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Umpire state of mind

A sit-down with Brendan Hosking


The men’s AFL season is long-finished. An abrupt AFLW 7.0 is also drawing to a close. In Melbourne, in the absence of football, November and December are lightweight, illusory months. None of the proper business of a year – the meat and potatoes – happens here. Rather than taking interest in cricket or tennis or golf, plenty of the city’s conversations prefer diving into stupid, unanswerable speculation about the next faraway football season. Only a privileged few can bask in successes from the seasons just gone. 

Take Brendan Hosking, the AFL field-umpire, who waits in a Richmond café for this makeshift journalist. He’s not quite basking. It’s cold, and Bridge Road is being pelted with springtime rain. But behind a very sensible haircut, a friendly disposition, there must lie fond month-old memories of AFL grand final day. For the first time in a ten-year career in the professional league, Hosking earned the right to officiate the season decider. It had been a default goal for years, ever since his proper commitment to umpiring as a 16-year-old.

“When you choose umpiring, and you choose to go in that direction, that’s obviously the pinnacle,” he confirms.

On weekdays, Hosking doubles as a popular Health and PE teacher at Richmond High School. Predictably, his grand final achievement was wildly celebrated. There was a rush of messages from colleagues and congratulatory emails from kids, all taking note during sacred school holidays. Plenty of good cheer in-person once the new term started, too.

“I don’t think anyone likes talking about themselves, but I must admit every time the conversation about the grand final comes up it brings a smile to my face,” he says. “Obviously it’s something I’m really proud of, as well, and it was just an awesome experience.”

What’s awesome, as well, is his resurgence in the last twelve months. At the close of 2021, Hosking found himself back umpiring in the VFL, somewhat disillusioned and questioning his application to both careers.


The story of young Hosking is sadly without bedroom posters of legendary whistle-blowers – think Scott McLaren or Darren Goldspink. What we’ve called ‘the pinnacle’ wasn’t even aspired-to when he began umpiring at 13 in the Essendon District Football League. The year was 2003 – elsewhere, Guy beat Shannon by the length of his afro.

Hosking made his start as a boundary umpire, however quickly drifted inland. He was soon calling the shots at senior football on Saturdays, adding junior games on Sunday mornings, and competing later-on himself. In terms of playing, he self-reports as a wing/half-forward type. Running was always a strength, but he couldn’t quite evade the knocks. When he made that decision to solely focus on officiating, he remembers his mum being pleased. It was his dad, meanwhile, who most often ferried him around to the umpiring engagements. A long-term football consumer, Hosking snr’s sense of good umpiring was attuned enough to deliver feedback, proving useful when other coaches weren’t on hand. Whereas most young athletes might drive home with their parents and scrutinise possessions and missed goals, the Hoskings no doubt honed-in on adjudication.


Although Brendan reflects fondly on the pocket money and community-mindedness of these ‘grassroots’ days, he’s also kept an impression that the local leagues are often more demanding than their famous relatives. I can’t help guessing aloud many of the reasons: violent, non-professional players, lack of cameras, boozers on the hill. None of these Hosking amends. It confirms why the AFL’s controversial crackdown on any real dissent towards umpires, this season, was chiefly for the benefit of those presiding at the local levels.

In 2009, Australian Idol wrapped-up, Julie won Masterchef despite a botched puddle pie, and the powers-that-be had seen enough of Hosking to warrant his move to the VFL. He was put on the development list, officiating TAC Cup and state-league games. It was around this time, supposedly, he first contemplated extending his weekend passion into a career. And a plum opportunity to trial for the AFL’s list in 2012 wasn’t wasted – he was granted a spot. Hosking modestly claims he was lucky with timing, that there’d been several retirements and delistings after the preceding season. Nevertheless, at age 21 – a stage when most players in the league, with their narrower focus, are still overawed by the stage – Hosking was out in the middle of crowded stadiums, at turns running the show. For mine, it places him as very much a member of history’s ‘young achievers club’ – holding court with Carlos Alcaraz, Lorde, Alexander the Great, Charlie the Finger-Biter.

