Almanac Footy: The Best Fullback of All Time

The Best Fullback of All Time


It amazes me how short people’s vision is. And scary how much their opinions are formed by what people tell them to think.


Take Aussie Rules GOAT lists.


Well meaning footy nuts, with their own pages, stating Dusty Martin is the greatest player of all time because he’s won three Norms. Geez, Norms have only been around since, when was it, ’79?


Richmond built their entire 60s/70s dynasty around Royce Hart. I’m not saying Hart was better, I’m saying it’s worth a chat. They don’t even know who he is.


Scrawny, balding Bartlett won 5 flags. Was in the best players in, what, 4 of them? Not even a mention. And that’s just for Richmond.


Everyone tells you Archer was the most courageous player of all time because the media tell them to. He played with a broken hand? Francis Bourke played with a broken leg!


Mick Martyn had it figured. Don’t let appearances as a hard man fool you. I found him to be one of the smartest blokes I’ve ever spoken to. Passionate, thoughtful, incredibly honest. He thought for himself.


I asked him who the most courageous player he’d seen was – a layup for a few Archer and Carey stories. He said;


“I played alongside Libba in the North Under 19s for a year. Denis (Pagan) loved him. Absolutely adored him. It was his work ethic. There was a bloke who was short, couldn’t run, mark, jump or kick, yet to do what he has in AFL, as opposed to a bloke like Wayne Carey, who had the natural assets and ability. Put them up together, for me the role model is actually Libba. If he can have the record he has, I can point to any kid, any shape or size, any era, and say, “You can be a player like Libba was.” Arch and all the others were tough, but, for me, Libba was hands down the bravest player I ever saw. Purely because he would come off the ground –and this is without putting any mayonnaise on it –with a black eye, a broken nose, split cheekbone, his face had been punished. I haven’t seen a player week in-week out, go that hard while absorbing so much. Can’t run, can’t kick, 4ft-nothing, and yet his attack on the football, or the bloke with the footy, was second to nobody in the history of football.”


Put that in your pipe and smoke it! Honest!


Personally, I think there’s a level of courage you can achieve, but once there, are no better or worse than anybody else who is. McMahon, Archer, Bourke, Hunter, Libba, Johno Brown…


Don’t even get me started on the best team of all time!


Okay, do.


The most powerful, the most dominant I’ve seen in my time, was Brisbane ’01-’03. Champions on every line, the Fab 4 in the middle. But it could be argued Geelong ’07-’09-’11 held it together for longer. Or Hawthorn of the 80s, or Hawthorn of just gone. God, Hawthorn of the 80s!!


Hang on, though, surely nothing has yet beaten the Melbourne team of ’55-’60? I don’t care if they were before your time! Everyone says they were!


Oh, wait, Mr Everyone! How about the Collingwood side from 1927 to 1931? That’s four in a row!


Yes, Melbourne were knuckled out of five in a row in ’58, but Collingwood came second in ’25 and ’26, too.


Oh, for a time machine! To watch Haydn Burton Snr win his three Brownlows!


To be in the outer in 1930s, depression era Kardinia Park. To see the Wren money going into boots in the Victoria Park locker room! The smell of horse poo and barbies. It see and breath all of it! Every detail.


Best player of all time? Don’t get me started!


No, don’t!


I can tell you who the best I’ve seen is. And it’s not Carey. A monster, for sure. But how many GFs did he dominate? None. Hart smashed every one. It’s not Matthews, either. Sorry, a thug’s a thug.


On his day, Gary Snr. Easy. Over his career, Jr. In finals? Dusty.


The social media question that bugs me the most, by a km or two, is: Does Player X or Player Y deserve to be considered with Scarlett and SOS as the greatest fullback of all time?


SOS was not even the best full back at Carlton. Southby was, by a mile. Ask any of the actual players! They all say the same. Also his illegal holding and scragging drove everybody nuts. The only reason he was named ToC is because he was a pretty-boy, was still playing at the time, and the AFL needed a current player in the team for publicity. It caused huge controversy at the time. He was good, even a great, but the best? Pfft? That’s just sheep mentality.


