Interview with Gary Burgess – UK’s most capped netball referee

Gary Burgess earned his 100th cap as a top level netball official during the 2019 Vitality Netball World Cup, officiating as part of a team of 17 umpires.

Gary with his famous gold whistle (Photo: Acme)

Gary is the first umpire in the UK to reach his century of international matches and to celebrate this achievement, he was presented with an engraved gold ACME whistle, similar to the original one which became his trademark.

His dedication and passion for sport has shown throughout the years, starting as a PE teacher in Bedfordshire, he has since gone on to umpire at some of the worlds greatest international Netball matches.

Gary left his teaching job with the dream of becoming the Head of Officiating at England Netball and is now one of the most recognised figures on the side-lines of Netball courts, thanks to his signature gold ACME whistle.

The golden whistle was awarded to him after his 50th international umpiring cap in 2013, and has since been at the forefront of his on-court identity.

With a career spanning 20 years, he has achieved multiple career defining milestones such as umpiring at 2 netball World Cup finals, 10 consecutive Vitality Netball Superleague finals and 2 Commonwealth Games gold medal matches.

He continues to volunteer his spare time as an international umpire, with this dedication being the key to his success.

We have been given permission by ACME to share their exclusive interview with Gary, conducted shortly before the recent World Cup, which you can watch by clicking on the lead photo, here is a transcript:

Asked about Sheelagh Redpath and her role as a mentor:

Gary:  I mean we’re talking about Sheelagh Redpath who in netball is a legend. She’s here at the World Cup. She’s a technical official coordinate which is an assessor of the technical bench. She did my job now for 30 years at England Netball so I kind of picked up where she left off which is an immense thing.
But I mean she’s just captivated that fire in so many umpires in this country across the last 30 years and did exactly that with me and made me realise that something that I never probably would have been involved in is something that I’m involved in to this day 20-22 years later.

What made you want to become an umpire?

Gary: So I had aspirations to be a hockey umpire to that level and be involved in international sport. And you know the development in those areas wasn’t forthcoming so it was that spot that Sheelagh sort of said you could be involved in international sport and sport at the highest level.

So now what the sport is you could travel the world and be involved in elite sport just to have an elite sport was netball and it was umpiring. You know it was always aspired to represent my country as a sports performer but didn’t have that innate skill to do it.

So umpiring is something you can absolutely train from being a complete novice to being you know, one of the best in the world.

Source: Acme

Did you always see yourself reaching the elite level?

Gary: I think that’s probably Sheelagh’s tutelage that actually she never said that the end result was going to the World Youth in the Cook Islands. That was never a thing it was all about achievable milestones.

Making sure you get to the next level and keeping you grounded on that because you know that the performance pyramid itself the very tip is not gonna be accessible by everybody. And you have to work blooming hard to get there and you know so it was those small steps.

But it’s I think it’s a mark of her as well that she actually paid herself to go to the Cook Islands to spectate. You know we all live in England and it’s quite far away.

What advice would you give to a young umpire?

Gary: I would say it’s just to enjoy it more because you put so much pressure on yourself when you read into I mean allocations is the big thing that everyone reads into. What does that mean what does this mean and what does that mean.

But actually it probably took me two major championships before I actually started disregarding that and focused on just being the best damn umpire I could be. So you know if a message to any young umpires upcoming, just do the best you can, only you can control your future you know what’s happening with everybody else has nothing to do with you because you can only be the best that you can be.

When have you been happiest on a netball court?

Gary: Goodness me. That’s a good question because so often you know this my success and being appointed to finals is to the detriment of England not being in them.

So probably the happiest I’ve ever been on the sidelines watching was when England won their Commonwealth Games in 2018. But I just think it’s those games you know when you when you’re talking to high profile referees and umpires in particular it’s those games when you know that you’ve not made any or many mistakes.

You know we are talking about making you know 1 or 2 or 0 mistakes when you get to the level that myself and my colleagues are out now and that’s massive.