There were 9 games in that first season, interspersed with VFL as part of a typical introductory role. But Hosking recalls this mix as challenging, in a way.

“It was a really frustrating year, going in and out,” he says. “Once you get a taste of AFL, you want to be in there every week.”

From this, perhaps, evidence of the strong appetite that fuelled his early success. But in the rear-view, he sees he was at times ambitious to a fault.

“There were a few years there where I was probably a bit too headstrong. But you’ve got to find that balance around ‘what do the coaches want?’ and ‘who am I?’. You’ve still got to put your own self into umpiring.”

His games tally quickly lifted in the ensuing years. He only needed 60 appearances to win his first AFL final spot in 2015. Still very much wunderkind territory – he must’ve been 24.

The format of these late-season honours can make the umpiring landscape seem like a reality show of its own. 34 umpires are AFL-listed at the start of each year. Based on form, this drops to 12 ahead of the finals. Then down to 6 for the semis and prelims, before 3 are invited, eventually, to ‘the big dance’. All the whittling-down is discerned by the league’s crack squad of umpire coaches. And the whole process resets each season, though nobody can afford to get too comfortable – contestants can’t look beyond one-year contracts.

I wonder whether, if the fans had a better whiff of this ‘game within the game’, they’d pick a horse in the race, an umpire to support for the season as a sideshow to their football teams. I’m imagining, rather than groans, pockets of applause throughout the Shane Warne Stand after a man or woman in Stabilo-green nails a tricky call. And young fans rocking up to games in officiators’ tops, sporting badges of Hosking, Eleni Glouftsis, Simon Meredith, Ray Chamberlain. Of course, this grand vision cuts against the anonymity that, to an extent, is a measure of good umpiring. And Hosking says the environment truly isn’t as competitive as it might sound. Slightly before his time, there was indeed an era where officiators occasionally ‘rubbed hands together’ and celebrated their colleagues’ missed free-kicks as comparative victories for themselves, as small boosts in the wider umpiring contest. That’s no longer the case in enlightened 2022.

“It’s much more of a team environment than it was 11 years ago when I first got on the list, and even more so than 15-20 years ago,” Hosking says.

“Now, it’s a much better culture to be involved in. We want to go out there as a team and do the best we can for the game.”

“Anything you can’t see, you’ve got full trust in other umpires that they will pay it if they see it.”


On that stroke – half-time – I’m going to get in the way, for a moment. Like an umpire who hasn’t quite mastered holding their distance, who occasionally collides with the ball. Google ‘Peter Carey mark’.

But I must admit my somewhat adoring tone, to this point, is stirring up a ‘shadow self’. To make this a more complete portrait of umpiring – from all perspectives – I feel compelled to admit I’m not always as gracious towards the whistle-blowers as I could be. At games, I crow ‘Baaalll!’ not so much as a cultural ritual as a genuine appeal. I can get swept into forgetting the impossibility of perfect adjudication, the remarkable best efforts, the fact Australia’s rules (factoring in the size of the playing-field, and the relatively few officials) might be the hardest in the sporting world to uphold. After some matches, I’ll dwell far too long on those seemingly contentious calls which must’ve detoured time and space from the path marked ‘Carlton victory’. In the depths of winter, I’ll resent the way matches can be crucially influenced by the firing synapses, the split-second decisions of not a full-back, or a midfielder, but an out-on-their-feet arbiter provocatively sponsored by OPSM.