As for comparing eras. Yes, SOS played in a time of great forwards, but if he played today, with all his cheating, he would have been totally umpired out of the game. It was in an era of the ump calling “You’re both wrestling.” I once saw him literally pull Billy Brownless’ jumper so much it went over Billy’s eyes. Play on!! (This actually worked for Tony Lockett,  as he figured out skinnier, faster players who could stand off and leap over him to spoil, like Mark Yeates, could simply be held down.)


Also, SOS’s inability to be a 3rd up against other players, or to attack like Rance would have worked against him.


Foot skills are so much better now. So is delivery to forwards. His era had a lot of bomb and hope, a backman’s delight.


The backs today are amazing. The way they work for each other is very much why there are no Locketts and Dunstalls any more. SOS never had to zone, then get back in times of danger. And Rance was the best of his time at that.


Yet the exact same point could be argued for why SOS was better.


Also there’s today’s flooding. Another big factor.


Don’t get me wrong. I’ve nothing against the man! Good luck to him! He was a ripper athlete, so who’s to say, if he played today, he wouldn’t have adapted? It’s the hype that builds up around someone because the media love them that annoys me. How it becomes fact. Even if it’s not.


Gary Lyon was a great leader, by all reports. A gun player, obviously. Could have been a champion, but played half his career injured. To do that, when his body was so wrecked, was tough. Not his fault, at all, but his body only gave him two or three epic seasons. Champions play at an elite standard for a decade. Now he’s in the media, bang; he was a champion!


Champion bloke, for sure! Mate, would love to have a beer with him! But being in the media doesn’t make you a better player.


Same with Lou Richards. Most of his actual peers didn’t rate him, not as a champion.


SOS was a great of his era. That’s as far as I’d go with him. Yet, all the internet page operators who never even saw him play are telling me he’s the GOAT, because the ToC says so.


Really, you probably can’t compare eras. None of these internet experts are even talking about Jack Regan or Verdun Howell. Not a clue who they are!


Instead, they fall back on stats as if stats mean jack shit.


But let’s go with that.


If stats matter, Jack Regan from Collingwood in the 30s was the best of all time – by the length of the oval! Look him up.


And if we don’t go with that…


All the double and triple Brownlow medal winners of his and later eras say he was the greatest ever. Not media/publicity focused panellists. Not the AFL with its backroom compromises and agendas. The players.


Verdun Howell represented Victoria in 9 of the 11 seasons he played! Won a Brownlow, a flag. And could be moved forward to kick goals just like SoS. One game, with a ripping wind, the great Yabby Jeans just left him down the one end all day. Full back when the ball was coming into the backline a lot, full forward with the wind.


Goldsmith won a Brownlow from fullback in the era of Whitten, Murray and Skilton were vying for votes! But, again, be careful. I know a bloke who kicked nine on him the same day Goldsmith got 3 votes to win it. Figure that one out!?


One of SOS’s All Aussie years, Zanotti from Fitzroy had a smaller goal tally kicked on him, despite being in a team that was flogged every week, and still managed to get the second most possessions in the league from fullback (behind Nicky Winmar – who only overtook him in finals).


But Zanotts wasn’t a poster boy, or at Carton. Ahh, my beloved Fitzroy.


Stats… Awards…


Is your head spinning?


All you can do is ask, how much better was a player than his peers? All you can do is ask the people who played against them, they know. Or look up quotes of those who did.


If that’s the case, Jack Regan and Southby.


For modern football, having seen both SOS and Rance lots, I’d say Rance, actually.


I’m not a fan, I prefer old school, tough full backs like Pert, or those that go for their marks, like Brian Lake. Lake was tough, as well as, with his marking, king of attack. His Norm Smith medal was testament to his whole career. Oh, I rate him!


I suspect Southby was the best of the living era because he never got goals kicked on him, EVER, in a time of great forwards, and he, along with David Dench, were miles ahead of their peers, in the way they attacked, going for their marks, not just punching, and playing today’s modern running game way back in the 70s!!


And, because every single backman I talked to for my book. And every forward, all 150+ of them, said he was. They would, surely, be the ones to know.


So what about Scarlett? Too right, he was one of the modern greats! Defensively tough, took grabs, best known for the way he attacked form fullback. Geelong got it, he would RUN! His most famous act was the toe-poke that led to a Premiership. But look where it happened. A full back in the middle of the ground! When the game was up for grabs! Sensational!


