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Masters of the Air: The ten greatest AFL 'speckies' of the 21st century - and #2 wasn't even Mark of the Year!

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21st January, 2024
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Of all the quirks, eccentricities and flat-out weirdness that comes with Australian Rules football, none are more spectacular than the high mark.

Call it what you will – a ‘specky’, a ‘screamer’, a ‘hanger’ and all its other names – when executed right, a footballer soaring over a pack to bring the ball to ground safely in their keeping is the most thrilling part of our great game, no matter whether it’s your team taking it or in the role of ‘stepladder’.

I’ve given myself the challenge to pick the top ten best marks of the 21st century: with 24 years of ‘speckies’ to come through, it wasn’t going to be easy.

Some of the marks I’ve chosen are still as iconic today as they were back when they were first taken; others have faded into obscurity with the passage of time.

But one thing’s for certain: our game would be a hell of a lot poorer without them.

10. Brendon Goddard (St Kilda) – vs Richmond, Round 21, 2010

There’s a good to fair chance you’ve either forgotten about this mark, or never knew it existed in the first place.

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But Goddard’s hanger against the Tigers in late 2010, leaping over Jack Riewoldt and Sam Fisher to execute the textbook definition of a high mark, holds the record for the shortest amount of time a screamer has been rubber-stamped in the court of public opinion as the ‘Mark of the Year’.

Yes, the official verdict isn’t handed down until Brownlow Medal night, but for the most part, every year we have a pretty good idea of which grab is the season’s best – especially now it is decided by a panel and not fan-voted after a series of farces during the 2010s. (More on one of them later.)

But unfortunately for Goddard, his screamer would stand alone as the best of 2010 for about 24 hours, until it was usurped by…

9. Liam Jurrah (Melbourne) – vs Port Adelaide, Round 21, 2010

I’m not sure a single round of footy has ever had two better marks than this one.

Because as good as Goddard’s specky was just the day before, Jurrah’s soaring grab sitting on teammate Jack Watts’ head narrowly shades it.

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The running jump at the ball to hint at what was to come, the perfect balance as the ‘Walpirri Wizard’ got a momentary sit to safely take the grab, and then the perfectly executed cushioning of the Sherrin as he tumbled back to earth, makes this one an instant classic.

It was one of the few highlights during a dark era for Melbourne fans, too.

8. Brad Ottens (Geelong) – vs Sydney, Round 5, 2006

One of the great things about our game is that it is for all shapes and sizes. Whether you’re touching seven feet tall or are struggling to make it to five, whether you’re built like the proverbial brick outhouse or can’t put on weight to save yourself, there’s a role for you if you’re good enough to execute it.

The same is true of the high mark: from leaping forwards to spring-heeled half-backs, all you need is an AFL-standard aerobic capacity, a high ball, and timing, and you can make the magic happen. Even if you’re a ruckman.

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Goodness knows how Darren Jolly held up Brad Ottens’ 110-plus kilogram frame for as long as he did, but he’s the reason it makes the top ten.

Not only does his presence get Ottens up as high as any mark ever taken, but his strength in not collapsing immediately allowed his opposing ruckman to float, almost in mid-air, for a good second, just to make it even more spectacular.

The greatest ruckman mark of all time (with apologies to Nic Naitanui).

7. Shai Bolton (Richmond) – vs Geelong, Round 8, 2021

This mark could well have cracked the top five; it had everything, from a high leap, to taking the ball at its highest point, and even a rare ‘boost’ from the pack below to shoot Shai Bolton even higher than his original jump would have allowed.

The problem, though, is that, more than any other hanger in recent times, the commentary didn’t do it justice.

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For all Brian Taylor’s relentless sensationalising of the trivial and uncontained excitement at the most random incidents that catch his eye, a moment that seems tailor-made (pardon the pun) for his talents was spectacularly butchered.

Somehow, BT made the best mark of 2021 feel like a regulation, run-of-the-mill decent grab. It would be almost funny if it weren’t so depressing.

6. Jonathan Brown (Brisbane) – vs Hawthorn, Round 17, 2002

Not every great mark is a high leap over a pack; sometimes, they’re about courage.

Perhaps second only to Glenn Archer as football’s bravest ever man, Jonathan Brown would often pay a heavy price for his repeated putting of himself into harm’s way, with fractured skulls and concussions far too commonplace throughout his career.

But it’s marks like this one that made him an undisputed great of the game: he wanted the ball more than anyone else, hunted it, and was prepared to be smashed to smithereens by whatever was coming the other way.

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It might not be as spectacular as some of the other grabs on this list, but everyone who has ever player or watched our sport for any period of time knows how difficult Brown’s effort was to pull off.

5. Liam Ryan (West Coast) – vs Melbourne, Round 9, 2019

Effectively an anti-Shai Bolton grab, THIS is BT at his best.

