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Where is the Umpire?

by Keith Campbell, exclusive for AFANA

In other football sports the Referees with the sin bin and send-off rule have much greater authority than the umpires in our game and their laws are not so open to interpretation.  It all began in the Melbourne Football Club rule set [1] laid down in the first season in May 1859 which listed 10 rules. There was no mention of an umpire to control the actual game.  Obviously the Captains were required to do the job. Was this planned or an oversight?   This situation was partially resolved 12 months later in May 1860, when more rule revisions [2] were introduced and Rule 11 was added, and the term "Umpire" was used for the first time in official rules: 

Rule 11 read as follows:

In case of deliberate infringement of any of the above Rules by either side, the Captain of the opposite side may claim that any one of his party may have a free kick from the place where the breach of Rule was made; the two Captains in all cases, save when Umpires are appointed, to be the sole Judges of infringements.

The July 1859 Geelong Clubs rule set [3] had already included the definite use of umpires; however the Melbourne Football club had the ascendancy politically in the Colony so its rules had won the day for now.

The use of the term umpire was a link to the game of Cricket. It appears that players were appealing about the rules during the matches to the respective captains. The action of appealing would have brought to the captains attention that a protocol officially designating another official to control the matches was needed.  At that time and in later years a lot of shouting would go on when the players were claiming marks and disputing decisions.

In these early years there were only a few games being played each season, and there was plenty of experimenting going on with the rules and the officials.  If an umpire was present he was to be provided by the 2 teams involved in each match.   In 1866 delegates of the 4 clubs playing regularly in Melbourne met and issued a new rule set
[4] written by Henry Colvin Harrison. This rule set also saw a change of name for this new sport to Victorian Rules Football.

Rule 12 of this new set read: 

Before the commencement of a match each side shall appoint an umpire, and they shall be the sole judges of goals and breaches of the rules. The nearest umpire shall be appealed to in every case of dispute.

As the process of trial and error continued with the rules and the game generally it has been found that these rules were already in practice before they were added officially.  We can only ponder how impartial each club umpire appointment would have been.  As football historians have noted this was the first instance of the 2 central umpire system. It appears that the captains wanted to concentrate on playing by this period. 

This rule met opposition from at least 2 of the 4 clubs in July of 1866, as was reported by The Australasian
[5] at the time. The newspaper report said they now wanted a single field umpire independent of the competing teams.   Probably compromise probably ruled the day, and the rule was retained by the all of the clubs. There was no formal body set up to govern the game at this time for a binding decision anyhow. 

There were informal meetings being held by the clubs during each season to discuss revisions. We now move forward 8 seasons to 1874.   Delegates from the now expanded to 6 clubs in Melbourne met and drew up another rule set revision
[6] based on their past experiences with the existing rules.

Rule 2 was changed to read: 

The Captains on each side shall toss for choice of Goal, the side losing the toss, or a Goal, has the kick off from the centre point between the Goals. When half the time arranged for play has expired, the sides shall change ends, and the ball be thrown in the air by the Umpire in the centre of the ground.

This revision saw the field umpire now getting involved in the half time re-start for the first time. Prior to this a kick-off from the centre spot was the usual half-time re-starting. The throw up of the ball would be around permanently in the game from this point on.

Rule 11 was changed to read:

In case of infringement of any of the above Rules, any player of the opposite side may claim that any one of his party may have a free kick from the place where the breach of Rule was made. The Umpire’s decision shall in every case be final, and the Clubs disputing the same shall lose the match.

and Rule 12 to:

Before the commencement of a match each side shall appoint a Goal Umpire, and they shall be the sole Judges of Goals and of cases of the ball going behind Goal. A Field Umpire shall also be appointed who shall decide all other matters, and may appeal to the Goal Umpire.

These 2 rules reduced the number of field umpires to 1 and increased the field umpires authority, and added 2 goal umpires.  Rule 11 made it quite plain that the field umpire had the power to disqualify a club if necessary or abandon the game for players disputing his decisions.  Perhaps we can say now his powers were at their greatest at any time in the games history.  The reduction back to 1 field umpire was not a surprise. However a fundamental problem still existed. Who was to provide the same umpire who technically had to be neutral in his decisions? 

It appears that older independent players were eventually recruited for the job by the individual clubs. The adding of 1 goal umpire from each side saw very closely observed decisions being made in the goal area. It is interesting that the field umpire could also appeal on disputed goals after discussion with the goal umpire.    Another new football word was about to created. The “behind” as in going behind the goal.  The field umpires duties had been reduced by the adding of goal umpires who would likely keep the scores from their own end we think, and/or pass them over to the field umpire.

His duties
[7] in 1874:

  • Inspect the football supplied.
  • Supervise the toss of the coin with the captains
  • Start the match
  • Control the match
  • Throw the ball in from the boundary
  • Half time re-starts
  • Finish
  • Keep the time on the usual 2 x 50 minute halves from a pocket watch.
  • Possibly obtain the scores as well from the goal umpires?

At that time the game itself was played slowly by today’s standards so the umpire would have had time to carry out his duties. Apparently the umpire used to walk quickly around following the game, making rulings on decisions and disputes, and throwing the ball in went it went out of bounds. However change was coming for the field umpire as more marking and longer kicking in the sport was on the horizon. His life on the field was about to get busier.


[1] 1859 Melbourne Football Club Rule set - State Library of Victoria



[2] 1860 Melbourne Football Club Rule set - Everything you wanted to know about Australian Rules football – Graeme Atkinson – The Five Mile Press  



[3] 1859 Geelong Football Club Rule set - Ibid



[4] 1866 Victorian Rules set - State Library of Victoria



[5] The Australasian newspaper July 7 1866



[6] 1874 Victorian Rules set – State Library of Victoria



[7] The authors own observations





Article last changed on Wednesday, August 08, 2018 - 8:14 PM EDT

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