Unsung heroes: Displaced umpires soldiering on through the pandemic

The AFL grand final umpiring team - fronted by fieldies Matt Stevic, Brett Rosebury and Jacob Mollison. Boundary umpire Michael Barlow is third from left. CREDIT: GETTY


The following article by Vince Rugari was published on Wednesday (22 Sept) in the Sydney Morning Herald and provides a great insight to the sacrifices people make to be involved in an AFL Grand Final.

Michael Barlow remembers it well. It was a Tuesday and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian had just announced 11 new cases at her daily press conference. Then the phone rang – pack your bags, get to the airport.

“I crammed as many things together as possible and was told, expect to be back in two to three weeks,” he said. “I’ve lost track of how many it’s been.”

It’s not just players and coaches who have turned their lives upside down to keep professional sport alive throughout the pandemic. Spare a thought for possibly the most maligned people in the AFL: umpires. They, too, have made their own enormous sacrifices but have soldiered on without so much as a complaint, tagging along as the game has dotted the country, dodging COVID-19.

Barlow has been living out of his suitcase for three months now, away from his Sydney-based partner Teani. They did manage to reunite for 11 days in Melbourne before he had to suddenly move interstate again, and only after Teani did two weeks at Howard Springs first (when she entered, he was in Queensland).

The reward for it all comes on Saturday afternoon when he runs the boundary in his first AFL grand final at Optus Stadium. It’s what he’s been aspiring to since he began umpiring as a 12-year-old – a side-hustle for pocket money that has now overtaken his entire being.

“Hub life” isn’t easy on anyone in the AFL, but especially not umpires, who find it tough to win sympathy from the average punter at the best of times. They’re not on huge wages like footy players – in fact, it’s still very much a part-time vocation, which means they still do real jobs during the week. And they don’t get to bring their family with them.

Barlow, 24, acknowledges there are others within the AFL’s umpiring cohort who are doing it much harder than him.

“I know there are guys in the group here who have pregnant partners,” he said. “For the guys who are juggling 9-to-5 jobs and working on the road, it’s been a significant challenge for them, and it’s one of the things that might fly under the radar a little bit when discussing the sacrifices that the industry’s made.

“A lot of these umpires are making some pretty remarkable sacrifices to be flexible and keep the season going.”

Barlow is between jobs, making it slightly easier for him to follow the AFL’s travelling circus and help facilitate games wherever the coronavirus wasn’t. He admits he has been slowly chewing into his savings, although the provision of a small allowance from the league has made it a more manageable situation.

Barlow began umpiring when he was 12 after spotting recruitment posters around his school. Ironically, the early appeal was financial. “I remember getting about $40 a game to do div four in Canberra and at the time I thought that was huge,” he said.

He juggled umpiring and playing for a while until he realised only one of them was likely to take him to the highest level. So he worked his way up, progressing through Canberra’s amateur and junior grades, then the NEAFL, and finally the AFL, who gave him the call-up for the 2018 season.

It meant, however, that he would have to relocate to Sydney. That, in turn, forced him to shelve his university studies, one year into a sports media degree.

Dealing with the city’s high cost of living remains a challenge, as is finding the right part-time job that fits with umpiring. “I’d like to be studying, but it’s just not really possible, so at the moment I’m just riding a wave of umpiring and working out what my long-term direction is,” he said.

Barlow has zero complaints – umpiring has given him a passion to pursue, a bunch of close mates, and the opportunity of a lifetime in front of 60,000 people this weekend.

“It’s certainly what we all strive to do,” he said. “There are 43 [boundary umpires] on our AFL list and only four spots at the end of the year. To be able to share some good news with my family this week, it makes it all the more special.”

If you’re interested in umpiring within the AFL North Coast competition in the 2022 season please go to umpire.afl.