My day today did not get off to one of my better starts – one voice mail message from one of my football mates George which came through at 6:30 and thought I would listen to it in the car and ring from work – the time intrigued me. An SMS came through from George again – it told me that my friend Keith Birch (aka Birchy in the great aussie tradition) passed away overnight in his sleep. I got in my car and headed off to work and pondered when to call George and waited decided to wait until I got to work rather than get lost in the emotion of it all in peak hour traffic (I was really upset with myself for not seeing him again before he died and was planning to do it soon given he had just moved into the home not far from my father’s house).
I got in and gave George a call – his contact at the nursing home had told him that Birchy had passed away in his sleep and finally succumbed to the bout of Emphysema that had taken a grip on him in recent years. I told him once I knew I would knew about the funeral – i’d let him know and George asked me to do the rounds amongst the referees that knew Birchy and quickly did a quick check list of who to contact from the past. I got off the phone and looked outside at the bleak weather and prayed football was off tonight – my heart wasn’t in reffing but I didn’t want to leave someone in the lurch either – especially when many of them knew Birchy too. So I spent a lot of today looking out the window over the rugby/atheletics oval praying for more rain and made myself busy on doing things like general claims but really struggled to get my mind together for a while.
I first encountered Birchy in 1990 when I was playing for the Stafford Strays – he was in his 50s already and was known affectionately as “Pacemaker” to many. He was responsible for organising the referees at the venue but I never really got to know him. I had a run of ankle and knee injuries over the next 18 months and got to know one of the referees (Jimmy Costello – who could have been anything) fairly well – he was younger and a tough marker and talked me into doing the course – so I did in February 1992 along with another great mate of mine Lofty (Col Lofgren). About a month later, the winter season started and I decided to try and put the theory into practice and ref. So I got properly introduced to Birchy and did my first ever game on field 2 at Banyo with him – A Women’s B or C grade. I must have went ok cos I got put onto a Mens game with one of the teams from my old club again with Keith – I was still finding my feet but Keith gave me a bit of confidence.
I then badly injured my Achilles and was out for weeks and didn’t venture to touch football for weeks as I couldn’t even jog. So I threw my energy into my studies – having also started up a Bachelor of Arts degree and ended up getting two Distinctions in my first semester back. I found a touch football comp out there on Monday nights and I decided to do some games after work and study and try and ease my way back – I still could only play 25 min at the most but I found I could go and do three x 50 min games without being bothered. The standard was more social too on Monday nights so it gave me a bit more of a chance to learn the art of reffing without having to ref club games at Banyo with blokes full of booze and bad manners at 9am. I went back to those games and Birchy took me back on board and before long – had my first ever send off (fortunately it became a running joke between the player and me in years to come). Birchy took me under his wing and I got more confident and more involved in the association – attending meetings and eager to learn.
At that time the sport was going through a transition from a formal club structure and moved to more social teams. The referees ranks got decimated with a rash of retirements of long standing and well credentialed referees and within 12 months I was refereeing A-Grade and State Champs and probably before i was realistically ready. I had also become close and very loyal to Keith and his influence rubbed off on me – I prided myself on being professional in my total approach not just in the way i reffed – but how I conducted myself and applied myself. In essence – I became a student of the sport and Keith essentially became a father figure to me.
A few more years went by and I ended up making it to reffing at the National Touch League and Keith was my biggest fan. I had also become involved in the committee and was Secretary for three years and worked extensively with Keith (who was now President) and we would conduct many a meeting in his garage at his house – some of which went for hours! (I wisely invested in a voice activated recorder to help with the minutes!) and worked on a lot of stuff behind the scenes with Keith. I gave the position away largely because I wanted to establish myself more as a National Referee and having also recently gotten married and having Bryanna arrive not long after.
