Almanac Opinion: Modern Footy Versus The Olden Days




My two ‘millennial’ daughters will occasionally accuse me of being a grumpy old fossil.

I’ve been involved in footy since I was five years old and it puts me in a unique position to provide an insight into how much the game has changed.

There’s been a plethora of developments and evolution within the game, especially over the last 30 years, some of which have been ground-breaking whilst others I’ve struggled with personally. These are some of the pluses and minuses that have been top of mind recently:

Mud -If you played in Victoria, or regional centres in NSW in particular, it was inevitable that mud would be a part of your winter weekend. To play in mud required a different skill set and it opened up advantages for slower, stockier types with a lower centre of gravity. St Kilda would notoriously put the sprinklers on before a home game at Moorabbin, providing dream conditions for hard inside midfielders such as Cunningham and Burns to relish. Take a glance at this game from the early 80s, full of champions. The AFL wouldn’t allow it today.



Personally, I enjoyed playing in these games in the old VFA. They were a war of attrition and, basically, you had no choice. Virtually all the grounds had cricket pitches and some, like Dandenong’s Shepley Oval, North Port or Preston’s Cramer St, had 50m squares resembling a paddock of chocolate ice cream. The mud was no good for speedsters but ideal for slow, chunky frames. It was the great equaliser. Only problem was, once the weather improved and the mud dried, it was like concrete when you got tackled and often had sharp bits that could pierce the skin.

Man-buns and headbands – I just can’t have them. The players who indulge, spend half the game re-tying them or picking their hair accessories off the ground. Get a haircut and focus on the game. (Bruce Doull excepted of course!)

Socks up and jumper tucked in – I’m a traditionalist. A wise man once said, “If you can’t play, at least look like a footballer”. Well done Horne-Francis for keeping the dream alive, but I see the rest of the AFL players are now wearing cut down socks. Not good enough.

Zoning – This used be called ‘loose’ in the olden days. What started with Rodney Eade’s flooding has transformed into athletes, not footballers, doing yo-yo sprints up and down the ground for two hours. Individual players last for 5 or 6 minutes, then are replaced with more high intensity runners clogging defences.

Conditioning – I have the utmost respect for the athleticism of today’s players, however does that mean that they are better footballers than the champions of the past? The only difference is the conditioning. Vastly different eras.

Players like Craig Bradley ran half marathons at pace every week but the majority of the players didn’t need to train like today’s players because the game didn’t require them to sprint up and down the ground manically sticking to a structure. Today’s conditioning is very specific and is managed much of the time with the GPS in the neck of the player’s jumpers or the ‘manziers’ they wear at training. Olden days training comprised much more distance in the running and not a lot of science. Remember Robert Walls’s infamous 100 x 100s at Carlton and Fitzroy?

Recovery – In the olden days, ice baths were where the beer was kept. A Monday night recovery was a 5km run and some stretching. Today, recovery is just as important as the conditioning, and rightly so. No wonder we were constantly sore during the week in the olden days!

Interchange – There were only two on the bench in the olden days and you only got replaced if you were injured or played poorly. AFL legends Leigh Matthews and Kevin Bartlett have been crying out for years to have the number of interchanges decreased significantly. The game is looking more like basketball so that, by fatiguing the players, the game essentially starts to open up and becomes a true test of fitness and the player’s will. It may well mean we see more ‘one on one’ contests and it might just help with the number of soft tissue injuries being sustained these days.

Handballing – This is a skill that, on the whole, has improved exponentially, simply because today’s players find themselves in so much congestion so often that they train it extremely well. The quickness of hands and reflexes can be breathtaking in the modern game.

Line specific training – Virtually non-existent in my time playing, it has become very much the norm for today’s players, as it should be. In the past, it was everyone doing the same drill no matter where you played, and the duration of training, including punishments, could stretch out to long nights. Coaching today is much more advanced, targeted, better organised and efficient.

Over the Top Celebrations – Since when did kicking your first goal become a hysterical hoopla? I must have missed that meeting. I would urge every player of today to watch some vision of Ablett, Dunstall and Lockett after they kicked any of their multitude of goals. Completely devoid of emotion, walking back to the goal square and waiting for the next inside 50. Does that make them any less a team mate or disinterested? No! It’s called humility.

‘Tappety Tap’ – What is it about this generation of footballers whereby they constantly need the affirmation of a hand tap or high 5? My youngest daughter who plays footy in Geelong tells me it’s all about connection. I don’t get it. I see players running 40m to touch the hand of a team mate who has dropped a mark. Save your energy and yell at him or her to concentrate and get the next one, for goodness sake. And by the way, don’t pick opposition players up off the ground! It’s all too touchy-feely for mine. Here’s what you can do:

After match function – Instead of disappearing after a game, share a meal and a drink with your team mates, supporters and the opposition after the game. That’s connection.

