Almanac Footy (Opinion): A Matter of Will



As a lifelong St Kilda supporter, there comes a time every year when despite an optimistic start to the season, it’s inevitable your balloon will eventually be popped.


At the end of this year, all eyes will go back to last week and the appalling effort versus Essendon. I hope I’m wrong, but history tells us that our team simply won’t cope with the scars of that defeat and we will be forced to endure another wasted year.


The most recent examples of this have been the China and Cairns experiments and, perhaps the worst game I’ve ever witnessed, the first Easter Friday game versus North Melbourne in 2018.


One of the most underrated qualities that AFL recruiters overlook is the capacity of a player’s will.


A footballer may be blessed with extraordinary athleticism and skills but I can honestly say that the players I’ve played with and coached over 40-odd years that I’ve respected the most, have possessed the strongest of wills.


The characteristics I’m referring to are:


Honesty and reliability;
Relentless pursuit of excellence;
An innate refusal to be beaten by an opponent;
An unconditional ‘team first’ attitude; and


Based on my own 59 years of observations, I have quickly put together a team based their collective wills. I understand there are plenty I’ve left out but I went for an instant snapshot of some of my favourites, including eight interchange.



Backs                    D. Frawley.  D. Dench.  F. Bourke

Half Backs           M. Tuck.   C. Mew.   B. Doull.

Centres                 R. Di Pierdomenico.   G.Williams   W. Schimmelbusch

Half Forwards     N. Daniher.   J. Brown.   N. Riewoldt

Forwards              W. Johnson.   J. Dunstall.   L. Matthews

Followers              J. Stynes  L. Hayes.   J. Selwood

Interchange         A. Stevens,  T. Shaw,  T. Liberatore, T. Boak, B. Round, P. Kelly, N. Burke, G.Wilson


Obviously, there are plenty of champions and legends here but I’ve stuck to the formula I’ve listed above. What separates these great players from other superstars is their focus.


Whether, for instance, they were being tagged or were the taggers, they couldn’t be distracted from the outcome they desired for their team.


Yes there are some big egos here, e.g. Dipper, Williams and Shaw but, if you asked their team mates, I’m sure they would say that running out alongside them was an absolute privilege.


There are many here who had little profile, in fact did everything to avoid it. Doull, Tuck, Mew and Dench had incredible careers and worked for a living. Tuck won seven premierships whilst working as a plumber! I have no doubt all these champions could play today.


Imagine playing a side like this?  For those too young to remember, Brownlow Medallist  Barry Round played 328 games for the Swans and then captain coached Williamstown to a VFA flag at age 41! Apparently he still swims in Port Phillip Bay every morning.


‘Libba’ was almost delisted from the Western Bulldogs, which was highlighted in the ‘Year of the Dog’ documentary, then trained with his twin brother Vinnie, a Greco Roman wrestler, and reinvented himself as a tenacious tagger for the team.


Anthony Stevens, Lenny Hayes and Paul Kelly could almost be separated at birth as far as their credentials go and what they contributed for North Melbourne, St Kilda and Sydney respectively. All of them left nothing on the ground each week.


Regardless of the free kick count awarded to Joel Selwood, he’s been my favourite player of the last fifteen years. His and Travis Boak’s courage and leadership can never be questioned.


Not many people know that Jason Dunstall wasn’t a high profile pick by Hawthorn when recruited in 1984. He was given no special treatment, had to work his backside off to achieve what he did, and was also very unselfish on his way to 1254 goals. A brutal competitor who hated losing.


Jason only had the one year with the GOAT Leigh Matthews playing in the same forward line, but could you imagine having Matthews and the wily, cunning ‘Dominator’ in the other pocket? Enough to have defenders trembling in anticipation.


As a team mate, it must have been highly satisfying to play alongside the Saint’s Nathan Burke and Fitzroy’s legend Garry Wilson. They would have been a coach’s dream. Both ‘heart and soul’ players through the good times and the bad.


Two of the game’s greatest ‘gut’ runners are in this team, Nick Riewoldt and Wayne Schimmelbusch. There is a famous photo at Arden Street of ‘Schimma’ being hugged by an ecstatic John Kennedy after some ‘Schimma’ heroics in the 1985 Elimination Final. There is script written underneath that simply states, ‘The Effort Required’. (see above)


Such was Nick Riewoldt’s running ability that I have seen opposition defenders come to a grinding halt trying to stay with him and, in fact, I remember once a Carlton defender Michael Jamieson, stopped to deposit a gutful of Gatorade onto Marvel Stadium after another fruitless chase.


Francis Bourke reminded me of the Black Knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. Even dismembered, he’d bite you to death! When you think of a Richmond spiritual leader, you think of Bourke and he’s probably bleeding!


The late Danny Frawley and Jim Stynes have both never been forgotten. Stynes’ durability and courage has been well documented and ‘Spud’s’ legacy at the Saints will always remain. Both great leaders and amazing fighters.


I guess when it comes to fighters, Neale Daniher is right up there. As a player he was graceful and brave but sadly his playing days were cut short with dodgy knees. Neale’s most important work has been post-career but he was a superstar footballer with his feet always firmly grounded.


Jonathan Brown played in three Brisbane premiership sides whilst still in his early 20s and in the most difficult position on the ground. Fearless, and a with massive tank. Can you just imagine a half-forward line like this as you come streaming through half-back?


