He who can, plays; he who cannot, umpires

George Bernard Shaw cast an oft-repeated slur on generations of a worthy profession, when he included in Man and Superman the line “he who can, does, he who can’t teaches. I don’t think that GBS was interested in sports, other than being an enthusiast for recreation (i.e. non-competitive) cycling and rambling – or as we would describe it, bushwalking. Surely if he had been, he would have given us the sports variant: “He who can plays, he who can’t umpires/referees.”

I’m a social pariah – a football umpire. There are probably a few occupations with less social standing, but we in the white mongrel fraternity (and sorority, these days) are undoubtedly in the  chosen worst half dozen – with politicians, car salesmen and the like.

I made my career choice late, ignoring a forgettable year when I was a student and desperate enough for any small supplement to my meagre and declining savings, to don the whites and grab a whistle. Twenty odd years later, when my teenage son began running the boundary, I was his taxi to training. Since I had retired from an undistinguished playing career more than ten years previously, I had been a committed distance runner. My evident fitness brought me to the attention of the recruiters, who as always were short of volunteers, so I was eventually persuaded despite my misgivings, to take on the task.

Our umpires advisor at the time was Gary Sidebottom (Collingwood’s Steele’s father), who had umpired for several seasons in the VFL. Gary was (is) a great bloke, welcoming and supportive of the novices and he established a wonderful environment in which even the barely competent could improve. We later benefited from the experience of Kevin Smith who had an even more celebrated VFL career. There was also a conscious effort by the AFL umpiring body to maintain good relationships with junior associations, as these provided the pathway for young umpires to progress to a higher level. We had visits from such luminaries as Peter Cameron, Rowan Sawers and Darren Goldspink to our training sessions.

My first halting steps were notable for my ineptitude. In my first practice match, in bouncing the ball to commence play, I dropped the whistle. Gradually, however, I managed to achieve a modest level of competency. The harshest evaluation is the one that you do on yourself, and it is the sense during my last two seasons that I have fallen short of the standards I consider “good enough” that leads me to the conclusion that the end of the road is not too far distant.

I’ve felt that I had some assets as an umpire. I have a pronounced hearing disability (recently rectified by cochlear implants), but this has meant that I’d rarely hear abuse from over the fence, and usually only that from players who ensured that I had the benefit of their views of my shortcomings. I also am a husband and a father, so I’m well aware that I’m usually wrong. Finally I flatter myself that I have a sense of humour, if it’s not an absolute pre-requisite, it is certainly an advantage as it’s given plenty of scope on the field.

I recall the day that I called a halt to play with centre-half-forward closing in on the goals when I mistook the fire siren from a couple of streets away, for the timekeepers’ signal for the end of a quarter. The ensuing bounce to resume play did him less than justice. On another occasion, heavy rain had renedered my hearing aid inoperative. I blew the whistle, indicated a free with the explanation “out on the full” only to have a player come alongside, pat me on the bum and tell me “the siren’s gone, ump, game over.” I dreaded in anticipation the day which might come when I was the only person at the match – on or off-field – who missed hearing the siren. I envisaged an opportunist half-forward streaming goalwards without opposition because I hadn’t acknowledged the time-keepers’ signal. Happily this only ever happened to me in a practice match when without too much at stake, I was able to feign that I’d heard the siren but just failed to signal, so that I could tell the goal ump. that the score wasn’t to register.

I was all too aware of my deficiencies as a player, my enthusiasm never adequately compensated for a lack of talent and a singular lack of courage. I was surprised that this latter defect didn’t impair my umpiring, as I found that I was braver in this role than I’d ever been when playing. I’d often remark, I go out each week with 36 cheating psycopaths, no knife stuck down my socks, no gun in the waistband of my shorts, merely a whistle. At my level, with club officials running the boundary and waving the flags, you’re essentially on your own. The thin veneer of civilisation is very much in evidence, when we, as I joke, embark on our weekly campaign to spoil footballers’ Saturday afternoon. I’ve mastered the trick of avoiding eye contact with players and spectators as I leave the field.

Yet there are plenty of good times, good memories; the club officials who make you genuinely welcome, the player who at the conclusion of a game makes a conscious effort to acknowledge your performance, the club scribe who notes a job well done in their match report. I was astounded at the commencement of the final game of the season, when the ruckman from the team I’ve umpired on about four occasions over two seasons, not merely remembered, but welcomed me and wished me well for the game – a unique greeting in my memory.

Primarily though the pleasure comes from a correct decision, noting the late tackle and awarding a down-field free or, just as important, making the fine judgment, assessing (and verbally noting) that the late contact was unavoidable, and that the player attempted to minimise its impact. That’s not much different to the delight in another lifetime if I made perfect contact with a drop kick (my playing days are distant enough for that to have occurred), with the exception that now it’s only one’s inner assessor that acknowledges the good decision by the man with the whistle. Above all there’s the joy that is continuing to be involved in the greatest game, long after playing participation became impossible, and being afforded the privilege of watching good players at close quarters. No-one is better positioned to see courage and its absence, to watch a second- third- or fourth-effort, to see athletic skill on display.  There may be the isolated case of the misanthrope who finds his outlet in compromising the enjoyment that players and spectators might otherwise derive from the game. However, in my experience, I’ve only encountered people who love the game with a passion, and want to be involved and to contribute, when playing isn’t possible.`

I’ve developed considerable admiration for players who commit to the game, but also I now recognise in a way I never appreciated during my playing career, the extraordinary efforts that club officials – invariably voluntary – make in putting a game on each week. Grounds have to be marked, goal-posts padded, rooms prepared and cleaned after a day’s detritus has accumulated. Sundry officials are needed, goal and boundary umpires, interchange stewards, time-keepers, and there are invariably a raft of clerical duties, relating to team sheets, recording scores, communicating reports etc.

