England Netball’s Newest Centurion: Meet Umpire Gary Burgess

Gary Burgess

In the netball world, Gary Burgess is somewhat of a legend of the sport but it would probably be a term he would object to. A good umpire, he shares with me, ‘should be seen and heard but not remembered’ and whilst he is proud of his achievements Burgess comes across as incredibly modest.

A former PE teacher from Bedfordshire, Burgess left his career in teaching to pursue the role of Head of Officiating at England Netball and has never looked back.

A staple feature of the Vitality Netball Superleague Burgess’ umpiring career spans 20 years, 10 of which have been as an international umpire, a role Burgess takes on voluntarily, and with 11 consecutive Superleague finals, two World Cup finals and two Commonwealth Games gold medal matches under his belt, to say he knows netball inside-and-out would be an understatement. 

He, therefore, is well placed to talk about the way the sport has changed over time.

“If we kind of stop before the Commonwealth Games last year, the physicality has changed over the last sort of 20 years I’ve been involved. “Then we come to the Commonwealth Games win last year that was just someone who had put the fast-forward button on the growth and the commercial interest in the sport. The sport that I’m umpiring now both on-court and off-court is nothing like what I engaged with 20 years ago,” shared the international umpire.

One of the biggest aspects of the game that has changed for Burgess is the physicality of the sport and the way the athletes have evolved with it. But it’s also something the umpire notes, for which netball is not usually credited enough with.

“Everyone seems to think that netball is this ‘girl’s sport in school’ so, you know, very – I hate to use the term – jolly-holly hockey-stick.” “A lot of people are misinformed that netball is a non-contact sport that’s where they kind of get a bit confused. Football, hockey and basketball are all non-contact sports but we know they are very physical environments.

“But I think the thing that everyone needs to understand is if you actually stand next to an international netballer they are absolutely the most amazing athletes you would ever imagine to see.”

However, as the sport grows and the players adapt to increasingly tougher sporting environments, for the most part, the relationship dynamic between the rules, the umpire and the players have stayed the same.  

Netball Gary Burgess

One of the rules, perhaps considered more traditional, punishes the player for any use of foul language as it is interpreted as dissent. I asked Burgess if other sports could stand to learn about the emphasis played on etiquette.

“Yes absolutely, absolutely without a shadow of a doubt. I was trained by someone who I would call a grand dame of England Netball,” Burgess reflects, “she always said to me netball is a game for ladies played by ladies.”

“Now, it doesn’t mean to say that these ladies can’t be physical specimens who are fantastic sportswomen, but I think that’s where the etiquette with umpiring comes from. It’s all right to have a challenge but this blatant swearing at the end of the referee’s nose is other sports is just not acceptable.”

“I think netball and its affiliation with its referees are close to rugby, it’s not necessarily ‘yes sir no sir’ sort of thing we would never actually support that but it is respect. Rule 5.2.1 is the decision of the umpire is given without question and is final so we always stand by that.” 

Netball Gary Burgess

Trusting the tradition of the way sport is officiated is also something Burgess is keen to maintain. Video assistant refereeing (V.A.R), which we saw take a centre stage at the FIFA’S Women’s World Cup in France this year, is not something he believes passionately should never be present in netball.

For Burgess, one of the key aspects umpiring is in awarding an ‘advantage.’ This is where the umpire will allow infringement to go ‘unpunished’ in the sense that a penalty will not be set, but the affected team by consequence has an advantage. It is something Burgess believes would be at odds with something like V.A.R.

“I think in netball the skill is in umpiring specifically with advantage, because we don’t have the option to say ‘do you know what chaps or ladies, it didn’t go where it was supposed to go so we’ll take it back to the 22 or we’ll go to VAR to see if I was right or I was wrong,’ said Burgess. “The best umpires play a fantastic advantage in line with the game so it enhances the game. Spectators won’t recognise it, they absolutely won’t but an umpire that plays a fantastic advantage on the transverse line that pops it in under the post, it was a good pass, but the umpire allowed it. We’ll never say it’s about us that’s part of the skill of the umpires so I don’t think VAR is necessary.” 

Something perhaps V.A.R. does provide (although to what extent it is agreed upon is perhaps contentious) is certainty in the right decision. The conflict between making the right or wrong decision is something Burgess reflected upon.

“No one ever can make an umpire feel as bad as the umpire makes them feel themselves,” Burgess insists, “you’ll probably find an umpire after the game watching it for four hours with a pen, a pencil and an Excel spreadsheet coding all of their decisions and making sure that they’re there.”

“But I’m 100% confident in my incorrect decisions as I am my correct ones because both types of decision are made with goodwill and the amount of information that you have given to you at the time and place from which you are standing.”

Burgess exudes professionalism, his knowledge for the game and the certainty with he carries his convictions make him not only instantly likeable, as he is amongst players and peers, but it’s also easy to see how he is able to command such respect as an official. This was made most clear when he discussed the decision to suspend players. 

Gary Burgess

“Ultimately, if you get to that point where you’re having to suspend somebody, which is a massive action in netball, then you’ve done everything you possibly can as an umpire to keep that player on the court.”

“If it comes to the point where you make the decision to suspend them you’re not actually suspending them yourself they’re suspending themselves.”

Another thing that is perhaps surprising to those new to netball or with only a minimal knowledge of the game is that Burgess is a man in a predominantly female environment – something very unique in the modern landscape on the sport.

When asked what role, if any, his gender played in his career Burgess was quite clear.

“I’ve never experienced any inequality since I’ve been one of the top referees in this country at all. England Netball and the INF have opened every possible door for me and I don’t think it’s anything to do with the fact that I am a man, it’s because I am a talented umpire – that’s what counts.”

“I head this all up for England Netball; we don’t pick and choose who we put forward. We select based on performance and it doesn’t matter what colour you are, what gender you are, what size or whatever you are if you’re a good umpire you get going.”  

Vitality Netball World Cup - Day One

Rounding off the conversation Burgess discussed his future in the sport and what is next on the horizon.

He announced that he would be taking a well-deserved break from umpiring the Superleague to focus on his wife and two young daughters.

‘It’s a big undertaking, every weekend between January and July is away from home,” said Burgess,

“If I miss it then I’ll come back if I don’t miss it and I love being at home then my decision is final.” 

Acme Whistles and UK Netball, in recognition of his 50th umpiring cap, presented Burgess with a gold-plated Acme Thundered Whistle, a token that has since become a part of the umpire’s on-court identity. For the 100th occasion, Acme has pulled out all the stops to gift Burgess a black, matte whistle with ‘100’ engraved in gold on the side.

Unlike the golden whistle, Burgess intends to use his ‘100’ whistle only once for the personally significant occasion before handing it over to the England Netball archives at the University of Huddersfield.

Whilst Burgess insists he is surprised that his life’s journey so far led him to netball, what is clear, with the big 100 on the horizon, that the sport is truly pleased that it was the path he decided to take.

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