I must admit, it was a strange feeling putting on the green shirt for the first time and striding out alongside Pete Marshall for my umpiring debut yesterday.
But after tossing the ball into the air to start yesterday’s Women’s Division 1 match between Hallam and Oakleigh District, I felt as if I had been doing it for years.
After many years spent enjoying football as a player and a spectator, I was finally getting a different perspective of the game.
The idea was the brain child of SFNL Head Field Umpire Coach Jonathon Auditore, who saw the exercise a great promotional tool for the SFNL Umpires Association.
What better way to celebrate Community Umpiring Round and pump up the SFNL umpires than to have the Media Officer of the league officiate a game of SFNL footy and write a yarn about his experience?
Of course, I obliged.
I went down to my first umpire training session a week and a half ago with no expectations. And given I knew probably only about a quarter of the umpire group on the track that Thursday night, I’ll admit to a few feelings of awkwardness.
But after Marshy introduced me to the group, the fellow umpires were quick to welcome me.
The umpires often speak of themselves as a team, as the SFNL’s 37th club. Having now been amongst their inner sanctum, I now understand what they mean. While it is a different atmosphere to a footy club, the comradery, team work and encouragement amongst the group remains the same, with all umpires working with each other to achieve a common goal.
And despite the wide age range and eclectic mix of personalities that exists within the group, the one common denominator is that they all just love their footy. To that end, it was fantastic to mix it with a great bunch of like-minded people and it has certainly changed my perceptions of umpires.
Fast forward a week and a half, and my big day had finally arrived.
Hallam Reserve was in pristine condition for the big game and bathed in glorious sunshine. Put simply, they were perfect conditions for footy.
There were no pre-game nerves, but plenty of excitement. Even SFNL CEO Mike Palmer and Board Member David Coutts turned up to lend their support.
Having the experienced Marshy out there was a blessing, and he coached me through some of the technical aspects of umpiring. Having followed AFL since I was little tacker, I’d like to think I have a thorough understanding of the rules, however, my lack of umpire experience meant my positioning and communication needed some work. But with Marshy’s guidance, I got better as the game wore on.
It was as close as I’ve been to the footy since my playing days, and it was absolutely fantastic. I had front row seats to all the action, which included some ripping contested grabs by Emily McIntyre and sizzling goals by Bayley Mifsud.
I tried to umpire the game as I like to see it played, only paying the clear and obvious free kicks and letting the girls play footy. And despite the one-sided score line, it was a terrific game of footy played in great spirits.
But then, just before half time, disaster.
My left calf had blown out and I pulled up like I had been shot. “The sniper has claimed another victim!” Coutts later declared. And having spent so much time with the rehab group during my underwhelming playing career, I knew immediately I was in trouble.
I hobbled around for an excruciating 90 seconds before the sweet relief of the half time siren.
My day was done, and I was disappointed and embarrassed in equal measure. It was hardly the way I had envisaged the day panning out.
With ice strapped to my torn baby moo cow, I watched Marshy umpire the second half by himself, in a throwback to the halcyon days of the veteran in his prime.
But despite the disappointing and painful end to my afternoon, I absolutely loved the experience, which I’ll admit came as a surprise to me.
I have never pictured myself as an umpire, but would I get out there with the whistle again? Absolutely. It is a different experience to playing the game that’s for sure, but it’s no less enjoyable. Perhaps when my calf is good to go in maybe 6-8 weeks’ time, I might pick up the whistle again and give it another shot.
I have previous promoted the merits of umpiring as a career, but now having been there are done that, I can speak from experience that it is not only great fun, but an awesome way to keep involved in footy once your playing days are up.
I cannot speak highly enough of the group and the coaches, and if anybody is interested in getting involved in footy and wanting to earn a bit of cash on the side, I encourage you to consider taking up the whistle.
And after the last couple of weeks, I think might be one of the converted.