These days I am a club umpire running reserves’ in a low grade in the VAFA. This year I anticipated that I would only do field umpire duties occasionally as an ex-player (Chris W.) of our club had put his hand up. An early season rash of injuries saw Chris pressed back into playing duties, so I came off the boundary line to take over on field. When the injury crisis subsided, I envisaged Chris would return, but he was then hampered by a foot injury. One week, I was trying to establish if he was available for the following Saturday, so I emailed him. He works in the Victorian Ministry of Education, where all email adresses have the form surname.givenname.2nd nameinitial. Chris’s second name is Terry, but when I emailed on my tablet I missed the dot between the Chris and T. When we laughed about it later, we took the view that even though neither of us is a believer,  we certainly display Christ-like forbearance and tolerance in the face of players’ recalcitrance, and that we are crucified for our decisions.

So I’m considering whether to saddle up for 2014. If I do, after some 500 games, I’ll still be aiming for the (never-achieved) perfect quarter, where every decision is correct, but more significantly, I’m perfectly positioned to adjudicate on each occasion. If it happens there will be no plaudits, only the private satisfaction that I’ve not only done my best, but that this time, my performance was mistake-free. With Brian Johnston the BBC cricket commentator, I can conclude “It’s been a lot of fun.”

About Peter Fuller

Male, 60 something, idle retiree; Blues supporter; played park/paddock standard football in Victoria's western district until mid teens, then Melbourne suburbs; umpired for approximately 20 years (still engaged on light duties - occasionally fieldie, regularly on the line). I thank the goddess at least weekly, that I was born and grew up in the southern States of Oz, so that Aussie Rules was my game from earliest childhood. I still love it with a passion, although I can't pretend to a thorough understanding of the tactical complexities of the contemporary game.


  1. Very enjoyable Peter.

  2. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Peter as a fellow maggot yep nothing beats Playing but you describe it perfectly the inner satisfaction when you no you have done a Good job and yep I to aim for the Perfect Quarter Frienships made from Umpiring are for Life too
    I sincerely hope at the AFL level there are changes made at the Top as the appalling instructions and positioning effect Umpiring at all Levels
    Good Peice Peter

  3. Time to become a cricket umpire Peter.

    You don’t have to worry about being deaf as all cricket umpires are deaf (and blind if you believe the players). It’s what old AFL umpires do.

  4. Andrew Weiss says

    Great article Peter.

    I too have taken up the umpiring business when my football career finished and it is a decision I have not regretted. I also have a funny story about incorrectly hearing a siren. I was umpiring a game at Callington whose oval is near the Adelaide to Melbourne railway line. It was deep in the last quarter with only 3 points separating the teams. I heard what I thought was the siren so blew the whistle to call the end of the game. As each team shook hands thinking the game was over the train passed the oval with the timekeepers running out on to the oval to say there was two minutes still to play. The sound I heard was not the siren but in fact the trail whistle. The game was started again and the end results remained 3 points. Many a laugh was had over a beer once the game was finished.

  5. Neil Anderson says

    Really enjoyed your article Peter.
    Disappointed to hear it was GBS who said, “He who can, does, he who can’t teaches.”
    Not exactly the motto you’d have up on the board for first year-teachers at Teacher’s College.
    It’s not surprising the old Fabian Socialist wouldn’t be into combative sports. He would rather be writing a play or like Barry Humphries, sit on the edge of the oval knitting, just to stir the shit. After reading your AFL involvement and dedication to umpiring, you’ve exposed a lot of us who can’t. We can write about it and analyse the game, but not many of us has pulled on the boots or got right amongst it as an umpire over a long period of time.
    Hope to see you at the play Peter. Definitely no GBS on the program.

  6. Luke Reynolds says

    Great stuff Peter. Wow, 500 games, that’s a lot of being abused! Tough job, admire anyone who puts their hand up to officiate any sport.

  7. craig dodson says

    great read Peter, there is no game without umpires, glad to see you have enjoyed the trip so much.

  8. 500 games. Wow. As Luke said, that’s a thick hide you’ve got there. I umpired for a couple of seasons and felt like I’d done a tour of duty in Nam. You’re a better man than me Gungadin and really enjoyed the read

  9. In the varying gaps between being filthy on the umpires for grave injustices inflicted I am full of respect for what they do. For the life of me, apart from homeless and desperately needing the money, I could not comprehend doing it myself! Thankyou for trying to explain Peter and congrats on 500 games.

  10. Peter, I find your writing to be supremely engaging. Thanks very much for sharing the choice that you continue to make in footy, and really, in community-building. Your written vocabulary, too, is a source of further inspiration. Thanks again.

  11. Peter Fuller says

    Thanks ER, very generous, and coming from some-one who writes as well as you do, it means a good deal to me.
    It’s especially gratifying that your appreciation can bridge the gulf from your Magpies to my Blues. We can continue to argue the toss about that!

  12. Neil Belford says


  13. A very enjoyable piece, Peter, written with pride and humility.

    There’s a measured steadiness to the writing that reflects, I imagine, the rhythms needed for umpiring. I only saw one of your 500 games but I’m very glad I did.

Leave a Comment