Where have the characters gone?

Sage advice: Twenty-five years ago Len Hort, shown here before umpiring his 300th match, offered me some advice on one of the rare occasions he had the whistle away from his lips. I fondly recall many interactions with him and his umpiring cohorts from the past. Photo by None

“Just shut up and get a touch’’ — these words still bring a smile to my face when I recall one of my more frustrating onfield experiences, caused as much by my inability to touch the leather as by the close-checking opponent of that particular Saturday afternoon.

At the time I didn’t feel the same way, but watching from afar as the debate rages on the treatment of umpires and the recent rule changes to ensure a greater respect is afforded to the decision-makers forced me to put pen to paper (in keeping with the old-school tone of the article).

The words did not come from an opponent, teammate, spectator (although there were plenty of them willing to offer advice from the cheap seats) or member of my team’s coaching panel — they came from one of the more colourful characters of the Goulburn Valley umpiring fraternity.

I am absolutely positive that I was not the only one on the end of one of his sharp retorts, probably in reply to my unnecessary cries of foul play.

It was just one of the many interactions I, and anyone else who played in the 1980s, 1990s, even into the 2000s, would have experienced on a regular winter’s day when — in my opinion — respect was earned, not expected.

Maybe that’s a bit of an old-school viewpoint, but I rarely missed an after-match drink with the same man who offered the direct remark in response to my pleas for a little more protection from my opponent.

It has taken me a while to enter the umpiring debate, but I couldn’t resist any longer as my favourite talkback sports radio presenters have spent almost a month talking about outstretched arms, head shaking and the penalties these once everyday gestures now attract.

I’m not all that interested in entering into the debate about rule changes or the state of the game. It doesn’t particularly worry me the way an umpire views a player’s intention to keep the ball in the field of play and whether a 360° spin constitutes holding the ball.

I am more interested in the umpires as people, not untouchable or unapproachable specimens who need Armaguard to get on and off the ground or require constant changes in the rules in order to protect them from the response of playing personnel to their decision-making.

Political correctness, being considered “woke” and an increased emphasis on empathy are three of the reasons we are embroiled in the latest Australian Rules football crisis.

I’m not saying the debate is wrong, I am just interested in presenting a viewpoint from the past — one which many people will suggest should stay there — but nonetheless while I have the floor, here it is.

Questioning an umpire’s decision, verbally or with body language, is now an offence that carries a far more significant team penalty than it ever has.

Back when this particular “man in white’’ — and that was the only colour they wore back then — was questioned he had the confidence and without doubt, the willingness, to offer a reply.

I understand, with today’s concentration — and rightly so — on the mental health of people in society that there is probably no place for this type of aggressive response to a player’s query in regard to a decision, or in this case, a non decision.

But I am not sure I agree with the removal of interaction all together. Maybe it is the only option, given the almost annual alteration to rules — some for the better and others for the worse — to the game most of us 50-something-year-olds grew up loving and playing.

It is probably the reason I have enjoyed listening to “Razor’’ Ray Chamberlain’s regular commentary on his decision-making process to bewildered players on the wrong end of the free kick allocation.

Now I am probably far enough into the article to assume those who aren’t interested will have fallen off by now, so let’s start naming some people.

Lenny Hort, then dark-haired and barrel-chested, and who umpired with the cheeky tone of voice and matching smirk, was the man to offer the words that kicked off my opinion piece.

He was one of a string of umpires from my playing days, and no doubt for many other district footballers, with whom I had regular on field “conversations’’.

Funnily enough two of my former school teachers were among those who also took up umpiring. Many Echuca people will remember Jeff Berry and some may even have experienced the man with thicker thighs than most mud-running mid-fielders — Wayne Leppard.

Berry was a former Footscray and Richmond footballer, a former Kyabram and Echuca senior football coach, and, I felt at least, a good umpire.

He has an Ian Coates Memorial Award, the umpiring equivalent of the Goulburn Valley Umpires Association best and fairest, to prove it. Can’t see Wayne on the list anywhere.

Berry could always manage a smile, as did some of my other favourites — who I am sure rubbed many footballers from that golden era the same way.

Eric Williams, another winner of the award was great, as was Bernie Mullane and Ian Stoneman.

Maybe I am disconnected from reality, and insults — or constructive criticism, as we referred to them — were par for the course.

Needless to say I rarely offered the same advice to Bayden Brunier if he happened to be the man carrying the whistle.

I’d watched as a teenager his work as a player for Lemnos several years earlier, which curtailed my interest in entering into any sort of debate with the moustached man mountain.

Names like “Killer’’ Kealy and Peter ‘’Rags’’ Tampion bring a smile to my face as I recall some of the often brief but effective responses to my pleas for assistance.

Funnily enough two of my former teammates, one who coached a premiership I was involved in 28 years ago, moved into umpiring after retiring from their playing duties.

One of those, Darren Meek, is a two-time winner of the Ian Coates award, and for those who remember him as a player, was never shy at offering his opinion to the umpire.

Now I think about it he even had a bit of Collingwood’s Jack Ginnivan — to offer a modern-day perspective — about him. A goalsneak who could throw his head back with the best of them if he felt the slightest brush of an opponent’s hand across his shoulder.

Darren Brock, a big centre half forward who played in four premierships, was another of my former teammates who moved down the road of umpiring.

My final assessment: I understand that the past is the past, there will be no turning back on how we are now expected to talk to each other, treat each other and understand each other’s feelings — but I still miss the old days.