The only thing potentially working against him being GOAT of the living memory era is 1. Other FBs were as attacking as him too. And 2. almost his entire career Geelong were a powerhouse. We never got to see how good a fullback he was when the ball was coming in all day and he couldn’t peel off and attack as much knowing Tom Harley would cover for him.


In fact, Tom was the first great 3rd up player. Scarlett’s rep owes heaps to him. The team was designed to help his greatness!


Don’t get me wrong, I still rate him above SOS and Rance. Scarlett also had that bit of Lake fullback mongrel in him.


All time? GOAT? Personally, I’d go 1. Regan. 2. Southby. 3. Scarlett.


Really, though, I’m guessing. We all are. Just don’t talk to me about SoS as if it’s a given because he won a media award. Love your footy. Dig a bit deeper. Or change the question.


If ‘Who’s the best full back of all time?’ becomes ‘Who’s the best fullback I’ve seen?’ well, no matter what you say from then on, it’s INDISPUTABLE!


When it all boils down to it, though, I much prefer the question; Which fullback did you most enjoy watching, and why?


In that case, I’d go: 1. Lake – he went for his marks, he attacked! He was grumpy! He was underrated. Such a sweet reader of the play. He was easy for a fellow backman to barrack for.


  1. Zanotti – get it and GO! Have a beer and a smoke later, son! Have 20! Well earned!


  1. Jarrod Molloy – Far from the best, but I just loved the way, playing for lowly Fitzroy, he would crack the shits, tuck the ball under his arm and just run, crashing and bashing into and through everybody in his path until a tackle somewhere up the ground stuck, then give dirty looks to the umpire.




Jarrod went on to be a fine servant at Brisbane, then Collingwood, doing the same thing on the forward line.


But that’s another story…


Old Dog and the great Zanotti! Beers went down.


More from Matt Zurbo HERE



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  1. Shane Reid says

    This was fabulous Matt, as an old Royboy I share your thoughts that Zanotti is one of most underrated gems of his era. Kept Dunstall goalless a week (or two) after he kicked 17. I remember going to a game when Modra kicked his 100th against us at Princes Park. Zanotti said he was ok with that as long as we got the points (which we did). Zanotti signed my Lions footy at the Melbourne Zoo one day in the early 90s, still a treasured keepsake.

  2. I like it Matt. Never accepted S O S as the full back of the century.

    He was a mighty fine player, including as a full back, for example holding GOD goalless in the 1995 Grand Final. Silvagni was versatile, a damn fine pinch hitter, a wonderful player, but nowhere near fullback of the century .

    I consider Scarlett junior the best full back i’ve seen.I’m an old fella, but even Jack Regan predates me. My childhood during the early 1970’s saw some great full backs, which Geoff Southby the best. However after being thumped by Neil Balme in the 1973 Grand Final he seemed a tad more vulnerable,less dependable,the rest of his career. starting in 1971,Southby played in an era of outstanding full backs. Let’s name a few, also some of the opponents.

    David Dench, Kelvin Moore, John Scarlett, Harvey Merrigan, there were other handy types like Jeff Clifton. The great Richmond wingman Dick Clay finished up at full back,whilst there were types like Laurie Sandilands from Footscray who could /did, play full back, full forward.

    Sandilands was a handy full forward though this was a period of Doug Wade,Peter Hudson, Peter Mckenna, throw in Geoff Blethyn for another centurion. (A centurion i won’t include is Southby’s teammate Alex Jesaulenko) Michael Moncrieff was no slouch, nor were chaps like George Young and Ricky McLean. The 1970’s went into the 80’s with potent full forwards like Bernie Quinlan,and Michael Roach to test the key defender.

    GOAT. 1: M Scarlett 2:G Southby 3:? I need to think it through .


  3. Kevin Densley says

    Enjoyed this Matt, for its knowledge of the game and the detail you employ – and its recognition of Matty Scarlett’s excellence! (Small correction … “depression era Kardinia Park”? Geelong’s home ground was Corio Oval from 1878 until 1940.)

