Syd McGain was a member of the VFL Umpires Association between 1947 and 1949, was one of its last members to have played VFL senior football but was probably known more for his success and longevity as a professional foot-runner.
Born Sydney John McGain on 5 February 1917 his first senior football recollection was playing on a wing for Mathoura against Deniliquin in the 1936 Echuca Football League Grand Final, “Doug Nicholls was in our team and I was lucky enough to get best on the ground.”
He had moved to NSW to work as a horse-breaker but on returning to Melbourne played a season with Pascoe Vale before being put on Essendon’s supplementary list. To his surprise he was picked on the wing in the seniors in the same team as Bomber champion small-men Dick Reynolds and Keith Forbes. Kicking a goal and being among the best players Syd recalled, “When I fronted up for my pay the official gave me 30 bob. I said, “What’s the matter, I played in the firsts and I want my three quid?” He said, “Take it or leave it”, and I said, “You can stick your club and your 30 bob up your arse,” and I didn’t bother going to training and went to Fitzroy.”
After twelve senior games at Fitzroy he transferred to North Melbourne during the 1943 season.
“I enjoyed my time at Fitzroy and would never have left only I was in the army stationed at Maribyrnong, no car and North’s captain, ‘Dally’ O’Brien’ said they would send a car to take me to training – which they did. I missed out on Fitzroy’s premiership by going there. Such is life.”
His league career finished in 1945 after a total of twenty-five matches and the lone goal from his first game.
McGain had became involved initially with professional running and, shortly after the war, umpiring.
As an umpire Syd joined the VFL Senior list in 1947 after being on the Second Eighteen List the previous year. That first year was very successful including two finals in the Euroa Football League. The following year was even better with four finals including the Alberton Football League – Woodside versus Devon at Yarram.
While with the umpires he put his playing skills to good use as captainof the VFLUA’s team in the annual clash against the VFAUA. “Jack Dyer umpired it. It got a bit willing and a blue started. I was captain of the League team so I sang out to, “bounce the bloody ball Jack!”.He replied, “Not on your life, mate, I’m loving every minute of it.”
Like most country umpires he had his favourite stories.
“An interesting thing happened in a match in Bairnsdale. The ball went out of bounds. Wally Stubbs was the boundary umpire but out of the corner of my eye I saw a fella
throw a bottle. They were glass in those days. It hit me in the neck. I raced over and grabbed the thrower by the head and threw him over the fence. I can still hear the ruckman saying, “Good on you ump.”
Injury and work commitments bought a promising career to an end during 1949 but did little to hold back his running which, remarkably, continued until last race at age 57 when he won a heat of the Seymour Gift over 130 yards. During his time running he won 37 finals over various distances capped by the 1947 Maryborough Gift. He competed at Stawell every year from 1938 to 1975 but, unfortunately, never won a title. He had his first start in the 1938 Stawell Gift and it wasn’t until he was 29 that Syd won a heat. It was the first heat in the 1948 Gift off 7¾ yds in 12 6/16 seconds. He was beaten in the semi final by Bill Ross who went on to run fourth in the final.
In addition to umpiring and running Syd started the Strathmore Football Club which became a power in the Essendon District Football League. In his honour the Essendon Council renamed Lebanon Park ‘The Syd McGain Oval’ in 1997. He also formed what was called the Strathmore Midgets, a club for youngsters aged seven through eleven deemed too small to play. They played on small grounds and a number became Essendon stalwarts including Geoff Gosper and Daryl Gerlach.
Syd passed away on 23 November 2008, aged 91.