Leo Sutton is 88 years young. He still weighs 63 kg – his running weight and is just as busy now as he was in his heyday as a boundary umpire on the VFL panel between 1950 and 1960.
When former Prime Minister, Robert Menzies made the decision to move the complete Supply Department to Canberra Leo and his family relocated in 1968. “I had no choice but to move my family, it was either that or lose my job and I couldn’t afford to do that with four young children,” reflected Leo today, when we caught up at the Canberra Yacht Club, where Leo is a life member.
Leo played football as a young man with the Ascot United team in the Essendon Football League until he suffered a broken ankle when he was hit by a car in 1945. “I couldn’t get a football boot on so I became a club umpire, I had run as a professional athlete and I was able to run in a runner as a boundary umpire and not a boot.”
In 1948 as a twenty-year-old Leo joined the VFL seconds panel, umpiring the 1949 grand final and was promoted to the senior VFL panel in 1950. “In those days you were required to bring your own trainer to the game. My trainer was Australian middleweight boxing champion, Al Basten. I trained with Al for many years in his Essendon gym so it was a logical choice really. Al certainly had a presence when required,” recalled Leo with a smile on his face. “Al might have quietened a few club officials who wanted to get stuck into the umpires after the games.”
Leo umpired 172 VFL games between 1950 and 1960 which included 10 finals and the 1953 and 1957 VFL grand finals. Leo also umpired the 1956 and ’57 night grand finals. However, Leo’s most memorable moment came in the national carnival. Fos Williams was playing for the SANFL and his namesake, Charlie Sutton playing for the Vic’s. They clashed on the boundary line with Fos taking a sly shot at Charlie after the ball had gone. At the next field bounce the pack cleared with Fos laying on the ground. “Charlie had skirted the pack and took Fos out with a shirtfront just as he took possession of the ball, I still remember the force of the contact as I sit here today.”
Leo still has his eighteen inch “Gladstone bag” that he carried to the footy with his gear. “When the weather got bad I used the end of a banana box to put my feet on when we sat as emergency umpires. We used to carry the platform in the bottom of our bags. There was no way my feet were going to get wet and cold.” Leo also had the distinction of umpiring four games as a field umpire. “They were short of country field umpires so they sent experienced boundary umpires to the bush to help overcome the shortage.”
Leo wasn’t always in the good books of the umpires’ board. “I was reprimanded for doing bending exercises on the ground before a game. Bill Blackburn was not impressed that I was putting my knees up towards my shoulders to stretch and told me so.”
Leo retired in 1960 at age 33. “I didn’t want to become a statistic, I wanted to retire before I was told to go. I thought I might take up goal umpiring but that didn’t eventuate because of my eyesight.” Leo walked away from football and continued his life in the public service. In 1968 after being transferred to Canberra he took up goal umpiring for the 1968 season and then went onto to the board to assist the umpire’s advisor at the time, Roly Grant. (Roly umpired 31 VFL matches between 1962 and ’66). “I never miss a game on the telly but I haven’t gone to a game for a long time. I do enjoy the way football is played today. Living here in Canberra I do like the GWS, Leo explained. “My wife Shirley doesn’t understand footy so she just goes into another room and leaves me to watch it,” he said with a laugh.
Leo and his first wife had four children, 2 sons and 2 daughters. His wife passed away in 1981. Many years later he was introduced to his now wife Shirley. Their voluntary work includes Palliative Care. Shirley was a nurse and responsible for introducing palliative care into the Australian Capital Territory. She is now the Patron of Palliative Care ACT and has an AM,PSM to her name. Leo has been the public officer for both the Canberra arm of the association and the Australian association.
He is also a longtime volunteer in various organisations including the Lions Club of Canberra Valley, where he has helped establish emergency accommodation for woman and children in need. Leo continues to be active despite having six stents in his heart from 4 or 5 heart attacks. Quite simply, he doesn’t have the time to lay down.
Thanks Leo for a wonderful few hours of going down memory lane with you.
Article written by: AFLUA CEO, Peter Howe
Pictured: Leo Sutton in the 1953 VFL Grand Final