THE history of Australian Rules football goes back more than 160 years; and yet, the umpire, one of the most important aspects of our game, doesn’t go back anywhere near as far.
In fact, the game Tom Wills created didn’t have them.
For an extended period of time in the early days of the sport, the rules were enforced by the two captains on the field.
They would decide what was a free kick and what wasn’t.
Could you imagine in 2019 the raft of rules within the game being enforced purely by captains?
Obviously, this didn’t work, and by the mid-1880s umpires were used in all organised games.
Fast forward to 2019, where the umpire is now an inescapably essential part of the sport.
Alan Aylward, Rochester Echuca Football Umpires Association president, said there were now more and more people picking up the whistle.
The organisation currently has about 60 members umpiring in multiple leagues across the region.
“We’ve seen it grow a lot in the past 10 years,” he said.
“A key area where we are seeing growth is that a lot of young people and a lot of women are getting involved in the umpiring side of football.
‘‘I think that’s really important because they are groups that probably haven’t been as heavily involved in the sport as we would have liked.”
The other key area has been demographic – the umpires association has seen a surge in women’s participation, mimicking the upward trend of female players following the introduction of AFLW.
“I think the sport has become a lot more accommodating for women in recent seasons,” Aylward said.
“It’s simple things such as clubs in the region building female umpires rooms. That level of respect to the women in our game is fantastic.
“Football is very aware of the role women can play in our game, and we hope that will continue to grow and more women will join the ranks as umpires.”
“Now we have the opportunity to bring these groups more into the fold and to strengthen the umpiring stocks in the region.”
The opportunities are there for those in the region who are willing to take them.
Siblings Shaylee and Jack Anderson are two such examples.
Shaylee is a boundary umpire, in her third year, and came to the game purely for the love of it.
“I was trying out for netball and ended up getting hurt, so while I was recovering someone suggested that I umpire. I came along and gave it a go and it has become a major passion of mine.
“I always loved footy and wanted to be involved in the game, but unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to at the time, so umpiring became my way to be a part of the game.”
Shaylee said she loved the running side of the game, so the role of boundary umpire worked perfectly for her.
In her estimation she often covers 14km a game.
“I gave the central umpire role a crack at one stage, but you move around more in the centre and don’t get to cover the same kind of distance that you do as a boundary umpire, so I decided that wasn’t for me.”
It wasn’t the same case for her brother.
Jack, who at 13 has been a field umpire for three years, found the game more out of a desire to be active.
“I wanted a way to stay active during the winter, so I ended up in this sport. I really enjoy being in control and having an active role in the game.”
And it’s hardly a job that has drawn high praise throughout its history.
Umpires are on a weekly basis subjected to taunting and attack – from players and spectators.
FORTUNATELY for our young umpires, their youth may be working in their favour.
“I don’t really cop much from the players,” Jack said.
“When I make a decision on the field, I don’t really have anyone arguing with me about what I have said. The players usually just take the decision and get on with the game.”
Aylward said it was certainly an advantage.
“No one is going to yell at a kid,” he laughed.
“But I actually think having a young person in that position as an umpire stops people from just flying off in anger at the decision. Instead they make the decision to think about what has happened and it calms them down.
“It’s tough enough having to make these calls during a game without having someone yelling at you for the decisions that you have made.
“So we are lucky the players and fans are very respectful towards our up and coming umpires.”
Jack’s highlight so far has been umpiring a reserves grand final.
Preparation for umpiring isn’t that much different for the players at this time of year – a hell of a lot of running.
“We are going to running training with school and with the club, as well as doing training in our own time,” Shaylee said.
“We just work hard at everything we do to make sure we get the best out of ourselves on game day.”
Shaylee said she wanted to keep working her way up with her umpiring, and had her sights set on the big time.
“I want to be the first female boundary umpire in the AFL,” she said.
“It would be a pretty amazing moment if I did.”
But her brother wasn’t so sure.
“I want a senior game by the end of this season if I can, but I’m not sure if I want to go to the AFL. I have a lot of time to work for it and to decide if that is the path that I want to go down.”
The association is proud of its youth.
“They really are the heart and soul of the club,” Aylward said.
“Like any association in any sport we need that development to continue to grow. We build from the base up.
“Like all associations we have issues when kids get to 18 and finish school, so we see how important it is to get them into the sport young.
“Seeing them develop and hopefully get to the top level is so special, but not everyone wants to go to that level, so what we want is to continue to develop them as much as we can.”