  4. Yep it’s all subjective – and good fun – as you say Matt. My active memory of footy goes back to the mid 60’s and I’d have Southby #1. Bob Hammond the best South Australian full back.
    Best player – Barrie Robran – for his sheer versatility and artistry. Could play everywhere from ruck to rover; full back to full forward. Matthews the best AFL/VFL for his consistency, versatility and how team mates walked taller around him.
    A few years ago JTH introduced me to Raymond Jones who was a Geelong boy who played for Collingwood as a half back after WW2 then settled here in Perth as an architect and played for South Fremantle in a flag.
    He talked about going to the MCG for Grand Finals as a kid in the early 30’s and sitting inside the boundary line. He is now 95 and when I first met him I asked who the greatest player he’d seen was. Without hesitation he said Albert “Leeta” Collier who was CHB in the Collingwood Machine. No amount of goading and questioning could shift him.
    I thought “old bloke living in the past” and when we met again a few years after I asked the same question. Same answer with even more certainty. He cited Jack Dyer to back up his opinion.
    “Albert Collier was one hell of a player and one hell of a man. The toughest footballer to walk the face of this earth. Albert was a GOD, a God amongst men, the most outstanding young player the game has ever seen. He won a brownlow as a teenager and mastered every facet of the game. A beautiful high mark, a thumping kick and a fine mover around the field. He was a thumping backman, a fierce competitor , a colossus as a team player and the first protector to stalk the field. I repected him more then any other player in history. Once he praised me, and that was the ultimate in my football career. I will cherish that for ever” (Jack Dyer)
    At least we can be sure who the greatest Centre Half Back was.

  5. I really enjoy your passion here, Old Dog. And love how you slip in Fitzroy references – and why not, I say!?

    It is all subjective. And comparing eras is impossible, because not only are they different eras, they are vastly different games. When I see replays of 80’s matches now, it is like watching a different sport.

  6. Old dog loved this best fullback I’ve seen is definitely line ball between,Southby and Scarlett with Dench in the equation and agree with,PB Bob Hammond superstar also.Likewise Barrie Robran is the best player I’ve seen always said,Fabulous Phil is the only player I consider the equal of Barrie re pure ability alas white line fever ruined that

  7. Geez, every comment a ripper! Thanks all.

  8. Kevin, good call on Kardina Park. I knew, yet totally forgot that!! Doh.

  9. Kevin Densley says

    Great, knowledgeable piece anyway, Matt! Corio Oval and Geelong’s earliest home ground, Argyle Square, were reasonably fresh in my mind because I’d written Footy Almanac pieces on them earlier this year.

  10. I agree with you re SOS. He was Mickey Gayfer in long sleeves. Very good player, but surely there were better fullbacks. I think the ’95 GF was still fresh in peoples minds when the team of the century was announced and thus he got the gong. I will say he was a bloody great footballer though – any bloke that can go forward and kick ten goals, can play.

    I’m always amazed that Chris Langford is forgotten in these discussions – the great full forwards of that era, rated him as their toughest opponent.

  11. Matt
    When Rance was starring at full back for Richmond, the wise pundits nominated him as the most important player in the Tigers lineup. When he did his knee, they scrubbed Richmond from Premiership calculations. Two years on? Yeah…exactly!
    What I’m saying is that Rance, brilliant as he was, was part of an equally brilliant system. So good is it that two years and two Flags on, Rance’s absence is barely noticed. I’m not saying there weren’t defensive systems and structures in previous eras, but the value of individual players was surely greater back then. Whatever the case, it surely highlights how difficult it is to make judgements about players from those different eras.

  12. Agree with the range of comments, selections and observations and MZ, what a ripper of an essay.

    Im going to answer your question: Which fullback did you most enjoy watching, and why? I loved Mal Michael at Brisbane. He epitomised footy: tough, hard at the ball, real footy smarts and knew his role as part of a team.

    Then there are others, like Gary Malarkey, great East Perth player when the game was more man on man (Zanotti, a great Subi player, was like that as well). Joe Lawson from Swan Districts, Harry Sherlock who is in East Perth’s Team of the Century, playing at full-back and Brian Sarre, a Subi star of the 60s who took Doug wade down a peg or two when WA played the Big V in 63 and he made the All Australian team in 66.

