Almanac (Thinking) Footy: The Greatest Footballer of All Time

Matt Zurbo and Elena and Cielo are visiting family in Venezuela:


The border is a circus of people trying to touch your elbow, shouting, spruiking, dust, strange foods. The Venezuelan economy has collapsed. The two cities either side of the river reflect it. Columbia’s is full of easy bars, places to eat. The other side has no money, or youth. All the young crossed the bridge a long time ago.


Despite meticulous planning, four flights, and rough sleeping, we don’t beat the day. It’s dark and not safe.


Checkpoint after checkpoint, we walk closer to the bridge. Everybody is trying to beat the shutdown for the night. Most don’t stand a chance. They mill in queues that go nowhere. Yet guard after guard sees our daughter’s beautiful eyes and let us cut to the front.


They glare, and make it clear: “Esto es para tu babe.” This is for your baby.


One last military official to go, he wants to talk. Most do, but can’t due to the human tide. I get the impression from the Venezuelans I met, that they aren’t hard people, it’s just that their country has been put in a very hard place. Many think the discovery of oil, rather than help, has led directly to where they are now. The man stamps our passports. We’re just a bridge away from the next leg – a ute ride up into the Andes, and a bed at one of Elena’s cousins for the night, before another full day of driving through the plains.


Such is the pull of family.


By now the foot traffic is all one way. People like us, returning to Venezuela. I relax enough to think of the Mongrel Punt. A friendly rival to the beloved Footy Almanac. A Facebook page done by people who think deep and love their footy.


Throughout 16 hour work days in FNQ, then the desert, down to work in the temperate rainforest of the Otway Ranges in Victoria, I followed their hugely popular Greatest Ever series.


Who was the greatest on-baller of all time?


The greatest small forward?


The best – full stop?


The backmen got me, of course. I drooled over the thought of Doull and Southby in the one team. Of comparing Bernie Smith and Gavin Wanganeen. McKenna v Hunter. Archer v Bourke. But Bernie wasn’t in the Mongrel’s running. Nor was Goldsmith. Nor was the man I would want to see above all others that I never got the chance to. The great Noel McMahen. Impossibly tough, a leader of men, a champion when Melbourne were, literally, not winning a game. The foundation around which they built the greatest team of all time, a champion when they were taking flags as if plucking pennies from Heaven. A man, having met him, of fierce pride.


My biggest fear was always going to be the actuality. Scarlett, SOS, other jibberish. Media opinion, based on popularity, based on media opinion.


Ask any of the players, forward or back, SOS was never the best. A champion, sure. But the greatest? Not even close. On the other hand, he was handsome, playing for a perpetually successful club, and the AFL needed a current, well-liked player in their ToC for marketing purposes.


Scarlett was a great of the game! Tough. Creative. But the generation he was in, and the team, were built for him. It was the age of the 3rd man up. Tom Harley was forever leaping over Scarlett’s opponent to punch. Chop-outs were everywhere, and power forwards had long gone the way of the dinosaur. He conquered no Locketts, no Colemans, no Pratt, Ablett or Titus.


What he did do, as good as any other key defender in history, is RUN! Win or lose, Geelong’s on-ballers could go for it, knowing their attack started from fullback!


But the team was so well organized he could afford to. Tom would slip back onto Scarlett’s man while Matty took off. And with all the talent down the ground, he could do so confidently, knowing it rarely bounced back.


And then there are people saying he pioneered the running defender game! For real? Apart from Dench in particular, in the 70s, a good 40 years before Scarlett, players as far back at the 40s were taking off. Not a lot, but there have always been bolters from the defensive half. South’s John Heriot, in the 60s, comes to mind.


Mark Zanotti did the same thing for half a dozen clubs in the 80s and 90s, but they weren’t successful, so the public didn’t care. Zanotts stopped his man, despite team floggings, got the most kicks in the league, more than all the on-ballers, from the last line of defence, and went for runs every time he got it, often resulting in 100 metre plays. “Fitzroy? So what.”


For several years his season smashed that of SOS, from a backline under far more pressure, but it was always SOS who got to wear the Big V. The poster boy.


Scarlett was a joy to watch, within a team that was a joy to watch – Attacking Geelong; quick hands and feet, up the guts. But being the latest media darling does not make you the best.


