General Footy Writing: Birdman’s mark ranks as high as any in my mind

By John Kingsmill

Late in the third quarter of the Round 22 game between Adelaide and Carlton at Etihad, Brett Burton took what Channel Ten described as the Mark of the Century.

Jason Dunstall said: “During the third quarter break, I think we will probably show this mark maybe twenty times. That won’t be enough for me. I will want to see this one again and again and again. I don’t think I will ever not want to have another look at this mark.”

Here’s my description of the best mark I have seen. I wrote this in June 2004 in an Adelaide Review column. Strangely, it makes a reference to Brett Burton.

-o-

Up with the gods

Ashley Scampi’s mark in Round 7 set all willing hearts racing. As he rose over the pack with a well-timed leap, he received a second lift for a clean, gravity-defying moment of sheer beauty.

Yze, of course, took the credit saying that he gave Scampi a push trying to deflect his path from the flight of the ball. Instead, Yze pushed him up into the lap of the gods.

Some have said this is the best high mark ever. Essendon’s Gary Moorcroft has taken the best low mark ever, when he took the lift from his opponent in a lateral fashion. Rather than flying higher, Moorcroft took possession with his body fully extended parallel to the earth in splendid isolation from ground or man. He crashed heavily, which, according to Sheedy, finished his career. Barrie Robran always said that getting up high wasn’t the problem. Coming down was.

When Scampi looked down to the ground that, at that moment, was a long way away, his touchdown was clear of man or limb. He landed on all feet, like a cat.

The best high mark I remember was taken at Prospect Oval in the eighties. North Adelaide’s rover, Tony Antrobus, a young man in a rude hurry, was like Scampi – a lean, light player. Unlike Scampi, he was six feet tall and aggressive, mixing suspensions with a Magarey Medal.

I was sitting on the outer steps at Prospect Oval on a sunny winter afternoon, eating my pie. The opposition were attacking along the outer wing with a high ball to a forward. The ball was delivered too high. The forward stood still, as if he was waiting for a late train.

Tony had a twenty metre run-up and jumped with perfect timing. For a glorious few seconds of suspended time, he stood fully upright with the soles of his boots on the two shoulders of his opponent.

He took possession, hovered for another microsecond, went over the player and hit the ground running.

He passed the ball to a North leading forward who marked and goaled.

This happened in slow motion.

It was the most peculiar sensation of watching a tall man stepping up and over another man in one beautiful graceful motion that was so perfect even the umpire forgot to blow his whistle.

There were no TV cameras at Prospect Oval on that day. Later in the week, The Advertiser printed a fuzzy snap of the mark that gave it no credit. The memory of its true glory only lives in the minds of those who saw it.

I rate this mark above the brilliance of Modra, Ablett and Sean Smith, who constructed their marks in the middle of packs, using them to absorb some of their momentum to rise and their mass to cushion the fall.

Antrobus’s leap was one on one and, like Scampi’s, he showed a cat-like ability to land on his feet.

The perfect high mark isn’t only about the bravado of high flight – take note Brett Burton. It’s about getting possession and immediately putting the ball to team advantage.

Barrie Robran’s high marks weren’t as spectacular as these but they didn’t need to be.

I can remember many occasions when he rose above the pack, took possession and shot a handball out to a running player before he hit the ground.

There is the spectacle and then there is genuine brilliance.

-o-

Five years later …

Brett Burton is the only contemporary footballer running around who reminds me of my schooldays in the sixties. Then, before school, at lunch hour, and after school, we played kick to kick on the school’s main oval with ten players at each end. Kick to kick was only about perfecting the high mark, taking the hanger.

In those days, the dropkick was still in the schoolboy’s kitbag. It was the perfect kick for the high mark, tumbling over on its long axis, seeking fingers. The best dropkicks, the classic ones, rose on a low projection and then hung in the air on a loopy parabolic path. It gave time for a pack to develop and for others to climb the pack, get a lift and take the high mark.

