I have been watching Australian rules football at the top level since the early 1970s and have seen the semi-professional Victorian Football League (VFL) evolve into a professional Australian Football League (AFL) with players today generally faster, stronger and fitter than decades before.
Over the years I have viewed many excellent players, too numerous to list in detail.
While rating best players over the years is indeed a subjective task, I offer a list of twelve players that have most impressed me over the years.
The first player that makes the list is Alex Jesaulenko (182cm 84kg), one of the great legends of Australian rules football, and a player immortalised by taking one of the most famous marks in the 1970 VFL grand final.
Having only started playing Australian Rules at 14 after playing football and rugby union, Jesaulenko became a champion player who excelled in terms of ground play, marking and goalkicking ability.
Playing for Carlton from 1967 to 1979 for 256 games kicking 424 goals (237 goals 1969-1971), Jesaulenko played in four Carlton premierships (1968, 1970, 1972 and 1979), was selected for All Australian honours in 1969 and 1972 after carnivals between the states, and remains the only Carlton player to kick 100 or more goals in a season (115 in 1970).
While I did not see his best years as a forward, the Hawthorn legend Leigh Matthews noted on Jesaulenko’s induction as a Legend in the Hall of Fame that
“Jezza was the Buddy Franklin of his era. He was a fantastic mark, but was fantastic at ground level, and that combination doesn’t exist in many players. Jezza was a freak. He was about 182 cm, only a couple inches taller than me. He was a bit like Darrel Baldock of the ’60s; great balance, low centre of gravity, sensational overhead”.
Jesaulenko, who was the last captain-coach to win a premiership with Carlton in 1979, would finish his VFL career playing career at St Kilda with 23 games and 20 goals during 1980-1981.
The next player that impressed me was Malcolm Blight (182 cm 89 kg).
While Blight was previously a great player in South Australia (Woodville club) from 1968 to 1973 playing 164 games and kicking 359 goals, Blight played 178 games and kicked 444 goals for North Melbourne from 1974 to 1982.
Blight played in two VFL Premiership teams (1975, 1977), won the 1978 Brownlow medal, was the club’s best and fairest in 1978, and was the leading VFL goalkicker in 1982 with 103 goals.
Blight was a spectacular player to watch though his style and power.
I was fortunate to be on the Princess Park wing when Blight kicked his incredible goal after the siren to defeat Calton in 1976, along with many other highlights at various games.
Leigh Matthews (178 cm 86 kg) was another superstar as a midfielder/forward.
While a physical player who earned the nickname “Lethal” given his hard bumping against opponents, Mathews was indeed one of the standout players of the 1970s and early 1980s due to his skills and goalkicking ability.
Playing for Hawthorn from 1969 (aged 16) to 1985, Mathews played 332 games and kicked an amazing 915 goals, won four premierships (1971, 1976, 1978 and 1983), and was eight times Hawthorn’s Best and Fairest (1971-1972, 1974, 1976-1978, 1980 and 1982) in an era of many great Hawthorn players like Peter Knights, Peter Crimmins and Kelvin Moore.
As a Don supporter, I remember one 1973 game when Mathews kicked 11 goals and had 42 possessions as we copped a 68 point hiding at Waverly.
Matthews had his best season in 1977 when he averaged 27 disposals per game and kicked 91 goals, then the highest goals kicked by a non-full forward until Peter Daicos’s best year in 1990.
While Mathews has only one All Australian team (1972) selection, at a time when selection was based upon performances at Australian Football Carnivals between states (no such competition 1973-1978), Mathews would have been selected many times under the new system from 1991 which selects players based on performances during the AFL premiership season.
Matthews was so good that the AFL Players Association’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award is named after him after he won the first MVP award in 1982.
The next standout player I choose is Gary Ablett Sr (185cm 97 kg) who starred as a forward though his speed, strength, skill, marking and goalkicking.
After a brief stint at Hawthorn from 1982 for six reserves games (10 goals), Ablett became one of the all-time greats when playing 242 games (1021 goals) for Geelong from 1984 to 1997.
Ablett was the league’s leading goalkicker three times (1993-1995), was voted MVP in 1993 by the players, and was named an All Australian seven times (1984, 1989-1990, and 1992-1995).
But not all of the great players I observed were fortunate to be part of premiership teams.
I refer here to Paul Roos (188 cm and 88 kg), one of the best all-time centre half backs who played 269 games for Fitzroy (270 goals) from 1982 to 1994, and 87 games for Sydney (19 goals) from 1995 to 1998.
A great reader of the play, a key ability that has no statistical support, Roos won Fitzroy’s best and fairest five times (1985-1986, 1991-1992 and 1994), was voted MVP by the players in 1986, and was All Australian seven times (1985, 1987-1988, 1991-1992 and 1996-1997).
