Whispers in the Sky match: How the St Kilda vs Fremantle scandal unfolded

The events of August 13 2005 are still debated to this day. One of the biggest scandals in St Kilda history made headlines for weeks after the controversial siren. Here’s what happened.

The events of August 13 2005 are still debated to this day.

One of the biggest scandals in St Kilda history made headlines for weeks after the controversial siren.

Glenn McFarlane looks back over the days and weeks which followed the infamous match at Subiaco.

SATURDAY AUGUST 13, 2005

St Kilda knocks off North Melbourne by 23 points in Round 20, but the talk centres on the 50 free kicks awarded in the game. While it is 26 to the Saints and 24 to the Roos, the Herald Sun’s Bruce Matthews echoes the thoughts of many of the 39,777 at Docklands. Matthews writes: “This was a much-anticipated third versus fifth match-up that became a stuttering affair with the whistle intervening to stop play, on average, once every two minutes. For goodness sake, just let them play.”

How the Herald Sun covered the match
How the Herald Sun covered the match

TUESDAY AUGUST 16, 2005

St Kilda coach Grant Thomas whacks the AFL umpires at weekly press conference. He says AFL umpires needed to put “their ego in the locker”. “It’s unfortunate because we’ve put umpires on a pedestal and made them a larger part of the game than they actually need to be,” Thomas says. “I don’t see too many kids running around at school with white shirts on. Put their ego in the locker when they start their career and pick it up when they finish their career.”

WEDNESDAY AUGUST 17, 2005

AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou threatens AFL coaches with greater penalties for criticising umpires, saying: “We won’t be going backwards in our policy of zero tolerance.” Demetriou concedes Thomas “is in strife” for his comments.

THURSDAY AUGUST 18, 2005

The AFL issues Thomas with a “please explain”. Thomas gives a qualified apology, saying he was sorry if his comments caused any offence.

FRIDAY AUGUST 19, 2005

An injury-ravaged St Kilda is sunk by a Justin Longmuir after-the-siren goal in Perth, giving Fremantle a five-point win. Umpires Matthew Head, Brett Allen and Derek Woodcock award 33 free kicks, with 15 of them going the Saints’ way. But, 14 years on, Thomas tells the Sacked podcast he and assistant coach Matthew Rendell were “laughing (their) heads off” as early as the first quarter with the free kicks going against them. Five free kicks to Fremantle result in goals. The Saints have a few drinks to commiserate after the game, but Thomas allows his match-day assistant Mark ‘Gus’ Parker to fly home to Melbourne on the ‘red eye’. Parker uses his frequent flyer points to upgrade to business class.

Newspaper pages from the whispers in the sky
Newspaper pages from the whispers in the sky
The story made headlines for weeks
The story made headlines for weeks

SATURDAY AUGUST 20, 2005

Passengers on QF 648 – including the umpires, the media and Parker – settle back into their seats for the flight back to Melbourne. It leaves Perth Airport just before midnight, but what happened before, during and after the routine ‘Red Eye’ will shake the foundations of the AFL. Bleary-eyed passengers disembark at Tullamarine in the early hours of Saturday morning, but already there is a storm brewing. As Thomas reveals in the Herald Sun’s Sacked podcast, Parker calls the St Kilda coach – who had been asleep in his Perth hotel – telling him: ‘You wouldn’t believe what was going on (during the flight) … they have fair dinkum cheated’.” By 6pm, Channel 9’s news alleges one umpire said: “Now we know what a victory feels like” on the flight home.

SUNDAY AUGUST 21, 2005

Channel 9’s Sunday Footy Show and 6pm news re-airs the allegations. AFL umpires director Jeff Gieschen speaks to the umpires involved and the league moves swiftly to exonerate them, with AFL football operations officer Adrian Anderson saying it is “a non-issue”.

MONDAY, AUGUST 22, 2005

Channel 9 sports reporter Tony Jones names Matthew Head as the umpire who made a comment: “Now I know what it feels like to have a victory”. A member of the public, Mitch Rentessis, seated in business class, scribbles the quote on his boarding pass, which he provides as evidence to the Herald Sun. The AFL releases a statement from Head and Allen where they vehemently deny the accusations and urge the AFL to launch an investigation to clear their names.

