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King-hit by an umpire: woes of a footy tragic beaten down by AFL and the law

The Age

May 17,2017

Greg Baum

 

Phil Tagell doesn't remember the king-hit, but when he woke up in hospital, cranial fluid was oozing from his left ear. He was told how close he came to "doing a Hookesey". That was more than eight years ago, but he lives with some of the legacy still, including dulling of his senses of smell and taste.

The twist in Tagell's yarn is that he was clobbered by an umpire. Now he has self-published a book about it, called Footy Tragic, not for fame or gain, he says, but so that people know "the truth". He feels dreadfully let down by the AFL and the legal system. But he also says writing the book has been cathartic.

Author Phil Tagell with daughter Siobhan
Author Phil Tagell with daughter Siobhan Photo: Supplied

Tagell comes across as the quintessential knockabout bloke. His father played reserves for Collingwood and Hawthorn, his uncle a handful of senior games for Fitzroy. Tagell played unremarkably at school and in the suburbs, and until the age of 43 in Brisbane, where he moved in 1982 after a marriage breakdown. He lives there still, holding footy's equivalent of dual nationality as a Collingwood and Brisbane Lions fan. He figures he has put in around 800 games as a parent and volunteer.

Early in 2009, the wheels fell off for Tagell. In Melbourne, his oldest daughter took her own life. The same day, he was made redundant from his job as a building project manager. While watching his son play in an under-18 practice match for University of Queensland six weeks later, he was infuriated when the umpire refused to stop play to allow a stretcher to be taken out to an injured player. When he challenged the umpire after the game, he copped it.

Phil Tagell.
Phil Tagell. Photo: supplied

It is not hard to surmise that the circumstances were aggravated, and you cannot doubt that Tagell was out of line - but not so far as to deserve what he got.

It was a beginning, not an end. Tagell was off work for eight months. A year later, two psychologists told him that he would never fully overcome his distress. The umpire, Glenn Noonan, was charged with GBH, a grave offence, but Tagell wrote to the judge to plead for a non-custodial sentence. "I saw no upside for me, for him, nor for society at large in packing him off to what I believe is a finishing school for criminals," he writes. The judge noted Tagell's "remarkably forgiving attitude" and sentenced Noonan to a community service order and to pay Tagell $5000.

Tagell's character as it emerges from the pages of his book is intelligent, whole-hearted and stubborn, a bush lawyer's. He writes that he learned Noonan had previously come to the attention of AFL Queensland authorities when threatening violence against a coach in school matches, twice. He had also pleaded guilty to assaulting a female hotel security guard in 2007. Tagell also learned that the local umpires' body had urged AFLQ to make criminal background checks on its appointees, but had been rebuffed. If instituted, Noonan would not have been officiating on the fateful day.

AFLQ says the minutes might have been lost in a flood at its headquarters, built on a river flat against the advice of, among others, Tagell.

Tagell pursued AFLQ in the civil courts, landing there at last in 2013. Tagell held that Noonan, in turning away the stretcher and by his generally bumptious attitude, had shown that he was inadequately trained for his job. But a neighbour, a QC, wished him only a rueful "good luck".

Tagell found the trial frustrating and ultimately fruitless. Urged to settle, he did, with heavy heart. He had been advised that he might win $150,000-200,000. Instead, he was $90,000 out of pocket, excluding lost wages. He had to borrow from his son to pay. That night, he drowned his sorrows at the Gabba, watching Brisbane-Collingwood. "I reflected on leaving the court with a bill from the AFL, then going to the footy and subsidising the competition by purchasing beer at a 20 per cent premium over public bar prices," he writes.

Tagell wasn't quite done. He wrote to then AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou. The reply came from lawyers, warning him not to contact Demetriou again. He wrote to everyone on the commission; none replied. He has been cold-shouldered by AFL Queensland people he once considered friendly. But he notes that it has now without fanfare introduced background checks on umpires. 

All AFL power, he thinks, is concentrated in the chief executive and chairman. He feels remote from it. So do all footy people in Queensland, he says. A Catholic, Tagell says the AFL is, or was, like his church, hell-bent on brand protection. This was evident in the Essendon supplements saga, which he addresses in scathing terms. He also damns the AFL for its seduction by gambling, "a Trojan horse". But he thinks Gill McLachlan, with his every-club background, understands and so offers hope.

Tagell, now 69, is still paying down his legal bill. He does not want to meet Noonan ever again, but has heard that he has stayed out of trouble and is glad about that. He finds joy still in watching the Magpies, and his youngest son at UQ; last weekend, he kicked five. He had started to write Footy Tragic in high dudgeon, he says on page one, but finished it in a different temper. "The injustice I experienced settled back into perspective, whilst still real, it ceased to be life-defining and my passion for the game and those who share that passion, allowed me to 'move on' as they say."