  13. Matt Zurbo says

    Ha, good to see Malarkey get a nod!

    I hear you Stainless. And agree, re the individual vs the system. The past vs now. But their system was built around him and how he played. Fortunately Grimes came of age just as Rance bowed out. That is a very hand swap!! So, yeah, bit of both, really.

  14. Bernard Whimpress says

    Take out any one-armed spoilers – can’t be bothered watching much of the modern game for that reason. Pity Rulebook beat me to it nominating anyone outside Victoria. Like him I’d have gone for Bob Hammond. Also agree with his nomination of Robran and Carman as 1,2 and I mean anywhere. In 1993 I was attending a sports history conference in Launceston and on my lastt afternoon I dropped into a pub in the centre of town run by former Footscray and Richmond centreman David Thorpe. In a long discussion we got around to nominating best players and when I put up Robran he said he was ‘the third best player I’ve ever seen’. My reply was ‘that’s not bad coming from a Victorian’. My logical question then was who was numbers 1 and 2. As mainly a Bulldog it’s not surprising he went for Ted Whitten but when he nominated Leigh Matthews at number 2 I think I spoke for all of SA when I said ‘That bastard cut Robran’s career in half’ so with you in your judgment Matt.

  15. Jamie (Igor) says

    Let’s keep it Fitzroy for a bit Matt. I’m old enough to remember the sun setting on Harvey Merrigan and a brief season or two of Terry O’Neil before the Pert explosion.
    Put simply his knee injury is all that prevents a bust of Pert sitting proudly among the Pantheon of Full Back’s greatest.
    The only full back I’ve ever seen regularly outmark full forwards (be it one on one or in a pack).
    I sometimes wonder what Simon Hawking might have been had he not been cruelled by the same fate. He had the unenviable trifecta of Ablett-Dunstall-Lockett in short succession one year and only had 4 goals combined kicked on him
    Would love to meet Zanotti. I worked briefly with Stephen Wearne.who had a season at The Bears when Zanotti was there and he insists he had a cache of football stories like no other. He wouldn’t share any insisting they had to come from the man himself.
    Great read. Evocative.

  16. Great piece Matt. While we all acknowledge the difficulty of coming up with our version of the greatest in whatever field it doesn’t stop us.

    The SOS v Southby point of course reminds me of the, ‘Ringo wasn’t the best drummer in the world… Let’s face it, he wasn’t even the best drummer in The Beatles’ comment made by Lennon or McCartney or whomever.

  17. Old Dog, setting aside the full back GOAT chat, I just want to say how brilliant it is to see Jarrod Molloy get a mention – as much as he dominated my Roy supporting (and namesake!) life for a period in the 1990s, it is rare that you see his name in print these days. An incredibly solid player who could easily have had a longer career had fate smiled more sweetly in his direction.

  18. John Butler says

    Late to this one Matt, but it’s a great argument starter, and any time is good for a good argument.

    As a Bluebagger, I feel the need to respond to a couple of calumnies committed above against the great SOS.

    “Mickey Gayfer in long sleeves” – my arse! Take your black and white googles off, D Balasonne! To misquote CLR James, what do they know of football, if all they know is Collingwood? I would agree with him, however, re Langford. I’d rate him ahead of Scarlett.

    As for SOS being no good at 3rd man up? I watched him in the flesh for years. Most frequent game scenario was him left one out against his opponent of the day, with little chance of support. Not a lot of opportunity for 3rd man up there. You adapt to what is required. Or perish.

    But the best general defender I ever expect to see was that balding, bearded Nureyev otherwise known as Bruce Doull.

    Thanks for this Matt. Very enjoyable.

  19. Onya John! Haha, let rip! Yeah, more than one player from more than one club told me Doull was the best defender of all time. I’d give my eye-tooth to see him v Hart

    Jarrod stoked to make you happy. Here’s hoping the great man himself read it!

  20. matt watson says

    There were three great fullbacks when I was growing up – Dench, Southby and Moore.
    Moore seems to have been forgotten as years past, but he was extremely effective.
    Of those three, I always rated Dench the best (biased perhaps).
    The best fullback I’ve seen since is Matthew Scarlett. Attacking and skilled. His game in the 2007 GF should’ve been a Norm Smith performance.

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