It is a rare game of footy when I know more of the umpires than the players. But then, it has become rare for me to watch any football, even in the national competition, let alone the local level.
Family, work and study are the three main causes for this, but I’ve also been more interested in cricket for several years as my sense of internationalism in that sport has grown exponentially in that time.
So, when I walked the short distance to Blundstone Arena to catch the last half of an underage match between Clarence and Lauderdale on Easter Saturday morning, it was as a stranger to the game.
I was determined to relearn the sport of AFL, this time through an autodidactic education. Not as a football fan who had always watched it on television because for as long as he could remember it was on television, but as a writer seeking to explain what he had seen to his readers.
Authority is an interesting concept in sport. Most of the time, it is based on assumption. One could liken them to goalposts in that you can see how that assumption is visually obvious.
The expert commentator has proliferated because their experience of playing the game is assumed to give them an ideal breeding ground to explain the game.
Which is, in some cases, undoubtedly true, as some former players use their experience as players to enhance the viewer experience, yet to assume that to be universally true would be mistaken.
David Foster Wallace’s essay, How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart, is a decent starting place to understanding why. In seeking to explain why her autobiography had disappointed him so much, he concluded:
It may well be that we spectators, who are not as divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able truly to see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift that we are denied. And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it – not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.
Richie Benaud’s minimalistic touch appealed to many cricket fans because when he could not say anything to improve what we had seen with our own eyes, he did not say anything at all.
Not for nothing could Gideon Haigh argue at the ICC History Conference in July 2009 that he was the key figure in the evolution of cricket commentary, in that, as their ilk increasingly showed the strains of commercialism, he was the one man beholden to those very same concerns who least betrayed their power on his commentary. He did not stand between you and the story, or at least, it didn’t feel like he did.
Back in 1993, when Stuart Littlemore was hosting Media Watch, one of the shows was where in which the theme of the main item was: “The television news reporter, not as presenter of the facts, but who stands between us and the story, usually blocking our view.”
Now, does that sound familiar to all the people who are reading this who have ever been frustrated with the television commentary on any sport?
Free-to-air television in Australia has played an important role, ever since its invention, in keeping sport relevant in Australia.
We have come to take for granted the technical excellence of the coverage, to the point where it seems the main aim of administrators is to try and replicate the television viewer’s experience to enhance the experience of the spectator who is at the ground.
It is understandable why, but perhaps that laudable goal is mistaken. That lovely old scoreboard at the Adelaide Oval always give you a fuller explanation of the cricket score throughout the day than what the electronic scoreboards at any of the other grounds.
A fixed position is one of the more enfeebling aspects of the spectator experience, as it can mean that you are in a position far away from the action depending on the play. One of the benefits of going to a local match is that it empowers the spectator who wishes to go mobile, but it does not enable their every wish as television does.
You can choose which position of the ground you wish to view the game from, but you must be watching the game more closely than if you were watching on television if you want to be in the right position, nice and close to the action.
At Blundstone Arena, it took me two minutes to figure out where that position was, which was on Clarence’s half-forward flank, in the Western Stand in the bay closest to the Members. Of course, not every part of the action occurred in my immediate vicinity. But it was the spectator’s spot to be.
When the ball was not near that part of the field, I reflected that, while I did not know any of the players, I did know a few of the umpires, as they are underage players at my local cricket club.
Sensibly, there was an older umpire on the field moving with the ball, in case of any unfortunate situations that they may have struggled with due to their inexperience.
Thankfully, there was none, at least in the time I was present.
Umpires are very rarely more familiar than the players to the spectator. Spectators being more likely to have playing than umpiring experience, they have formed a coalition, in more sports than cricket and footy, for there to be a non-human expert element in umpiring.
Which is not entirely unjustified: technology should be used to improve the umpiring of any sport, and when the camera doesn’t lie, an umpire’s mistakes can look foolish.
Yet the eye can lie, such as when it seduces me into thinking money in my wallet can fly for a pie, and too many of those who want to change umpiring do it with the other eye closed, not because they think a third eye might have prevented a mistake.
Mistakes from an authority are more likely to be assumed as plausible when no previous experience is obviously apparent. But at the local footy, the authorities are not the luminaries who are on our television screens.
They are people who are likely to have life experiences far more relatable to our own lives, who make quickly forgotten proclamations from the stands and remind you that, just occasionally, you do need that extra voice to improve your sporting education.
In the third quarter, Lauderdale’s backline was fighting a losing battle against a Clarence team that was repeatedly sending the ball straight back in whenever they managed to a rebound the ball outside the fifty.
At one point, one of their players took a strong mark. A woman seated near me proclaimed, “He’s been fighting hard all day, Number 21.”
I decided to test the validity of her statement over the next five minutes, a plan which was promptly flushed down the toilet as he proceeded to run from the ground to have a spell on the interchange bench. But later in the match, during the final quarter, he played well enough to affirm the truth of the elderly lady’s words.
Preparation is key for any player, good or bad, in any sport, and often separates the best from the rest. One interesting fact I was reminded of when the players went to the three-quarter time break and the Reserves came onto the ground to do part of their warm-up, is football’s allowance for another team to practice for a forthcoming match while the preceding match is still occurring.
Their ability to use the ground during a break in play contrasts with what happens during a T20 weekend in club cricket, in that, if you are participating in one of the later matches, and the match preceding your own lasts the maximum duration or close enough to it, there is no such break in play to allow for that to happen.
Teams must find enough space outside the ground to practice, until such time as they can use the oval.
Teams also require volunteers to do tasks like running the drinks, and this is where I would like to thank the gentleman who took a genuine interest in who I was going for and that I enjoy my day as I was walking into the ground.
As far as I could gather, he was one of the runners for one of the two matches preceding the one I watched. Football, like other games, is at its strongest when the spirit of community shines through. He made me think about who I was going for, why I was there, because the reason he was there was simply because he loved the game so much he could not think of a better way to spend a Saturday.
While there are people like him around, people like me are likely to keep coming back to local footy, to the point where we eventually might know more players than umpires.