The Loneliest Footballers

By Phil Dimitriadis

After chatting with Andrew Gigacz about football tragedies and the 2010 Footy Almanac  cover, the 2008 Footy Almanac engaged my attention in a way it hadn’t done before. Jim Pavlidis’ perceptive painting captured the loneliness of Matthew Richardson the footballer. The crowd is a blur, there are no teammates or fanfare and the twilight shades of blue reflect the dying light in Richo’s career. He is looking down at the grass, but the greener pastures are disappearing into the limbic red.

The image got me thinking about players who have had long and distinguished careers without premiership success. I thought of how unjust it seemed that Jarryd Blair could play in a premiership side after a dozen games, while Nathan Buckley won six Best and Fairests, a Brownlow and a Norm Smith medal, yet failed to wear a premiership medallion. I thought of Bob Skilton and the footy books I read as a kid where he would be often quoted as saying that he’d “happily trade his three Brownlow’s for one premiership medal”.

The topic resonated with me more deeply as a Collingwood fan that grew up idolising a number of these lonely footballers. Des Tuddenham, Peter McKenna, Len Thompson and later Bill Picken, Rene Kink and Peter Moore stood out as players from my club who I thought deserved to play in one flag winning side.

I have chosen two players from each club that would fit in the mould of the loneliest footballer. The qualifications would be that they played wonderful football for a number of years, won individual awards, but did not play in a premiership side. Teams like Collingwood, St.Kilda, Western Bulldogs, South Melbourne, Fitzroy, Richmond and Geelong are riddled with many as they have endured longer droughts.

 

Adelaide: Chris McDermott and Brett Burton. McDermott led the fledgling crows with courage and skill while the Birdman spread his wings just after the 97-98 flags.

Brisbane: Richard Champion and Jarred Malloy were stalwarts for the Bears/Lions and stood out in some poor sides. Malloy was particularly unlucky as he crossed to Collingwood in 2001 and played in the 2002 loss against the Lions who went on to get a hat trick of flags.

Carlton: The Blues haven’t had many droughts, but Brendan Fevolawas the only glimmer of hope during a number of lean seasons in the 2000s. Despite Fev’s off-field shenanigans he was a fine player. His hopes aren’t high in the current Brisbane side. Vin Cattogio played many games, including finals from 1973 to 1981 without a flag. We still remember the hair and the flair though.

Collingwood: I could list an entire team, but Nathan Buckley and Len Thompson have 11 Copelands, two Brownlows , a Norm Smith  and almost 600 games between them without a premiership. Two of Collingwood’s greatest players are also the loneliest.

Essendon: Derek Kickett may not have been as decorated as others, but the way he missed out on the 1993 Flag was cruel. Greg Anderson was another whose timing was terrible. He missed out in ’93 after crossing to the Crows and was not rated high enough to play in the 1997-98 teams.

Fitzroy: Kevin Murray and Bernie Quinlan are still Fitzroy to the bone. Bernie won a Brownlow as a key forward…a miracle in itself. Kevin Murray was the oldest winner until Buckley triumphed in 2003. These two will always be legends to diehard Fitzroy fans. Quinlan should’ve at least played in a Grand Final in 1983 when the Roys had a fine team.

Fremantle: Matthew Pavlich and Paul Haselby are arguably the unluckiest Dockers. Pavlich still has a chance, but the years are catching up. Hasleby was probably the Haze’s most consistent midfielder for a decade.

Geelong: Gary Ablett Snr and John Newman. Snr almost single-handedly got the Cats home in ’89 in what I rate as the best individual effort in a losing Grand Final. Sammy played 303 games and missed the ’67 Grand Final due to injury. In ’63 he was too young. At least he’s gotten mileage out of his media career, but I wonder if he would exchange all the fame for a slice of team glory?

Hawthorn: This was the toughest team to find lonely players in the modern era. Nick Holland and Richie Vandenberg stand out as two players from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s who were stiff to miss out.

Melbourne: A team with many contenders. Robert Flower was the most skilful footballer I saw as a child. His courage and ability on either side of the body was brilliant in an era when the Dees would regularly win the Spoon. Jim Stynes’ endurance still amazes us to this day. I hope he experiences a Melbourne premiership as its President.

North Melbourne: It is a shame that fans did not get to see the Krakouer brothers play in a Grand Final let alone a premiership team. They were sandwiched between two of North’s greatest eras. They were very unfortunate in that respect.

Port Adelaide: Haven’t been around long, but Matthew Primus and Nick Stevens qualify as two of its better players who were denied the ultimate prize due to injury and poor timing.

Richmond: Richo and Matthew Knights carried the Tigers for a number of years without a Grand Final appearance to show for it. How good would it have been for many footy fans to see Richo star in a winning Grand Final? Alas, it was never meant to be, but Richo will always be a football poet in the memories of many.

