Boundary umpire Michael Barlow hits the big time

Michael Barlow began his umpire journey as a 12-year-old kid in Canberra as a way to make some pocket money.

Chasing a fatter wallet in his early high school years eventually gave way to chasing dreams of making it as an elite boundary umpire in the AFL.

This Saturday, Barlow will hit the high point of his career, umpiring his first AFL Grand Final.

It’s been a whirlwind year for the Sydneysider, with COVID forcing him on the road on 22 June along with the Sydney Swans, GIANTS and a number of other footy officials and umpires. When Barlow runs onto the ground on that last Saturday in September, it will be his 95th day away from his bed. Regardless, he is thrilled and humbled by the appointment.

He told the Play On podcast: “I got the call on the Tuesday that it was time to get out of Sydney, and had about three or four hours’ notice to get to the airport. I’ve been on the road since then. Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia.”

Barlow is one of 43 AFL-listed boundary umpires, who ply their trade long beyond the final siren. They are all running machines, covering up to 17 kilometres each match.

But it’s not just supreme endurance that gives someone a shot at running the Grand Final boundary. On the podcast, Barlow explained there is an umpiring coach/observer watching and scoring boundary umpires at every home and away match judging them on their throw-ins, decision-making and positioning. “There is a lot of minutiae that the average punter in the stand might not see that we’re being scored on each week,” he said.

Based on their score, the top 16 get chosen for the finals series, with the best four hitting the ground for the big dance.

It’s a lot like a reality TV show, with the prize being a chance to work on the biggest day of the year.

In 2021, Barlow has shown his dedication and passion for umpiring. His commitment can’t be questioned and now he can forever call himself a grand finalist.

Congratulations on your appointment, Michael. Everyone in the AFL NSW/ACT footy community will be keeping a closer eye on the boundary umpires this weekend. Good luck!


Tune in to the Grand Final edition of Play On to hear Smythy and Ryan’s full interview Michael Barlow, as well as a recap of the Brownlow Medal and preview of the Grand Final with insights from Ryan’s experiences at both.