Marks from dropkicks were about delayed, engineered lift, kissing the ball with your fingers, rather than catching a bullet with your teeth. Or, rather, it was about the ball coming to you, rather you interrupting its flight.

Some boys had the exquisite knack of delivering one perfect dropkick after another. Others could only manage the perfect dropkick once in five attempts. And, too, in our kick-to-kick sessions, we usually had two or three balls on the go. Older balls, that had lost their pristine oval shape and had become rounded, with bits of the bladder poking out of frayed edges of the sown leather encasement, were much better for dropkicks. They bounced more truly in the act of kicking, eliminating some of the error inherent in a form of kicking that was eventually eliminated from the game.

In schoolboy kick-to-kick footy, we’d wait patiently for one of the better dropkickers at the other end to finally get possession of one of the older rounder balls. This was like surfers waiting for the best wave. Patience was essential. The better dropkickers weren’t always those who marked the ball and earned the right to kick it back. Possession, even at that early age, was nine-tenths of the law. After a while, we learnt the essence of team play and strategy and did our little bit to speed up the slow process of evolutionary natural selection. The best markers would often handball the footy to the best dropkickers, hoping that the other end would take note and return the favour.

Brett Burton has always struck me as a schoolboy footballer, wanting the pleasure of the big mark more than any other reward in playing this game. Over the years, some of his attempts at the big hanger have been so excessively ridiculous that you’d have to challenge the intelligence of this very intelligent man. On occasions, even on simple one-on-one contests, he’d try to ride his opponent as if he was attempting to mount a camel. Brett is a tall and strong man. In one-on-one situations, a simple swivel of his hip would put his opponent off balance. He would then only need to stand there and pluck the ball out of the air as if it was a cherry on a tree.

On other occasions, he’d get the ride but his hands would be a long way from the ball and he’d be pinged for what the umpires politely call An Unrealistic Attempt.  On many other occasions, he’s risen so high, with his hands to the ball, and has had so much lift that he’s forgotten what he was trying to do. There are many footballers like Brett, seemingly only interested in the incredible, when the orthodox would be more than enough.

Fans love and hate such players in the same pass.

A month ago, he took a beautiful high mark, up there with god in his sight but, suddenly, when it was time to come back to earth, he lost his platform and landed on his arse. Bounce! That was maybe the first recorded instance of a corked buttock in the history of the modern game. What it did to his spine may not be revealed for many years.

Last Saturday, with five minutes to go in the third quarter, Simon Goodwin wheeled out of the centre on his left foot and sent a lovely long drop-punt into Adelaide’s fifty. It started low and then rose and hung in the air, like one of John Clapson’s classic dropkicks with an old round ball in 1967 at lunchtime. A pack formed under it, waiting for the drop, including Carlton’s Matthew Kreuzer and Bret Thornton, who were double-teaming Adelaide’s Kurt Tippett. These were three big men. Kreuzer is 2 metres tall, or 6’7”; Thornton is 1.97 metres or 6’6”; Tippett is the big daddy at 2.01 metres or 6’7 and a bit”. And the Birdman? He’s a relative dwarf at 1.87 metres or 6’2”.

The pack formed; Goodwin’s drop-punt hung in the air for an eternity, like Malcolm Turnbull’s career, or at least for long enough for Brett to decide to have a go. His first leap was the best. He jumped high enough to have his knee on Tippett’s shoulder. That, in itself, was a six-foot leap from a couple of steps. That first leap was impressive. He landed on Kurt’s shoulders as the pack was rising, and he rose with them for another foot or so. And then, he gained a second lift, extending his  knee and rising to the apex of the ball’s path, and in fact, slightly above it. He took possession of the ball with his arms extended almost at chin level. If he had managed another three or four inches, it should have been a chest mark.