And yet here I find myself in October, verging November, sitting across from one of the league’s pre-eminent officiators. I’m calmer. More sensible. He’s generously donated his time. And it’s more obvious to me, at this café, we of AFL-persuasion ought to celebrate the fact our sport is foreseeably in the hands of humans, isn’t soon vulnerable to those automatons taking over tennis. Any small imperfections that might linger in our arrangement, infrequent as these are, are at least reminders that our drummed-contests aren’t quite the ‘be-all and end-all’ anyway, that there are things in the bigger picture which, shock horror, may be more serious. In saying this, there could hardly be a bigger picture, or sound, than a teeming grandstand of a galoots (me included) who’re insisting they have the best view of ‘holding the ball’. So I certainly wouldn’t begrudge an AFL umpire slipping occasionally into the perspective that, on weekends, they’re standing at the crux of all things. In the interests of politeness and self-preservation, none of these over-thoughts and admissions featured in my conversation with Hosking. I’ve only consigned him to reading them.


These days, it’s a little folkloric to consider a time when AFL/VFL players held miscellaneous day-jobs in addition to their hours of weekend publicity. Something of this ‘semi-professional’ era is retained in the juggling act AFLW athletes now must perform, and also in the working life of support crew like Hosking.

To speak romantically, you can imagine Hosking as a kind of Clark Kent - humbly at his desk on schooldays; later, exercising superhuman alertness as he races around meting-out justice under lights. The majority of umpires share this kind of occupational character shift, of course – and have to, given the year-by-year status of their passion. 

Hosking first buttressed his umpiring with a role as a sports administrator at Hockey Victoria, but was soon drawn towards teaching. The umpiring gig was enough to allow for studying education full-time. After graduating, he got a four-day-a-week job as a foundation member of staff at Richmond High, a brand-new vertical school (still expanding) that rises amongst the apartments of its community. Hosking says identification with his weekend role has been something of a benefit in appealing to his students.

“I think it helps with creating a common interest. Obviously a lot of students like football,” he tells me.“Even for those students who aren’t necessarily too interested in football, I think they can appreciate the level I’m at with the umpiring.”

“I hope it also shows they can be involved in elite sport in a different way, not necessarily always playing.”

It’s easy to assume there’d be crossover traits between the two jobs. Hosking agrees the communication skills are comparable, as is the task of controlling a large group. Although, despite what cynics may wish to believe, managing a year 7 class is adamantly more difficult than the field of 36 professional adults. This leads to a clear distinction in his overall approach. 

“I don’t want to be a teacher figure on the ground,” he says. “Sometimes you need to be strong and you need to have conviction in your decision-making but, me personally, I don’t want to come across as that authoritarian figure on the field.”

In his early years at the high school, the work-work balance functioned well. He had successful umpiring seasons, although didn’t quite make the ‘top 6’ – which would’ve meant pushing into a second week of finals. Then, in years 2020-1, a period of struggle. Home life turned busier with the arrival of daughter Maggie. The teaching experience was complicated by the challenge of online learning. And umpiring was partly muddled by that season which persisted only with the help of interstate hubs. Whatever the issue/s, Hosking drifted into what he now suggests was a ‘victim mindset’. He became worried, across all spheres, of tracking towards mediocrity. Specific to umpiring, he felt frustrated with coaching and feedback, and this compounded with that return to the VFL.

(Aside: it’s amazing how the quests of players and umpires overlap. To think both categories live in fear of getting demoted to the VFL!)

“I felt like something had to give. I wasn’t prioritising my time very well and became a bit muddled,” Hosking says.

That a significant turnaround, really, was achieved in just 12 months, perhaps makes it hard to appreciate the effort involved and the careful decision-making. One key shift was Hosking dropping a day at Richmond – which the school understood, supported – in order to be sure he could take a more meaningful approach to his umpire training. He sought mentoring relationships, as well, leaning heavily on new AFL umpiring head Michael Jennings, and even engaging a mysterious ‘life coach’ type – unnamed, so I’m picturing someone from the Ben Crowe mould.

“I was pretty open with the school. I said, if it’s a possibility, I’d like to go down to three days a week. They were amazing, they made it work,” Hosking says.

“I had a good conversation with coaches in the pre-season about starting this year with a bit of a blank canvas. It was almost about forgetting what I think I know and starting again.”

