'Razor' Ray Chamberlain.

'Razor' Ray Chamberlain. Photo: Paul Rovere

The commentary box in which I worked last Sunday made regular mention of umpire Ray Chamberlain's role in proceedings. "Razor" Ray was on the job and into the second half of the clash between the Kangas and the Dogs the more contentious moments seemed to follow him.

It's hard not to get caught up in the cult. A few weeks earlier, during a match at the MCG, I became aware of the frequency of references to Razor Ray: Pendlebury is tackled – whistle – Razor Ray says it was high. Long kick towards Cloke, the big men jostle, Razor Ray lets it go. The ball's buried under a pack of players ... Razor Ray says give it to me. There's a free kick been paid off the ball, Razor Ray's getting involved.

I couldn't help wondering what listeners less-than-fluent in the language of contemporary footy might make of this. Who is this Razor Ray? How is it spelt? Is it a Middle Eastern name? Why is he being mentioned as frequently as a prolific ball-winner like Pendlebury?

As much as an umpire can attract the attention of the viewer, Razor seems to do it. He exudes self-confidence to the point that it can readily be interpreted as strut. Certainly, more than many of his modern colleagues, he appears to welcome the idea of being at the centre of it all. More than most he gives the impression of rather enjoying the task of delivering a contentious decision at a big moment. 

And, of course, all of this emanates from one exhibiting, well, a rather modest quantum of the vertical dimension.

It's fair to say overtly confident umpires have been given a bad rap by commentators and the public. And when they're short as well as confident ... well, that – according to football's collective wisdom – has small man's syndrome written all over it.

So when this pint-sized umpire arrived on the scene from Canberra a few years back, and from day one was laying down the law as though he already believed he was a serious AFL umpire, he was inviting more than the usual share of derision.

Now he's a 10-year senior umpire, did the two grand finals of 2010, and is approaching 200 games. The latter figure would be higher were it not for a knee injury which cost him the entirety of last season.

Clearly his coaches always held Razor Ray in higher esteem than did the broader football community. While the public only grudgingly accepted that he knew which end of the Acme Thunderer to blow, and had a passable working knowledge of the Laws of Australian Football, his masters backed him. All the way to the top.

Yet I suspect Razor Ray is still improving. Manifestly his ability to bounce the ball is considerably better than it was. A couple of the game's ruckmen used to joke with him about getting into the weights room so he could propel the Sherrin sufficiently high. No such problem exists now.

But while the bounce is an essential tool, it's far from the most important part. Making line-ball interpretations, almost every one bringing condemnation from tens of thousands of hostile fans of one or other team; maintaining one's composure; projecting a strong sense of control to players and spectators; they're the more important components.

The on-air discussion of last Sunday was interesting for a turn it took. From the knee-jerk "Razor Ray's getting involved" tone at the start, it moved on to a recognition that virtually every time he made a decision it was borne out either by television replays or the collective view of the box.

Umpires aren't often written about and neither should they be. Nevertheless, as anyone who has read this column with any regularity will be aware, the writer has a strong view that umpires should be encouraged, not discouraged, in the task of enforcing the laws. And, better than any I can think of right now, Razor Ray actually does that. He does it confidently, in an increasingly mature way, and with excellent judgment.

Of course he's a bit wacky, and some of the claims of grandstanding might have the merest verisimilitude. Those who saw him using a flight attendant's seat to do rehab on a flight home from Perth recently swear this is so. But then, he's just missed a season with a crook knee.

First season umpires' boss Wayne Campbell admits to wondering when he arrived what to expect from the much-discussed Razor Ray. "What surprised me," he says, "is what a bloody good umpire he is." Campbell also mentions his inclination to make good points at team meetings, reflective of a willingness to help others.

Razor Ray adequately summed up his approach to his job in a News Limited profile six years ago: "The law is the law. We pay free kicks. Get over it. That's the role."

And if I had to choose an umpire to make the right call 30 minutes into the last quarter of a one-kick grand final, right now I reckon Razor Ray would be my man.