Graham Carbery – a man who stood up

July 8, 2017 by
Filed under: AFL 

Former VFL boundary umpire, Graham Carbery, died on Wednesday after a long illness.  Carbery umpired 145 VFL games, including five finals.  He loved umpiring.  His career was different to every boundary umpire in AFL/AFL history.

Graham Carbery wanted to leave the head-butt in the past.


Most boundary umpires retain anonymity.  They gather the ball, throw it in and run around the boundary.  When their career is over, they shift back into society, a former boundary umpire no less.


Carbery never had anonymity.  He was always remembered for being head-butted by Phil Carman in 1980.  Since that moment, he was forever etched into infamy.  He endured criticism, that he provoked the incident by chesting Carman and was to blame for the head-butt.


He remains an integral figure in Carman’s history.  No one had ever head-butted a boundary umpire.


Carbery is remembered for much more.


I never met him.  I knew nothing about him, aside from the head-butt incident until I was writing Fabulous Phil.


I was desperate to interview Carbery for the book but he was a hard man to find.  It took me months of basic internet searches before I researched his advocacy work for Australia’s gay and lesbian community.  It was then I realised Carbery was gay.  I emailed the president of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives with a request, to put me in touch with Carbery.


Not long after the email was sent, Carbery called me.  He was polite and cheeky.  ‘I hear you’re looking for me,’ he said.  ‘It could be one of two things.  My advocacy work for the gay and lesbian community or the Phil Carman head-butt.’


When I mentioned Carman, Carbery laughed.  ‘I haven’t talked to a journalist about this since the week it happened.’


I asked if I could call him back from a studio for an interview.  Carbery said no.  He explained his reasons.  A few days after Carman was suspended for 16-weeks for the head-butt, a journalist approached Carbery, offering a story about the gay VFL umpire.


‘That was the hook,’ Carbery said.  ‘But it became clear all he wanted to talk about was the head-butt.’


Carbery felt there was more to his life than the head-butt.  He was gay.  In 1980, he was an advocate for the gay and lesbian community.  That was more important than the head-butt, so he shut down the interview.  A short story was published about the gay umpire who had been head-butted.  That weekend, while umpiring during an Anzac Day game, Carbery was subject to homophobic abuse.


As the season went on, the abuse continued.  It kept on until he retired.


For decades, Carbery refused to talk to journalists about the head-butt.  It was a single moment in his life.  He said he had long moved on.  His life was better spent advocating for equal rights for the gay and lesbian community.


I listened to him and understood.  I thought he was going to reject an interview.  In desperation, I told him I would portray the incident accurately.  His words.


‘The Footy Show have asked me on several times but I’m not interested,’ he said.  ‘But because you’re a serious journalist with the ABC, I’ll talk to you.  But I can’t do it today.  I need a day to collect my thoughts.’


I almost laughed at his words, serious journalist, and offered a time, 2pm the following day.  When I called him from an interview booth at the allotted time, my hands shook.  I thought he wouldn’t answer.


Carbery said hello.  I hit record.  The interview ran 37-minutes.  From my perspective, his interview was pivotal to the book.  It was his first in-depth interview about an incident he longed to forget.


He told me he loved football but was hopeless at playing.  He loved running and umpired to stay involved.  He had an on-field view of some of the best VFL games ever played.


Throughout the interview, Carbery stayed on topic.  He talked about the head-butt, the tribunal hearing and the aftermath.  He opened up about the negative affect his sexuality had on Alan Nash, his director of umpiring and the abuse he received from the crowd.


Carbery mentioned that he followed Richmond.  We laughed.


‘I’d love to see them win a premiership one more time,’ he said.


After the interview, Carbery asked for the transcript.  He was the only person I interviewed for the book who wanted a transcript of interview.  The next day I emailed the full transcript.  The following day, he called me and said it was factually correct and he had no issues with the interview.


He copied and posted the transcript of Carman’s Supreme Court appeal against his 16 week suspension.


In September last year, the Herald/Sun ran a story about Carman’s book.  I had asked the journalist not to mention Carbery.  Those invested in the book wanted to keep Carbery’s interview a secret.


When the story was published, Carbery was mentioned.  I called him.  He had read the story.


‘You might get calls from journalists about it,’ I said.


‘I’m not talking to anyone else,’ Carbery said.  ‘I only talked to you because you’re an ABC journalist.  If you were a commercial journalist I would’ve said no.’


Carbery obviously listened to the ABC.

We talked a couple of times this year.  In April I told him the book release had been delayed.  In June, I called him and said the book was about to be released.  I also had a message to pass on.


‘Phil wants to know if you’ll meet him,’ I said.  ‘Not for a media event, just to say hello.  Over lunch or a beer.’


‘No,’ Carbery said.  ‘I’m happy to leave it in the past.’  He sounded tired.


‘Do you want a copy of the book?’


‘Not at the moment.  I’m in hospital, recovering from major heart surgery.  I’m not sure when I’ll be released.’


I wondered his age.  He had to be 70.  ‘I’ll be in Melbourne in two weeks.  I can come and see you, bring a copy of the book if you like?’


‘Matt, I’m not sure I’ll be out of hospital.’


The weekend I was in Melbourne for the launch of Fabulous Phil at a Footy Almanac function, I didn’t call Carbery.  I didn’t want to intrude on his recovery.  In the weeks after the book launch, I thought about calling him.  I didn’t.


On Friday, it was John Harms, in an email, who asked if Carbery had died.  I had no idea.  I punched Carbery’s name into Google.  The Age had run a small obituary.  It was Carbery.  I emailed John back.


I found space at work and called Phil.  ‘Graham Carbery is dead,’ I said.  ‘It happened Wednesday.  There was a notice in The Age today.’


There was a long pause before Phil spoke.  ‘That’s sad news.  How?’


I explained that I wasn’t sure, but said Carbery had recently had major heart surgery and was in hospital for a stretch.


Phil was silent for a while.  ‘Same thing happened to my dad after open heart surgery.’  He sighed.  ‘I never got the chance to thank him for the interview and apologise for the head-butt.  He didn’t want to meet me.’


‘He didn’t.  He wanted to leave it where it was.’


I went back to work.  Rattled.  I never met Carbery.  He only talked to me because I once worked for the ABC.  Carbery had a much bigger story to tell, but he snipped his life into one incident for me.  Silently, I thanked him for breaking decades of silence.


Phil sent me a text.  Going for a counter lunch to have a drink for him.


Carbery died without reading the book.  I’m sure that won’t upset him.  He died without meeting Phil again.  That won’t upset him either.  Carbery wanted to leave that incident in the past.  He could’ve lived off the infamy.  He chose not to.

After I interviewed Carbery, I thanked him for his time.  I would like to thank him again, for speaking about a moment of football madness he longed to forget.


Graham Carbery stood up to Phil Carman.  He stood up to the taunts and insults from VFL crowds.  He stood up to Alan Nash.  And he stood up to an unforgiving society.  He wrote a book, A History of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.


Carbery should be remembered for standing up.  The head-butt was but a moment in his life…


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One Comment on Graham Carbery – a man who stood up

    […] umpire and hitting an umpire is not on. Carbery died last week after a long illness and was a very interesting guy, a great activist for the gay and lesbian community. Vale […]

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