St.Kilda: Robert Harvey and Tony Lockett are arguably two of the biggest names in St.Kilda’s history. Brownlow’s and Coleman medals appease Saints fans to a degree, but seeing a premiership with these two distinct champions in the same side would have ensured decades of happy memories.

South Melbourne/Sydney: Bobby Skilton played in one final; a ten goal defeat at the hands of St.Kilda in 1970. He won nine Best and Fairest awards to go with his three Brownlow medals. Skilton is one of the loneliest of the lonely. Barry Round was the skipper when the massive move was made to Sydney in 1982. He won the Brownlow the year before. It was fitting that Skilton and Round were prominent after the Swans’ drought-breaking win in 2005.

Western Bulldogs/Footscray: Chris Grant was robbed of a chance to play in a premiership and win the Brownlow medal in 1997. An innocuous tripping charge and a blind goal umpire (according to Gigs) robbed Grant of the chance to be the legend at the Whitten Oval. Gary Dempsey is another who crossed to North Melbourne in 1979 to play in a premiership. North had been in six consecutive Grand Finals (draw included) until Dempsey came along. He was in the right place at the wrong time.

West Coast: Steve Malaxos was my Phys-Ed teacher at Northcote High in 1985. He missed out on Hawthorn’s late ‘80s glory and was Captain of West Coast in 1990. When the Eagles won it in 1992 he was not there. Loss of form at the wrong times costMalaxos. Michael Gardiner has come agonisingly close for both the Eagles and the Saints. He may a have a slim chance at getting redemption next year.

A while ago on SEN radio a question was asked to listeners: Would you rather a have played 50 games and be a premiership player or play 300 and win all the individual awards without experiencing the ultimate footy prize? It was a clever question and many of the callers were divided. Some preferred the Shane Ellen model; to happily fade into obscurity with a premiership, while others talked about the opportunities outside football that a decorated individual career could provide.  I wonder how fellow Knackers feel about the question. How big a role does luck and fate play in determining the outcome?

About Phillip Dimitriadis

Carer/Teacher/Writer. Author of Fandemic: Travels in Footy Mythology. World view influenced by Johnny Cash, Krishnamurti, Larry David, Toni Morrison and Billy Picken.

Comments

  1. Loved this piece, Phil (and not just because you mentioned me in it).

    Tony Modra did his knee in the ’97 Prelim and was then left out of the ’98 Grand Final side. As heartbreaking as that PF loss for a Doggies supporter, I did feel for Modra at the time.

    Of course Johnno now joins the ranks of loneliest footballers too.

    Nick Riewoldt could be a future inductee, although I hope not.

  2. Andrew Fithall says:

    Excellent list Phil. I don’t have anything to add, except a warning: Writing ” I hope he experiences a Melbourne premiership as its President.” is more than sufficient to have you excommunicated from the FP Society.

  3. Terrific piece Phil.

    And listing “two from each club” certainly raises the bar.

    I certainly agree with Kevin Murray and Superboot, but would have Garry Wilson in there by a whisker ahead of Bernie. (At least Murray and Quinlan have the individual recognition of a Brownlow.)

    Quite true regarding Robbie Flower. A wonderful player who had to seemingly do it on his own so often.

    That is all
    Arma

  4. Dave Nadel says:

    Like Phil there are a boatload of Pie players I could name. Peter McKenna in 1970 and Billy Picken 1977-1981 come to mind particularly. Amongst the non-Woodsmen the two saddest cases would have to be Carl Ditterich – suspended from St Kilda’s only successful Grand Final appearance and Neville Crowe – suspended (almost certainly wrongly) from Richmond’s 1967 winning Grand Final. The Tigers won four more in the next thirteen years but that didn’t help Crowe – he had retired. The 1967 Grand Final was supposed to be his final match.

  5. Ian Syson says:

    Jack Clancy making the 19 for Fitzroy but not getting a run and never getting selected again?

  6. #5. Ian, Jack was clearly Clancy of the Overflow.

  7. Hawthorn – Roy Simmonds – Almost 200 games, finishes career months before Hawks win their first flag in ’61

    Footscray – George Bissett – 10 years marvellous service to club, no finals appearances, takes advantage of short lived 10 year rule, crosses to Collingwood who go 19-3 in ’73 before elimination in straight sets

    Sth Melb – Peter Bedford – One final (70) – 5 B&F’s moves with SM moves to Carlton in ’77 Swans pinch spot in finals with a win in Rd22, replace Carlton.Won VFA flag in ’66 when PM beat Waverley

  8. Craig Lambert (219 games for Richmond and Brisbane) – the Lions waited until he retired before they decided to win premierships.

  9. That same thought about Blair-flair crossed my mind when i watched him go up to receive his GF medal. I instantly thought of Tarks having not been picked for the side. Oh well, Tarks seems to be a busy man these days anyway ;) and Blair looks like he’s just going to get better!

