Watching goal umpires over the years, you know that each of them develop their own idiosyncrasies that sit in the back of your mind. On-field it is the straight back of David Flegg with the slight grin escaping from the corner of his mouth, Peter Nastasi’s barrel chest in those tight shirts. David Dixon’s speed, Luke Walker’s reading of the play to always be in perfect position (well it seems that way from a novice like me). Off field it is the strength of Chris Appleton and then there is Willo.
My enduring memory of his 5k fitness tests over the years ……… two laps, then disposing of his top no matter the temperature, to reveal a pasty skinned torso, with his face red and bursting in a forlorn attempt to run down Dicko. On the ground, he’s crouching, weight shifting from side to side as Buddy runs in from the wing in that awe-inspiring goal of the year in 2011. They are the public glimpses of Willo that all of his mates know well.
What isn’t well known is his leadership skills, his want to have the hard discussion, to look at every facet of his matches and his performances to eek out those improvements that are necessary to get to the top. These are the less public, tenacious traits Willo has, that have been important to get him to 150 games. “Umpiring is about controlling the controllable, your personal commitment to the job at hand, giving it a crack, because there are many things outside of your control,” reflected Willo as we spoke, while he drove from his business to training. “If I have learned one lesson over the years, it is to not take myself too seriously, things will turn your way if you keep umpiring well. You will not be denied.”
Willo came onto the list in 2004 with, Walker, Roffey and Savage, a formidable trio who are still plying their trade. In fact there are now only five elder statesmen currently on the panel.
“You always remember your first game, Melbourne beat Carlton by 108 points. I umpired with Anthony Black. David Flegg sat on the bench!” Now there was goal umpiring royalty. Willo steps out for his 150th on the same weekend as Michael Craig umpires his first AFL match. He trusts that Michael will enjoy it as much as he did. “You can just sense his excitement, it’s a fantastic achievement”.
The 150 games included six finals, two in each of three finals series and he has come close in more than one half of his years on the list. All anyone can ask is for consistency of performance over many years.
One of those experiences was umpiring in China. Willo remembers walking down a very large mall in Shanghai on the evening he arrived and reflected to his team mates “Can you believe umpiring has brought us here?! It was an amazing experience and opportunity I’ll never forget.”
What Willo also remembers is his great mentor, Leigh Keen. “Leigh started me on my career at age 14 in the Southern Football League. His philosophy on footy and indeed about life has made a huge impact on me and I’m forever grateful for his guidance and coaching.”
You never get to the top without making sacrifices and so too do the significant others in your life. Willo runs a successful media business and is married with a young child. “Stef just knows my commitment and works with me to achieve my goals. I couldn’t do it without her support. I haven’t lost my drive or desire to continue to be the best I can and I am going to make sure I make the most of every opportunity I get. I appreciate the gift of umpiring AFL footy.”
We appreciate your commitment to umpiring too Willo.