Phil McGrath believes the best way to stare down angry supporters from across the boundary fence is “with a little smile”.
The veteran umpire began adjudicating football matches in Melbourne in 1987, long before a code of conduct for players and supporters was introduced.
It was not unusual for him to report multiple players in a game, or to negotiate with a coach to keep a player in the forward line and off the ball because said player was threatening to kill one of the umpires.
“You did get those times where you’d think ‘Oh jeez, are we going to get out of here or not?’,” McGrath says.
But he has always enjoyed the challenge and has carried with him a simple philosophy to local football umpiring.
“I’ve got 36 guys out there under my jurisdiction, and I want to get all those guys to work on Monday,” McGrath says.
He says respect for umpires has improved a lot since the introduction of a code of conduct and clubs are more supportive of umpiring.
But with some leagues still struggling to find enough umpires, McGrath says the key to survival is involving young people in umpiring and supporting them, so they are not “thrown to the wolves”.
As a member of the Ballarat Football Umpires Association (BFUA), which has been operating since 1913, 19-year-old apprentice carpenter Brendan Rider says he’s been well prepared to handle the pressure of his first senior game.
“You’ve got to stand up for yourself,” he says.
“It’s a good skill to have — a lot of people don’t develop that until they’re older.”
But for Rider, the pay is the big drawcard.
“You get paid to get fit,” he says.
Before he turned 18, he earned $5000 from umpiring and put it towards his first car.
Rider says joining the BFUA has been a great way to meet people and he enjoys the social aspect of umpiring.
He says abuse is an issue, but it is usually forgotten after the match.
“After every game we go into the home rooms and we all have a drink together,” he says.
The BFUA currently has 330 umpires registered, while across the state there are 6650 registered community football umpires, according to AFL Victoria.
Without them there is no game.