When Doug Gourlay was accepted onto the Victorian Football League list of goal umpires, there were 12 teams in the competition, matches were played at Windy Hill, Victoria Park, the Western Oval, Moorabbin and VFL Park and television coverage was limited to short Saturday replays and Sunday highlights.
These days he umpires in a 16-team national competition where every move is scrutinised and reviewed by observers both at the game and on video and where the skills required to perform week in week out have had to improve as the game has evolved to a higher and faster level. The furthest thing from Gourlay’s mind when he walked onto VFL Park for his first senior game in 1986 was that sixteen years later he would open the 2002 season by officiating in his 250th game.
Along the way he has umpired fourteen finals, three State-of-Origin matches a Reserve Grade and Under 19 Grand Final and officiated a host of significant matches around Australia.
Remarkable matches such as Hawthorn’s amazing 55-point comeback against Geelong at a locked out Princes Park in 1989, the epic 1987 tie between Essendon and Geelong with Gary Ablett scoring a late behind to level the scores and another draw this time between Carlton and Essendon in 1993 when Steven Kernahan missed everything from a post-siren set shot that would have broken the deadlock.
Historic matches – Gourlay was there the night ‘the lights went out’ at Waverley in 1996 and the final match at Western Oval. In both these matches his partner was current AFL Observer Rod Davies but his recollections of the games were quite different.
He remembers, “At Waverley Rod and I sat amongst the other umpires in a pitch black change room not knowing what was going on outside. The last game at the Whitten Oval, again with Rod, and it was absolutely freezing. Certainly the coldest I have ever been umpiring a footy match.”
Two matches foremost in Gourlay’s memory are his two AFL Grand Finals – 1993 and most recently last year’s premiership decider. Any Grand Final is special for anyone involved but 2001 had special significance.
“This was an historic first ‘flag’ for Brisbane and probably represents the appointment that gave me the most satisfaction of all -especially given that it was eight years after the first one.”
Those eight years had not been all plain sailing. From minor inconveniences like having his brand new hat stolen by a cheeky schoolboy after a game at the Whitten Oval to a major struggle to maintain his place on the list when all he had going for him was his belief in himself, his honour and his integrity. There was never any doubt he would survive – and prosper. On field accolades aside Gourlay has been a constant contributor to the Australian Football League Umpires’ Association and the welfare of his fellow umpires. As Goal Umpires Representative he has forcefully bought issues of importance to goal umpires before the Executive Committee. His service was rewarded in 2000 with the inaugural awarding of the Leigh Keen Shield for success on the field combined with service to the Association. So after 250 AFL matches what is it about umpiring at that level that keeps Gourlay coming back year after year?
“Umpiring provides tremendous satisfaction. On a personal level it enables me to participate actively in the best sport in the world. For someone who loves footy it is a dream…and a privilege.
“It provides a chance to experience success in a competitive environment. It is a kind of ‘Who dares wins’. You expose yourself to real lows and troughs so that you may experience the elation of the ultimate prize, be it a Grand Final or some other milestone.
“It is also a fantastic pursuit for self improvement. The personal qualities required of a top umpire are the same as might be required for success in life in general. I refer here to core values such as honesty, integrity and a commitment to upholding the tradition of umpiring. Finally, but certainly of no less importance than anything else said here, umpiring brings you into contact with quality people. This must be true because it really is a noble pursuit. A great many of the people that I hold in the utmost esteem are current or former umpires.
It should be no surprise that they are generally very successful umpires, but it is not necessarily their umpiring deeds that have earned them my respect. It is the qualities that they possess as people that impress me – and these are often reflected in the magnitude of their successes.”