MILESTONE MAN: Phil Opie will umpire his 900th football match this weekend, and has no plans of finishing up any time soon. Photo: PAUL MENSCH
By MITCH RODD
UMPIRING any sport can be a thankless task.
Just ask Phil Opie. The veteran of the Sunraysia Football Umpires Association (SFUA) will officiate game number 900 tomorrow.
The 59-year-old began as a whistle blower in Bendigo in 1979 and has continued to control football games ever since.
The St Joseph’s College teacher has spent the past 15 years in Sunraysia and has enjoyed playing the role of mentor for up and coming young umpires.
“Football is all about the wonderful people you meet,” Phil said.
“Umpiring groups are usually an eclectic mix of people but it’s fantastic to be part of.
“To me, umpiring is like teaching. You have young people wanting to achieve good things in life, and I feel I can pass on some advice and create a framework to help achieve those goals.
“I look at one of our young umpires Antonio Liporata. He’s young, he’s fast and he makes good decisions. He could go on to umpire at AFL or VFL level.
“I hope I can pass some of my experience on to young umpires like Antonio.”
Experience is something Phil is not short on.
Most people would wonder why someone would put themselves in a position to be a beacon for ‘expert advice’ from people on and off the field.
Phil admitted he’d received his fair share, but said the majority of players are easy to umpire.
“I’d say 99 percent of people are easy to umpire,” he said.
“Having three umpires now means, occasionally, an opportunity pops up to have a quick chat with players regarding a decision. Many seem to respond well to that.”
When Phil began as a field umpire, there was only one official on the ground at the time.
Not only was it a more physically demanding role in the past, there was no other means of support for an umpire other than the two competing teams.
“They were always supportive, because they knew without an umpire they would need to provide their own,” Phil said.
“While club people don’t always agree with your decisions they’ve always been supportive.
“Country footy has never changed. It is always a friendly atmosphere from clubs. People might offer you ‘a bit of advice’ while umpiring, but they have always been great off-field.
“So many guys I’ve umpired have played VFL or even AFL football. The good footballers rarely argue because they know you can’t change the umpire’s mind.
“Now having two, then three field umpires made it easier to officiate. You also go to games as a team now, not just you by yourself.
“My first game was at a town called Newbury. In those days it was the responsibility of the visiting team to transfer the umpire to the game.
“When I got dropped off at Bridgewater they forgot to turn up to get me! I was lucky one of the shop-keepers was going to the game and could give me a lift.
“My umpiring career may have been over before it started.”
Phil said early in his career he would umpire between 40 and 50 games a season.
The day would often begin with the Under 16’s, followed by Reserves matches, while representative matches would also be on the cards.
Across 899 games, Phil would have countless memories and life lessons to reflect on.
One in particular stands out, emphasising the old adage that a champion team will always beat a team of champions.
It involved country football icon Trevor Sutton and the year he booted a world record 258 goals in a season for Deniliquin. No, that is not a misprint.
“It was round seven of 1987, and I was umpiring the game when he kicked his 100th goal for the year,” Phil said.
“To have that many goals in so few games is beyond belief.
“Despite having a brilliant individual, ‘Deni’ didn’t win the flag. Trevor was sacked as coach and the following year they actually won the premiership.
“That is constant reminder that you have to buy into being a team to have success.
“In the same vein, as umpires, you may have a brilliant individual season, but if you’re not a great team man or woman, you won’t get picked for grand finals.”
Phil also believes some of the best individual talent he has seen have come from the Sunraysia Football and Netball League (SFNL).
“The SFNL isn’t normally rated as highly as some of the other leagues in country Victoria, but the only reason for that would be the depth of teams and players,” Phil said.
“The top level guys across my time here such as Don Falvo, Tony Hickey and Brad Eaton for example, are as good as any league in the State.”
Constant rule changes at AFL level have also made the game at a regional level harder to officiate, according to Phil.
“Umpiring is harder than it was ever before because the AFL have taken over the Rules of the Game committee,” he said.
“The speed of the game is great but so many simple rules now have many different interpretations.
“Sometimes other umpires don’t agree with your interpretation which makes it hard.
“I’m glad in country football we haven’t enforced the deliberate rushed behind rule, or the deliberate out of bounds to an extent because it’s just a minefield.”
Retirement isn’t yet on the cards for Phil, who said he is looking forward to continuing to umpire once he hits the big ‘6-0’.