Burton was high enough to have a good view of Ballarat if the Etihad roof hadn’t been closed. It was a magnificent three-part lift into the all-time showreel of the game, but this mark was far from over. At the top of his climb, his head may have been up to 15 feet from ground level. The world high jump record is around 8ft; the pole vault record is around 20 feet. Brett Burton was suddenly stranded in high air, somewhere between two Olympic events.

Barrie Robran often said that getting up there for the big marks was never the problem but that coming down could be.

Brett took clean possession of the ball at the apex of his climb and came down with the aid of the pack beneath him cushioning his fall. He collapsed the pack like a strike in tenpin bowling  or like swatting flies in the outback. The platform collapsed, and he rode it down like the Titanic and tumbled out of the mess with a head over tail body roll that was good enough for him to consider an audition with Circus Oz.

He came up on his feet with the ball in his hand and, for a moment, stood totally confused. There were bodies all around him, like a car accident. He couldn’t quite understand why he was on his feet with the ball in his hands and whether the umpire’s whistle meant that he had a free kick or whether he was about to be reported for the carnage that he had caused.

He went back for his kick at goal and kicked a point, but that hardly mattered.

His mark was a huge statement about his career and Adelaide’s 2009 ambition.

Adelaide kicked another eight goals from that moment in the third quarter, won the game, went to fifth, earned their home final next week and injected fear into the current top four.

Was this better than Tony Antrobus’s mark? Maybe.
Tony’s was one-on-one; Brett used the pack.

Is higher better? Is one-on-one better? Who cares? Comparisons are odious. Let’s have the lot.

If Adelaide happen to win the cup this year, Brett Burton will surely retire. After a mark like that, and a flag, there would be nothing of any value left for him to achieve.

Comments

  1. Nostalgia is a wonderful thing.
    You’re not the only one who ever saw Robran play. In his era, Bagshaw and Cornes, among others, were clearly more consistent spectacular marks than Robran (though I agree that he had them covered everywhere else). And Antrobus must have shrunk several centimetres when he came to Essendon as he was never anywhere near 6ft when he got here!!

  2. The Angry Ant was about 5’9″. You are right Budge. The leisurely pace and small grounds made the SANFL a good place for high grabs…didn’t Kenny Whelan take them weekly? My fave (and memory is so selective) was of Carman jumping clear over a leaping Cornes in front of the Bay Stand and landing clean on his feet. Irrelevant what really happened, I guess, as my mental vision is thrilling enough.
    Burton’s grab was good. He is a ripper. I liked Mitch Clarke’s last week also, at the time thinking it the better grab of the round. Whatever!
    Channel Ten, not averse to hyperbole, were piss-taking with the “Mark of the Century” call, recognising how it is only in its infancy.
    Good fodder in impressionable Adelaide no doubt.

  3. Peter Richards says:

    I can still remember Graham Cornes’ mark in the dying moments of the 1973 SANFL Grand Final. Not the highest or most brilliant but considering the occasion it’s hard to beat.

  4. Agreed. That one still lives on in my mind. It was about 100 degrees in the old that day too. Craig Marriott put up a speculative snap from the pocket and Cornes did the rest. He looked physically ill going back to take his kick.

  5. I’ve seen a clip of Cornes’s mark. It’s almost the highest I’ve seen any footballer leap.

    The best bit is that it was taken in the dying seconds with less than a goal in the game. Then he kicked the goal to seal the result.

    That is the performance of a great footballer. I’m spewing we couldn’t see him in Victoria until he was past it.

  6. Crio will confirm that the GF mark was an average leap by Cornes’ standards around that time. But it was easily his most important given they were 5 points down at the time.

  7. hi john i was just reading this article from 2009 about Tony Antrobus` great mark, he`s a good mate of mine , i believe the mark was at adelaide ovel & taken over the big central district ruckman, there was a utube video of it some time ago, not sure if it is still avail. the ant is only about 174cm but could climb anyone, we played together in the u18`s at ingle farm when barrie robran snapped him up from us, he used to take the hangers every game, a delight to watch him in action. cheers

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