Umpiring: the consolations of mythology

It’s Sunday morning in Adelaide’s north eastern suburbs, where the foothills begin and suburbia abruptly becomes the country. As the Bureau promised, the rain is falling in increasingly heavy doses. Parents shiver underneath the extended verandah attached to the club rooms, watching their charges flinging themselves around the deceptively green grass (you don’t see the mud until you get out there) with varying levels of enthusiasm.

Fresh off a three goal second quarter the lad joins me under the verandah. He and his teammates have improved out of sight since their first game in these conditions. In that game he stood, rooted to the spot, too cold to move let alone win and kick the ball. Today in five frenzied minutes he twice tracks the skidding ball out the back of the packs and runs onto it before kicking truly. In between he takes a chest mark on a lead and cheekily sends through a screw punt from distance.

‘”The umpires are human”, what does that mean?’ he asks, reading the sign that, sadly, is now seen as a necessity at all junior football grounds. ‘It means they have a difficult job and we should expect them to make mistakes at roughly the same rate as the rest of us’ I sagely advise the 25 kilos of damp dynamite next to me. As I say that, the opposition’s coach is waving his arms in exasperation at his team manager – he doesn’t understand why the umpire is protecting the kids with the ball from opponents crowding them (no tackling in U8s).

At three quarter time, the two team coaches sensibly agree to pull up goal posts. Everyone’s had a run and the conditions are appalling. We’re not even keeping score let alone playing for sheep stations. On my way to the change rooms, I overhear the other team’s coach discussing the umpiring: ‘we can’t have umpires interpreting the rule differently on different grounds’.

I reckon the umpire did ok. At this level it’s about allowing kids to find their feet. Giving them the room to have a kick without the grinding realities that the introduction of tackling will bring next season. The good players will shine regardless, we want to make sure the others get a chance to be involved too. To get the taste of being part of a team and the benefits associated with that.

The good umpires consider the context of the game along with applying the rules correctly and consistently. Tough job given those things don’t always simply align.

In the changerooms the lads (we are the only junior team at the club without at least one girl) belt out the club song with gusto. They know they’ve played well and as a team. The song is always the best bit of Sunday morning footy, this morning particularly so.

Elliot singing


Later that afternoon – six hours and 33km later


‘The good umpires consider the context of the game along with applying rules correctly and consistently. Tough job given those things don’t always simply align.’

They are the Fates of Greek mythology – Atropos cuts the thread.


FAlmanac banner

About Dave Brown

Upholding the honour of the colony. "Play up Norwoods!"


  1. Rulebook says

    Well done,Dave and as some 1 who umpires roughly that age of footy I entirely agree with you my role is more teacher than umpire and the decision in the bays v legs game shows entirely what is wrong with the game the umpire had no feel for the game what so ever and the instructions being given to the umpires are completely incorrect for the good of the game I reckon I got proven this is spot on

  2. kath presdee says

    In terms of my experience with Umpires at the U10s and U9s levels, the best ones I find are those that are consistent within a game and explain rulings as they go. Some will be stricter than others in some things; others not so much and it helps to know which way an umpiring is going.

    I may not always agree with their decisions, but it helps to know what they decided.

  3. Agree with you about umpires needing to have a feel for game. Sad when adults put their ego needs before the fun and life enjoyment of kids. Happens in so many facets of life.
    Still I can’t help but thinking that you and Rulebook are using umpiring as a fig leaf to hide the implosion of the Norwood Redlegs this season. Why have the mighty fallen so far?

  4. Mark Duffett says

    Just out of interest, where do the umps at your lad’s level come from? I umpired the entirety of my son’s junior footy career purely as a parent pitching in, no Association umpires until under 13s.

    Oh, and don’t talk to me about cold until you’ve run the boundary in snow like I did at Hobart’s TCA Ground last Saturday :)

    Sympathy on the ‘Legs’ loss, too. I can see how the ump arrived at the decision, particularly (as Rulebook has pointed out at length) given how they’re currently instructed, but geez that’s harsh.

