Australian rules football has been around for over 150 years and, along the way, the game we love has given life to some incredible characters.
Our most beloved footballers are sometimes the most popular people in the entire country, surpassing actors, musicians and television hosts. The players we grow to love aren’t always necessarily the greatest players, but they embody what we love about our club and they ooze the club’s culture.
As we head into Round 1, I’m going to give my take on who stands out as the all-time face of each AFL club. The only criteria I have is that they have to have actually played for the club. Some might say Kevin Sheedy is the face of Essendon or Eddie McGuire for Collingwood, but I’ve decided to just look at players.
That’s not to say I didn’t factor in what they achieved once their football career was over. Individuals that went on to coach the club they played for got a lot of credit, as did figures who remained in the public eye while maintaining their love for their team.
Current or recently retired players were certainly not ruled out, but I was trying to take into account all generations and look for the players that have remained synonymous with their clubs for supporters of all ages. My main premise was: “When I think of (club), I think of (player)” and I wanted it to reflect the views of an entire fan-base, from five-year-olds to 90-year-olds.
I spoke to countless supporters in person and in fan Facebook groups, about who they consider the all-time face of their club and I did try to factor all their opinions into my decisions. But at the end of the day, it is just my opinion and there will be plenty of people that disagree. Feel free to leave your opinions in the comments.
There’s definitely some recency bias in here but I’d argue that with the rise of the internet and media coverage, players are highlighted a lot more than they were 40 years ago, making them much more easily identifiable to their clubs.
Adelaide Crows – Mark Ricciuto
A lot of fans I spoke to considered Andrew McLeod, so it was a very tough decision. McLeod is the club’s all-time games leader, a two-time Norm Smith Medallist and five-time All Australian, but I had to go with the only Crow with a stand named after him at the Adelaide Oval. Mark Ricciuto’s accolades include 312 games (142 as captain), a premiership, eight All Australian nods, three best and fairests and a Brownlow. As I said earlier, I didn’t just look at how great of a player they were, I looked at what they have done off the field. Roo’s presence in the media and his role as football director with Adelaide put him on top.
Brisbane Lions – Michael Voss
This could have easily gone to two of Voss’ teammates in Simon Black or Jonathan Brown, but the captain of the legendary three-peat side of the early 2000’s stands out. Not only did he win a Brownlow medal and feature in five AA teams, but he was voted by his peers as the best captain in the game four years in a row from 2001-2004. A five-year stint as coach, albeit an unsuccessful one, makes his relationship to the team even stronger. Not many come tougher than Voss and no one will ever forget his dominant play.
Carlton Blues – Bruce Doull
Carlton has a rich history of legendary footballers but is there anyone more iconic than the Flying Doormat? One of the quietest characters in AFL history, Doull racked up four best and fairests and just as many premierships in his 356 games. The half-back flanker rarely made a mistake and his ability to let his football do the talking made him one of the most loveable Blues of all time. Despite remaining very quiet after his playing days, Doull is still synonymous with Carlton and his cult figure status gets him my tick of approval.
Collingwood Magpies – Nathan Buckley
Perhaps one of the most polarising figures in Collingwood’s history. This is an interesting one because there are plenty of Collingwood supporters that never have and never will like Buckley, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t embody the persona of the club. In his 260 games, Bucks accomplished almost everything, except for the ultimate prize. In his ten years as coach, he has again suffered some devastating finals losses, including a five-point grand final loss in 2018. Unfortunately, Collingwood is almost synonymous with grand final losses and Buckley knows more about losing them than most. There are plenty of big names this could have gone to, especially the late great Lou Richards, but Buckley’s constant attention since he arrived at Collingwood made him too hard to go past.
Essendon Bombers – James Hird
Until the supplements saga in 2013, James Hird was the golden boy at Essendon. Hird arrived at Windy Hill in 1991 and carved out one of the greatest careers of all time. Two premierships, a Brownlow, five All Australians and five best and fairests in 253 games would have almost been enough to solidify this spot regardless of his post-playing career. However, he did go on to coach the Bombers for four seasons and although his tenure will be tainted by the supplement saga, he is still a legend of the club. He was the third generation in his family to don the sash and, although he’s been out of the limelight, Hird will always personify Essendon to me.
