From the time kids start to play footy, the best player is always chosen for the centre. So by definition, if you play centre you’re a gun. To choose the standouts from all those stars over the years is impossible, so here goes with some who have made an impression on me, and what breed of dog they might be.
My best-in-show goes to Barrie Robran, who bounded across Prospect Oval like a princely sure-footed Afghan Hound. As a teenager I loved Barrie for his boyish good looks, his modesty, his fairness, skill and determination, and his respect for the game and the North Adelaide Football Club. It goes without saying that along with a generation of Roosters supporters, l Iove him still.
Not far behind in my heart is a player you had to see to believe, Paul Bagshaw. Thank goodness I was born in South Australia to see so much of Baggy in action for Sturt at picturesque Unley Oval. I use the word action loosely, for it often seemed that the double-blue number 8 was moving in slo-mo as players hurtled haplessly around him. My favourite Baggy moment was when the hotshot opposing centreman gathered the ball and propped, ready to feint around him, but Baggy just reached out and took the ball from his hands. He might have seemed slightly goofy like the glorious Golden Retriever, but what skills, and also hardness from working on the family orchard at McLaren Flat.
I have too much respect for him not to mention Russell Ebert, even though he played for Port Adelaide. Four Magarey Medals indicates all round skill and strength, with a strong character, and I can still picture Russ bent over the ball, hunting it with the work ethic of the glossy-coated black-and-white Border Collie. Talking of Magarey Medals, the State Library of South Australia has not one but two Magareys in its collection, generously donated by their community minded families—the 1929 medal won by Bob Snell of West Adelaide, and the 1932 medal won by Max Pontifex of West Torrens, seen here being presented at Adelaide Oval. You can see Max Pontifex’s Magarey Medal on display in the Mortlock Wing, worth a visit as having been voted one of the ten most beautiful libraries in the world. You may also be interested to know that the Commonwealth Government has a Cultural Gifts Scheme, whereby valuable donations to cultural institutions may attract taxation benefits.
The standout centreman according to all good judges was Ian Stewart, who won a Brownlow and a Premiership at St Kilda and at Richmond, along with many other accolades. He was small and light but tough and well balanced, something like a Whippet, which is a hardy dog despite its delicate appearance. I know this because I used to have a Whippet called Jack, as well as over the years a Collie called Pride, a Sealyham Terrier called Rose, a Smooth Fox Terrier called Chelsea, and two Cairn Terriers, Pippin and Archie.
Another legendary centreman, Essendon’s Jack Clarke wrote the chapter on ‘The man in the centre’ in High mark edited by Jack Pollard 2nd edition (Sydney: Murray Publishing Company, 1967) and I’m condensing his words here:
‘Centre players can be divided into the stay-at-homes and the fellows who like to roam, and into those with an attacking or a defensive style. The ideal centreman has to have the brains and the initiative to do a bit of both, to adapt his game to the conditions around him and the tactics of his opponent. I try to tailor my game to the needs of each particular day, and because what is a don’t against one player is often a must against another. To take a simple example, it’s stupid to stay at home against a player who’s taller and heavier than you. Overall, a centreman has to be a shrewd tactician. He should size up as quickly as possible the weaknesses in the whole opposing line-up, as well as his immediate opponent. Because a centreman is no more than a kick away from the play at any time, you need to stay relaxed but be ready to explode at any time.’
Relaxed but ready to explode would describe Garry McIntosh, the everyman footballer whose recent bio-pic in The Footy Almanac attracted record comments. Macca was like the feisty but lovable Cairn Terrier, which likes nothing better than getting in-and-under tackling rats, swimming after ducks, or climbing up on piles of rocks to chase lizards. Macca won two Magarey Medals in 1994 and 1995, but in the early days his bite was sometimes worse than his bark, and he missed out on the 1987 Magarey Medal through suspension to another brilliant centreman, North Adelaide’s Andrew Jarman, an outgoing Spaniel whose bark was usually worse than his bite.
Three different styles of centremen. West Torrens triple Magarey Medallist Lindsay Head floated around the ground like a Papillon dog, while Richmond’s bustling Billy Barrot was all teeth and bounce like an exuberant Boxer. Almost the complete opposite in style to both was Dean Kemp, who didn’t attract attention to himself, like the barkless Basenji, but played a vital role in the smooth cog that was West Coast’s premiership team in its glory days, and was named centre in its 10 and 20 year celebratory teams.
Another smart blondster moved from Port Adelaide to Carlton. Craig Bradley was a ball magnet with terrific disposal, who ran all day and was the complete professional. Braddles’ curly locks and upbeat temperament remind me of that most delightful of dogs the Bichon Frise, a small but heroic bundle of fluff which outperformed the larger more spectacular breeds on the last day of judging at the Royal Adelaide Show in 1985. It is admittedly a funny sight when the best of the seven groups— the Toys, Terriers, Gundogs, Hounds, Working, Utility and Non-Sporting—are lined up and the judge has the difficult job to pick the one that best embodies its breed.