  5. Dave do you feel that ex-players might make ‘better’ umpires? Does an empathy with the players assist?

    Mark Fraser ex Essendon and collingwood had a stint as an umpy, as did the St Kilda player whose name i’ve forgot. In cricket it’s quite common for Players to become umpires,Jack Hampshire, Paul Reifell etc. Does thiis make any difference ?


  6. Dave Brown says

    Thanks for the comments, all. It was a bit of an exercise in working through our expectations of umpires and in the end we house expectations they probably cannot meet. This decision is a perfect example. Taken in isolation you see htbs like that one paid regularly – not all the time, but regularly. There’s enough there to pay it. However, in the context of the game where the interpretations had been lenient considering the conditions, only 2 or 3 htbs were paid all day, this decision was inconsistent. For me, then, it’s about trying to be ok with that ambiguity because the world is unlikely ever to change sufficiently to remove that. And there is also a certain infuriating beauty in that ambiguity itself.

    Rulebook, yep, you are a teacher and in many cases junior umpires are also learners. As a result we (should) tolerate errors – but at what point does that stop?

    Yep, absolutely, Kath.

    No fig leaf here, PB. The ‘legs’ fall from the top of the ladder over the last 12 months has had a myriad of causes: injuries, loss of players, getting worked out a bit, comparative lack of fitness and a definite lack of midfield depth and skills. Also, it highlights what a remarkable achievement the 2014 premiership was. They were probably the fourth most talented team in the competition but willed themselves over the line in all three finals. When the fall comes it comes quickly.

    I believe all umpires are coordinated by the football league, Mark (in our case the NEMJFA). At U8s & U9s we only have 1 field and no boundary umps and the fieldy is paid something like $45 a game, half of the cost being met by each team. Sounds like a great experience – I grew up on the soccer fields of Canberra so have a good memory of proper cold.

    I know Rulebook has a very definite opinion on that, Glen!, but I’m not so sure. I think a player may be more likely to have a feel for the game but there’s no guarantee (the classic ABC commentary where a poor decision is made and they go “sometimes you wish the umpire had experience playing the game… oh, it’s Jordan Bannister). Reckon most importantly you need an umpire’s coach that has a good feel for the game and can spot/develop it in others.

  7. Rulebook says

    Dave I have coached and been used as a umpires coach for 1st years over a long period of time personally I think gradual improvement over the 1st year and being competent and confident enough to umpire a game by themselves more than adequately by the end f there second year of umpiring but that also relates to age and self confidence of the individual.Dave you nailed it re the legs this season.
    While I maintain it is a game where it is definitely preferable to have played again it depends on a individuals feel for the game and the coaching instructions which are just so blatantly wrong IMO

  8. Luke Reynolds says

    Dave, I’m full of admiration for anyone who takes up the whistle to umpire the highly interpretive game of Australian Football. No easy task. Especially those helping out junior and Auskick footy with the parents watching on. Yet the AFL umpires and their inconsistencies drive me mad. No easy answer.
    Norwood were stiff….

  9. Dave Brown says

    Thanks, Luke, indeed

  10. Thanks Dave.

    What does it say that umpires are more central to the happiness of many than, for example: bank mangers, priests, politicians, police etc? The folk in white exercise considerable and obvious social power at AFL level, and I’d argue, at junior levels, are mentors and teachers for the kids.

    I was on the wing at Glenelg Sunday afternoon. I was too far away to have a view on that decision, but the rule seemed to be applied inconsistently across the match.

    I’ve not done any footy umpiring, but as it the case, did a fair bit as a cricketer, including a few close finals. It’s tough!

    Well done to the lad on his form too!

  11. Dave Brown says

    Thanks Mickey, we called the lad FIGJAM for the rest of the day (and he was very pleased with this piece).

    Your Bays are hitting form at the right end of the season. Huge game coming up at Elizabeth in a couple of weeks. Hopefully Port start losing again so that can be a battle for 5th spot (although Centrals have West in Round 23 and you have Sturt). Anyone who braved the conditions on Sunday afternoon when the game was on the TV deserves respect..

Leave a Comment