On 21 May 2017, Eleni Glouftsis will become the first female field umpire to officiate in an AFL game when she walks out onto Etihad Stadium to umpire Essendon v West Coast.  It is a remarkable achievement that has caught the attention of the football world, including Prime Minister Turnbull who has passed on his congratulations.

On only one previous occasion can I recall a Prime Minister taking any interest in an umpiring appointment.  That occurred in September 2012 when Chelsea Roffey became the first female appointed to officiate in an AFL Grand Final, and was acknowledged with a pre match visit in the rooms by Prime Minister Gillard.

AFL football is a male dominated environment.  While the landscape is slowly changing, the numbers are overwhelming.  In 120 years of VFL/AFL football, we have had 1207 umpires take to the field.  Eleni will be number 1208.  She will be the 5th female to do so.  Preceding her have been Katrina Pressley, Chelsea Roffey, Rose O’Dea and Sally Boud, all as goal umpires.  For field umpires, there have been 437 men appointed, and now one woman.

Eleni’s achievement is ground breaking, and her story is a compelling one.

Eleni commenced umpiring in Adelaide as a 13 year old.  By 2011, Eleni had progressed from umpiring junior football to her first SAAFL A-grade game between Henley and Sacred Heart.  In 2013, Eleni was elevated to the SANFL senior list, and the SANFL umpires coach, Shane Harris, recognised in Eleni a potential AFL umpire.  Shane would come to play a significant role in Eleni’s progression.

In 2014, Eleni umpired her first SANFL game, between North Adelaide and Glenelg.  This was a huge achievement for Eleni, and the first time any female field umpire had been appointed to officiate in a senior State competition.   This came with significant local media attention, a by-product that Eleni has grown accustomed to.  Indeed, seemingly every milestone achieved by Eleni has been a first.  The reports from those who observed Eleni were that she looked like she belonged on the big stage and had a natural instinct for umpiring.

By this time, Eleni was well and truly on the AFL’s radar.  AFL Umpire Development Manager Adam Davis was tasked by then AFL Umpires Manager Wayne Campbell with the responsibility to develop and implement a female umpire pathway program.  It would be modelled on the successful player to umpire pathway program that had seen Mark Fraser, Jordan Bannister, Leigh Fisher and Brent Wallace elevated through the system to umpire AFL football.    Wayne had set an ambitious, (some would say unachieveable) target of identifying the best female umpire in Australia and having her officiate an AFL game by round 1 of the 2018 season.

Eleni was never informed of the timeline, but she was provided with a scholarship, a coach and an opportunity.  The rest would be up to Eleni.

The first step for Eleni was the move to Victoria.  She had to leave her job, family and friends behind and make a fresh start.  She would split her time between the VFL and AFL panel in her first season, and fortuitously she found employment at St Bernard’s College in Essendon, thanks in no small part to AFL umpires coach Hayden Kennedy.

I was in the privileged position of being appointed the first AFL female umpires pathway coach.  I was able to witness first hand Eleni’s training and umpiring on a weekly basis.  My first observation of Eleni was at Frankston Reserves on a cold, wet, miserable Sunday morning.  Eleni could be forgiven for wondering what the hell she had signed up for.  This was not senior football, and it was Melbourne’s fickle weather at its worst.  Three things stood out to me that day, firstly, Eleni was an accomplished umpire, her decision-making was sound, her skills were polished, and she looked like she had been umpiring all her life.  Secondly, Eleni’s communication skills stood out.  She demonstrated a confident and composed approach and her place on the field was accepted by the players, and, quite surprisingly to me, by the locals who had come to watch a game of football.  Thirdly, the most compelling feature of Eleni’s umpiring that day was her positive energy and enthusiasm.  Eleni was umpiring with a crew she had barely met.  The rain was so torrential that Noah’s ark was appearing on the horizon.  The players looked like they didn’t want to be there.  But Eleni thrived in the challenge, took the first bounce for the game, and you could see she was the one encouraging and motivating her fellow umpires.

Eleni’s pathway was becoming clearer.  She attended the preseason camp with the AFL field umpires, as did a second scholarship holder, Lucinda Lopes.  In Round 5, Eleni and Lucinda officiated in an historic all female umpiring crew for a TAC match at Oakleigh.

