A history of field umpire shirt numbers

1995 — In the Australian Football League, the Fremantle Dockers were playing their inaugural season and the ANZAC Day round saw football played over five days and nights in five states for the first time. It resulted in a round record attendance of 291,321.

But, a record crowd attendance was not the only notable feature of the round. Perhaps the biggest revolution that occurred during the season happened that week — the introduction of shirt numbers for field umpires.

VFL players had been wearing numbers officially since the beginning of the 1912 season, an innovation that provided a new publication, Football Record, with a large, ready-made market, given it was the only source permitted to publish the players numbers.

There was little point in numbering field umpires for the next sixty-four seasons, as there was only one on the field. Initially, the match day umpire was named in the specific Record sold at each of the week’s six matches. As time went on and security became more of an issue, by the 1930s, each edition of the Record contained the names of all six umpires appointed for that round. Each was allocated a number from one to six and, just prior to the start of the match, that number was hoisted onto the scoreboard. When the number went up, there was the usual groan from spectators who felt their side’s chances were doomed with that particular umpire in control.

The VFL considered it less of a security issue when it came to boundary and goal umpires. They have always been named to the specific matches in the Record and in the daily newspapers until the early 1990s.

The AFL National Director of Umpiring at the time was Bill Deller, who recalls: “Prior to 1995, informal discussions were regularly taking place at the AFL regarding the identification of umpires. After the two umpire system was introduced in 1976, there were calls from the media, supporters, and television viewers to identify field umpires. There were two schools of thought — one was that the best umpires were those who were not noticed; therefore, why was there a need to identify them? The other was that the media and the supporters wanted to know who they were. They wanted them to be recognisible, to personalise them and give them a character.

My view throughout this time was that umpiring and umpires should be promoted in a positive way, so I supported the introduction of numbers. But I did not pursue the idea with any great conviction as it was not a huge issue for me at that time.”

“When the three umpire system was introduced in 1994, the call for identification was renewed with greater vigour and the AFL view was moving toward supporting the idea. So, I grabbed the opportunity and threw my support behind the call for numbers,” said Deller.

And so, on round 4, 21 April 1995, Peter Carey (number 8), Trevor Garrett (22) and Mark Westgarth (13) took to the WACA to umpire Fremantle versus Geelong match in their new numbers.

Amongst the umpires, opinions on the use of numbers are fairly neutral.

Then a young umpire new to the AFL list, Stuart Wenn recalls: “It really didn’t bother me either way. I thought it had some merit in terms of enabling spectators to know who was making decisions, etc. I did think at the time that it was an interesting move, given that football generally believes that umpires should not be noticed and that the introduction of numbers would mean that they would stand out more.”

Bryan Sheehan was at the other end of the experience scale to Wenn and McKenzie, having ten senior seasons and 176 AFL matches to his name in 1995. He, too, had few concerns, but offered a different thought regarding names. “I wasn’t too worried about wearing a number on my back. I figured the football public already knew who I was, so it really didn’t phase me. It was mentioned, at one stage, that we would have our names on the back rather than numbers; but it really was never practical, especially if you had a long name like Humphery-Smith.”

Sheehan wore number 9 with great distinction for the remainder of his career; but had things gone slightly differently, he might have run around in another. “I was absent the night they asked the guys to pick a number, which they would wear that year. When I got to training the next night, the only number left was No.9, so I got stuck with that number. My favorite number was 33.”

The process for allocating numbers was instigated by then AFL Umpires’ Coach, David Levens. At the time, he explained, “Umpires were asked to nominate three numbers between 1 and 39. Where more than one umpire had requested a number, one of the thirteen on the squad with finals experience was given preference. Failing that, it came down to number of matches. The number 1 was not the most popular request.” Apparently David Howlett was another absentee.

According to Wenn’s recollections: “Many of the guys picked numbers of their favourite players when they were kids or numbers they wore when they played. I think Mark Westgarth was the only umpire who nominated 13 and hence he got it.”

“I would have loved number 7 because this was the number I wore for almost my entire playing career at Ivanhoe Grammar. But, I saw Hayden Kennedy had requested it and I knew I would not get it, so I took a different approach. At the time, there were a few of us who were yet to umpire a senior game and so, instead of nominating a number, I wrote on the form, ‘any number you wish to give me’. As a result, I was given number 37, and ended up wearing it later that year when I debuted.”

There were other reasons for choices. McKenzie chose number 24 because this was his age at the time of his debut.

Rowan Sawers didn’t want a high number, but also didn’t want a really low one either. As the senior umpire of the day, he was always going to get his first choice and so selected number 5, and then two very high numbers.

In the years since 1995, umpires have come and gone resulting in changes to the AFL list and, accordingly, numbers. Until 1997, numbers ranged from 1 to 46 but, following the signing of the first collective bargaining agreement during the 1998 season, the AFL list was effectively reduced to thirty-two umpires, and number 34 (Richard Williams, Craig Hendrie and Eleni Glouftsis) became the highest to appear regularly at AFL level.

As a rookie Tristan Burgess came on in number 36 as an emergency in 2012, which was trumped by Andrew Talbot’s cameo appearance in 2014 wearing 47. This has been ‘improved’ upon since with Nick Jankovskis (48) and Michael Pell (49) coming on in 2021.

