Umpiring great Glenn James, the 2023 Sir Doug Nicholls Round honouree

IT IS hard to believe that the decorated umpiring career of Glenn James OAM began with him receiving a four-week ban from the VFL Umpires Board. Umpiring in a country match in Victoria in 1973, James was identified by an umpire official and invited to attend an umpire board meeting the following year but things did not go to plan.   

"I was late because I couldn't find a car park. I kept driving around and in the end I went home. The next day the coach of the VFL Reserve Grade umpires rang me saying I was suspended for the first four weeks of the season."

For James, who was born in 1946, there was nothing else to do but cop it sweet and work hard, something he knew how to do.

"I'm a Yorta Yorta man from the Murray Goulburn Valley. Mum was from Moonahcullah and Dad grew up on the mission at Barmah across the river at Cummeragunja. There was 14 kids in our family and we lived in Shepparton and Mooroopna."



Seeing his father cycle daily to the Ardmona cannery in Shepparton instilled in James that when hard work and commitment meets opportunity, great things can happen, and he applied this doctrine in both life and sport. 

"My earliest memories were of playing football in the local paddock or a vacant block on a Sunday. If you weren't picked to play you'd have to go and get a sixpence worth of biscuits from the shop. If the shopkeeper put the dry biscuits in the tin and not the sweet ones my big brother would give me (a) clip around the ear."

Running around the back blocks of Shepparton helped stand James in good stead for later life, as did the influence of Pastor Doug Nicholls.  

"We'd go to church because Pastor Doug would come up to The Church of Christ at Mooroopna. To us he was a cult hero. We'd jump on the bus and go over there on the Sunday night to hear him speak."


As James grew older, football and cricket were the things he enjoyed the most but the Vietnam War brought a sudden halt to this.

"In 1968 I got called for National Service.  I did basic training at Puckapunyal, core training in Sydney, jungle training at Canungra in Queensland and then went to Vietnam. I came back home in 1970 and started playing again."

But upon returning to the country and the game he loved, his life would take a massive turn. A badly broken jaw saw his playing days cease and so he decided to focus his energies on umpiring. He recalls his first umpiring experience.

"I bounced the ball straight into my forehead. I nearly knocked myself out. But in 1972 I umpired a couple of Grand Finals around the Murray Football League and a VFL umpiring observer invited me down to Melbourne."

Umpire Glenn James waves at the opening bounce of the 1982 VFL Grand Final. Picture: Seven Network

Studying to become a teacher, James umpired around country competitions which he revelled in. After proving himself in these competitions he distinctly remembers his first senior VFL game.

"It was just fantastic. It was Fitzroy and Footscray out at VFL Park in 1977. After the bounce a player handballed it out to Bernie Quinlan and he banged it through from about 70 metres out. I knew straight away that this was a different type of footy, this was a different game."

Glenn James became a regular and popular umpire in the VFL with the secret of his success being rapport.

"Wherever I went to umpire a game of footy I knew everybody's nickname by quarter-time. That way you had the players eating out of your hand. I also understood the frustrations about playing because I played footy at a senior level."

Glenn James shares a laugh with Dermott Brereton during the 2000 EJ Whitten Legends game. Picture: AFL Photos

For James, the pinnacle of his career came in the early '80s with his first Grand Final.  

"My first Grand Final was 1982. Carlton and Richmond at the MCG. I got told by the League I was doing it and was sworn to secrecy. I rang my brother in Shepparton and it was in the Shepparton paper first thing. It was the result of a lot of hard work by lots of people. I was honoured to do it."

He recalls the match.

"As the game started it was raining at one end and the sun was shining at the other. Carlton kicked three goals in a couple of minutes and Jimmy Jess knocked Ken Hunter out. Grand Finals were played at a different level."

Having umpired from 1977 to 1985 for 166 games, James was in the unique position as being the only Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island umpire to have officiated at the elite level. It is a role that he did not take lightly.

"I think there's a total lack of understanding and ignorance when it comes to Indigenous issues in Australia. People generalise about Aboriginal people too much. I believe Indigenous Australians are our living treasures. I want more Indigenous people to be recognised and welcomed."

Sitting at home and reflecting on his career, James explains what it means to be the honouree for the Sir Doug Nicholls Round and the man he knew.

"I'm just over the moon. I just can't believe it. Douglas Nicholls was such an idol in the Indigenous community. Him and his wife Gladys, they'd drop in and say hello and have a cup of tea in Shepparton. Thinking about that and being the honouree, I'd just like to thank him for what he's done for Indigenous people across Australia."

Thinking back over his life, James is very grateful to the opportunities that football has afforded him.

"Football was a springboard for our lives really. When I was umpiring, abuse came and went but I was conditioned to all that stuff from the time I was born. I gave as good as I got. I was very fortunate I took the opportunities the game gave me."

Glenn James

VFL umpiring career: 1977-1985
Games: 166
Grand finals: 1982 and 1984
Life Member Victorian Football League Umpires Association: 1984
Aboriginal Victorian of the Year: 1984
OAM: 1987
AFL Indigenous Team of the Century: 2005
Victorian Football League Umpires Association Hall of Fame: 2010
Member of the Shepparton Sports Hall of Fame: 2017