By mid-season, Eleni had been appointed to her first VFL game between Werribee and Richmond.  Yet another first, the first ever female field umpire appointed to a VFL game.  I ventured out to Werribee that day to observe but, rather than sit in the sterile environment of the observer’s box, I decided to spend a quarter in the outer, in the most vocal section of the Werribee crowd.  I was interested in how the typical footy fan was reacting to Eleni’s elevation.  

I fully expected that once Eleni stepped onto the field, she was fair game.  Any spectator who pays their entry fee feels entitled to give it to the umpires.  This rung true but mixed in amongst the unprintable quotes, I was taken aback by unsolicited praise for the VFL’s newest field umpire.  It struck me that the Werribee crowd were reserving their best shots for fellow umpire Shane Stewart.  There was an undercurrent of goodwill towards Eleni, recognition that she was a good umpire, she was having a go, and she had a good feel for the game.

Eleni’s season progressed with a run of VFL senior games.  In a portent of greater things to come, Eleni performed at her best when the games were close, and especially in the last quarter of games where the result was in the balance right up to the final siren.  There was also positive feedback coming for Eleni from VFL coaches and players.   The common theme of that feedback was that here was a highly competent umpire who looked like she belonged at VFL level.

In 2016, Eleni umpired her first AFL preseason game.  It was a lockout between Carlton and Essendon with the Bombers fielding a team made up largely of “replacements” owing to the suspensions arising from the supplements saga.  Eleni performed well, but also had some areas to work on.  Eleni was elevated to the AFL rookie list for the 2016 season and was training full time with the AFL listed umpires.  She was appointed to officiate as emergency umpire during the season, meaning she was one dodgy hamstring injury away from taking charge.  The injury never came and so she continued to establish her credentials at VFL football.

Pre-season 2017 was the litmus test for Eleni.  She was appointed to 4 successive JLT games and was elevated to the elite list of 33 umpires eligible to officiate in AFL games.  A further block of games in the VFL has convinced the AFL umpiring hierarchy that Eleni is now ready.   

What impact will this have on AFL umpiring?  I suspect not much.  In many respects, Eleni is no different to the 436 field umpire previously appointed.  She has been picked because she is one of the best at her craft.  The rules for her will be the same.  She will be assessed like every other AFL umpire.  She will run, bounce, pay free kicks, caution players, incur the wrath of the parochial fans, and I’m sure even smile when it’s all over, knowing she has achieved her own personal goal to prove herself as an AFL umpire.

What impact will this have on grass roots umpiring?  It will be profound.  When Katrina and Chelsea made it to AFL level, they inspired female goal umpires throughout Australia to give it a go.  Rose and Sally followed, and the female goal umpire numbers have grown exponentially.  There is a dramatic shortage of umpires at grass roots football.  There are less than 10% of female umpires in most competitions.  Eleni’s successful elevation will inspire a new generation of girls to take up umpiring, in the same way that the successful launch of AFLW has inspired girls to play football.  

The numbers will tell the story.   Eleni’s greatest legacy will be to have shown the way for the women that follow her.  If umpiring can address its recruitment and retention issues by tapping into the vast pool of female football fans, then the game will be infinitely better for it.

So how will Eleni go? 

History has a habit of repeating.  We’ve already seen what Eleni has done first at Henley, then at North Adelaide, at Werribee, and at Visy Park.  Her first game in all instances has been ground breaking.  She has risen to the challenge and demonstrated she belongs.  I expect Sunday to be no different.  You will see an exceptional communicator, an accomplished decision maker, and an elite athlete.  Eleni has mastered the finer skills of umpiring, positioning, set kick control, even conquering science to bounce an oval shaped ball vertically.  At some stage we will see the infectious smile Eleni uses to disarm players who might otherwise question her judgment.

I can imagine the dominant topic of conversation on the playground at St Bernard’s College on Monday will be the performance of Ms Glouftsis.  It might well feature in most water cooler conversations around the country.  And while this is the culmination of 13 years hard work for Eleni, in terms of her AFL career, it is just the beginning.  The best is yet to come.

Article written by: Stephen McBurney (AFLUA Life member, umpired 401 games and Eleni’s first AFL Female Pathway Coach) 

 

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