Newspaper pages from the whispers in the sky
Newspaper pages from the whispers in the sky

TUESDAY AUGUST 23, 2005

Channel 9’s Eddie McGuire, who was on the plane, says he overheard the comment “20,000 and four” coming from the direction of the umpires, which “I took as an inference to it costing him being (Thomas) $20,000 and the four (premiership) points.” The AFL appoints investigations officer Allan Roberts to lead the probe into the matter. Jones, Head, Allen and McGuire are interviewed.

WEDNESDAY AUGUST 24, 2005

The AFL announces it has fined Thomas $15,000 for umpire abuse, of which $5000 was for a suspended sanction for a previous criticism of the tribunal. Saints president Rod Butterss says the club won’t pay Thomas’ fine, insisting: “If I was fined, I wouldn’t expect the club to pay my fine. I hold a position of responsibility and have to have my brain engaged when I open my gob.”

THURSDAY AUGUST 25, 2005

Head is appointed to officiate the Geelong-Richmond game scheduled for the Sunday. McGuire distances himself from the controversy, saying: “I knew it came from where the umpires were standing, but I don’t know whether it was the umpires.”

St Kilda coach Grant Thomas talks to injured Saint Justin Koschitzke
St Kilda coach Grant Thomas talks to injured Saint Justin Koschitzke

FRIDAY AUGUST 26, 2005

The independent investigation clears Head and Allen. It concludes there is no evidence to support any claims of impropriety. Head says: “At no point did I have any conversations with Tony Jones and the comment that is now well known in the media was definitely not made by me.”

But an unrepentant Jones slams the AFL findings, insisting: “I am not a liar and I do not deviate one iota from the story of this week. I’m sitting on the plane last Friday waiting to return to Melbourne. I was sitting down and in a smart-alec manner I said to the two umpires Brett Allen and Matthew Head when they boarded the plane ‘Gee, what about you blokes tonight?’. Matthew Head replied ‘Now I know what it feels like to have a victory’. I do not back away from my version of the story for one second. Matthew Head said it.”

Clippings from Herald Sun on Whispers
Clippings from Herald Sun on Whispers
newspaper from the whispers in sky
newspaper from the whispers in sky

THE MAIN PLAYERS

Grant Thomas: Outspoken St Kilda coach whose broadsight at the umpiring fraternity starts the controversy, but he never backs away from his comments, despite the fact he believes it costs him and his team dearly.

Andrew Demetriou and Adrian Anderson: AFL chief executive and AFL football operations manager who swiftly condemn Thomas’ comments, fearing it may impact on umpiring numbers at all levels of the game

Matthew Head: One of three senior umpires officiating in the Saints-Dockers clash, who denies having said ‘Now I know what it feels like to have a victory’ on the flight back to Melbourne.

Tony Jones: Experienced Channel 9 news reporter who makes the explosive claims that Head made the comments on the plane. Stands by his claims even when Head is cleared.

Eddie McGuire: Initially makes a comment he heard someone near the umpires say ‘20,000 and four’, but later suggests he doesn’t know who made the comment.

Grant Thomas speaks to his team at Subiaco Oval.
Grant Thomas speaks to his team at Subiaco Oval.

Mark ‘Gus’ Parker: St Kilda match day officer who flew back on the same plane and was upgraded to business class, sitting in front of Jones. As soon as he lands in Melbourne, he rings Thomas to tell him what happened on the plane.

Mitch Rentessis: Businessman seated next to Jones on the flight, who scrawls the comment on his boarding pass.

Allan Roberts: A former assistant commissioner of police in Queensland and Victoria who heads the independent investigations into the matter, and finds Head and Allen had no case to answer.

WHY WHISPERS IN THE SKY?

The Herald Sun dubs the controversy ‘Whisper in the Sky’ in its August 23 edition, referencing the alleged hushed comments on board the Qantas flight that created one of the game’s biggest controversies.

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