Ron Woolley

VFL umpiring lost is last connection with the early years of the Second World War following the passing of Ron Woolley on 15 February 2007. In his ten seasons as a member of the VFLUA Ron was Honorary Secretary for three years in addition to umpiring during the height of the war when country appointments were suspended and then returning to country football in the immediate post-war era.

Ronald William Woolley was born at the Royal Women’s Hospital, Melbourne, on 12 August 1914. Ron’s family lived in Ascot Vale until 1917 when his father, William, was appointed signalman for Puffing Billy and they relocated to Ferntree Gully.

Seven years later they returned to Ascot Vale, Ron completed his education at Footscray Technical School and took his first job as a mail boy at Shell. He would eventually be promoted to Manager, Import Licensing.

A keen sportsman from a young age, Ron played pennant tennis, District cricket with Essendon and Footscray and football with Brunswick Amateurs. Things may have turned out much differently if his invitation to train with Essendon Football Club in 1933 had resulted in a place in the team. Instead the mate he talked into coming with him for a bit of support did make the team. Dick Reynolds went on to three Brownlow Medals and become a Legend of Australian Football – Ron became an umpire.

Beginning in 1938 in the Junior Football League in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, Ron joined the VFL List of umpires in 1940. It was the first VFL season to be affected by the war and over the next several years, as the conflict and its attendant shortages reduced football competitions, opportunities to umpire became fewer and fewer. By 1942 the VFL was supplying umpires for only their own Senior and Reserve Grade competitions, the Sub-District Football League and a War Services Competition. Ron was good enough to maintain his spot on the reduced list but was still building the experience for a senior appointment.

He umpired his first Reserve Grade match in July 1943 at Toorak Park followed by matches at The Ryder Ground, Old Scotch Oval and the Richmond City Oval, all grounds used by the VFL as its regular grounds were requisitioned by the military forces. The story behind this first Reserves match is remarkable and resulted from an ‘assault’ the previous Sunday.

The War Services Competition provided a challenge to all umpires. Played between various military units there was regular changing of players making up the teams and little discipline. Ron was appointed to Workshops versus Land Signals HQ at Brunswick Street. He recalled, “The game at Fitzroy had cruised along normally. It was similar to an earlier Army game at Carlton until, unexpectedly, this Workshops player went berserk as I walked in for a centre bounce after a goal. He rushed at me swinging his fists.”

“I dropped the ball to fend him off by pushing him on the chest. I mistimed one push and got a glancing blow on the face. Some of his team mates dragged him away. A HQ Signals player, who I assumed to be the Captain, said ‘We want nothing to do with this type of football’ and took his team of the arena. The Workshops team followed.

This left me alone because the boundary and goal umpires were supplied by the clubs and went off with them. I had nobody to report to and no other umpires to report on the incident. I decided to go to the VFL Secretary next morning for advice.”

“When I reported it to [Like] McBrien on the Monday morning after the Sunday match, he told me not to worry about it because he would fix it. He said that the VFL would show its confidence in me by giving me a senior match next Saturday but realised I did not have the experience to handle it. Instead I was given the main Reserves game.”

McBrien did indeed ‘fix it’. He fabricated an all-in brawl, serious assault, facial injury, a sending off and verbal abuse and released the story to the papers, most likely to exert his control over the competition. When Ron found out about the newspaper story sixty years later he was aghast. As an ABC journalist for much of his working life, truth in the media was important to him.

The years after the war were ones of rapid growth for the VFLUA as more and more competitions resumed. Ron was a regular Reserve Grade and country umpire but unfortunately never achieved a senior VFL match.

There were a number of country Grand Finals – 1945 Sunraysia League, the 1947 Yarra Valley when Woori Yallock defeated Healesville to win their first premiership in 57 years and the 1946 Ovens and Murray Grand Final. This was the great Laurie Nash’s last match and was decided on a shot after the siren which hit the post. The closeness of that match was a portent for the following year when Ron had three draws in the Reserves in a single season!

Ron was elected Honorary Secretary of the VFL Umpires Association in 1947 after serving on the Executive Committee the previous year. He held the office for the next two years in a period where the major concern for the Association was protection of it country umpires. At one stage there was an unfortunate incident in the Yarra Valley League. An umpire was assaulted. Ron drove him to meet the local League representatives and tribunal hearing in Healesville. Ron’s edict was no protection, no umpires. The player received life. Ron and the offended against umpire received a 15 minute head start at the end of the tribunal!

In December 1948 Ron broke his leg playing tennis in Daylesford and as a result his umpiring career came to an end. He had been elected Secretary again in 1949 but had to resign the post when he realised he would not be umpiring. Ron was awarded Honorary Life Membership of the Association by his peers in 1948.

Married to May in 1937 and, after her passing in 1972, married to Olive, Ron had many interests but family was always number one and he cherished all of them and the time spent together. In his twilight years he discovered the joys of Foxtel and hand held games, in particular Yahtzee, solitaire and Tetris. Always the journalist, he maintained an active interest in current affairs.

Ron Woolley passed away at Ringwood Private Hospital aged 92. A fine umpire, excellent association man and thorough gentleman he has left his mark on football and football was much the better for it.