘knew’ & admired Graham for his dignity & fearlessness in being what we now call Out, rather than his inevitably appalling umpiring decisions.

    It was later, when working at the Vic AIDS Council that I found out that he was in that group of extraordinarily brave teachers who, in 1978, wrote ‘Young, Gay & Proud’ , a coming-out guide for students – a scenario which also had the conservatives of the era snarling for both his sacking & blood, despite it already being on nearly every library shelf … & that he was a Richmond supporter, so there was a large amount of respect, which included a smaller dose of mirth.

    Graeme Carbery started the G&L Archives in his garage, & these days it’s run by volunteer archivists with digitalised scrapbooks & many tens of thousands of personal & political donations & contributions, dating back to the early 1900s. It’s also a respected, admired & deliberately sought-after organisation for students, academics, historians & journalists/authors.

    Yes, there are reasons to remember that particular incident & that particular umpire at that particular time – but there are many, many more humane & historically significant reasons to remember Graeme Carbery, the man.

    My condolences to his partner of 45 years, Gary, his family & friends.

  10. Very well written Matt. I am glad you have shared this with us as I didn’t know any of this. Sounds like he was a remarkable man and kudos to you for how you have dealt with the situation.

  11. Chris Daley says

    Important story well told.

  12. A wonderful tribute to someone who sounds like an interesting man, Matt.
    Well played.

  13. Mathew martini says

    Graham was a lovely man, I volunteered at the archives a few times and he was always so welcoming towards me, he spoke about his umpiring career at a conference back in 2013 which I was privileged enough to go to, much love to his partner of 46 years Gary ?

  14. Richardvriley says

    Let’s hope he gets recognition at this weekends pride round.

  15. interested to know what was his first & particularly last games that he umpired?

  16. matt watson says

    Hi Steve, I believe his first game was also Phil Carman’s first game of VFL football. It was round 1 1975 against South Melbourne.
    I’m not sure what Carbery’s last game was, but it was around 1982 or so.

  17. Daryl Schramm says

    I feel sure that the last two comments have ‘triggered’ me to read this (maybe again, maybe not). Thanks Matt.

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