Where Craig Bradley was fair and sunny, Greg Williams was dark and intense, and to opposition supporters, a bit of a mongrel. Actually more like the handsome Staffordshire Bull Terrier, which according to my Illustrated guide to dogs by Joan Palmer (Sydney: Lansdowne Press, 1981) is a ‘surprisingly gentle dog beneath a somewhat fearsome exterior’ but one which ‘can’t resist a fight with another dog if given the chance’. The Carlton team of the century had Diesel at centre and Bradley on a wing, which is fair enough.
Even for good judges it can be difficult these days to tell who is playing at centre. Rather, there is a nebulous mid-field with someone nominally listed at centre, so I’m going to talk about a trio of players who have at some time played in the middle. They are a good bunch as they shared the 2003 Brownlow Medal—Nathan Buckley, Adam Goodes and Mark Ricciuto.
On principle I didn’t like Nathan Buckley when he was at Port Adelaide and liked him even less when he went via Brisbane to Collingwood. Seeing as he didn’t change his black-and-white spots, he has to be a Dalmatian, which is an intelligent dog with an equable temperament. When Bucks started coaching, and I couldn’t help but see him interviewed, I realised what a smart likeable person he actually is, and my opinion of him further improved when I discovered that he has a black Pug. So many blokes seem to choose macho breeds, I am impressed that Nathan has a small dog, much better suited to suburban life.
Adam Goodes grew up in Adelaide playing soccer (if more indigenous kids stayed with soccer our national team would be world-beaters) but was impassable and indomitable throughout his long and illustrious career at Sydney. He had great stamina like the Australian Kelpie, famous for running along the backs of sheep to reach the head of the flock.
Mark Riccuito grew up in Waikerie, and I recently visited his old footy ground with my other half who is also a Riverland boy. The ground slopes down to the mighty River Murray, and on a windy day at the quarter time breaks in the old days, the kids would take the punt over the other side of the river to collect the footies that had been kicked out of the ground! The Roo was flat out like a Blue Heeler, and didn’t mind nipping at a few heels in his younger days, so it was heartwarming to see him win that Brownlow, the first for the Adelaide Crows.
Another sometime centreman who I am including in this piece because I want to talk about him sooner rather than later, is everybody’s favourite player du jour, the charismatic Marcus Bontempelli. The Bont’s Italian heritage and flowing brown locks bring to mind an Italian Spinone. My dog book says that the Italian Spinone has a pleasing appearance, is affectionate, loyal, hardy and easy to train, but needs plenty of vigorous exercise. It nailed that one! Talking of the Western Bulldogs, no footballer would be able to run if he was built like the Bulldog, a sadly over-engineered breed, but a terrific symbol of community grit. The diminutive Scott West was a wonderful and beloved centreman for the Doggies over many years, a mix of two charming terriers, the Scottie and the Westie.
The recently retired Chris Judd was brilliant on both sides of the country, although to begin with I hardly noticed him, like the silver ghost the Weimaraner, but the more I watched him, particularly at Carlton, the more I appreciated his finesse and thoughtfulness.
Geelong seems to have had the pick of the litter over the years with their outstanding centres and midfielders. What more can you say about Geelong and Gold Coast’s Gary Ablett? Everyone loves him and that’s before you start talking about him as a footballer. What unbelievable style and grace and pure skill. Gaz is like the Smooth Fox Terrier, which will go all day if there is a tennis ball in the offing, and is also a fun companion after the game. Where Ablett fils is smooth, Joel Selwood looks like a bushy-browed Miniature Schnauzer but plays like the Standard Schnauzer, an impressive big boy indeed. My dog book says that the Miniature Schnauzer doesn’t require a great deal of space, and Sel always seems to be at the bottom of a pack.
A career centreman is Greater Western Sydney’s Dylan Shiel, whose Hollywood good looks belie his understated demeanour on the ground, like the team-oriented Beagle. I look forward to watching him next year. The All Australian centre this year was Josh Kennedy, who has an impeccable football pedigree through his father and his grandfather, but through Hawthorn rather than the Sydney Swans! In my last doggy analogy, Josh is built like a powerful black Labrador, renowned for knowing its way around as a guide dog, and an asset to any situation.
With all these different personalities and physical characteristics at play, you wonder who would be top dog in this pack of footballing centremen! It’s a fun exercise to think who you would like to have at centre and what sort of dog they would be in the team you would want to watch in an off-lead heaven.