Player absences – If you’re getting paid a CEO’s salary, there’s a level of commitment required that doesn’t include attending family weddings. Births, deaths, illnesses etc for sure, but if I heard that a team mate was missing in action because he was a groomsman, I’d be grumpier than usual.

The Big One on One Contests – Carey v Jakovich, Knights v Picken, Dipierdomenico v Hawkins and so many more, worth the price of admission. They were all mouth-watering in anticipation but I doubt whether we will see the likes of them again.

Tagging – What a surprise to see Harley Reid stopped in his tracks by a tagger in Windhager? Who woulda thunk it? And, incredibly, the delicate defensive structures of St Kilda somehow weren’t affected! More tagging of gun players, please. It’s a lost art that is sadly neglected.

Goal kicking – Yes, I would imagine all the great forwards of the past would find it harder to mark the ball these days with the numbers behind the footy, but I’m positive they still wouldn’t miss the goals when they got their opportunity. Using fatigue as an excuse doesn’t cut it anymore.

The AFL – There is an inherent level of arrogance and complacency within the decision makers in the ivory tower. Two classic recent examples.

  1. The AFL’s Broadcast and Fixture Manager, Josh Bowler, has left the door open for the NRL to have every Thursday night game on TV, citing that giving games to lower AFL sides won’t attract any viewers. Extraordinarily naïve and insulting to those clubs.
  2. Despite the AFL’s initial uproar over concussion and subsequent litigious paranoia, The General Manager of Football, Laura Kane, calls ‘play on’ and ‘nothing to see here’ when Cameron of Geelong and Marshall of St Kilda clearly receive serious head knocks and won’t come off the ground despite being told by their respective club doctors. Of course they won’t come off the ground! Rarely would any AFL player volunteer to come off after a head knock. That’s the whole point! As Jason Dunstall and Gary Lyon said, a thumbs up from a player being assessed on the ground to a doctor is unacceptable. It must be treated like a blood rule. It beggars belief that the League can be so casual.

With approximately 8000 past players registered with the AFLPA, you only need a tiny percentage of them launching legal proceedings for conditions such as CTE and the paranoia soon becomes an expensive call to arms. Get serious AFL.

Despite some negatives, it’s still the best game in the world. It has a glorious past with so many great players who inspired us and pushed through adversity so the players of today can have their salaries and conditions.

I don’t know what these champions of the past got paid but it couldn’t have been much. I think Royce Hart signed with Richmond for a new suit! One can only imagine what these guys would have made today.

I’ll never get my head around the social media of today and the modern player’s willingness to ‘express themselves’. They earn their coin and I marvel at Bont and Nick Daicos just as I once marvelled at Blighty and Trevor Barker.

Provided we see more humility like Bont and the Daicos brothers display, the game is in good hands and grumpy old fossils like me will stay in their box! Go Saints!



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About Ian Wilson

Former army aircraft mechanic, sales manager, VFA footballer and coach. Now mental health worker and blogger. Lifelong St Kilda FC tragic and father to 2 x girls.


  1. RagingBull says

    I am part of the millennial generation but I read and watch a lot of old football. I can appreciate the differences and how it’s changed. The games are less spontaneous now, more precise and scientific. As for the mud, well these days they wouldn’t want their sponsors covered.

  2. Nailed it IW. “Tappety tap” is a bugbear of mine. Saw a first gamer drop an easy mark and fumble it over the line last week in a tight contest. Team mates run from everywhere to console him! HTFUP#*#
    On a more serious note I don’t much care for the modern game as a spectacle. As with war “mostly long periods of boredom punctuated by brief moments of sheer exhilaration/terror”.
    Watching 1980’s games (dry grounds only) like the Swan Districts/Collingwood (Vale Toddy) or the 89 GF I see all the long kicking, high marking and one on one contests we only now see from a 6/6/6 after a goal.
    I am the opposite of the “don’t change the rules” curmudgeons. I think you start with the essential features of the game (described above) and work back to how to achieve them with full time elite athletes, coached to the minute with game strategies copied from soccer, gridiron. hockey etc.
    You can’t halt progress or technology, but you can adapt rules to preserve the integrity of the game. It’s like legislators having to adapt laws to keep up with social media, technology and bitcoin etc.
    My favourite is that we should have 16 players on the ground not 18. Open up space and give opportunity for ball players over taggers. 16 modern athletes cover the same ground as 18 did 40 years ago. We can’t increase ground sizes – so let’s decrease player numbers. Reduces costs and overcomes the mediocrity that has come with 18/19/20 team comps.
    You know it makes sense.

  3. Thanks Bull and Pete. Not sure if you knew Pete but the VFA priorate 1989 was 16 a side no wings. I could definitely see that working with today’s AFL players. Also I forgot to add this:

    Reserves and Colts – There was a time in the VFL, VFA, SANFL and WAFL when you had three games played on the one day. When I was kid, our dad used to take my younger brother and I to Fremantle Oval by 11am for South Freo home games. We’d watch a bit of Colts, then check out the form of the young up and comers in the 2’s followed by the main game. This wasn’t passion, more an indoctrination. Now if I get to Marvel an hour before a game I get to watch the players warm up while a ground announcer screams like a banshee into a microphone and betting ads are flashed on the big screens. Its soulless and kid unfriendly.

