Ben Ryan will never forget his second game as a senior field umpire. It was an extra special father/son moment he shared with his father Steve at the home ground of the one-time infamous Gladstone Mudcrabs in 1998. He was 15.
It was another ‘interesting’ afternoon at the Mudcrabs, who had such a checkered history of crowd misbehaviour that 20 years later, in 2018, they changed their name to ‘Suns’ to get a fresh start.
In the final quarter the rookie umpired exclusively at the end of the ground away from the club rooms as his father and more senior partner wore the heat and it was hot. A notorious Mudcrabs player, once suspended for eight years and allowed to resume after five years, kept returning to the ground after he’d been sent off. So often that Steve Ryan had to stop the game and have him removed.
As the umpires sat in the sheds shortly after the final siren Steve said to Ben, “Do you want to jump the fence or walk out through the gate?” They chose to walk out the gate and did so without incident as one of the great Queensland umpiring careers was up and away.
Born in Adelaide while his family lived in the small South Australian town of Georgetown, 200km north Adelaide, Ben Ryan moved with parents Steve and Chris and sisters Natalie and Tania to Rockhampton in 1990 after Steve was appointed principal of the new Rockhampton Grammar Primary School. His father had played a few games with the Norwood Colts back in Adelaide but after ‘blowing his knees out in his early 20s’ he’d taken to umpiring.
Ben played in the Rockhampton juniors with Brothers, winning two premierships and an Under-13 League best and fairest, and did some boundary and goal umpiring at senior level for some pocket money. As he moved through high school he decided to ‘have a dip’ as a field umpire. Firstly some Under-17 games straight after he’d played in the Under-15s, and then a handful of Reserves games. Quickly he found himself in the seniors and, as the famous saying goes, the rest is history.
Murray Bird, Queensland’s first AFL field umpire, got him into the umpire pathway and while still at Rockhampton Grammar he did back-to-back Australian Primary Schools Championships in Cairns in 1998 and Canberra in 1999. After moving to Brisbane to begin a primary teaching degree, he made his senior AFLQ umpiring debut in 2002 and was a self-confessed surprise choice to officiate in the 2005 AFLQ grand final. “Nobody was more surprised than me,” he said.
Astonishingly, it was a career that could have ended the following year. After local umpires’ coach Mike Kotiw stepped down, Ryan found himself on the outer. In the same sort of testing setback a young player can face, he was appointed to just one senior game the year after he’d done the grand final. Thinking he was ‘cooked’ mid-season, his focus turned to a girl named Katie who would later become his wife. Her family had a place at the coast so, keen to visit on weekends, he told the umpiring chiefs he could umpire up there if they wanted him.
But as quickly as things had turned sour they reverted to normal in 2007 when Kotiw resumed his previous role. Ryan was straight back into the senior group and officiated in the 2007 AFLQ finals to reclaim his position as one of the state’s brightest young whistle-blowing prospects. And after he did the 2008-09-10 AFLQ grand finals the elite level beckoned.
In those days a local grand final appointment was rewarded with an AFL trial the following year, and in 2009, having umpired a pre-season game at Carrara between Brisbane and St. Kilda, Ryan found himself on the back page of the Herard Sun in Melbourne.
“I accidentally cleaned up Robert Eddy and suddenly it was a big news. St. Kilda wanted an explanation, but it was just an accident which unfortunately put him (Eddy) out for four weeks with a bad knee,” recalled Ryan, who initially saw out the game but three weeks later was sidelined for 12 weeks with severe bone-bruising from the same collision. He didn’t make the AFL list.
But in 2011 he did, and credits in part his handling of a controversial issue in the 2009 AFLQ grand final when he sent off ex-Lions rookie and Mt. Gravatt star Tom Tarrant. “I happened to cast my vision forward of the play and saw Tom hit (Morningside captain) David Lillico. He hit him twice. In those days two reports was an automatic send-off and I remember thinking ‘what am I going to do here?’ But he made the decision easy for me when he decked another Morningside player, Matt Logan, as he came in to remonstrate. I didn’t have a choice,” he said.