The superstar centre half-forward Wayne Carey (192 cm 97kg) is next having played 244 games (671 goals) for North Melbourne from 1989–2001, before finishing his career at Adelaide during 2003–2004 where he played 28 games (56 goals).
Carey was four-time North Melbourne best and fairest (1992-1993, 1996 and 1998), was voted MVP twice (1995 and 1998) by players, and was seven-time All Australian (1993-1996, 1998-1999 and 2000).
As captain from age of 21, Carey led North Melbourne to the finals for eight consecutive years from 1993 to 2000 which included seven straight preliminary finals, three grand finals and two premierships (1996 and 1999).
As an Essendon supporter, I rate James Hird (188 cm 89 kg) among the best players I have seen as a midfielder/ half-forward, and ahead of other great Essendon players such as like Simon Madden, Tim Watson and Mathew Lloyd.
Playing 253 games (343 goals) from 1992 to 2007, Hird played in two AFL premierships (1993, 2000), was five times All Australian (1995-1996, 2000-2001 and 2003), tied to win the 1996 Brownlow Medal, and was voted Essendon’s best and fairest five times (1994-1996, 2003, 2007).
Another superstar, and one who never experienced premiership success, was the forward Nick Riewoldt (193 cm 92 kg).
Riewoldt played 336 games (718 goals) for St Kilda from 2001 to 2017, won St Kilda’s best and fairest six times (2002, 2004, 2006-2007, 2009 and 2014, was voted MVP 2004, and was selected All Australian five times (2004, 2006, 2008-2009 and 2014).
While Riewoldt had outstanding marking ability, I was always impressed by his ability to run so hard throughout a game to mark, or to create space away from defenders who simply could not match his speed and aerobic capacity.
Riewoldt was simply a super athlete with super courage who could mark, run and kick many goals.
The next great player I include is Gary Ablett Junior, one of the most decorated champions of all-time.
Ablett Jr played in two premiership sides (2007, 2009), won the Brownlow Medal twice (2009 and 2013), was voted MVP by the players a record five times (2007-2009, 2012-2013), was eight times All Australian (2007-2014), won Geelong’s best and fairest twice (2007 and 2009), and was Gold Coast’s best and fairest four times (2011-2013 and 2017).
Another great midfielder was Michael Voss (183 cm 88 kg) who played 289 games (245 goals) for Brisbane (both Bears and Lions) from 1992 to 2006.
A ferocious player, who his former coach Leigh Matthews once described as “a missile attacking the ball”, Voss played in three premiership sides (2001-2003), tied first in the 1996 Brownlow Medal, was selected All Australian five times (1996, 1999, 2001-2003), was voted MVP by players twice (2002-2003), and was Brisbane’s best and fairest (both Bears and Lions) five times (1995-1996, 2000-2001 and 2003).
Of the modern day forwards, Lance Franklin (199 cm 105 kg) has proven himself as another great of the game.
Having played 182 games for Hawthorn from 2005 to 2013 (580 goals), Franklin has remained one of the great forwards since 2014 with Sydney as he nears the feat of becoming the sixth VFL/AFL player to kick 1000 career goals.
A two time premiership player (2008, 2013), Franklin has been All Australian eight times (2008, 2010-2012, 2014, and 2016-2018), and the AFL’s leading goalkicker four times (2008, 2011, 2014, 2017).
In 2008, Franklin joined the 100 goals in a season club kicking 113 goals, including 102 goals (excluding finals), the first and only such home-and-away season century since 1998.
It can be argued that there has never been a player of his size that can run so fast with opponents flat out chasing him with Franklin then kicking incredible goals, often on the left side of the ground not naturally suited to a left footer.
Finally, another present player that makes my list is the midfielder/forward Dustin (Dusty) Martin (187 cm 93 kg).
Drafted by Richmond in 2009, shortly after Martin impressed at a draft camp coming equal second in the kicking efficiency test, running the 20 metre sprint in 2.89 seconds, and scoring 14.3 on the beep (endurance) test, Martin has used his power, fitness and skills to become one of the game’s all-time greats.
By 2020, Martin had starred in three premiership winning sides (2017, 2019-2020), had made four All Australian teams (2016-2018, 2020) and had won the 2017 Brownlow Medal, a MVP title (2017), and Richmond’s best and fairest twice (2016 and 2017).
No doubt readers may disagree with my top 12. For example, I exclude the brilliant midfielder Nathan Buckley (186 cm 91 kg), a player who was selected seven times All Australian (1996-2001 and 2003), and who won the 2003 Brownlow Medal and Collingwood’s best and fairest six times (1994, 1996, 1998-2000, 2003).
But, as an Australian Rules fan of many years, I have offered my opinion of the twelve players who impressed me since the early 1970s as a VFL/AFL fan.
What are your choices?