Post World War 2, the dustman’s coat was a euphemism for “work of a sort” favoured by factory supervisors, industrial cleaners, corner grocers, firemen, in fact, any occupation that required the reinforcement of authority in the vocational food chain, that is to say…..anyone who needed to be protected from…….dust. Sometime during this evolution, the dustman’s coat became the moniker of the Australian Rules Goal Umpires. In that now distant past, when it was associated with purity, white was the colour reserved for the central or field umpire, along with the boundary and goal umpires who earnt the now dead epitaph “White Maggot”.
Through world sports, the goal umpire is Australian rules is unique. One single official focuses our anticipation so keenly. Let’s step through the various trends and movements of this special animal.
In the beginning were two thumbs to indicate a goal; one thumb for a behind. Thumbs up. So positive and reaffirming, so Aussie. You’ve scored! Like when your schickered pimply friend manages to talk to a “contender” at the pub, you give them a thumb in encouragement in the optimistic knowledge that the only scoring they’re to do is a headache or a medicare rebate.
Very little is known of the pre 1950’s goal umpiring scene. That’s a PhD, there’s a PhD waiting, so we’ll start post war.
1950s – nihilist period. No running. Barely perceptible casual score signalling as if recognising your Uncle from afar at the rock n roll hit parade dance. Arms slung low close to the body with minimal field umpire eye contact upon the score signal using outstretched somnambulist gestures. Low period in umpire athleticism. Always looks like someone is filling in the role on behalf of the real umpire such is the disinterest and distinct lack of emotional involvement. Pork pie hat is a nod to the progressive disappearance of live vaudeville and the coming of television variety. The soviet winter period for the profession.
1960s – the mod period. The presence of television coverage lifts the self-awareness of goal umpires who now begin to add a little forward soft shoe shuffle to the goal signalling movement and self-assured dramatic forward thumb movement. Now more interventionist, seeking more clarification from the field umpire and often seen running out past the 10 yard square to request the all clear (oft missed request in the 60’s) before trundling back behind the goal line to salute with the thumbs. High water mark is public agony of a grand final Goal umpire lightly toe clipped in the square from a passing player as a goal is scored. After teetering out in the square before teetering with arms outstretched to a full out collapse. As police and players gather concerned about him he gets up and limps back like a wounded wallaby, drops again like a bag of spuds, pushes aside those who again rush to his aid limps forward, sighs and puffs out his chest to give – finally – the two thumbs. This decade is the climax of the traditional white coat and broad-brimmed hat seemingly inhabited by blind elderly men with splints on their forearms.
1970s – the mustache era. You can see the dustcoat slowly morph in transition to something ever slightly more formal, yet the 2am storeroom shit kicker behind a broom feel still lingers.
Now shortened and custom fitted the coat changes represent a shift to a more formalist approach reflecting the post war affluence where virtually everyone in the metropolis has a personal tailor rather than trainer.
It’s during this period that the two relentless thumbs disappear in favour of two outstretched index fingers in a victory for civil society. It’s here with the nation’s over regulation begins. A more youthful official is in place coming down off Country Joe and the Fish and the whole Americana revival penchant for facial hair.
1980s – the performance era. When the shoeshine boy gets into the market, it’s time to get out was the buzz in the mid eighties as we rode a stock market boom to hell. The bullish economy informed the smouldering man about town dandyism that was the ’80’s goal umpire. Early in the decade the jacket reaches the high water mark of fashion in goal umpiring genre, finally making the transition from dust coat to white business jacket (a white sports coat if you will).
Personally, this is the climax of the role as officiating strays continually into posing and drama, rapid unnecessary boundary runs to cut angles and long delays in signalling to ramp up anticipation. The two fingers are delivered whiplash style onto the snare drum that is “all clear”. Personal grooming, hat placement, deportment, personal authority and a rock hard tie knot are the symbols of an elite breed at the top of their game.
Here is a magnificent example of the 80’s genre:
1990 – transition. In time the poseur inherent in 80’s goal umpiring depreciates to the economic rationalism of a re-emphasis on signalling the goal. During this decade Katrina Pressley becomes the first female goal umpire in the AFL.
2000s – the athlete era. All showmanship has been erased. The jacket is done replaced by a dayglo tshirt and baseball style cap. Anyone over 40 can forget entry to these ranks.
Today – positioning is king/queen. They rarely stray outside the goal posts. Decision making has become indecisive. Any ambiguity and they’re running out to the central umpire. Field umpires now wearing lavelier microphones, Goal umpires wearing GoPros. HD cameras gaffered to the goal posts. Contentious decisions go upstairs to a couple of jokers upstairs with 4 widescreen television sets and a gravel voiced MC whom the jokers try to keep off the no name supermarket goon long enough to proclaim at the end of the process “Score review complete – Umpires call”.
With the goal review system we have the arrival of an enforced workplace democracy for our esteemed flag men now reduced to second guessing in their decision-making by the potential for having their pants pulled down as the wisdom of the crowd assesses the slow motion reply. Once the province of their own domain behind the goal square, they’re now forced to participate and justify themselves endlessly in peer review style problem solving where even the once lowly boundary umpire is given liberty to offer opinions as an equal in the goal adjudication process. Shame AFL hierarchy. Shame.
The last word must go to this post from the this Big Footy forum from traditionalists cobbling a manifesto to retrieve the glories of umpiring past. It reads:
A goal umpire must:
Wear a butchers / lab coat
Wear a tie
Wear a ‘proper’ hat
Have a big moustache
Pause prior to signalling a big goal, then smile when the two fingers are given
Hold the scorecard as far as possible from their body when pencilling in a goal
Run quickly towards the point post giving it the “spirit finger” treatment when the ball rolls out of bounds