On Thursday, women’s footy champ Daisy Pearce said on SEN Radio that she thought “Dustin Martin is the best player to have ever played the game”.
It’s the kind of statement that might have seen SEN boss Craig Hutchison black out from delight as he envisioned social-media masses fighting over each other to take a bite out of what would inevitably become a juicy bit of click bait.
The responses, predictably, ranged from guffaws to gutter-dwelling misogyny.
There’s no reasonable way to know who the best player in the history of footy is, but let’s indulge Pearce’s idea for a minute, because it might not be as crazy as it first seems.
Critics were quick to point to the record books, with Leigh Matthews the name that came up most often.
A quick glance at Matthews’ stats through the eyes of someone who closely follows today’s game is a bit like stepping out of the shower and having your towel handed to you by a 12-foot talking goldfish on a unicycle.
From 1973 to 1984, ‘Lethal’ played 246 games, won three premierships, a Coleman Medal, and averaged 23.2 disposals and three goals a game. Those are numbers that are genuinely impossible to fathom in 2020.
In 1977 Matthews averaged 27.4 disposals and kicked 91 goals. Once again, in case you’ve not seen those numbers before: IN 1977 MATTHEWS AVERAGED 27.4 DISPOSALS AND KICKED 91 GOALS.
Of course, the game was an entirely different and less professional one than the modern AFL we know and – occasionally – love.
In that 1977 season – which for Matthews and the Hawks ended in a 67-point preliminary final loss to eventual premiers North Melbourne – Matthews wasn’t even his side’s leading goal-kicker. That gong went to sharpshooter Peter Hudson, who bagged a lazy 110 goals.
It’s something Pearce herself hinted at in her praise of Dusty: “224 games, going at more than a goal a game from the midfield within all those defensive structures”.
Defensive structures. I doubt that was a phrase uttered too often during Matthews’ career.
Beyond the increased professionalism, there’s also the small matter of human evolution.
Matthews – according to the holy bible that is AFL Tables – measured in at 178 centimetres and 86 kilograms, which is nine centimetres shorter and seven kilos lighter that two-time Norm Smith medallist Dusty.
Dusty is bigger, stronger and I’m willing to bet faster than Matthews was in his heyday and also has all of the advantages of modern medicine, technology and training to ensure he gets the best out of his ability. Who knows what destruction 2017-20 Dusty would wreak if he was magically transported into the VFL of the ’70s.
For all the yearning for the semi-professional supposed glory days of yore, it’s nonsense to dismiss the talents of today’s best players, who have more legal on-field obstacles to overcome than ever.
Watch Patrick Cripps hunt the footy at a stoppage while being held by two opponents in a crowd of 15-20 players, or Tom Hawkins try to beat his man and find space in a crowded forward 50 against an organised defence that has players up the field pressuring the life out of the kicker.
We got a taste of what these guys can do when the coaches release their grip in the bushfire appeal all-star match – and even then, the defensive habits weren’t completely abandoned.
Pearce’s take was perfect radio and social media fuel: a pub debate to a question no one asked with an answer no one knows, and she sure as hell doesn’t need some hack hobby writer like me defending her, but maybe she wasn’t all that far off the mark.
Leigh Matthews, Wayne Carey, Gary Ablett senior and junior – there are legends of the game who will always be mentioned in such discussions, and rightly so, but time doesn’t stand still, and athletes in every field find ways to better the feats of those who came before them.
So, if by that measure today’s best players are better than the best players who came before them, and Dusty is indeed today’s best player…