Now that the controversy — finally — has died down regarding Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett and his $5000 fine for perceived criticism of umpires, it’s time to look at the broader issue regarding the AFL protecting one of its sacred cows in their administration.

In the case of their regularly criticised umpiring department, it’s time to “unleash the Geesh” and replace their Director of Umpiring Jeff Gieschen at season’s end after 10 years at the helm.

10 years!

Heck, American presidents are only allowed eight!

Last week, there were influential voices of the game who took the opposing view of Kennett such as Footy Show host Garry Lyon, who said the debate was “boring” and that umpires were “softest possible targets” and the Australian’s Patrick Smith, who described not only Kennett, but Collingwood president Eddie McGuire as, “Self-serving presidents who worry only about their clubs and not at all about the future of the game.”

Smith, who has led the charge for greater respect of umpires in AFL football, pointed out how many opportunities there are for clubs to meet with and air their grievances to the AFL about any aspect of the game — including umpiring — they were dissatisfied with. However, “The AFL asks only that they do not make public criticism of umpires because there is documentation, broad and long, into the critical lack of umpires and a dwindling rate of recruitment in junior ranks.”

Both as always make valid points, but what if the clubs have lost faith in the umpiring department structure and they feel any meeting with them is a waste of time? Is it really coincidence that the two loudest voices come from two of the most powerful clubs and two of the most powerful presidents, who least need to worry about receiving AFL handouts and fixturing favours, and have the media savvy to take their frustrations public?

The reality is the AFL falls behind the grass roots implications whenever there is any criticism of any part of the umpiring department. While their zero-tolerance stance on players, coaches and club officials commenting on any aspect of an umpiring performance post-game should be lauded for that very reason, treating the men who run the department as protected species does not wash.

If Sydney coach Paul Roos started bagging umpires, then there’s a real worry that Billy Bloggs could do the same as coach of Broken Hill and it could and does affect young men wanting to turn to umpiring, but if a coach, player or official criticizes Jeff Geischen … so what?

Will it stop young men dreaming of a well-paid administrative job?

Since Geischen was appointed to his position in November 1999 after being replaced as coach of the Richmond Tigers, thirty eight coaches (including fill-ins) have presided over the 16 clubs, and only three of those organisations — Collingwood (Mick Malthouse), Port Adelaide (Mark Williams) and Geelong (Mark Thompson) — have kept their coach over the same period of time.

All three have taken their teams into two Grand Finals each, yet both Malthouse and Williams are widely tipped to leave at season’s end. Thompson is certainly the odd man out in charge of “the greatest team of all,” yet it was only 2006 when it appeared certain his tenure would end in charge of the then under-achieving Cats.

The point is, even if Jeff Gieschen has been absolutely outstanding in his role in each of his 10 seasons, how is it best practice to have the same man who’s about to tick over into his 2nd decade in the gig? How does he keep reinventing the way he goes about his job? Is he really the best man for the job, or is he just the man in the job?

Even the aforementioned — ultra successful — coaches regularly change their support staff to ensure fresh ideas are brought to the table. Gieschen’s 2IC is Rowan Sawers, who has been the umpires coach since late 1997!

And they wonder why they are perceived by many to have a survivor’s mentality!

If the club’s, which are now professionally run multi-million dollar stand-alone organisations, have genuinely lost faith in the way the current umpires administration goes about their role, maybe they are right.

Maybe they are working in the best interests of the game — rather than just being self-serving — and realise that genuine structural change needs to be made into a vital area of the game.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey