My first night at training following my appointment as the State Manager of Umpiring in Queensland was quite a shock. During the warm ups guys were doing leapfrog down the centre of the oval, many in bare feet. Never in my time in footy had I ever seen anything like it. I wondered what the hell I had got myself into,” laughed Neville Nash as he began his reflection on 50 years of continuous involvement in football.
Neville is the AFL Victoria Umpire Development Manager, a role that he has held since 2001. Neville clearly knows that his work and those who work with him around Victoria hold the keys to find the next Hayden Kennedy, Darren Wilson or David Flegg to sustain the growth of community footy and push umpires into state league panels and beyond.
It’s a far cry from the young man who commenced his umpiring in 1965 with the Bentleigh McKinnon Junior football league. Football and umpiring was in his blood. “I loved playing football with my mates for Murrumbena Districts and loved it, but when I finished in the under 15’s the next step was to the under 17’s. I was only an average footballer. I wanted to stay involved. Umpiring was my choice.”
From his early success in community football, Neville joined the VFL Reserve Grade panel in 1967 before being promoted to the VFL senior panel in 1972. He spent his formative years on the panel, like those he followed, umpiring in the bush each weekend. “That was your apprenticeship. You learned how to get on with people and deal with some very good country footballers, many who had returned from the VFL to finish their playing days. You were on your own in a strange country town for the day and you had a job to do.
Neville umpired 12 VFL reserve matches before being appointed to his first VFL senior game on August 10 1974 in the one umpire system. The game was at Princess (now Ikon) Park between Hawthorn and Melbourne in front of 8,754 people. “That wasn’t the smallest crowd I umpired in front off. During the 1980’s the VFL conducted a separate night series competition that was played a Waverley Park on a Tuesday night. I remember being there one freezing cold night when Footscray played SA side West Torrens in front of 2,108 people and that probably included the gate attendants and pie sellers. You have to remember football was played at local suburban venues that only held 17 to 20,000 people, most of them standing.”
One of his more interesting experiences occurred prior to the first ever night game played at Waverley Park. “A car hit one of the main power poles outside the venue which cut the power to the stadium. We sat in the change rooms in total darkness, except for the light that came from the end of a lit cigarette one of the umpires was smoking before the game! How the world has changed.”
The crowning glory of Neville’s umpiring career was without doubt the 1983 grand final between Hawthorn and Essendon. “One hundred and ten thousand spectators packed the MCG that day to see Hawthorn run out convincing winners. “It’s a day I’ll never forget but it had a long gestation period. In 1978 I was in the last three. Back in those days the three umpires, had to meet the selection committee at 12 noon on the day of the grand final to be told who had the game. The advisor, Alan Nash came up to me shook my hand and said bad luck. Bill Deller and Ian Robinson umpired the grand final. It was the biggest kick in the guts I’ve ever had.”
At the end of 1982 Neville sat down with the then retired advisor, Alan Nash and they chatted about his career. Neville was thinking of retiring. They agreed he should give it one last shot. “Never walk away and wonder what might’ve been down the track,” was the clear message. I trained harder than I ever had. I treated every game; even the practice matches like they were a grand final. I set goals to umpire the night grand final and the state game, which I did. The practice of telling the grand final umpires had changed for the better. In 1983 I was told at a dinner of umpires that I had the game. It was a sensational feeling. I had finally achieved what I had set out to all those years ago. I was able to soak up the atmosphere. I bounced first and even though the game was a blow out on the scoreboard I never knew.”
Neville retired from active on field duty in 1984. His last game was an elimination final between Collingwood and Fitzroy at the MCG. He had amassed 217 VFL/AFL games, including 12 finals and a grand final. He was an AFLUA life member but had already decided that a coaching career was his way of giving back to support those who had supported him.
Neville was appointed umpires coach of the VAFA. He held that position for 3 years before heading to Queensland in 1988. During his time in Queensland (10 years until 1998) Neville held positions on the AFL umpires selection committee for 3 years. On his return to Victoria, Neville took over as coach of the Moorabbin Saints Junior Football League before being appointed to his current position.
In all Neville had a 20 year career on-field joining the greats – those who have umpired a VFL/AFL grand final and then he rolled up his sleeves for the next 30 years to develop umpiring into the shape it is now.
“I have been involved in some fantastic initiatives over those years. Establishing the first female umpire academy was ahead of its time and having two AFL grand final umpires in Marty Ellis and Mat Nicholls to coach those girls has been a plus. Working closely with the AFL umpires to run the mates program has been inspirational. To see current AFL field umpires go to community footy to coach young aspiring umpires is tremendous. Working along side player and club development officers in AFL Victoria who understand that we needed to improve the match day environment to encourage our new and young officials has drawn more people to the sport who are prepared to have a go.”
This year Neville was appointed to the AFL Umpiring Diversity Advisory Council and is hoping a more whole country approach will grow the pool of umpires.
Neville never grows tired in his role and there is no doubt the young people he meets keeps him enthusiastic. Well done Neville 50 years of following your passion deserves well earned applause.