History turns on the smallest detail. 

In the final quarter of the 1971 VFL Grand Final Hawthorn’s Peter Hudson was sitting on a total of 150 goals for the season, one away from the record. Bob Keddie marked and from the ground handpassed to Hudson who goaled – the record – or was it? 

Field umpire Peter Sheales had blown time-on prior to the handpass as Keddie was in front of the mark when he disposed. So the ball came back and it was Keddie who kicked the goal. Hudson had two more unsuccessful chances before the final siren ultimately tying the record. What might have been?  

That 1971 St.Kilda v. Hawthorn grand final was Sheales’ second following his appointment to the 1967 premiership decider between Richmond and Geelong, a nail biter that came down to the last minutes. Both were classics of the era. Peter made a large contribution to football as both a senior VFL umpire and later as an umpire coach. Never afraid to speak his mind he was a no-nonsense umpire and forthright in his thoughts concerning players, umpires, umpiring and football in general. 

Born Peter James Sheales on 6 June 1934 he joined the VFL umpires senior list from the Reserve Grade in 1962. Fitness was never an issue for Peter given his status as a professional athlete. He had won the Backmarkers invitation miles at Stawell in 1957 and repeated the victory in 1959 and 1961. He also held the world professional 880 yards and mile records. 

Early in his career the umpiring promise was clear with VCFL grand finals each season from 1963-1966 and Reserve Grade matches in 1964. He would umpire a grand final at some level every year on the VFL list. 

He made his senior debut in Round 8, 1965 in the Richmond versus Fitzroy match. Earning Heritage Number 245, he went on to handle one of the night semi-finals that same year – an impressive start. 

The appointment to the first of his two VFL grand finals came in a year in which he was also appointed to the state match between Western Australia and South Australia indicating his top form throughout the entirety of the season. He duplicated this effort in his 1971 grand final season. 

Field umpires of the day were as much a part of the rough and tumble of any match and interacted with coaches and players. Prior to a Richmond versus Carlton match in 1967 Tiger coach, Tom Hafey, ambushed Sheales on his pre-game visit to the rooms asking, “Who’s going to umpire this match, you or Ron Barassi?” Peter responded instantly “I’m in charge of the game and Barassi will do as he is told.” Hafey was reported as satisfied but the point became moot when Barassi was injured five minutes into the first quarter and replaced. 

A more serious interaction occurred when Sheales was assaulted by an irate Geelong spectator during a 1968 match at Kardinia Park. Following an appearance in court, with Sheales and the police giving evidence, the spectator was fined claiming, “He wouldn’t give us a free kick all-day.” 

The 1967 VFL Second Semi-final proved a contentious match with consequences for the grand final to come. Richmond’s Neville Crowe was reported by boundary umpire Ron Fitzgerald for striking his Carlton counterpart John Nicholls. With Sheales’ back turned, Nicholls threw a short right with a clenched fist into Crowe’s belly, who then stood tall, ball tucked under one arm, and attempted to slap his opponent in the face.  His open-handed swing missed. Nicholls clasped his left hand to his face and reeled backwards. Having paid a 15-yard penalty to Crowe and starting to move away, Sheales only saw the aftermath of Nicholls’ performance and could provide little in the way of evidence for the tribunal hearing that garnered huge publicity. In an era without video evidence, Crowe was suspended for four matches and missed the grand final. 

The grand final two weeks later always upset Geelong ruckman Polly Farmer who felt the Cats were hard done-by in an umpiring sense. He was the only participant to feel this way. Almost four decades later when he made the thoughts public, Sheales was both sanguine and humorous.  

Sheales said he had heard Farmer’s complaints privately before and was disappointed to hear that he had made them public. “I’m disappointed that a person who has been an ornament with his ruckwork and what he did with handball, is saying it.” 

He also addressed Farmer’s criticism of his umpiring with a sense of humour, saying: “How much did James Hird get fined? I wonder if it’s retrospective. I might give (then AFL chief executive) Andrew Demetriou a call.” 

Sheales final VFL match was the 1972 VFL Qualifying Final but he completed the season with the Reserve Grade grand final later in September. In his 11 seasons on the VFL senior list Peter umpired 126 VFL premiership (6 finals, including 2 grand finals), 4 night series, 4 state, 28 VFL Reserve Grade (1 grand final) and 93 VCFL (15 grand finals) matches. 

 He was awarded life membership of the AFL Umpires’ Association in 1972.  

Following his retirement, he was appointed to the role of VFA umpires’ advisor between 1973 and 1976. He made a good impression. VFA umpire, Rex Wenn noting “I had the utmost respect for him. He always told it as it was. No nonsense with him.” In the same period he was one of several former VFL umpires enlisted by Ray Allsop to deliver the basic umpire course developed by the Junior Football Council of Victoria.  

Rejoining the VFL as assistant umpires’ advisor in 1977, he held that role until 1979. While regularly put forward as a likely candidate for the top role he remained in the assistant role until his departure 

Sheales could be laconic in any role. As assistant advisor in 1979 he suggested to Ron Carter of The Age that the $5000 fine paid by Ron Barassi for disparaging umpires’ performances be put towards a video tape machine as one means of improving standards. 

In later years Peter was a regular at the VFL Grand Final Umpires gathering. 

A man who twice achieved the pinnacle of umpiring in the one field umpire system and in one of the leagues golden eras Peter Sheales  passed away 26 April 2024 aged 89. 

Vale Shealesy. 

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