What is the most challenging thing about being an umpire?

Gary: I think it’s the pressure that you put on yourself the pressure to be perfect in a situation where you can’t achieve perfection. And I think sometimes you know the outside influences of people that feel that they can make a judgment on you as a person because of some of the decisions that you’ve made as an umpire.

You know just because you made a mistake doesn’t mean to say that you’re a terrible person. It’s those people that the faceless people that hide behind social media and feel they can send you that sort of stuff is always there always a problem.But you know you prepare yourself to be resilient to that but no one can ever beat an umpire more than they’ll beat themselves up.

What would you have done if you had not become an umpire?

Gary: Well I’ll be at home more. But I’m not sure. Actually I think I’ll always be involved in sport. But but I think you know it takes a certain type of person to be an umpire or a referee in it. And if it wasn’t netball it would probably be rugby or something like that.

What happens after the World Cup?

Gary: We’ll have a break and spend a really long summer with my family which you know I wouldn’t be here if my wife wasn’t amazing. I miss my daughters terribly and but yeah it’s time for a break.

One of the other umpires that’s been on the journey the lengths that I’ve been on it she said to me ‘Gary you got to realize I had three years off with maternity leave’ and I haven’t had that. So it’s the end of a four year cycle. It’s a good time to have some time off and get some work done.

But actually just take stock on the last 10 years as an international. And if I’m going to take a break it’s this year and we’ll see what happens after that.

What are your thoughts on the growth of netball?

Gary: If England win the World Cup we then move to a different uncharted territory you’ve never been. The springboard that the 2018 win gave the sport it’s just been astronomical and we’ve seen that in winning things like sports personality the year, two awards on that. I think if we do win that takes us there and continues the momentum.

But actually I think we’ve got people looking we’ve got people looking at netball that weren’t looking at it before, we’re on terrestrial television every game after Day 4 on terrestrial television every day from day one is on pay per view with Sky Sport.

So I mean we are in a zone that we’ve never been before and I know that England Netball as a company are working incredibly hard to capitalise on that and make sure that we’ve got participation.

You know it’s not just about elite sport. You know there’s a massive part of that performance pyramid that has you know older ladies that coming back to netball girls that are coming through as first taster sessions you know walking netball that brings people back into the sport the ones that maybe once played it. So yeah I think it’s just the growth of netball and its credibility is just through the roof.

Tell us about The Golden Whistle

Gary: I’ve was awarded it after my fiftieth test and just I mean I never intended to use it. I mean it’s here now but I never intended to use it but it has become kind of like a thing, I think the media really like it more than anything else you know. And then times when I haven’t used it I’ve left it home they always seem to assume it’s still there.

But I think it’s the mark of of where I’ve been. You know I’m proud of proud of nearly 100 matches hopefully getting my hundredth match in here and it’s probably a little bit showy for some people but yeah. I think I’ve earned the right to use it.

Are you surprised at the attention you attract as an umpire?

Gary: I think I’m as known as I am because I look like I do. I don’t fit the mold of you know a normal netball umpire historically. You know and so that’s probably why, it’s my hairstyle that gets me remembered.

But I think you know we always strive to be seen and heard but not remembered. That’s the thing we don’t really want to be the main event because the girls train hard they’re the celebrities not necessarily us.

So we like to fly under the radar. You know they always say the best umpires are those that you don’t remember.

Can you imagine working outside of netball?

Gary: I don’t think I’ll ever. I don’t think I’ll ever not work within netball or within officiating. I think the natural step from coming off the court is to turn into you know become an umpire a coach but you know I’m fully aware that might not be as good as I don’t do it and how I do it with younger umpires but don’t do the elite level.

And some people have transitioned off and not wanted to do it. So I see myself involved but almost like coming full cycle with the next generation of people. Yeah let’s just hope it doesn’t turn out like Darth Vader did.

Thanks Gary

Courtesy of Acme