Fremantle Dockers – Matthew Pavlich
This was probably the easiest decision out of any club. Despite the Dockers having some great players in their relatively short history (Clive Waterhouse, Peter Bell, Shaun McManus), the big Pav stands head and shoulders above them all. His career featured six All Australian appearances, six best and fairests, the most games in Fremantle history – 352 (182 as captain) and 700 goals. With his media role on Fox Footy, Pav remains in our footy feed and continues to embody the Docker spirit. If Nat Fyfe continues to play at an incredible level and eventually deliver the Dockers their first flag, you’d have to almost guarantee he’d overtake Pav when it’s all said and done.
Geelong Cats – Gary Ablett Sr.
Anybody who gets nicknamed “God” has to be in contention to be the face of their club and, although Geelong have had plenty of brilliant and recognisable players, Ablett Sr. takes the cake. Polly Farmer is an extremely close second, but I couldn’t go past the ever-lasting popularity of Ablett’s on-field heroics. The boy from Drouin’s resume includes three Coleman medals, four All Australians, a best and fairest and a Norm Smith. Unfortunately for Ablett, that Norm Smith came in a losing grand final where he kicked nine goals, equalling the record for most goals in the big dance. Ablett Sr. was certainly one of a kind and his awe-inspiring play has him in top spot for me. His legend was also enhanced by the emergence of his son.
Gold Coast Suns – Gary Ablett Jr.
This one is a bit strange, considering he is also such a legend at Geelong, but no one at Gold Coast put the Suns on the map like the Little Master. Ahead of their inaugural season, Ablett Jr made the move north after he was offered a contract he couldn’t refuse. In his time at the Suns, he won a Brownlow, made four All Australian teams and even lead their goal-kicking twice – all as captain. To name anyone else as the all-time face of the club would be an insult to the brilliant play of Ablett from 2011-2017. He’s in the lead for now but, in ten years, young Matthew Rowell may stake a pretty good claim to Gazza’s throne.
GWS Giants – Toby Greene
It feels a bit redundant to name an all-time face of a club that’s only been around for ten years, but one player has certainly made his mark on the game in that relatively short time. Toby Greene is constantly a talking point in AFL circles and his antics have generated plenty of attention. Not only is he one of the most controversial players in recent times, he’s also been a key part of the Giants’ successful teams. The one-time All Australian played in GWS’ first ever game and the fact that he’s contracted through to 2024 makes you think he’ll be a Giant for life.
Hawthorn Hawks – John Kennedy Sr.
Hawthorn is a club full with legends. There are about ten blokes this could easily go to, but I had to go with the man Alastair Clarkson considers “the godfather” of Hawthorn. John Kennedy was a great player in the 1950’s, captaining for four years and winning four best and fairests. He took over as coach in 1960 at 31 years old. As coach, he secured the club’s first three premierships in 1961, 1971 and 1976 and laid the foundation for the powerhouse that the club now is.
Kanga, who was named coach in Hawthorn’s team of the century, is immortalised in bronze in front of Waverley Park, wearing his signature overcoat. He is the father of John Kennedy Jr. (another Hawthorn legend) and grandfather of Swans superstar Josh Kennedy – who started his career at the Hawks. Once again, I could write thousands of words on ever-impactful legends of the Hawks, but it was the man who gave the famous “Do something!” speech who got the nod. Younger fans may not think of Kennedy straight away, but those who know what he did for the Hawks will remember him forever.
Melbourne Demons – Jim Stynes
Melbourne is one of the oldest professional clubs in any football code in the world and there’s a lot of incredible history there. So, it’s amazing that a bloke who arrived in Australia when he was 18 years old is one of the club’s most memorable characters. Ron Barassi is one of many who were considered, but it had to go to the big Irishman. He was dominant on the field, winning four best and fairests and a Brownlow Medal (the only international player to do so), which helped him earn a spot in the club’s Team of the Century.
While the ruckman gained the admiration of supporters in his 264 games, he was even more impactful off the field. Stynes long led the way in Victoria with youth and charity work, being awarded Victorian of the year twice and the Order of Australia in 2007. He expanded his Demons legacy when he took over as chairman from 2008-2012. Tragically, Stynes was diagnosed with cancer in 2009 and his incredible life was cut short at the age of 45 in 2012. He will forever be remembered as one of the most inspiring characters in football and that’s what separated him from the rest.