His composure under the hottest of pressure wasn’t missed by the umpiring chiefs, who elevated him to the AFL National Umpiring Panel in 2011. In Round 3, when the Western Bulldogs hosted the Gold Coast SUNS at Marvel Stadium, he umpired his first AFL game. He was delighted his mother, one of his sisters and best mate Tony were there to watch, but sadly his father was overseas.
It was the SUNS’ second game in the big-time in an era in which umpires still bounced the ball to restart play around the ground. Running with veteran Hayden Kennedy and Chris Kamolins, he found himself in a funny moment when he bounced the ball straight into Jared Brennan’s rear end.
Coincidentally, also playing in that game was SUNS and later Geelong ruckman Zac Smith, the only 100-game AFL player originally from Rockhampton.
In Round 16 2012 Ryan was on duty in Cairns when rugby league convert Karmichael Hunt kicked a famous after-the-siren goal to give the Gold Coast SUNS, with Smith again in the side, a two-point win over Richmond. “That was quite a bizarre experience. It was like the script-writers had their say,” he said.
Having lived in Brisbane in 2011-12, he moved to Melbourne to further his career and was pretty much a regular on the senior umpiring scene from 2013-17 as the memorable moments continued.
After a big Friday night game at Marvel in Round 12 2014, when Geelong kicked four of the last five goals to beat Carlton by five points, Blues coach Mick Malthouse wasn’t happy about a Ryan ‘no call’ on a high tackle in the closing seconds which could have given Carlton a shot to win it. He made sure everyone knew about it during his post-game media conference, even if others thought he was just trying to deflect from his own team’s poor showing.
In Round 20 2016, on a Sunday afternoon at the MCG, he became the second Queensland umpire behind Darren Morris to run in 100 AFL games. It was Carlton v St. Kilda. The Saints won by 71 points.
The biggest crowd of his career? An Easter Monday game in Round 5 2014 between heavyweights Hawthorn and Geelong at the MCG in front of 80,222.
He retired as one of Queensland umpiring’s very best, having officiated in 121 AFL games and 144 AFLQ games, including four grand finals. He was twice named AFLQ Umpire of the Year and to this day still ranks second among Queensland field umpires for AFL games behind Andrew Stephens, who is scheduled to reach the monumental milestone of 200 games in Round 23 this year.
Having hung up the whistle, Ryan spent an extra 12 months living in Melbourne and teaching at Brighton Grammar, which recently ‘delivered’ Will Ashcroft to the AFL system. There he experienced at close quarters the fanaticism of the football capital.
“The weekly de-brief with the students was always pretty intense but I loved it. One Thursday night at the SCG I paid a controversial 50m against ‘Bud’ (Lance Franklin), and on the Friday morning at school the boys were into me about whether it was the right call or not. Eleven-year-old boys can be savage,” he said.
Franklin was always a favourite to umpire. “You could have shut your eyes and still known when he had the ball. You could sense it because the noise in the crowd went up. He was a phenomenon and to be able to say I umpired him a few times is pretty special.”
In retirement he decided he needed a team allegiance. A Crows fan as a youngster, he was encouraged by Brighton Grammar work colleagues to get behind the Demons, but he decided once a Queenslander, always a Queenslander. So the Lions it was. “It was the week after they were pumped by Richmond by near 100 points at the MCG that I decided I was getting on the Lions so nobody could accuse me of jumping on the bandwagon.”
Now teaching Year 2 at Norman Park State School, married to Katie, she of Sunshine Coast fame, with daughters Goldie (7) and Peggy (2), he enjoys nothing better than a day at the Gabba. His umpiring days are long gone. He’s officially a fan.
But if there’s one thing he misses it is the regular post-game debrief with his father. “Wherever I was, whenever I umpired, I’d give him a call on the way home. I miss that, although these days, if we haven’t watched the game together at the Gabba, I’ll give him a call and we’ll debrief on how the Lions got on,” he said.