  4. Malcolm Rulebook Ashwood says

    Ian many things I agree with you certainly don’t watch anywhere near as much footy as I used to
    I would add at AFL they all are multi million dollar corporations not footy clubs.
    It also used to be when it was your turn to compete physically it was expected not the outside and inside players of today escape clause
    Personally never seen anyone in any field so far out of there depth as Laura Kane
    Thanks Ian

  5. Rick Kane says

    Hey Ian, I’m with your daughters, you’re sounding like a grumpy old fossil! LOL

    We see so much more footy these days and are force fed stats until our eyes bleed compared to back in the day, which is guided by our fading foggy memory and rose-tinted glasses, that it is almost impossible to correlate between eras. For example, on goalkicking, in 2020 Mongrel Punt reviewed goal kicking from the 70s to 2010s and guess what. He found goal kicking has improved, from 53% hitting the target in the 70s to 59% in the 2010s.

    Oh, and I think you missed the biggest change and one that I reckon has improved out of this world. That is ridding the game of the brawls, king-hits and every other biff that blighted the 70s and 80s and into the 90s. Thank god that’s been mostly eradicated from the game. I hated it through my formative years but as you and I well know, that was one of the core ways the game was promoted. Emphasising toughness, but really endorsing brutality. And faced with manbuns and goals celebrations vs that aspect of the game, no contest.

    The aspect of the modern era I find unacceptable isn’t actually on the ground, it’s how fans and spectators are being corralled into an all or nothing contract, from the noise and fabricated fanfare at the ground that we are subjected to nonstop, to the amount of footy we are implicitly expected to consume. Lierally, from Thursday to Sunday night and then add in all the stoopid footy shows that think they’re witty (please), analytical (at a primary school level) and “important” (now, that’s funny). That’s my bugbear and yes, I’m sounding like a grumpy old fossil!


  6. Thanks Malcom yes inside and outside midfielders are specifically rotated in those roles during a game these days. You had no choice in the olden days. Agree that sadly Laura Kane needs to prioritise what’s important to the fans who pay their hard earned. I’m afraid she’s another corporate shill that the AFL produce, just a different gender.

    Rick the stats drive me nuts also. For everything stat raised during the week’s commentary on radio and TV, how much of it actually has any bearing on the next week? I’m saying NONE! Speculation after speculation. Just bring out a crystal ball and put scarves on their heads! Given my time in the VFA I can totally agree with you on the biff. So much happened behind the scenes and during play, I would never want to see that return. The players of today show plenty of courage without that rubbish. Just remove the buns and ribbons from their hair! Thankyou for joining me in my grumpy fossilising ways! I’ll let my kids know I have an ally! Cheers

  7. Plenty of good points there.
    Pull your bloody socks up and tuck your jumper in (unless it’s a lace up).
    You just can’t look like a proper footballer when you are wearing crew socks.

    I’ll add grubber kicks to the list.
    Case in point, deep into time-on in Eagles v Centrals in SANFL on weekend, Eagles player running into open goal goes with a grubber kick from 15m out and watches it bounce off to the right and through for a point. Eagles go down by 6 points. Put your boot through it son and drill it into the backstop, or even hit the goal umpire on chest if you have to! Annoyed the hell out of me and I don’t even like the Eagles!

  8. DBalassone says

    Some great insights Ian. You are 100% right about how handball has improved exponentially. The ability of players to handball their way out of trouble, under immense pressure, is a sight to behold. It can turn defence to attack in an instant.

    I’m always a bit wary of people saying the game was much better in the past, because when I was a kid in the 80s, I remember old timers saying how much better the game was in the 50s and 60s. Watching old replays at the time, I found this hard to fathom e.g. the greatest player of that era was said to be Ted Whitten, yet the only footage I saw of him was 1) kicking a mongrel punt from the boundary and 2) pushing an opponent’s head into the mud at the Western Oval.

    I’m with you on the man-bun. Horrific stuff. I could be mistaken, but there also seems to be a lot of short-arsed players running around with mullets of late.

  9. Ian Wilson says

    Spot on Greg. Players who suddenly channel Eddie Betts are a nightmare! Play the percentages!

    Thanks Damian. I’m not saying the old footy was better. However if those players had access to the conditioning and benefits of being a full time professional then it may have been different. The amount of modern players who still can’t kick on their non preferred is terrible. Think Greg Williams, Dean Kemp, the Jarmans. There are very few out of 800 current players who can replicate that. Cheers

  10. Rulebook says

    Greg A I was at the game as a neutral and it annoyed the hell out of me – drop punt grrrrr

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