Gary Ablett Jr is now the best AFL player I have seen. So who would round out the top 10 players of the past 25 years?
I have limited it to that period given that, as a 31-year-old human, my memory only extends that far.
Ablett is cantering towards a possible third Brownlow medal after an astonishing display against St Kilda last weekend which saw him horde 37 touches and four goals. This is my list:
1.Gary Ablett Jr (262 games, 352 goals)
I got chatting yesterday to one of my best mates, a rabid Geelong fan. I posited, and he agreed, that Ablett may quite well play for another five or six seasons.
At 30 years old he is still in his prime. In fact, 2014 so far is statistically the best season of his career, averaging 33 touches, eight clearances, six tackles and 2.2 goals per game.
Barring injury, he looks certain to notch his eighth consecutive All-Australian guernsey this season. Ablett’s skills, cunning and goal sense suggest he could emulate Hawthorn legend Leigh Matthews and become a potent forward once he tires of labouring in the midfield.
It would no surprise to see him finish his career with 400 games, 600-plus goals, three Brownlows and 10 All-Australian jumpers to his name.
2. Wayne Carey (244 games, 671 goals)
The complete forward, Carey was supreme in the air, clever on the ground, swift across the turf and physically imposing. A noted big-game performer, he was the player North Melbourne turned to consistently during their golden era in the 1990s.
The two-time premiership captain never won a Brownlow medal, but then again neither did two of the top ten footballers in history in Matthews and Gary Ablett Sr.
However, the esteem in which Carey was held among his adversaries was highlighted by the fact he twice won the Matthews medal awarded to the competition MVP by the AFL Player’s Association. He finished runner-up on another four occasions.
3.Gary Ablett Sr (248 games, 1030 goals)
I found it next to impossible to split the four greatest key forwards of the modern era in Ablett Sr, Carey, Tony Lockett and Jason Dunstall. I could have put them in any order and felt justified.
Ablett Sr was the most mercurial of that bunch and the most scintillating player I have witnessed. Quite simply, there has never been another footballer like him.
He boasted barnstorming power, elite athleticism, sublime dexterity and outrageous skill. Ablett Sr’s highlights package from the 1989 grand final alone is enough to convince you of his standing.
“God” is the most extreme of nicknames, yet for Ablett Sr it was apt. He was capable of divine intervention.
4. Tony Lockett (281 games, 1360 goals)
Where Ablett was freakish, Lockett was unrelentingly dangerous. During the peak of his career, from 1987 to 1996, not once did he average less than 4.4 goals a game for a season.
The only one of the aforementioned quartet of champion forwards to win a Brownlow, Lockett was the most intimidating player I have seen. Opponents who chose to try to block the space opened up for his leads did so in the knowledge they were risking extreme bodily harm.
Despite weighing about 112kg at his peak, Lockett was quick and nimble. When offered an opportunity in front of goal he was clinically efficient. His uncomplicated kicking style saw him go down as one of the game’s best-ever sharpshooters.
5. Jason Dunstall (269 games, 1264 goals)
Dunstall may have benefited from playing in one of the great dynasties of all time in Hawthorn during the ’80s and ’90s, but his ability was such that he would have dominated for any side.
The Hawks’ spearhead was the classical full forward. He did not have the eye-popping athleticism of Ablett or the brute force of Lockett, yet he consistently won the football with his uncanny timing on the lead, iron grip and underrated football smarts.
As a young forward my father encouraged me to replicate the subtle, or sometimes not-so-subtle, bumps Dunstall would use to destabilise his jostling opponent as a high ball was about to land inside 50. This simple tactic encapsulated his unspectacular but astoundingly effective approach to football.
6. Greg Williams (250 games, 217 goals)
We are fortunate Williams did not arrive in the modern era. A chunky, dawdling footballer, he may very well have been overlooked by AFL teams who now focus so heavily on athletic testing.
The two-time Brownlow Medallist had such an innate grasp of the game that he did not need supreme speed or agility. His ability to win the ball in confined spaces and then deliver it cleanly to the advantage of a teammate was without peer.
Williams could well have finished his career as one of only five players to claim the Brownlow three times if not for a controversial incident in 1993. That season he finished just one vote behind winner Gavin Wanganeen after being denied even a single vote from the Round 10 match in which he had an extraordinary 44 disposals.
7. Simon Madden (378 games, 575 goals)
Dean Cox at his peak was the equal of Madden as a ruckman, but the Essendon legend’s phenomenal longevity and superior ability as a forward nudged him ahead of the West Coast champion.
Madden was a brilliant technician in the ruck and added a new dimension to that position with his canny use of angles at the centre bounce. He was a cornerstone of the Bombers’ team for 19 seasons and was one of the main reasons they won back-to-back premierships in 1984-85.
8. Michael Voss (289 games, 245 goals)
The most inspirational captain I have come across, Voss often willed his team over the line in big matches. Partnered with the similarly ferocious Leigh Matthews, they formed a perfect captain-coach combination to help turn Brisbane into perhaps the best side in AFL history.
Voss was famed for his courage, work ethic and manic desire to win. These character traits intersected with remarkable skill to create a flawless midfielder.
Voss won his own ball, but could also slice you on the outside. He was strong overhead and potent inside 50, where he could slot goals off either foot with ease.
9. James Hird (253 games, 343 goals)
Hird often seemed to be operating on a higher plane than anyone else on the field. Football came so naturally to the Essendon gun that he often made complex tasks appear comically simple.
He was the prototype utility player, capable of running on the ball, dictating terms from half back, setting up goals from half forward or being one-out deep inside 50. Whatever role his side needed him to play, he was ready and completely capable of carrying it out.
10. Stephen Kernahan (251 games 738 goals)
Kernahan was a giant figure at Carlton, both figuratively and literally. The man who captained the Blues for an amazing 11 seasons was the size of a ruckman, but made his mark as a mobile key forward.
In an era when the average height of a key forward was about 190cm, Kernahan was a towering 196cm. He fully exploited his imposing frame to control the air inside Carlton’s forward line for 12 years.
Before joining the Blues as a highly-prized 22-year-old recruit, ‘Sticks’ had established himself as a dominant force for Glenelg in the SANFL where he played 136 games. His combined 387 games of senior football was testament to his admirable durability and toughness.
Honorable mentions: Robert Harvey, Stephen Silvagni, Matthew Scarlett, Glen Jakovich, Nathan Buckley, Chris Judd, Shane Crawford, Peter Matera, Adam Goodes.