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COMMENT: Lachie Neale's baffling win proves it's time to take Brownlow voting off the umps

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Editor
25th September, 2023
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Lachie Neale is a wonderful footballer, but he was not the AFL’s fairest and best player in 2023.

To be fair, he’s not the first and certainly won’t be the last to claim a Brownlow Medal despite being well down the pecking order of the season’s elite.

But footy’s most prestigious award hasn’t had a more baffling victor since at least Shane Woewodin in 2000 – and perhaps even further back.

I could safely name ten players – hell, ten midfielders, if we remove gun key backs and forwards who never poll well, who had better seasons than Neale: Marcus Bontempelli, Nick Daicos, Christian Petracca, Errol Gulden, Jordan Dawson, Zak Butters and Connor Rozee certainly all had far superior campaigns, while I would genuinely put Tom Liberatore, Jack Viney and Caleb Serong on at least a level pegging with the Lions gun.

And I’m certainly not alone on this: you only need look at Neale missing the All-Australian team (the first Brownlow winner to do so since Matt Priddis in 2014 and just the fourth ever), and not even being a particularly controversial absentee compared to the likes of Liberatore, as a sign some of the game’s sharpest analysts and a host of former greats didn’t have him in the conversation for the game’s best player.

There will no doubt be plenty of pointing the finger at the games in which Neale polled undeservedly, most obviously in Round 6 against GWS when a 20-disposal effort was deemed superior to 41 and 38 from Giants pair Josh Kelly and Stephen Coniglio respectively, as well as seven goals from Charlie Cameron.

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That he failed to receive a single coaches vote for that match should be enough to sway anyone sceptical of using statistics to judge performance: Cameron, as it happens, got a perfect 10 for that match.

But it would be wrong to single out Neale in this regard: all of the candidates, and even some of the also-rans, were the recipients of some quite staggering votes on regular occasions.

Jason Horne-Francis’ 13 disposal, three-vote effort against Geelong was clearly the most staggering, but all of Bontempelli, Petracca and especially last year’s winner Patrick Cripps – though not, as it happens, Nick Daicos, who was unlucky not to poll more – polled in games they shouldn’t have, as do many, many victors and proven vote-getters in years gone by.

The positive is that some of this year’s votes should put to bed the notion that umpires only look at the stats when deciding their votes – had they done so, Horne-Francis for one would never have got near them against the Cats.

The AFL Coaches Association award has some flaws in it too – I’m not convinced the coaches don’t have too much on their plates on game day to be doling out votes after games – but to have 17 examples of players polling three Brownlow votes but not a single coaches vote – Neale and Horne-Francis two glaring examples – and 20 more of players with a maximum 10 coaches votes getting no love for the umpires (even big names like Petracca, Jordan De Goey and Caleb Serong were in this mix) is a quite alarming chasm considering everyone involved is watching the same game.

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It’s been my belief for years that umpires simply have far too much on their plate to be overly preoccupied mid-game with which players are having a blinder.

Naturally, their presence around the ball is always going to make them predisposed to voting for the midfielders that share their immediate surroundings – cue the ‘midfielder’s medal’ accusations – but in recent years especially it has become deeper than that.

Neale’s win dispels my theory that the Brownlow has become a ‘favourite’s award’, where the stars spoken about glowingly in the media and touted as candidates from early in the season are likelier to poll more, but Neale and Cripps’ high-voting seasons despite what I would argue to be, by their standards, average or even underwhelming years as a whole, suggests a greater sway towards players already known to be superstars.

That would explain why Neale polled so heavily to start the season – including, yes, in that Giants game – and why Daicos, despite being near-universally regarded as the Brownlow frontrunner up to mid-year, missed out quite regularly on major votes.

It would also explain why the numbers polled by the winners is slowly but surely getting bigger and bigger – in nearly all cases over the last decade, 30 votes has been required to claim a Brownlow.

Up to 2009, just three times, excluding occasions where two sets of votes were given, did a victor reach 30 votes: since then, it’s happened 10 times out of 15 – 11 if you include Jobe Watson’s 30 in 2012 before his Brownlow was stripped off him – with 26 the lowest. The game’s elite players are attracting more votes than ever before, and more often than not it doesn’t even matter how well they actually played.

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None of this is the umpires’ fault at all – they’ve got the toughest officiating job in any sport in the world, with rules that seem to change with every passing week at times, and have to cover extraordinary distances during games while copping endless criticism for even small mistakes.

The role of an umpire has never been more hands-on than in modern footy – sure, past umps had to deal with far more fighting, player abuse and even physical assault at times, these days whistleblowers need to keep a close eye on players showing too much dissent at a free kick, watch for any number of off-the-ball incidents that they’ll be baked for if they miss them but also slammed if they pay ones that aren’t there, and the countless other jobs big and small they are required to perform.

Lachie Neale with the 2023 Brownlow Medal.

Lachie Neale with the 2023 Brownlow Medal. (Photo by Albert Perez/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Being given Brownlow voting rights might be an honour, but it is also just an extra burden lumped on their shoulders – and, importantly, one which, in 2023 more than ever before, came up with some truly baffling decisions.

The NRL’s Dally M medal is voted on by a pool of anonymous former players, with two assigned to each match and awarding votes on a 3-2-1 basis, identical to the AFL.

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It’s specifically someone’s job to judge who in each match is worthy of votes, and if the AFL are serious in ensuring its most prestigious medal carries with it indisputable integrity, it’s a method they should deeply consider adopting.

Sure, they’d need to be careful about who they pick – Kane Cornes getting a Richmond game would be bad news for Tim Taranto, for one – but this is one of those times when the sheer volume of former players having transitioned into the media could work to the game’s benefit for once.

The 2023 Brownlow Medal count was an absolute thriller; it made for great viewing; it featured drama with every passing round; and in the end, Charlie went to a champion of the game who, for all I’ve said leading up to this, cannot be begrudged a second win and a secured place as a great of modern football.

But the system with which he won it is deeply, and obviously flawed: if the AFL are serious in maintaining the Brownlow’s integrity, and preventing situations where umpires cop publicly ridicule for the occasional erroneous bit of voting, they’ll change it for the better.

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