True umpiring trailblazer

July 14, 2017

Glenn James umpired 166 games of VFL footy between 1977 and 1984 and remains the only indigenous VFL/AFL umpire to have ever officiated a game.

Greater Shepparton Sports Hall of Fame

Imagine telling Robert Flower, Robert DiPierdomenico or Mark ‘‘Jacko’’ Jackson to ease up on the football field.

That was Glenn James’ life for the eight years he spent umpiring in the Victorian Football League, directing players double his size and dealing with the fallback.

But the indigenous umpire was quick on his feet, quicker with his wit and maintains he never made a wrong decision.

Officiating 166 games in the top tier, James’ first VFL grand final came in 1982, with a smile on the umpire’s face as he put his hands in the air to signal play was about to start.

Not long into Carlton’s grand final win against Richmond that year there was a brawl, with James returning to umpire his second grand final in 1984 with plenty of hot heads featuring in the Essendon and Hawthorn line-ups.

But James said when the players focused on the football, he was in the best position to watch the game at a packed MCG.

‘‘I had the best seat in the house for the Essendon-Hawthorn grand final,’’ he said.

‘‘There was a bit of biff that went on, but after they got rid of that frustration they went on and did play some pretty good footy and played one-on-one with each other, not like today when they close the game up and move into packs.’’

But being the one of the best field umpires in the state did not mean only being fixtured to VFL matches.

‘‘The Ovens and Murray grand final was a week before the (VFL) grand final, so they’d send you there for a break, to drop the level of intensity,’’ he said.

‘‘After the grand final in Melbourne then you’d get the grand final in the Hampden league and Portland and Mount Gambier.’’

James’ umpiring career began in 1970 shortly after returning from fighting in the Vietnam War.

James was called up to national service, joining in 1968 and spending a year in Vietnam between 1969 and 1970, where he was based at Nui Dat.

Before that, he was working in Shepparton as an apprentice carpenter, returning following his time at war to play footy for Lemnos in 1970.

He had previously played with Wunghnu in 1963-64 before joining the Swans in 1965.

But his playing days were over after breaking his jaw in 1970, the year Lemnos defeated Kyabram in the Goulburn Valley League grand final.

A specialist doctor travelling to Tocumwal to see patients stopped at Mooroopna and District Base Hospital on the way and upon seeing James’ X-rays and told him he would have to take a break from contact sport.

‘‘He went through the X-ray and saw my X-ray and he drove around to my place, I was out the back getting ready to mow the lawn, and he said ‘you’ve got to come with me’ and I had my teeth wired up and was in a bit of pain, but that was it,’’ James said.

‘‘I was fond of being fit, so I became involved with the local umpires.’’

His first senior game came in unusual circumstances, dragged from a reserves match to step up and umpire in the Goulburn Valley League seniors.

‘‘I was umpiring a game between Shepparton and Euroa in the seconds, with the initiation into umpiring I was doing all the B-grade and C-grade games,’’ James said.

‘‘I was actually on the ground and Col McNamara, the president of Shepp, was running out onto the ground and I was thinking ‘what’s he bloody doing?’ and he said ‘you’ve got to come, you’ve got to go down to Lemnos and umpire the senior game over there’.’’

The umpire assigned to the game from Melbourne was involved in accident on the way to the match, leaving James with a chaotic initiation into the top grade.

But with James stepping up to umpire his old club, he had an ally in club president Bill Hunter.

‘‘He kicked up the biggest fuss and said if they (players) gave me any trouble (he’d deal with them), otherwise the game wouldn’t have gone ahead,’’James said.

The game was decided on the last kick of the match, with a Kyabram player sending the ball out of bounds on the full.

By 1973, James was on the senior list of umpires, being sent to country leagues across the state to officiate grand finals, including in the Goulburn Valley.

That would be the beginning of his career as the only indigenous umpire the VFL/AFL has still ever had in its top ranks.

After umpiring his second VFL grand final in 1984, James was named Victorian Aborigine of the Year, and an Order of Australia Medal followed in 1987.

His distinguished honours stemmed from a start in commission housing in Shepparton and Mooroopna.

As one of 14 children, he remembers those times fondly, socialising with plenty of friendly people in the community.

They would all pack into the television room to watch gangster show The Untouchables, having to put a couple of bob in the coin-operated television to keep it running.

But the experiences there would set him up for his post-umpiring career, still being stopped in the streets of Melbourne where he lives.

‘‘I stop and have a chat and the grandkids say ‘keep walking Grandpa’, they’d be circling like a shark (but) I pretty much talk to everybody — that’s what Mum and Dad taught,’’ James said.

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