Not only did he provide a perfect lead-up to Ryan’s spectacular stepladdering of Max Gawn – “Liam Ryan’s saying kick it my way, I want to jump over the pack and here he comes! RYAN!” – but he actually timed it all to perfection, with the final exclamation only coming as the Eagles high-flyer leapt onto Gawn’s back to pull it in.

The front-on angle gives this grab justice that the others don’t: it’s the one that shows just how far off the ground Ryan was, and just how big a leap had to be to get that far up Gawn’s monstrous frame.

Add to that the fact Ryan ran 60 metres to get himself into the position to take that mark, with eight minutes left of a tied game, and you’ve got a classic in every sense of the word.

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4. Jeremy Howe (Melbourne) – vs Sydney, Round 8, 2012

We’re into the proper big boys now.

Jeremy Howe was always going to crop up at some point on this list – no one in the game’s history has produced anything close to his high-marking highlight reel – and while I could only fit one of his greatest hits into the top 10, one clearly stands out above the rest.

For starters, a rarity in the modern game, this was a hanger taken over a single player – Heath Grundy – rather than a pack. As a result, every camera angle captures the grab in all its glory – and each one looks better than the last, too.

It’s the sit that turns this screamer into the all-timer that it is: balancing majestically on Grundy’s shoulders for a good two seconds before dismounting, it’s the best mark from the best markER the AFL has ever seen.

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3. Andrew Walker (Carlton) – vs Essendon, Round 18, 2011

“Walker’s got the sit here. OOOOOOOOHHHH!”

The biggest stone cold robbery in Mark of the Year history, Walker’s ridiculous specky over Jake Carlisle would surely get more airtime these days if it had taken out the coveted award over a far inferior Andrew Krakouer mark.

Like Howe, this is a one-on-one screamer, so it’s out in the open, giving a perfect look at the mark in all its glory. It ticks every box: big leap, taking the ball at full body or hands stretch, keeping balance in mid-air for good two seconds, and then dismounting fluently.

I’ve given this the slightest of nods over Howe’s grab partly so justice can at last be done for Walker’s name, and partly because it has the ultra-rare ‘second elevation’: he jumps onto Carlisle’s shoulders, and then extends his legs even more to showcase the exact size of the mark.

Unreal.

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2. Nick Riewoldt (St Kilda) – vs Sydney, Round 11, 2004

One of the most-replayed marks in history, this, like Brown’s effort, is a specky more impressive for its courage than for theatricality.

Not only did Riewoldt run at full pelt from the other side of the centre circle and take the mark while turning his body to avoid serious injury, but he did it, as Brown had done two years early, with no thought as to what might be waiting for him on the other side.

No key forward in the game would have got close to that marking contest, let alone dragged it the Saints’ way. It’s the last-gasp spin from him with the ball safe in his keeping that elevates this grab into immortal territory – and it’s richly deserved.

Controversially, this epic lost out for Mark of the Year honours to Ashley Sampi’s (admittedly glorious) classical specky; but Riewoldt’s grab, in this author’s opinion, was not only the standout in 2004, but also for the last 24 years as a whole.

We’ll be watching that replay forever.

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Before we get to #1, here are a few honourable mentions that were particularly stiff to miss the cut…

Honourable mentions

Ashley Sampi (West Coast) vs Melbourne, Round 12, 2004 – Gutted I couldn’t find room in the top 10 for this beauty. Let’s just call it 11th and have done with it.

Matthew Robbins (Western Bulldogs) vs Brisbane, Round 18, 2005 – Still the best mark I’ve ever seen live and I don’t think it gets the respect it deserves.

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Brett Burton (Adelaide) vs Carlton, Round 22, 2009 – Just the Birdman casually pinching Mark of the Year on the second-last day of the home-and-away season!

Chad Wingard (Port Adelaide) vs St Kilda, Round 12, 2014 – It’s the deadpan reaction afterwards that really makes this mark as iconic as it is.

Nic Naitanui (West Coast) vs Geelong, Round 9, 2015 – It will always baffle me how a bloke who regularly took screamers like this averaged 1.75 marks per game.

1. Gary Moorcroft (Essendon) – vs Western Bulldogs, Round 14, 2001

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Speaking of replays you could play forever!

If you’ve ever played or watched football with any kind of regularity, chances are you’ll know what this mark is.

The most instantly iconic grab of the 21st century, Gary Moorcroft’s leap onto Brad Johnson was good enough; but it’s the extra boost his legs give him pushing back off the Bulldog that makes this grab the best of the bunch.

Dermott Brereton, on commentary that evening, was right: the picture of Moorcroft’s mark is among the AFL’s most iconic bits of media ever, and it will be hung on bars and pub walls for generations to come.

Agree with the picks? Any glaring misses? Head down to the comments section to have your say.

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