LIKE many players in the Western Border Football League, umpires come and go over time, but there has been one familiar face over the past 24 years.
South East field umpire Bruce McLaughlin brought up a special milestone on Saturday when he officiated his 400th senior Western Border match at Vansittart Park.
McLaughlin is one of the most distinctive and recognisable figures on football grounds across the region.
His moustache and affirmative voice has been a trademark over the years and it his expertise is not only restricted to the football season.
McLaughlin has been a long-time A Grade cricket umpire and has also tried his hand at officiating volleyball.
But it is on the football field where he has flourished.
McLaughlin’s authoritative umpiring style has seen him become one of the most experienced and respected umpires in the Western Border Football League.
Reflecting on the milestone, McLaughlin said he is fond of his record and received a special present from his daughter to remember the occasion.
“I do feel proud, because my daughter did something special for me,” he said.
“She got me a whistle which had 400 and my initials written on it.
“I used it during the game on Saturday.”
McLaughlin said the 400-game milestone was a goal he had been striving for.
“The milestone was why I wanted to keep myself fit,” he said.
“It is what I aspired to for myself.”
McLaughlin made his Western Border umpiring debut back in 1995.
However, despite being one of the most accomplished field umpires today, he started his career as a goal umpire.
McLaughlin said it was common sense to start behind the goals as he already had previous experience with the flags.
“I played one season of B Grade down at Port MacDonnell and one year later I took up goal umpiring,” he said.
“I was a club goal umpire at Port MacDonnell for two years and did some A Grade finals down there.”
In classic McLaughlin style, he vividly remembers the grade and fixture of his first match, as he keeps a record of every game he umpires in a book at home.
“It was Under 18’s West Gambier v Heywood back in 1995,” he said.
“I also did the B Grade on the same day because I was not an A Grade umpire back then.”
Just three years after his first match, he officiated his first A Grade grand final in 1998.
He went on to umpire five more A Grade deciders, the first in 2000 before a consecutive four-year run from 2002-05.
McLaughlin’s expertise behind the goals also saw him earn higher honours.
His proudest moment came in 2001, when he umpired a SANFL Reserves match at AAMI Stadium.
To add to the occasion, the match was a curtain-raiser for a Port Adelaide and Essendon AFL match.
McLaughlin also officiated two South Australian Country Championships grand finals in 1999 and 2003 and a Division 2 Victorian Championships decider in 2002.
Despite those high honours, McLaughlin does not regret his switch from goal to field umpiring in 2005.
He said he enjoys the fitness and social side of the role he is most renown for.
“I do not miss goal umpiring,” McLaughlin said.
“You talk to people a lot more as a field umpire.
“I enjoy the player feedback and like to have a bit of fun.”
After field umpiring for the last 14 years, McLaughlin has grown to be one of the first picked field umpires for A Grade games each week.
His first and only Western Border A Grade grand final took place in 2008 which saw Portland defeat Hamilton Imperials, while he has been named as emergency four times since.
He also has experience controlling Mid South East and Kowree Naracoorte Tatiara Football League matches.
McLaughlin said he has umpired some big names over the years in all the local leagues.
“There have been games where I umpired ex-AFL players,” he said.
“When I went and umpired the KNTFL, I found a team called Padthaway had the likes of Scott Welsh and Ian Perrie in the side.
“I also umpired Byron Pickett when he played for Millicent and quite a few ex-SANFL players.”
With a wealth of experience in both fields, McLaughlin has mentored many young field and goal umpires coming through the Western Border Football League.
McLaughlin said authoritative decision making and signalling are keys to field umpiring, while it is also important to block out the crowd.
“I pride myself on whistle blowing and making the hard decisions,” he said.
“A hard sharp blow in the whistle is authoritative and voice control is also important.
“As an umpire, you are only there to make decisions for the players, not the crowd.
“Never let the crowd influence you in anything, they have nothing to do with the game.”
After almost a quarter of a century observing country football first hand, McLaughlin has a better idea than most as to how the game has progressed into the modern era.
He said the regional game has shrunk slightly since he started umpiring, but the cleaner player skills and new rules have improved the show.
“The game has gone backwards a little bit because there is less competition, but the skill of the sport is a bit more play on and move as quick as you can,” he said.
“I have been through a lot of rule changes in football over the years.
“I believe the kick in from full back and no third man up rules have been good.
“Last possession can be a little confusing if it is not umpired properly, but the majority of it I think has improved the game.”
Looking ahead, McLaughlin said he has no plans to hang up the whistle in the near future.
“As long as I am doing the right thing by the game, stay healthy and keep enjoying it, I will keep doing it,” he said.
“I am very much a sports fanatic.
“I love country football and in a town like this you can relate to people through it.”