Things changed for me personally though – I had an unpleasant time at the Nationals in 1998 and had been toying with the idea of a switch to refereeing rugby league. A mid-pitch chat with the State Director and sitting in the refs room afterwards looking around and missing out on an upgrade once i realised i was not in the “in-crowd” and feeling guilty about the amount of time and money I was investing in it with a young baby – I decided that I was all over as a representative referee. Keith was one of the people who I discussed it extensively and he was fully supportive of me – knowing what I had been through. I always felt like his favourite son out of all the referees and even though I was going to sit out refereeing touch for a while – he totally understood my circumstances and reasons and the politics of the sport and fully helped me sort things out in my head. So I switched and sat out refereeing touch football in 1999, when I found out later that year twins were due to arrive in April 2000, which somewhat resolved the issue even further (Birchy himself was a father of twins!!). But everytime i achieved something in rugby league (a sport Birchy was extremely passionate about), I would always call him and let him know how I was progressing. I felt entirely vindicated in what I was doing and having Keith’s support meant the world to me.
I always rated myself as a referee but I came to learn a lot by switching over and I became a more complete referee. I got the coaching and feedback which I was lacking in touch football and became immersed in learning the craft of refereeing – not just being technically proficient but to learn to totally read the game and learn how to be an effective referee. I went back to refereeing touch in late 2000 and I noticed a complete change – i had sat out and not only came back without missing a beat – i felt a more formidable and confident ref and players were openly welcoming me back.
Birchy quickly welcomed me back- he knew i could go all night and do five games a night without any problem even if he stuck me on the higher grade games on my own if need (due to lack of numbers). I was also his go-to man with problem teams – if a team played up then Keith would put me on the team the following week and became his toe-cutter and headkicker (and if it didn’t – i would normally storm back into the shed “what’s your bloody problem with this team ?? They were ok for me!!”). I could happily referee a game that would go 100 mph or enter into a scrap and a streetfight with a team – whatever Keith wanted me to do – I was completely loyal to him and relished the challenge. I hated leaving him in the lurch and would often ref for him when I simply had no right to be on the field. I would often ref for him dying from the flu or on one leg because I know how hard it is to get refs and I never ever wanted to disappoint him. It was only when I literally when i was incapable of running that i would sit out and Keith knew that I was legimately no good at all – I would never simply not turn up on him and its my pet hate with refs – I hate a complete lack of courtesy or professionalism. Whereas Keith would always remain a calm and gentlemanly in his approach – I wouln’t think twice about giving someone both barrels if they stuffed me around or were totally not up to expectations. I’ll defend any referee in public if they are doing the job or at least trying but I wont miss them if they aren’t professional in their approach. The one thing Keith inspired me to do was to lead by example and be dedicated to the cause – we just had different approaches to it but I would never dismiss anything he had to offer.
Keith was forced out of his co-ordination role (a role I shared with him on different nights) and I really felt for him because his involvement in the sport was his life, given he was retired and in his 70s. But I also knew that he had limitations in terms of accreditation and his health was deteriorating. The fact that another great collegue of mine (Russell Barnsley aka Barnso) got his role made it easier for me to accept as he was a referee who was better credentialed than myself and had Keith’s demeanour and was universally respected. Keith accepted the decision as only he could – with good grace even though he was bitterly hurt that it was not his decision. I had recently stopped refereeing for Keith not long before this – I was co-ordinating two nights now as well as reffing 2-3 games each night whereas I had been doing up to 12 games a week not long before that and finding it was a toll mentally and physically – it was simply wearing me down and it was really hitting me on the drives home.
I still kept in regular contact with Keith – he was still on the committee and was determined to keep it viable. He tried to get me involved but I was simply all over having meetings like the Judean’s People Front (apologies to Monty Python!) and achieving nothing but discussion. I would rather deal directly with the players organisation for what i felt was the best outcome for referees and I would always act to get the best outcome for all concerned – i would never work or undermine what Birchy stood for as essentially he stood for the grassroots referee which are the lifeblood of the sport – we just had different approaches.
Keith and I were very different people – he was a smoker but teetotal while i don’t smoke but love a beer – we would always enjoy having a chat about the sport and his dedication and enthusiasm for the sport had a profound influence on me – he was interested in the grass-roots of the sport and did it for the love of the game and even made a few enemies along the way with those who would seek to be elitist and give nothing back. The sport was poorer with him moving on and I have not only lost someone who guided and inspired me – I’ve lost one of my closest mates in life. Goodbye Keith and thanks mate for everything you did.