Football has lost one of its greatest servants in September with the passing of ‘The Baron’, Norm Price.

His honest, no-nonsense approach to matters as an umpire, umpires’ coach and tribunal member are best summed up by a story he related from his umpiring career:

While going up on the Spirit of Progress to do the Grand Final of the Hume League –Jindera v. Brocklesby at Howlong – he heard a rumour that a Jindera player was going to knock out half the Brocklesby team.  Five minutes into the match, it was apparent who the fellow was because he had king hit the Brocklesby captain-coach resulting in a report.  The player’s response was “that doesn’t matter, I’m gunna knock ’em all out”.  Three 15-yard penalties later he was still carrying on and the captain intervened complaining that Norm couldn’t keep doing that.  Norm’s reply was to tell him that every time the mugger went near the ball, he would be penalised – and he carried out the threat.  Brocklesby were leading by five goals at half time and the thug did not come back on after the break.

Brocklesby went on to win and, after the match, it was revealed that the violent player had been the light-heavyweight champion of the Royal Australian Navy, and the locals were worried for Norm’s safety.  Norm’s concern was getting the job done in the best interests of football.  The player was ultimately suspended for a year and Norm had another Grand Final squared away.

Norman Ernest Price was born in Richmond on 22 November 1926, the middle child of Fred and Nellie Price, themselves long-time Richmond folk.  The whole family followed the Tigers except Norm who shocked them by following South Melbourne – Bob Pratt was an idol.  Later, when umpiring, a group would train at Glenferrie Oval  where they were looked after so well by the Hawthorn trainers that he changed his allegiance to the Hawks.

Growing up in the Depression, life was not easy.  With his father on an invalid pension and his mother working as a cleaner, Norm supplemented the family income by working on the right side of the law as a paper boy and grocer’s delivery boy, but also as a bet collector and ‘cocky’ for the local SP bookie.

Somehow he also fitted in boys’ scouts with the First Burnley troop and, later, cycling, when he joined the Richmond Amateur Cycling Club.  There were many races on a Sunday afternoon in summer.  On the football field, he played for Hawthorn Methodists in the East Suburban Churches League and they won the B Grade premiership in 1940.

Educated at North Richmond State School and Richmond Technical College, Norm became apprentice fitter and turner at Bryant and May and later moved to Brownbuilt as a salesman where he later became sales manager.  He had married Thelma when he was twenty-one and they were separated only with her passing earlier in 2006.  They lived in Moorabbin for 48 years.

While working at Bryant and May, Allan Nash encouraged Norm to take on football umpiring.  He joined the VFL Reserve Grade list in 1948 and his first match on the Reserve Grade list came almost by accident.  Having completed the summer classes, the first night of appointments arrived but one umpire did not.  As a result, his Federal League appointment went to Norm – Chelsea versus Mentone at Chelsea.

After promotion to the senior list in 1950, his career followed the path of so many of his contemporaries — lower grade country matches leading to higher country games, country finals and Grand Finals and the VFL Reserve Grade.  Norm was unable to break into senior VFL football but was a successful country umpire for 13 years.

He recalled recently that, “It was not so much the game that concerned you in the country.  You couldn’t get The Age quick enough on the Thursday morning because you were more interested to see who you were going away with than your actual appointment.  There was such good fellowship and we all made such good friends.”

Allan Nash was a huge influence on Norm’s umpiring but, more than that, they were the best of friends away from umpiring having known each other since age 17.  Norm, Allan, Jack Kiernan and their respective families were very close friends spending much time away from umpiring together both during and after their on-field careers.  Allan also recommended to Jack Hamilton that Norm take his place on the tribunal when he moved to Queensland. Norm hung up the whistle after the Horsham and District Grand Final, which completed his 1962 season.  Immediately, he took the opportunity to join the VFL Reserve Grade Umpires’ Appointment Board and was initially responsible for training the umpires on that list. Training was at Albert Park Oval twice a week during the season and he also organised a pre-season training camp for twenty or so umpires at Percy Cerutty’s facility at Portsea for a number of years in the mid-sixties.

As a member of the Board Norm influenced and directed the careers of hundreds of young umpires.

One particularly significant time was appointing the replacement umpires from the VFL Reserve Grade panel when the senior umpires resigned in 1981.  It involved recasting many appointments and contacting many umpires to give them late notice of a change of game.  Norm, Frank Leverett and Doug Lamb only received notice that their umpires would be required on the Friday night, but their experience saw the job done and they had the satisfaction of watching their umpires perform creditably the following day.

That same year, the three men also received a Gold Medallion for service to the VFL an award that grants almost the same privileges as Life Membership.  The medallions were always honoured and Norm was an exceptionally proud recipient.  It complemented his Life Memberships of the VFL Reserve Grade, the VFL Reserve Grade Umpires’ Association,  and the VFLUA.

The Reserve Grade Appointment Board was wound up in 1982, thus ending twenty years of service for Norm.  But, straight away, another door opened and, following Allan Nash’s recommendation, he moved onto the VFL, and later AFL, Independent Tribunal for 13 years.

Thelma had always been supportive of his football endeavours, but in his first case, heard with Jack Gaffney and Don Hammond, Richmond player Graeme Landy was suspended for two weeks.  Thelma had heard the result on the radio and, when Norm got home, his electric blanket had been turned off and he got the cold shoulder.  He also got the message – “Go easy on Richmond players”.

One incident which has affected modern football occurred during Norm’s time at the tribunal –he sat on the first trial by video charge. It was held at the Channel Seven boardroom.  Jack Hamilton laid four charges for eye gouging in a pack.  Once the QCs and Tribunal Members had confirmed that the VFL Constitution allowed the Chairman of the VFL the power to lay charges, two were suspended, one reprimanded, one found not guilty and the era of the video tribunal had begun.

Norm retired from the tribunal after thirteen years of hearing cases and listening to testimony both serious and comical from tribunal regulars David Rhys-Jones and  Tony Lockett amongst others.

Involvement with football in different capacities made for many lessons in life.  Norm always felt that umpiring was a major factor in giving him the confidence to take on the many and varied roles he has filled over the years: in his business life as a sales manager, speaking at Probus Clubs, on the AFL Tribunal, as an area co-ordinator of Neighbourhood Watch, being involved with Heatbeat Cabrini as Vice-President and as their delegate to Heartbeat Victoria.

While umpiring, Norm was also involved with VFLUA affairs.  As Social Secretary from 1955 to 1957, he and his committee faced a large task, with events in a single year including dinner on Grand Final eve, a Grand Final Dinner Dance the following night, a mid-season ball, picnic at Christmas, end of season visits from the SANFLUA, smoke nights and other smaller functions.  He also served on the Executive Committee in 1958 and 1959.

Generations of umpires came under the eye and auspices of ‘the Baron’.  He was hard but fair – a straight up and down the line man who didn’t play favourites.  Nor did he suffer fools lightly.  But, because of this approach, those umpires who came under his influence respected him highly – and genuinely liked him.  And those who promoted  onto the VFL Senior List knew that they were of the highest calibre because they had been judged by one who did not give that reward lightly or undeservedly.

Football has lost a great servant, coach and mentor who will be very sadly  missed.

Norm Price passed away suddenly on 22 September 2006.