And, lo and behold, it all paid off. Hosking says he’s enjoyed a more positive year in both professions – teaching and umpiring – but the public nature of the AFL means his identity looms largest in that particular sphere, and it drags more of his self-esteem in tow. He had a strong home-and-away season, which rubber-stamped his return to finals action. Significantly, the ‘Collingwood versus Geelong’ qualifying final, spectated by 90,000+, ranks among the very best performances of his career. The ‘perfect’ game as an officiator might be elusive, but only a very small number of mistakes were dug-up after a match of blistering intensity. “It was in sixth gear the whole time,” Hosking recalls.

He followed-up with another two strong performances, which landed him, for the first time, in grand final contention. At the start of the closing week, perhaps there were similarities between himself and Guy or Julie of all those years ago. Nervously awaiting a life-changing verdict, Hosking might as well have been at the Opera House or inside the Masterchef shed. In this case, he’d be getting word via phone call. And whilst Hosking was ultimately successful, he also fell prey to that current sports trend of exciting news being filmed for social media consumption. In the clip, he breaks down as he’s told by Jennings and company he’s been picked for the last Saturday. Then he’s sure to thank them profusely.

Next: euphoria, nerves, a hectic schedule in preparation.

“The week leading into it was pretty up and down emotionally.”

“To represent the group was amazing and I was really grateful to be able to do that,” he says. “You’ve got to come to terms with the honour that’s been placed on you for the day.”

And yet after a week filled with press conferences, photo-shoots, dinners, cruising around on a Hilux and down the Yarra, he found himself settling by the Saturday morning. Driving to the MCG with partner Lisa, he noted a state of calm. His heart rate, supposedly, wasn’t remarkable even as he stepped onto the field as part of the headline act, replacing Delta and Robbie Williams.

“Once I got to the ground, I was really good,” he says. “I don’t want to use cliches but it was a normal game preparation.”

“The two guys I was with were also really experienced on that day, so they gave me a lot of confidence.”

Inserting myself, once again: I don’t quite know how somebody would be able to sideline the momentousness of the occasion, and the long-dreamt achievement, enough to keep the relentless ‘presence of mind’ that umpiring must demand. But Hosking doesn’t seem to think this aspect was ever a big deal. I guess he wouldn’t have risen very far in the umpiring chain of command if he was susceptible to that kind of overwhelm, anyway. At least he admits the game’s scoreline – whilst disappointing for a neutral supporter, and even more for the Swans – perhaps took some of the sting and pressure out of the afternoon, allowed small glimmers, in the second half, for soaking up the occasion. Watching from the stands or on TV, his family, friends, colleagues, students might’ve appreciated this, as well.

So what can be next for Hosking? Post-match, there was a family week in Queensland and preparations for term 4. He remains in that comfortable space, before pre-season, where reflection and celebration are warranted. At some stage, though, the mind will shift to a new year and its particular goals.

“After going through that process once, in terms of the three finals and then waiting for the phone call for the grand final, you have a newfound respect for the guys that have been able to do it again and again,” he reflects. “It’s obviously what I hope to do, but fully acknowledge it’s not just going to happen.”


“It all resets and starts afresh. I’ve got to make sure, next year, I’m finding ways to get the most out of myself like I was able to this year.”

In school life, for 2023, there are murmurs of an umpiring academy beginning at Richmond. At this stage, they’ll be going with something other than ‘The Brendan Hosking Institute’. Which seems a mistake. And in the immediate short-term, Hosking concerns himself with paying for the coffees (mine an almond hot chocolate, if you must know). As the makeshift journalist, now with a few strands of an elite umpire’s story recorded on my phone, I had a fair idea this should have been my gesture. But he got to the best position with nimble, AFL-standard footwork, and I could only linger useless at the café door. I felt like a player pinned beneath a pack, Sherrin pressed to my belly, just hoping that Hosking, metres away, wasn’t thinking I’d had prior opportunity.

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