You can’t help but feel sorry for Nathan Jones.
When he made his decision to play on in 2020, he would have been looking at a season of 22 games and the chance of finals. If things had gone to plan, all the three personal milestones in front of him would have been probable if he could maintain fitness and form.
The three milestones were:
• Six games to join Matthew Boyd (Western Bulldogs), Anthony Stevens (North Melbourne) and Darren Milburn (Geelong) in equal 98th position in the AFL’s top 100 game-players. He was the only player capable of joining the AFL top 100 list this year.
• Fourteen games to bring up the traditional milestone of 300 games. He would be the second Melbourne player to do so.
• Twenty games to equal David Neitz as the greatest game-player for the Demons of all time.
Now, with the season one game old – Jones missed Round 1 – and the doubtful promise of a maximum of 16 more games before the finals, he may be lucky to achieve even one of these milestones in what could be his final year. No doubt, a fourth milestone – a premiership – would be his preference.
The lost season of 2020 took me back to my younger days when two Melbourne champions, Don Williams and Gary Hardeman, left the club at different times to play interstate and then returned to finish their careers with the Demons. I wondered how many players have had an interrupted career due to the loss of at least one season. In Melbourne’s current top 100 game-players list, there are 18 players (nearly 20 per cent) who missed at least one season. Many missed one season due to a bad injury (mostly leg injuries) and many others due to the intervention of war.
Don Williams spat the dummy after being left out of the starting 18 in the 1959 grand final and signed to play with West Perth in the WAFL. While he had some success, he missed a period of four years in which the Dees made the finals and won the 1960 premiership. He returned in time to be part of the 1964 Melbourne premiership, the club’s last. The seasons were 18 games long with four finals so Williams’ exodus may have cost him 70 to 80 games. He finished his career on 205, so could have potentially been a top three game-player at the Demons today.
Gary Hardeman had played 210 games for the club when he left on a three-year hiatus to South Australian club Sturt, before returning to Melbourne for another nine games in 1981. He also could have currently been top five at the club if not for that break. Hardeman is one of only four players to play more than 200 games and not play in a final. Another one is fellow Demon Steven Smith.
As mentioned, David Neitz and Nathan Jones are currently one and two on the Demons’ top 100 game-players list, and champion player and champion bloke Robbie Flower makes up the trifecta. Ironically, if not for his last season, Flower would have joined Hardeman and Smith as a 200-game Melbourne player who failed to play in a final.
In 1987, he played in three finals, with Melbourne bowing out in a dramatic preliminary final against Hawthorn. He missed 52 games through injury, so with a bulkier frame, he may have easily played 300 games.
Neitz, Jones and Flower are all champions dogged by bad luck, but ranked one, two and three in the Melbourne games-played hierarchy. Captaining the club for a combined 22 seasons, Flower and Neitz both won one best-and-fairest while Jones won three. Neitz won a Coleman Medal and seven club goal-kicking awards and Flower two. Both Flower and Neitz were All Australian twice.