“Do we have a whistle lying around?”
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a column about umpiring. I wrote about some of my on-field experiences with the men in charge and some of my memories of when it was me with the whistle in hand.
As a result, I was invited down to umpires’ training by one of my old coaches, Wayne Campbell, who now heads the AFL umpiring department. It was a fascinating and unique footy experience.
Walking into any football club that’s not my own always makes me feel a little uneasy. Footy clubs are places of tribal or spiritual significance; to walk the corridors of someone else’s club is a privilege and one that I’d hate to disrespect.
That’s probably the first thing that struck me as I took my seat with the umpires this week – it felt every bit the football club.
The room where we congregated was almost identical to the one I’m used to at the Bulldogs, where each week we go through the performance review process. Wayne introduced me and I took my seat among the 40 or so umpires. Being a perceptive type, I noticed straight away that I was the only person in the room not wearing a footy jumper.
‘I found myself feeling all at sea trying to watch through their eyes the madness of an AFL game taking place around them.’
For the umps this was a footy-themed night, and their jumpers covered a broad spectrum from Leongatha Parrots all the way back to a Campberwell lace-up from 1978. I should have twigged then – it was going to be a night of opposites, of walking in another’s shoes.
Hayden Kennedy started the review, showing various stats and giving a summary of the umpiring for the weekend. I was struck by the language more than the numbers, with everything centred around a single word: “we”.
“We had a successful bounce-down rate of 84 per cent.” “We were able to adjust from last week and hold the whistle just that bit longer.” It was only early in the review and I was already confronted with some prejudices of my own. Do I see umpires as one team or do I see them as a team of three on match day? Or worse, as individuals?
From spending just a short time with them, I wasn’t left wondering how they see themselves. They are a team, a club. I know from first-hand experience that a team in any sport is at its most potent when it feels like it’s them against the world. The umpires wouldn’t have to manufacture this very often, given the hard time they get from the outer, but what a sense of camaraderie that must build if you’re a part of their inner sanctum.
The review moved on to some vision from the weekend and, as I suspected, there was as much focus on their positioning on the ground as the free kicks paid. For the umpires it was business as usual, but I found myself feeling all at sea trying to watch through their eyes the madness of an AFL game taking place around them. So many things to think of at once, like driving a tractor with five clutches.
The vision rolled on and a handful of holding the ball decisions played out. The skill of when to call it, when to hold for another moment and when to let play continue is a most delicate balance, and perhaps the most crucial for an umpire. Only once in the review did I shift in my seat.
A player picked up the ball, was tackled immediately and, with one arm already pinned, the ball was held to his stomach where he couldn’t knock it out. The free kick was paid against him, and in the review this was declared “the correct decision” by coach Kennedy.
I couldn’t help myself. I put my hand up and asked the room of umpires if anyone else believed there was at least some grey in the call. There were a variety of views on this one decision, highlighting again just how hard this game is to play and adjudicate.
We all headed out on to Visy Park under lights for a football training session run by Wayne and myself. Wayne asked me what drills we should do, I gave him one off the top of my head, then asked, “Do we have a whistle lying around?” There was silence for a moment before we huddled close, laughing as Wayne replied: “I reckon we’ve got a few whistles lying around.”
Bryan Sheehan asked me what I thought of the standard and I told him the umpires kicked better than players can bounce. When a competitive tackling drill started up, it was no surprise to see Ray Chamberlain explode with enthusiasm. He is a feisty one.
The session concluded with the umpires pairing off into two teams with me as the central umpire. I lifted the ball high above my head, blew my whistle and bounced the ball hard into the greasy turf. It sailed high and straight and I was filled with an enormous sense of excitement. The umpires barely noticed as they were off chasing the ball, handballing and kicking goals.
As the ball flew from one end of the ground to the other, I shuffled up and back to get a better position and finally my moment in the sun arrived. A strong tackle was laid, no attempt was made to get rid of it, and the begging faces of the whistle men looked towards me.
I put the whistle to my lips and blew. Then I paused, letting the moment hang in the air for as long as I could. Then I signalled dropping the ball with a big swoosh of both arms.
Even with a crowd of 10 or 15 onlookers, it felt just as good as I thought it would. It topped off a weird and pretty wonderful evening.
This article was originally published in The Age and can be accessed here.