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Joshua James' rise from local footy ump to history maker

Jarred Cross -

When Noongar Wardandi Boodja man Joshua James takes his place between the sticks for Carlton v Gold Coast on Saturday, he'll be the first Aboriginal person to do so in an AFLW match.

20 years on from his first go at umpiring in the South West Football League around Bunbury in Western Australia, it's taken him all around the country, and now to the top level.

At thirteen he saw an advertisement in the local newspaper. Shortly after he took charge of his first match with his Carey Park Panthers playing jumper turned inside-out.

"I think I paid two free kicks for the whole game. But I just fell in love with it from day dot. I changed from playing to umpiring and never looked back," he told National Indigenous Times.

After years in his home state, James travelled around before taking up a two-year NEAFL contract in the NT.

He permanently relocated to Victoria in 2015, with experience in all roles before settling on goal umpiring four years later.

He's been a VFL-listed umpire since 2020, has served as an AFLW match day umpire coach and is senior field umpires' coach in Geelong's Barwon Football League,

James said football "runs strong" in the family - his wife Sian a former VFL Grand Final and AFLW goal umpire herself.

The progression through the leagues is a journey he set his eyes on early in life, not only for a passion in footy, but for culture.

"When I first started umpiring back in 2003 my number one ambition was to be the successor to Uncle Glenn James," he said.

Yorta Yorta man and football pioneer Uncle Glenn officiated 166 VFL games between 1977 and 1985, including grand finals in '82 and '84.

The AFL's 2023 Sir Doug Nicholls Round honouree is the only Indigenous person to umpire at the level. He'll be joined by James in round one of AFLW season 8 on Saturday.

Joshua James' mark on the competition has already been felt.

His Indigenous design umpire guernseys were worn during AFL Sir Doug Nicholls round, and will be adorned again in the upcoming AFLW season.

He said if there's only two games he umpires, he hopes it's his debut and Sir Doug Nicholls Round later in the fixture to wear his own artwork.

Joshua James (left) with his design beside former VFL umpire and pioneer Uncle Glenn James. (Image: Michael Wilson/AFL Photos)

"It (the design) reflects the strength between Aboriginal communities and the pathways for Aboriginal people to get into the AFL, but also includes women and different cultures. It's about strength regardless of your background, or your cultural beliefs, or the colour of your skin or your sexual orientation. It's about inclusion and strength to overcome any sort of challenge," James said.

Like Uncle Glenn, racial abuse has been a presence through James' career with whistle in hand.

Vilification has been a concerning thread within the AFL in 2023. James said people have to be held accountable to get it out of footy.

"If you cop it on the field, make a stand. If you're a field umpire do what you need to do.. so (pay a) free kick, 50 metre penalty and report if necessary," he said.

"If leagues and boards and associations aren't aware of what's actually happening…there's no way we can remove it from our game."

While the imprint and legacy of Indigenous players at elite level is undisputed, James hopes the next generation of young mob aspiring for a role in the sport can also look to him.

He had a list of thank yous for those who showed their support through his career; the South West Football League, AFL Barwon, all his past and present coaches, his wife, Sian, mum, dad, grandmother and grandfather.

The AFLW season kicks off Friday September 1 with James to make his debut on Saturday. His mum, dad and siblings are due on a plane to be there.

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