I think as a coach or supporter you just want to see effort. You can take a loss anytime if your team has given it their best shot. It’s not what you get as a Saints supporter. There have been anomalies such as ’09/’10 but they’re rare.


Whatever you might think of this hypothetical team one thing’s for sure, you know what you’d get. Maximum effort, the will to win and absolute trust in each other.


When the Saints get these values and behaviours working consistently I, and many of my long suffering Saints family, can rest in peace. Go Saints!



You can read more from Ian Wilson Here.



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About Ian Wilson

Former army aircraft mechanic, sales manager, VFA footballer and coach. Now mental health worker, blogger and coach of Eastern Warriors Over 35s (new players always welcome!). Lifelong St Kilda FC tragic and father to 2 x girls.


  1. John Harms says

    This is a great idea for a side Ian.

    And many of the players you mention are among my favourites.

    I’d be interested to know from other readers players they feel fit this category.

  2. Another word that describes these qualities is “resilience”. The willingness to persist and adapt in the face of adversity. It is something I greatly admire in all walks of life including sport.
    In a twitter thread recently I nominated my 3 greatest footballers witnessed as Malcolm Blight, Barrie Robran and Bobby Gibson (West Torrens SANFL). The latter was my childhood hero in a period where Torrens were perennial cellar dwellers. You got the same effort from Bobby when the team was 10 goals behind (frequently) as 5 goals (rarely).
    So I’d exclude all the premiership players from your list. My first nominee would be Bob Skilton who copped plenty physically and never gave up. Flea Wilson qualifies in those terms along with Bernie Quinlan.
    I’m more interested in what breeds resilience rather than outstanding examples. I’m doubtful that it can be predicted for recruiting. What do you look for in an 18yo’s football or life experience? Good parents or dealing with divorce? On field success or being a star in a poor team? Wealth and private schools or diamonds in the rough? My life experience is that resilience is something that can be observed after and not predicted beforehand.
    Is resilience/will a team or individual characteristic? I see people as largely creatures of their environment. In the military some armies break and run like the Afghans; others are resilient like the Ukrainians. I’d cite Tim Kelly and Des Headland as examples of footballers who are great receivers more than ball winners and excelled with hard men around them. Fremantle initially had a long list of players who improved in stronger cultures – Bell, Abraham, Clement. Under Langmuir they have a strong collective will.
    I tend to look for players who perform well in losing games. Chris Judd’s solo effort in the 2005 GF was the only thing between the Eagles and a 6 goal loss. He nearly dragged us across the line when most were overwhelmed by the occasion.
    Thought provoking. Thanks Ian.

  3. Lovely insights Pete. There is no measurement for will or resilience that recruiters use and yes unless you’ve undergone a life of overcoming adversity then it can be difficult. Sometimes coming from a disadvantaged background and life (you know where I come from :)) isn’t a guarantee of resilience. It took 6 x years in the army to embed that and I still reckon I wasn’t prepared for the rigours of the 80’s VFA. There are exceptions to the rule regarding resilience and a privileged upbringing such as Jack Viney and Josh Kennedy. There’s been plenty of Bells and Headlands over the years haven’t there? I feel for the Flowers and Skiltons who toiled way relentlessly each week and never got to experience a premiership. Along with Judd’s effort, Lenny Hayes’s 2010 GF #1 was extraordinary. Both great team first players. Thanks again for your feedback Pete. Much appreciated.

  4. Thanks for this, Ian. Very interesting concept.
    But even as someone of a similar vintage to yourself (I am 56),
    I think you may have been a little unkind to some present-day players.

    Re Barry Round: he moved from Williamstown to the Gold Coast some years ago.
    However, I believe that he has not been in the best of health in recent times.

  5. I reckon that Tom Liberatore, although more skilled than his dad, possesses the same will.

  6. E.regnans says

    Players of will. I like your classification criteria, Ian.
    Like JTH, these are among my favourite players.
    I also like Peter_B’s idea of leaving out premiership winners.

    For an expanded squad on that extra criteria I might nominate: Nathan Buckley, Kade Simpson, James Clement, Paul Couch, Joel Bowden and Rupert Betheras.

  7. Peter Fuller says

    Great topic, Ian, thank you for it.
    I was struck by an anecdote about Michael Tuck. When he and a mate turned up for an early training session at Hawthorn, his mate was overawed. On the drive home, he wondered to Tucky “How will we ever survive (the cut from 60 odd players to the 40 something on the list, and the then 20 who would play in the seniors). Tucky vowed that he would be one of them.
    Tuck might overcome Peter B’s proper disqualifying criterion, as he demonstrated his will with a long career in the seconds before he began his stellar senior career.
    Chris Judd reprised his efforts from the 2005 Grand Final on many occasions when he carried sub-standard Carlton sides.
    Like you, Peter, Bob Skilton would be my first pick.
    Colin Hayes the racehorse trainer was also a searcher for this elusive quality in his prospects. He was quoted as saying that “you can’t compensate for what God didn’t put in (the will to win)”.

  8. Thanks for the feedback Gents. Smokie I was unaware that Barry was unwell and I should have known about his move to GC as he was on the Front Bar earlier this year. I love Tom L also. The other one that now comes to mind is M Voss. The idea of leaving out premiership players is valid. One of the first things Ray McClean from Leading Teams did when he was invited by Stan Alves to St Kilda was to have the players rank their team mates in order of respect. Interestingly most of the stars didn’t make the top 10. The number 1 was journeyman Rod Keogh a tough, hardworking utility.

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