Long time goal umpire, innovative coach and AFLUA Life Member Jim Mahoney’s contribution to football in general and goal umpiring in particular was significant and his achievements hold a place in football history that will stand the test of time.
James Francis Mahoney was born on 17 November 1931 at Newton, NSW, He was the eldest of five children and the family moved to Port Melbourne when Jim was eleven.
Jim’s football pedigree extended further back than goal umpiring and included stints playing with Port Melbourne and Port Melbourne Amateurs. It was during his time with Port Melbourne that he was part of the excitement of their thirds 127 game winning streak that saw them undefeated for seven seasons. After finishing football he decided to take up goal umpiring in 1959 aged 27. He would later say that, “I’ve only got one regret – that I didn’t leave junior football at an earlier age and take up field umpiring.”
Beginning in the VFL Reserve Grade he gained the skills and experience with the flags, ultimately umpiring the 1964 Reserve Grade Grand Final. This appointment gained him a place on the VFL senior list the following year where he replaced the retiring Jack Lee. At the Lake Oval in round 2 1965 Jim became the 148th goal umpire in VFL history when he officiated in the South Melbourne-St.Kilda clash and that year umpired thirteen day and one night match. He repeated this effort for each of the next two years until 1967 when he was appointed to the Second-Semi Final. From that point on Jim would only miss the finals panel three times in the next fourteen years.
Being a goal umpire in an era where scores were getting higher and higher every year and full forwards were kicking more goals than ever before made for some exciting times.
Jim umpired the 1969 ‘Shoot-out at Kardinia Park’ when Doug Wade and Peter Hudson went head to head and kicked eight and six goals respectively. Wade’s final goal, a long torpedo punt, putting the Cats ahead with only seconds to go. He signalled Jesaulenko’s hundredth goal in 1970 and many of Peter Hudson’s twelve against the Bulldogs the two years before. There were historic games as well including the three-point thriller that was Ted Whitten’s last match and the 55 point thrashing was Tuddy’s first back at Victoria Park since becoming Essendon coach.
In 1971 Jim achieved the umpiring dream of a VFL Grand Final when he was appointed to St.Kilda versus Hawthorn premiership decider. “Every goal umpire wants a spectacular game where he can be in the action and 1971 wasn’t one of those”, he later recalled.
Indeed, all the highlights of the game seemed to be at the other end. At three quarter time St.Kilda led by twenty points and Peter Hudson’s season tally stood at 150, equal to Bob Pratt’s. In the final term, kicking to Les Robinson’s end, the Hawks staged a remarkable comeback kicking 7.3 to 3.0 and of course there was all the drama of Hudson failing to break the Pratt record despite three golden opportunities.
Despite this, Jim was now among the greats of goal umpiring with a Grand Final to his credit and, as a result became an inaugural member of the VFL Grand Final Boundary and Goal Umpires Club when it was formed in 1979. He rarely missed a dinner, even after he moved to Mildura.
It would be ten years before Jim would grace Grand Final Day again but in the years that passed he built an enviable record. He registered two hundred VFL games in 1976 and three seasons later he passed Tom Rossiter for what was believed to be the record by a goal umpire when he umpired his 250th match.
There were some great matches in this period as well. Geelong’s astonishing late comeback to win the 1976 Elimination Final that saw the North beat Carlton by four points and two matches on the Sydney Cricket Ground, both part of the league’s national push. And of course there was Malcolm Blight’s blunder in the open goal square mistaking the behinds for the goals. Jim never collected on the $5 bet made with the aghast full-forward in the moments following his awarding of a point but the incident is one of football lore. By the time 1981 came around Jim knew it would be his last year. The VFL required umpires to retire once they turned fifty years of age. Despite ten seasons without a Grand Final, Jim had never wavered from his philosophy that you only go onto the ground in the fittest possible condition.
“Over those last few years I had to train all over the summer because of my age and to try and keep up with the others and not be a conspicuous last.” Having never umpired more than one match in a finals series, Jim had accepted that the 1981 Elimination Final would be his last. This made the announcement that he would do the Grand Final that year even more special “It bought tears to my eyes. I actually had another one and it was my last game. I couldn’t believe my ears. I had been trying for so long that I had almost become resigned to the fact that I wasn’t going to get another chance.” After 23 seasons, 289 VFL matches, all that he had experienced and come to love about umpiring and the part that it played in his life, Jim walked to his end after three-quarter time in the Grand Final feeling somewhat flat. It was almost over. And it was not his choice. Barry Farrow, Jim’s partner on Grand Final day, summed up Jim’s attributes as a goal umpire.
“He was one of the best position goal umpires I had seen and, in many ways a quiet achiever. While he didn’t have any idiosyncrasies of a dramatic note, you knew he could read the play very well and would be there for the hard calls. He also made it easy for his partner by ensuring he removed himself from goal square scrambles to indicate clearly. This was the time before goal umpires indicated straight down the ground as they do now. At the time, he was one of the experienced goal umpires who didn’t seem to mind being a mentor to younger umpires, genuinely offering helpful advice and not playing mind games like some.”
Having been made a VFLUA Life Member in 1974, his greatest service to other umpires may have followed his on-field career.
Despite initial thoughts that his involvement was finished following the 1981 season, Jim would give another six years to goal umpiring as the inaugural VFL Goal Umpires Advisor. His term was a watershed for goal umpiring.
For the first time goalies had a recognised coach and with Assistant Coach Barry Page and a panel of former goal umpires as observers he began coaching his squad with the experience and a philosophy from his own career. Physical fitness became a priority, all matches were observed and assessed by a goal umpires observer and over a number of years the average age of the list began to drop as younger men were given opportunities at the highest level. One of those younger men was Leigh Keen who echoed the sentiments of many of Jim’s umpires, “Jim was a lovely man — one of the nicest guys I’ve met in umpiring. I have him to thank for umpiring VFL footy. A man of great integrity and honesty. I will miss him greatly.”
Perhaps remembering his own feelings after his last match, the fifty year rule was rescinded and age limits no longer applied – it was whether an umpire could do the job. In short he, his coaches and his umpires laid the foundations for twenty-first century goal umpiring.
Jim retired at the end of 1987 after six seasons in the role and with much respect from his umpires for the results he had achieved.
Football had not been Jim’s only sporting focus. His passion for cricket was such that he was still playing at the time of his retirement in 1981. He held captain/coaching positions with Pascoe Vale Central and Wantirna South Cricket Clubs and was elected a Life Member of the Port Melbourne Cricket Club.
Jim passed away on 26 November 2004 at Mildura Base Hospital after a long fight with cancer. It was a fight he waged strongly and valiantly. He adopted the same attitude to it that he applied to his final umpiring years. “Other blokes told me to forget about finals but I said ‘bugger it’, I’ll give my best shot till the last game.”