From 1995-2019 the number 30 was worn only Shane McInerney making it the longest single umpire number.

There was also movement within the number sequence. Stuart Wenn was one umpire who changed numbers, “As umpires were delisted or retired, lower numbers became available and, as a result, they gave them to guys that had high numbers. When Trevor Garrett was delisted, I think at the end of 1995, I, along with a few other guys, were given lower numbers. I was not asked what I wanted and it appeared that the numbers available might have been allocated in alphabetical order. Being a “W” name, I got the highest of those available, which was 22.

“A couple of years later, when Rowan Sawers took over, as guys retired, the group was given the opportunity to change numbers. When Grant Vernon retired and left number 2 available, I was offered it if I wanted it. But I thought my family and friends knew me as 22, and I must admit I was a little superstitious and thought I would stick with it. Now, I would never change”

Other interesting moves were:

  • Derek Humphery-Smith from 35 to ‘lucky’ number 13 after it had been vacant for two years since the retirement of Mark Westgarth
  • Kieron Nicholls was originally allocated 39 in 1995 and moved to 20 for the next two seasons. After being delisted following the 1997 season, he fought back and regained his spot on the list, and umpired in number 28 until he retired
  • Vince Sercia is the only umpire to have three different numbers in consecutive seasons — 1996 (42), 1997 (39), 1998 (26)
  • Shaun Ryan is the first umpire to retire and then come back to the AFL list and continue with the same number (25)
  • Following the retirement of WA legend Dean Margets at the end of 2021 fellow WA umpire Dan Johanson took over the number 6 moving from number 30 and keeping the number in ‘the west’

Once the AFL had numbered its officials, the state leagues followed suit and, as umpires moved through the systems in the various states, they may have had a series of numbers. Stefan Grun (13), is a good example.

“When I started in the VFL, I wore number 27 for 4 years. I then wore number 2 for 2 years. In my first two trials, I had number 41 and, last year, I had number 33. So, I’ve had a few numbers over the various times. Hopefully, I can hang onto this one for a while yet.” He ended up wearing 13 from 2004 to his retirement in 2012

Have umpire numbers had any impact on umpiring or the game? It is difficult to assess, but Sheehan notes: “It is funny, you would hear people saying, that number 9 killed us on the weekend, rather than saying my surname.”

Wenn believes that introducing umpires’ numbers has brought about some significant changes: “I think it made it easier for commentators to refer to umpires during matches. There did seem to be an increased reference to specific umpires than in the past, where they would only refer to those that had been around for many seasons, were well known and recognisable.”

Certainly, having numbers has given the umpires, as a group, the chance to consider themselves even more the seventeenth league club. In recent seasons, when umpires have been promoted to the AFL list, they have been presented with their number in much the same manner as a club guernsey night and, as more and more tradition and history is attached to various numbers, the feeling of pride in taking over a number will no doubt grow.

In 2004, Adam Davis took over number 4: “I was extremely excited to receive number 4 to wear in AFL football because, when I think of number 4, I think about Chris Mitchell. A living legend of umpiring, who possessed a great sense of humour on and off the field. Of course, I would have worn 104 if it meant I was umpiring AFL footy.”

Other new umpires were equally proud just to be on the AFL list.

“It was fantastic for each umpire to get presented with their shirt and have their stats and comments from the coaches read out. It really started to sink in that I was an AFL listed umpire when my shirt was presented. And it was fantastic that my wife could be there to share the moment”, said Simon Meredith (21).

Taking over the number 9 from Bryan Sheehan was a big thrill for Matt Stevic, “Having been given the number 9, previously worn

xxxxxx admires the heritage number on Leigh Fisher's 2017 shirt.

Nick Robertson admires the heritage number on Leigh Fisher’s 2017 shirt.

by one of the greats in umpiring, is an enormous privilege. I was honoured to be presented with the numbered shirt down at the AFL camp. I was just so thrilled to be on the list. I will always do my best to uphold the guernsey!”

It’s was a funny feeling for Sheehan, now an AFL umpires coach, after 363 matches.

“Matt has taken over my number and I know he was quite proud of wearing the number 9. However, I did say to him that it was just a number. It does feel a little strange, I might add, seeing Matt running around with my number on his back. At least he won’t be subject to any hair jokes.”

And what of the future? Back in 1995, Bill Deller had bigger ideas for the use of numbers for umpires: “I also supported numbers for goals and boundaries, but did not get to first base with that one.”

“Overall I think it has been positive. However, in my opinion, other than identifying the umpires, the numbers don’t mean anything. I would like to see all umpires — field, boundary and goal — identified by their “heritage” number. That would meet the aim of identifying the umpire, and the number would really mean something to the umpire. I don’t see a three digit number being a drawback.”

Bill got his way in 2017, albeit in a less visible than his original thought,  when the AFL and its new uniform partner, Project, added all disciplines heritage numbers to their uniforms under the AFL logo. All returning 2016 umpires had their heritage number added to their 2017 shirts and umpires who debuted in 2017 had their heritage number added the following year. This has continued since