It was Round 2, 2013, Western Bulldogs versus Fremantle. Bulldogs player Liam Picken slid into goal umpire Courtney Lai early in the third quarter, rupturing the posterior cruciate and medial ligaments in Lai’s knee.
It required surgery and 16 months of rehabilitation before he umpired again at the top level.
Footage of the incident is stunning. Picken careening into a slender man in a yellow shirt is also a document of tragedy, betrayal and levity.
It is modern art.
As The Roar’s resident art critic, I reached out to Courtney. We talked umpiring, injury and analysed the most famous five minutes of his career thus far.
Title: Nine And A Half (2013)
Artist: AFL goal umpire Courtney Lai
Medium: Liam Picken on posterior cruciate ligament
Please stay in your seats, Q and A to follow.
Ken Sakata: If you feel triggered or uncomfortable, your safe word is, uh-
Courtney Lai: (laughs) I’ve seen this enough. I should be right by now.
I don’t think I’ve ever been asked to break it down play-by-play though.
I have to find it on YouTube. What’s it called? You’ve seen it yourself, obviously.
I’ve seen it. If you search ‘Goal umpire’, it’s one of the first big hits. It’s something like ‘Goal umpire injured’.
Ok. It’s called ‘Goal umpire injured during Bulldogs Dockers game’. Four and a half minutes.
The first time I saw this footage, I was in the emergency department at the Epworth (Hospital). They were asking me what happened.
I had my phone out: “This is what happened.”
So Walters kicks the goal. He’s happy. You’re less happy.
Do you remember it from your point of view?
I remember Picken turning the ball over. The ball’s coming back towards me. Players streaming in.
I’m thinking, “This is the position I need to get to.” He (Walters) boots the goal.
I’m thinking, “Sweet, that’s going through. That’s a goal.”
Then in the corner of my eye, I see an airborne Bulldogs player next to me.
I have no memory from then. Until I’m on the ground. Saying ‘ruck’. [note: transcription error]
So. (nervous laughter)
I’m probably in the wrong position here.
Well you are in the wrong position. Well, your knee is in the wrong position.
It is, unfortunately.
In your life, as an umpire, as a man, what’s the most pain you’ve been in?
My shoulder’s been subluxed.
On a scale of one to ten. How bad was that?
That’s a five. Five, six.
You could probably sleep on a five.
So this was –
It wasn’t too bad. But when the knee began filling up with blood about 15 minutes later.
This was a nine and a half.
Not a ten?
You could imagine worse.
So then it becomes hard for me to watch.
Because of the elbow? (laughs)
Because – (laughs) that made me more uncomfortable than anything else. I thought, “He’s [redacted] his elbow!”
I’ve got naturally very loose joints.
So your elbow’s ok? It’s not related to…
(Laughs) That is just normal for me. That’s where it locks.
So this is you, the elbow’s locked, just chilling out. Do you remember these conversations?
They’re asking me what’s happened. They’re asking for a stretcher. The elbow – that’s sort of where I was most comfortable.
Who’s the guy coming on?
That’s the emergency goal umpire. There’s an emergency goal umpire at every AFL match. Usually they just keep the score.
He’s pretty keen.
Yeah, he’s like “I gotta get on.” He comes in. Gets the all clear and plays the goal.
While you’re on the ground! He’s assumed your role. He couldn’t wait!
He’s taken over! Bang!
Do you still talk to him?
I still talk to him.
(Laughs) Once he finished waving the flag, he said, “Aren’t you getting off (the field)?”
At that point, had he done a game before?
He’s done about 200 games.
Yeah well, what’s 201? Why not.
The Fremantle guys then have a huddle. Obviously distraught.
Not a lot of sympathy there, is there?
Well – they’re just waiting. Your mate’s there doing his job.
Doing his job. Doing my job.
You and Ray Chamberlain are having a little conference. Do you remember that?
What’s your relationship with Razor Ray?
In umpiring circles – he’s a really good bloke.
Is it a father-son situation?
I wouldn’t say that.
It’s a tender moment.
At this stage, I’m thinking, my AFL career is cooked.
Is that what you’re thinking?
I’m thinking, “This is it.”
You know how there’s a motorised stretcher?
Yeah. I’ve seen Chris Judd on it.
I’m told that they tried to start it up. But the battery was flat. They had to find the old-fashioned manual one.
So you get stretchered off. They’re like pallbearers. It’s the send off. Did you give the thumbs up?
I did behind the goals.
The cheer squad weren’t ripping into me. They were pretty good.
All in all, what happened after?
That was on a Saturday. I had a reconstruction on the Thursday after.
Why come back?
I never would’ve forgiven myself if I hadn’t given it a shot. I couldn’t finish on that note.
At that stage I had done 23 AFL games. I was awarded the most promising AFL goal umpire award for both years. That’s only been done by me and one other.
How long did it take to get back?
That was April, 2013. I began doing TAC matches 2014. I got back to the AFL, maybe August 2014.
Has that knee given you any… extra awareness?
It did for a while. That was one of the hardest things to come back from.
Sure, physically I did a lot of damage to the knee, but in terms of confidence – knowing whether it would stand up to a hit, or a change of direction. That was the harder bit to come back from.
How long did that take?
I’d say I wasn’t completely right until last year.
How many games have you done now?
52. The 46th game was a proud one.
(ed: At 46 Games, Courtney had umpired as many games after the injury as he had before it.)
What aren’t people asking about umpiring?
I think the one thing that bats me is when people say we’re not accountable. I’ll hack all sorts of things – like, ‘that’s not indicated’ or ‘that’s a bit wrong’.
But people say we’re unaccountable – I don’t think they could be further off the mark.
You’ve got a boss. And that boss determines how many games you do. There is something at stake.
And he’s accountable to the football operations manager and… If you have a bad game, you do have consequences for that.
Do you a set number of games per season?
The guys in-form will probably do 17 or 18 home-and-away matches, but no. It’s very much a wait-and-see. Nothing’s confirmed until the Monday after the round of games.
You don’t know if you’re going to be umpiring on the weekend. It’s like being a footballer, essentially.
What’s your relationship with Liam Picken now?
Well, he’s kicked goals over my head (laughs).
And I’ve paid them.