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Chelsea Roffey became the second woman to umpire in the AFL. This year she celebrates 10 years as a first grade goal umpire. By Richard Cooke.

Knowing the score: Chelsea Roffey, 32, AFL umpire

Chelsea Roffey became only the second woman to umpire in the AFL, and the first woman to umpire in a grand final. This year she celebrates 10 years as a first grade goal umpire. 

Richard Cooke That 10 years has gone quickly. 

Chelsea Roffey It does feel like it’s gone really quickly, but I guess I’m the old duck on the list now. I came onto the list in 2004, up in Brisbane midway through the year. I replaced another umpire, moved to Victoria about six years ago, and the time has gone very, very quickly.

RC Were things such as officiating a grand final on your mind back then?

CR When I started out, I guess I always had in the back of my mind, and this is a bit of a personality thing with me, I like to be good at whatever I’m doing. I was quite driven. I did about five years of local level umpiring up in Brisbane when I started at university. It just started out as a bit of a passion, a hobby and a part-time job. And even though I had the motivation to try to do as well as I could, I certainly never envisaged at that point I’d get on the AFL list and, God forbid, do a grand final.

RC How were attitudes to you when you first arrived in the AFL?

CR At AFL level, or at local level?

RC Both, but at AFL level in particular. I was looking at some of the cheer squad banners about maybe 10, 15 years ago. Let’s just say that attitudes have changed quite a lot in that time.

CR It’s funny you say that. I’ll come back to your original question in a minute, but the thing I think that surprised me a lot when I moved to Melbourne from Brisbane was that I really expected to cop it, especially from the cheer squads. I just thought, “They will not want to see me.” They’ve never had a woman umpiring at this level down here. Katrina Pressley was the first woman to umpire at that level, but she was a Queenslander as well, so when I first came to Melbourne I thought, “They’re going to eat me alive. This is going to be one of the hardest things ever, being accepted by the football public.” But I was actually really surprised. You have a range of situations that come up – some of them positive, some of them negative – and the negative ones stick in your mind. But more often than not people were a little bit curious about the fact that there’s a girl there and they quite often would just say hello over the fence. Of course they change their mind pretty quickly when you make a decision they disagree with. 

RC So crowds were much more welcoming than you expected.

CR That surprised me a lot. At first, the biggest challenge for me was actually the added scrutiny, because I had to do press conferences and media interviews, months before I’d even done a game. By the time I actually got out and did that first match I had to make sure I just put in the performance of my life, because if anything went wrong they’d jump on it. In terms of my treatment, I guess I just switched off to all of that. I was more concerned with just getting on with it and making sure I didn’t stuff up.

RC Goal umpires are relatively anonymous, but women stand out.

CR You are that novelty factor and the commentators will say your name. That’s fine sometimes, if they’re giving you a good rap, but other times you’re like, “Oh, just let me go under the radar for this one.”

RC Do you interact with the players much?

CR That’s something that has changed a lot over the years. Speaking to some of the umpires from a few decades ago, and some of the older trainers, there used to be much more of an interactive element with the players and the clubs but that’s really stopped a lot,
I think, as more commercial interests have come into the game.

RC It’s a thing of the past?

CR There’s a much higher level of professionalism now and so it’s very separate. You get out there and you’re very focused on your job, the players are focused on what they’re doing, so it doesn’t really lend itself to much interaction. But occasionally a defender might come into the goal square before the game starts and they’ll say “G’day.” Unfortunately you only really talk to the players now if you’re reporting them.

RC You’re a writer as well as an umpire. Are you planning to write more about football when you can?

CR Interesting you raise that. I wrote an article a few weeks ago for The Age, which was related to the Breast Cancer Network game that was held at the MCG with a field of women. It was the first time I’d really written a column that expressed my experiences through footy. It was all tied into the game, but also I guess trying to spread the word about the importance of diversity in a broader society. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 28, 2014 as "Knowing the score". Subscribe here.

Richard Cooke
is a journalist and writer for television. He is The Saturday Paper's sports editor.