Respect a good game relies on good control | From the Press Box with Melanie Whelan

LEGACY: AFL field umpire David Harris, who started as a teenager in Warrnambool-based football, and former AFL Umpires boss Jeff Gieschen are proud in how attitudes to umpires are changing nationwide. Picture: Melanie Whelan

LEGACY: AFL field umpire David Harris, who started as a teenager in Warrnambool-based football, and former AFL Umpires boss Jeff Gieschen are proud in how attitudes to umpires are changing nationwide. Picture: Melanie Whelan

UNDERSTANDING and respect for umpires is the only way football in this region will truly continue to strengthen.

Quality football needs high standards and this ultimately comes back to good umpires – they are the ones who control the play.

A changing attitude towards the whistle has helped a gradual growth in Ballarat Football Umpire Association ranks. BFUA will start this season with about 320 active members, more than they need for appointments.

But the game is fast growing across the region, particularly with the spectacular boom in female football.

We need good umpires more than ever.

Football culture has dramatically changed towards umpires in the past 10 to 15 years, on and off the field.

A big driver of this has been former Richmond coach Jeff Gieschen and his legacy as AFL national umpires manager for 14 years.

Gieschen spoke candidly in this week’s BFUA season launch about the crucial changes he implemented in a bid to make the game safer for umpires, including stricter enforcement of the AFL's abuse to umpires policy (notably in free kicks and 50-metre penalties) and abolishing the white uniform as part of a conscious effort to eradicate the "white maggot" label.

Under Gieschen, AFL umpire performance standards tightened and education, for clubs and media, was stepped up in a bid to take the sting out of frustrations in decisions.

It has taken time but changes have trickled down to the grassroots game. This has both benefited our umpires and promoted a more inclusive, family-friendly environment about our games.

Club and league conduct has been pivotal in helping to set the tone in respect.

The BFUA predominantly covers territory in Ballarat, Central Highlands and Maryborough leagues, but our umpires also take part in league exchanges and inter-league development.

There are nuances between leagues but the umpires’ role is the same – excuses for abuse are never okay.

Most of the BFUA’s first-year umpires are young teenagers. Retention is pivotal to building experience.

The BFUA is also proudly boasting a gradual increase in female numbers at training and in officiating games. This particularly pleased Gieschen in his time at training on Wednesday night. Gieschen is a long-time advocate for women in umpiring roles (he oversaw the appointment of goal umpire Chelsea Roffey, the first female umpire in an AFL final), and in building confidence in women to take control of the game.

AFLW has helped to shatter perceptions of what women can achieve on the field.

Interestingly, the crowd claps umpires (male and female) on and off the field in most AFLW matches. This is not a directive, it just happens.

It takes guts and skill to umpire one of the fastest, most physical sports in the world.

Umpires are not seeking to be put on a pedestal. Most deem success if you do not notice them, for they are there to facilitate great play unfolding.

But they do deserve respect.