The second part of the six-part series comprises the five players the Collingwood Magpies, Essendon Bombers and Fremantle Dockers can least afford to lose in 2021, plus each side gets one honourable pre-draft mention.
Thursday, 7 May, marked Dustin Fletcher’s 45th birthday, and 2020 marks the 20th anniversary of Essendon’s record-breaking 2000 campaign. It only feels right that I dust off a piece I wrote soon after the great man’s retirement in 2015.
Dustin Fletcher debuted for Essendon on 3 April 1993 – Round 2 of the season.
I was four years old.
Dustin Fletcher retired on 4 September 2015 – Round 23, a Friday night.
I am now 26.
His career spanned 22 years, 400 games, two premierships, one club best and fairest, two All Australian selections, 164 teammates and four coaches. And the entirety of my conscious footballing life.
I don’t remember much of being four years old. I certainly don’t remember anything of the 1993 season. There were more important things to worry about I guess, like jumping in puddles and playing with Tonka trucks. But Fletch was there, whether I knew it or not.
He spent a fair portion of the 1993 grand final – which I watched on VHS countless times in future years – guarding Stephen Kernahan. Sticks kicked 7.4 that day. Essendon won by 44 points. I think I know who was happier that night.
Fletch looked out of place that glorious afternoon. He was too gangly, too slight. He looked like he didn’t really belong on an AFL field. I can only imagine the chat in the outer: “Some potential there. He’s got the smarts. He just needs to fill out a bit in the next couple of years to compete with the big boys”. He never bothered with that idea.
However. Gary Ablett, Tony Lockett, Jason Dunstall, Tony Modra, Peter Sumich, Garry Lyon, Wayne Carey, Stephen Kernahan, Matthew Richardson, Saverio Rocca, Barry Hall, Lance Franklin, Alastair Lynch, Brendon Fevola – just a few of the full-forwards who quaked in their boots when Fletcher moseyed down to fullback.
If anyone spent time in a team’s forward 50 in the last 22 years, they probably played on Fletch. Small, tall, lead-up forward, stay-at-home goal-sneak, opportunistic crumber – it didn’t matter; he infinitely frustrated them with his defensive genius. And he definitely held them goalless at least once.
Fletch is an Essendon icon for many reasons.
The red hair, the skinny build, the Inspector Gadget arms producing the seemingly impossible last-second spoil. The look-away-mongrel-but-somehow-perfectly-finding-the-boundary-line-60-metres-away roost out of defensive 50 and the countless rushed behinds when the opposition thought they’d surely broken through for a goal.
The ridiculous series of suspensions for an increasingly eclectic variety of ‘trips’ where his elongated body got the best of him and the time he was fined for shaking the goal post as the opposition was having a shot for goal.
The fact that in his winter years he was a playing defensive coach.
The fact that in 2000, in the most successful season of AFL football ever – with Essendon claiming a 24-1 win-loss record – with Matthew Lloyd kicking 109 goals, Joe Misiti racking up 625 touches, Scott Lucas booting 57 goals, James Hird chiming in with 36 majors and averaging over 20 touches and the likes of Jason Johnson and Justin Blumfield starring, Fletch won the best and fairest. Still, there was nothing quite like the forays forward in the twilight of his career.
I was the MCG on Anzac Day at the top tier of the Great Southern Stand, four rows from the back. The classic nosebleed seats. It was a miserable day weather-wise and a miserable game result-wise for Essendon. But it was memorable for one key reason. In the second quarter Fletch marked the ball 60 metres out, and 88,395 fans knew what was coming. Collingwood fans will deny it to their last breath, but I have no doubt they wanted it to happen too.
Fletch, to his credit, took his time. He drew in the crowd and built the anticipation. I’m sure he took more than 30 seconds. I’m even surer the umpire didn’t care. He unleashed a monstrous drop punt. The result was never in doubt. The crowd erupted. His 71st and last goal in the red and black.
I sadly didn’t make it to Dreamtime at the G. It was Fletch’s 400th. The basic stats are mostly irrelevant – ten touches, two marks. Digging deeper, though, you could tell that it was a typical Fletch performance. There were four rebound-50s and five ‘one-percenters’. A casual night’s work for Dustin.
However, he went off injured and hasn’t been back. Down back. For as long as I’ve been following footy, that’s where Fletch has been.
As much as the media reported that it wasn’t possible, I was hoping Fletch would receive one final game against the Pies. Surely even if he was only 25 per cent fit, he’d be picked as the sub and brought on in the last ten minutes. Play him forward, clear out the 50 and have the Bombers do whatever they could to deliver him one last grab, one last goal.
But really that’s not the Fletch way. He’s never been one for fanfare, for being in the spotlight. Perhaps it’s meant to be that he bows out following an extended period on the sidelines. He’s certainly spent a decent amount of time there over the course of his career. Next season will be strange. For the first time in my memory Fletch won’t be pulling on the red and black again.
Opposition forwards won’t know how good they have it.