SHAUN Ryan's road to the pinnacle of umpiring started with a part-time job which brought in "pocket money".
Ryan, a fresh-faced schoolboy with aspirations of becoming a lawyer, didn't forecast an umpiring career spanning 12 years at the elite level.
Fast-forward 28 years, and Ryan, one of football's most talented whistle-blowers, is 328 games deep and primed to officiate his eighth AFL grand final.
"I must have been about 15, and started because I was at that age where I needed to get a part-time job," the 44-year-old told The Standard.
"When I moved down to Geelong to study law, I continued it, not with the intention of doing it professionally but to help pay my way through uni.
I think what's often lost is that the fact our rules aren't black and white is what makes the game the greatest spectator sport of all.- Shaun Ryan
"I was umpiring one day and one of the AFL umpire recruiters was watching. I was invited to train with the VFL development squad and it went from there."
Ryan, now a barrister with chambers in Melbourne, commutes between the city and his home in Torquay three times a week.
The sleepy Surf Coast town is the perfect retreat from a packed work schedule and where the husband to Stacey and father to Maisie, Ned and Rosie can thrive.
"We wanted to bring our kids up in a similar environment to which we grew up," Ryan said.
"Most of work is in Melbourne and that means we can't live in Warrnambool but Torquay is similar.
"It's on the beach and is quite relaxed but close to Melbourne."
In an age where every fan can amplify their views via social media, Ryan said "having a thick skin" was vital for umpires.
He championed internal praise and said elite umpires had built a strong culture of support in the face of increasing abuse.
The former Emmanuel College student made headlines two weeks ago when he warned Giant Adam Kennedy for repeated contact to Brisbane's Charlie Cameron, who was nursing an injured arm.
The decision divided the football community - with debate raging over the validity of the "spirit of the game" rule which Ryan enforced.
"With the external noise, it is important to shut that out. It's the nature of our rules that everyone has a different opinion," Ryan said.
"We try to shut it out and understand what the AFL and our coaches want us to pay.
"I try to not have any view on the rules because that's not my job."
But he welcomed wider discussion surrounding rules and umpiring.
"I think what's often lost is that the fact our rules aren't black and white is what makes the game the greatest spectator sport of all," Ryan said.
"For us, we don't get a lot of external praise so we have to create that within our group.
"(AFL umpires) are a really tight group of people and we want to make it a fun environment to be a part of.
"It's important we have an environment emerging umpires want to be a part of."
Ryan is still linked to Warrnambool through family. Two of his brothers, Patrick and Simon, train horses in the south-west while another, Adam, is a farrier by trade.
Another brother, Paul, also grew up in the region as did sisters Marcelle and Kate.
Ryan, who learned the umpiring ropes under Locky Eccles, Norm Gibson and Des Munday, credited the Warrnambool and District Football Umpires Association for its role in his success.
"Management of players and the game is such a big part of what I'm doing a AFL level," he said.
Management of players and the game is such a big part of what I'm doing a AFL level.- Shaun Ryan
"I was lucky that I had the chance to umpire Hampden league matches at 16 years old.
"By the time I was umpiring senior football at VFL level I basically had 100 games experience and that was very beneficial."
Eccles, who was umpires head coach when Ryan started his career, was full of pride for Ryan's achievements.
"I remember Shaun and his brother (Patrick) were boundary umpires one day down at Merrivale. It was a kids game," he said.
"I watched them and after it I said 'I'll give you a game as a central umpire'. We needed good, young umpires to have a go in the centre.
"I feel very proud that I influenced him to come into the centre."
Warrnambool and District Football Umpires Association president Steve Walker said Ryan was an inspiration for young south-west umpires aiming for the top.
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