North Melbourne Kangaroos – Glenn Archer
This was tough. Three former Kangaroos stood out; Wayne Carey, Brent Harvey and Glenn Archer. An older supporter might be drawn towards Malcolm Blight, Keith Greig or Wayne Schimmelbusch, but it has to be the man who was voted Shinboner of the Century. Archer was named to three All Australian sides, played in two flags, one of which he was awarded the Norm Smith Medal in, and was named in the club’s Team of the Century. He is one of the most courageous players of all time, winning the Robert Rose Award a record-breaking six times. Arch is probably one of the least present figures on this list after retirement, but he still remains relevant enough to get my vote.
Port Adelaide Power – Warren Tredrea
Another difficult decision that was ultimately a two-horse race in the end. Tredrea or Gavin Wanganeen? It may be a controversial decision to some supporters, but Tredrea embodies the club slightly more than Wanganeen. The fact his old man played for Port Adelaide in the SANFL and that Tredrea himself was a one club player puts him on top. The captain of their only premiership side in 2004 has countless accolades, including four All Australian appearances and four best and fairests. His role in the South Australian media has also kept him in our minds, furthering his claim to the face of the Power.
Richmond Tigers – Kevin Bartlett
I had to think about this one quite a bit but, in the end, I had to go with Kevin Bartlett. Richmond have had plenty of great players and personalities, but no one rivals KB. Yet. ‘Hungry’ holds the games record at Richmond with 403, nearly 100 more than anybody else, and he certainly filled the trophy cabinet along the way. Five premierships and five best and fairests is nearly as good as it gets, and he also went on to coach Richmond for four years. Bartlett has played a massive part in the VFL/AFL media, and his passion for the Tigers often shines through. His bronze statue outside the MCG is the cherry on top. Although he’s nowhere near as vocal as KB, Dustin Martin may well take the mantle in time.
St Kilda Saints – Nick Riewoldt
This was certainly one of the hardest choices of them all. There are plenty of iconic footballers from St Kilda. Trevor Barker, Danny Frawley, Robert Harvey and Lenny Hayes, to name a few, but I couldn’t help but go with Saint Nick. Selected with the first pick in the 2000 draft, Riewoldt more than lived up to expectations in his 336-game journey. Along with six best and fairests, Rooey was named to five All Australian teams and he also holds the record for most marks in VFL/AFL history.
He captained 220 games for the Saints and in 2009 and 2010 he came agonisingly close to being their first premiership captain since 1966. Images of Riewoldt after crying after those losses perfectly encapsulate the pain St Kilda supporters have suffered for decades.
Sydney Swans – Adam Goodes
Adam Goodes will go down as one of the greatest and most influential AFL players of all time. Goodes is as accomplished as they come, picking up two Brownlows, two flags, three best and fairests and four All Australian selections in his 372-game career. His impact on the field can’t be questioned but his impact off it is an even more important talking point. Bobby Skilton was extremely close to getting the nod, but I couldn’t go past one of the most influential people in AFL history.
West Coast Eagles – John Worsfold
I was extremely close to choosing Ben Cousins for this, but I’m not sure the West Coast faithful would appreciate that very much. Woosha was born in Subiaco and in 1987 made his debut for the Eagles in their inaugural season. Four years later he became captain, and in 1992 and 1994 he lifted the premiership cup alongside Mick Malthouse. After his playing days were over, he briefly worked in the media then was eventually appointed coach ahead of 2002. By 2006, he had taken his team to two grand finals, winning the second one – beconing one of only four people to play in and coach a premiership side with the same club.
In 2013, Worsfold stepped down as coach and shortly after, the club decided to name the best and fairest medal after him. No one has had a bigger influence on the West Coast Eagles than John Worsfold.
Western Bulldogs – Ted Whitten
Who else could you choose other than the great EJ Whitten? Considered one of the greatest players in VFL/AFL History, Teddy played in the club’s first premiership in 1954 and won five best and fairests. Not only did he play 321 games for the ‘Scray, he was also playing coach for over 200 of them. He is one of the most enthusiastic, passionate and popular figures in football history and received an Order of Australia for his services to the sport he lived for. Mr Football was named captain of the AFL/VFL team of the century and is one of just one of three Australian Rules footballer’s awarded legend status in the Sport Australia Hall of Fame.
The EJ Whitten legends game honouring the great man raises money for prostate cancer, the disease that cut his life short at the age of 62. There have been many memorable sons of the West, but they all stand before Whitten.