    Danni

  10. Any one get Peter (watch out for the flying runner’s up medal) Moore.

  11. Pamela Sherpa says:

    You could put players like Phil Carman into an unlucky ‘if only ” category as well.

  12. Richard Jones says:

    #7 Mic: I remember Roy Simmonds. Tough bugger.
    Do you recall 2 other Hawks from the lean years — Kevin Curran and Col Austen ??

    From my own club at CatterLand I reckon just about the stiffest would be Buddha Hocking. Gave it everything he had.
    On a lesser scale Mark Bairstow, but he played a stinker on Peter Matera in a 90s grannie.

  13. Richard #12

    Too young to have seen Roy Simmonds play but a mate of mine who followed the Hawks during the bleak years of the late 40’s to mid 50’s was a huge wrap for him, mentioned on many occasions how unfortunate he was to miss ’61. Member of Tony Charltons footy panel (?)

    I think one of Kevin Currans lads played down at PM in the early 80’s

    Geelong – The Nankervis brothers were a bit unlucky not to have at least got to a GF in 80/81

  14. David Downer says:

    Great piece Phil.

    As I wandered blubbering from the ‘G half-way through the last quarter on October 2nd, my thoughts turned to such disappointing ponderings.

    With a typically biased Saints-centric response, to Harvey and Lockett I will add …Loewe, Burke, Winmar, Frawley, Hudghton, Colling, Cunningham, Ditterich, Bill Mohr, Neil Roberts, Wels Eicke (1909-1926 career, played in losing GF to Fitzroy 1913).

    Special mention for Trevor Barker, who never even played in a final.

    Of those with fading chances to extricate themselves from this list …Lenny Hayes – no current player is more deserving of a flag.

  15. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Thanks for the great responses everybody. There are more than a few ‘lonelies’out there. David # Trevor Barker came to mind last night…not one final. That boy had the rare blend of courage, skill, flair and loyalty.

    In regards to the final question, I would rather be Shane Ellen than Nathan Buckley in a football sense. Premierships are so rare and fame and fortune can be fleeting and fickle.

  16. Great list Phil. One problem though. Sam Newman played 300 games, not 303.

  17. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    You know Sam, the only time I went to Kardinia Park was in 1980…Sam’s 300th game. I know he didn’t play finals that year, but I thought he’d squeezed a couple of more in. Apologies for the oversight.

  18. Stephen Cooke says:

    I’d rather be Brad Pearce (77 games for Carlton, including 52 goals in 1995 and four goals in the winning GF) or Shane Ellen than Robert Harvey or Nathan Buckley (legends of the game). You could not replicate the feeling when the siren went, or that lap around the ground with your teammates. I have no doubt Harvey and Buckley would rather trade it all in to be a “premiership player” rather than a “legend of the game”.

  19. Peter Flynn says:

    #16 and #17:

    I suspect that the same downward adjustment made to Keith Greig’s game total was made to John Noel William Newman’s game total.

    Keith Greig played his 300th and last game against Footscray in a 1985 semi-final. However league records were changed to exclude state games played on the same day of a VFL round. Keith Greig now sits on 294.

  20. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Thanks Peter,excellent point!

    I got my info from a book by Alf Brown and Greg Hobbs titled: The Top 240. This was published in 1982. On page 68 it states that Sam played 303 games for Geelong.

  21. Peter Flynn says:

    Cheers Phil,

    I didn’t doubt your 303 game total because I remember him retiring on that number.

  22. Damo Balassone says:

    Fantastic piece Phil.

    I think Rene Kink takes the cake. 5 unsuccessful GFs for Collingwood between 77-81, then he crosses to Essendon and plays in the losing ’83 Grand Final (which at the time was the biggest losing margin in history, eclipsing ’80). He then misses Essendon’s flags in 1984-85, although by then injuries and age had caught up with him.

    You’ve got to feel for the Incredible Hulk!

    PS The Chris Grant suspension in ’97 was for striking. He got Nick Holland a beauty, though I agree it would have been nice to see him still win the Brownlow.

  23. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Cheers Damo,

    agree with Rene Kink. I watched every one of those Grand Finals and I have to say that he was the type of player most likely to play in 6 unsuccessful GFs. He played some great minor finals, but struggled on the biggest stage. Still, 6 without a flag is very stiff.

  24. Peter Flynn says:

    Last century, there was a period where I would play tennis in Collingwood.

    Often, Rene Kink would be playing on the adjacent court.

    He was an extremely talented tennis player. Massive first serve and a volcanic temper to boot.

  25. Steve Healy says:

    James McDonald should be mentioned too, he played 251 games over 14 seasons and didn’t play in the 2000 Grand Final and for practically his whole career was never awknowledged by other clubs. Adem Yze is another one, but you’re right, there are many contenders for the Dees. Great article.

  26. I always thought Josh Francou for Port was incredibly unlucky; great player who missed most of 2003-04 through injury.

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