In the Sheds: Teams left high and dry as umpires strike

By Paul Daffey

What a mess in the west! The Western Region Football League Umpires Association was formed around the same time that the Western Region competition (originally the Footscray District league) was formed in 1931. Umpires to have come through the ranks in the western-suburbs competition include Mathew James, who’s officiated in three AFL grand finals and in 2004 was named the All-Australian umpire. The Western Region umpires’ body has a strong history but this year it’s been a hotbed of unrest.

In late May the umpires called a strike only to change their minds. Last week the umpires again called a strike and this time they went through with it. The Western Region league had to cancel all seniors and reserves games in divisions one and two over the weekend, while junior games went ahead using club volunteers as umpires. The umpires’ strike was the first in the history of the Western Region league. In a report in Fairfax’s Werribee Banner, clubs were said to be sympathetic to the umpires’ strike, while a league official described it as “devastating”.

THE figure at the centre of the dispute is Terry Gunn, the manager of the Western Region league’s umpiring department. Gunn was appointed by the Western Region league a few years ago. Before this season, umpires’ association secretary Terry O’Donnell went on SEN radio to voice the association’s displeasure at Gunn’s performance. The association was subsequently fined $1500 by the Western Region league because of O’Donnell’s criticism. Before Gunn’s arrival, a selection panel of five senior umpires decided who would officiate in each match. Under Gunn the selection panel has been whittled down to two, including Gunn himself. The umpires’ association claims there is no selection panel and that Gunn makes all appointments, but it’s believed that Gunn does consult with at least one other senior umpire. Last week the umpires’ association again demanded that Gunn be removed or resign. Inaction over their demand led to the strike.

THE furore surrounding Gunn is not the only issue. The umpires’ association is also unhappy that the league has directed umpires to change from white uniforms to orange. A two-year moratorium was introduced in which umpires could wear white if they wish, but some umpires who continue to wear white claim they’ve been discriminated against; they claim they’re given lesser games. Regarding umpire payments, the league historically has paid the umpires’ association and the association then distributes the money to individual umpires. But this year the Western Region league began to skip the association and pay umpires directly. The association bridles at the fact that it’s been cut out of the process. It also believes the league’s payment method is inefficient. The association effectively acts as an umpires’ union. Its executive would like membership to be compulsory.

MEMBERSHIP issues are likely to bubble along in the wake of last week’s vote over whether to strike. About 120 of the league’s 140 umpires are members of the umpires’ association. A clear majority of association members is believed to have voted to strike but several who voted against it have since resigned. Terry Gunn has four main assistant coaches, one each for the field, boundary and goal umpiring departments and one for juniors. Two of those four are said to have resigned from the umpires’ association because of the strike. At least one who voted against the strike has been taunted and threatened. Decades-long friendships have become tenuous. The divisive issue is expected to prompt further resignations from the umpires’ association and even umpiring ranks altogether.

IT’S Up in the air whether the umpires will officiate in Western Region games this weekend. The umpires’ association had a meeting with the clubs on Monday night. The talks continued last night when league officials, club officials and umpires’ association representatives met at a Western Region committee of management meeting. Whatever the outcome of that meeting, the umpires’ association is to report back to its members tonight, when a vote is expected to be taken on whether to continue the strike. At the moment, Port Colts heads the Western Region league division-one ladder ahead of Spotswood, Albion and Hoppers Crossing. Altona’s chances of making up a two-game gap on Sunshine and claiming fifth position become more remote if they’re unable to get on the park.

THE Victorian Amateur Football Association is going to celebrate a former umpire’s career during the Big V Club lunch in the city on Friday. The Big V Club is for all players and officials who’ve represented the VAFA. There are three levels of membership: basic, champion and legend. A man who played representative football in the 1960s and then umpired at interstate carnivals in the 1970s—a rare double at representative level—is among the three who will be announced as this year’s champions of the Big V Club.

MANY umpires’ organisations have disabled officials in their ranks, but the Geelong Football Umpires League broke new ground on Saturday when it assigned its disabled umpires to officiate in the one match, a Geelong and District Football League under-18 game between Inverleigh and North Geelong. The field umpires were Daniel Dorling (learning disability) and Nick Kocsi (cerebral palsy), while the goal umpires were Luke McLean (Aspergers syndrome) and Jake Baker-Brooks (autism). Terry Maloney (acquired brain injury) is on the regular boundary umpires’ panel, but he was joined on this occasion by three draftees with intellectual disabilities who had never acted as football officials. Ellen Robinson, Cassie Berry and Sam Sullivan are said to have enjoyed their debuts as boundary umpires despite lacking power when throwing the ball back into play. The two ruckmen often contested the knock just inside the boundary line, but players from both teams accepted the terms of their game and were happy to play on regardless of the efficacy of the throw-in.

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