So who was?


Most players I talked to of many generations said the same thing. Southby.


Every goal kicked on me was like a stab in the back!”


But to be honest, as much as it was a highlight of my life to meet and talk to the man, I don’t agree with Southby as the Best Ever, either.


A lot from the generations before Southby say Teddy Whitten. But, interestingly, quite a few of his actual opponents disagree.


With the utmost respect to Geoff, and Scarlett and SOS, and especially Mongrel, it’s a bloody stupid question!


People are strange. It’s not enough to be good, or a great, or even a champion of your generation. You have to be the best ever. But how can anyone go past what they see? How can you look beyond what grabs your heart!? Footy, even the AFL, is still a thing of passion. People will always vote for the person who most empowered them, made them feel invincible. Someone who hit them in the faith button when they were young and impressionable. When they barracked more than analysed.


It’s the exact same thing with songs. The best generation of music ever is always the one when the listener was either in their teens, or a few years earlier. When life was free, and their love was pure, not yet filtered by taste, or distraction of bills, and responsibilities like family. Before the familiar, and their place at the top of its pile, altered into a new flavour for a new generation. A person’s choice, in music, and preferred era of football, is almost always simply a reflection of a time in their life.


Last summer. In the North Queensland cane fields, (or maybe it was working on the South Tassie coastal cliffs, I can’t remember.) I listened to a radio contest for the best ever album. Matchbox 20, or Blur, or someone I had barely heard of, good solid pop, nothing more, won over Led Zep, Stones, even my choices, Dirtbombs – Ultra glide In Black, and Eddy Current Suppression Ring – Self titled! All the contest proved was that the late 90s is that station’s age demographic.


The demographic in the world of Zurbo says Jimmy Jess was the best backman of! All! Time! I was 13. He was tough, had great balance, played well in good times and bad, and did 70 metre torps!


Second to him were Pike, Bourke, Zanotti, Roos, Lake. (Never was good at maths.) All of them unbeatable. All of them made me tougher, inspired me to play with desperation, without fear. They gave me an underdog to barrack for. A backman to take on the glamour boys.


It’s not just football. They all helped define who I became. Their victories on the field became victories for me. Thanks blokes! You helped me walk tall.

We make it across the border. There are no lines or flags or fireworks. Elena’s brother points to a simple sign. I give him a kiss on the head! Exciting times. I watch a small group of people lead by a man with a torch, trying to cross the other way via the river. We head for the ute, my grip on the baby remains tight. There’s still many hours to go.


Who was the best you’ve ever seen? Or: Which backman did you like the most?

Fair questions, that would provide great answers. Stories, even.

“Peter Foster. There was this one day out at Whitten Oval, the rain was coming in sideways, and Fozzie…”
If you voted for Archer over Kevin Murray or Bourke, I’m glad for your passion. Odds are, for you, the 90s were a brilliant time to be in love with football.




  1. Australian Rules – Barrie. Jezza thought so. Apologies to Haydn Bunton Snr, who must’ve been pretty good to win 3 Brownlows and 3 Sandovers.

  2. As a Melbourne fan, it’s a great pity to me Paul Prymke’s career was cut down by injury. He was a terrific key backman. (So was Anthony Ingerson.) It is also a pity we pushed Stef Martin out the door. While Martin has been a terrific ruckman (and follower) for Brisbane, I thought we should have turned him into a key defender.

  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Fine words Matt. Venezuela hey?

    Someone close to me was stalking my online presence when they came across some comments on another forum, where I had posted a link to an Almanac article where I had put forward the opinion that Russell Ebert was slightly ahead of Barrie Robran in the best I’ve ever seen stakes (not best ever, mind you)

    One bloke acted as if I’d just murdered his first born and seriously questioned my right to have a different view than him. As my stalker remarked, “it’s only an opinion”. Needless to say that I’m not going to give that forum the benefit of any of my musings again (I’m sure that they’ll survive).

    Upon reflection, longevity played a big part in my forming of this opinion. I’ve never subjected it to any further analysis, and I never will.

    Thanks again Matt, and best wishes to your extended family.

  4. I have always had the opinion,Barrie Robran gap the rest,Phil Carman could have challenged but alas white line fever stopped that,Matt I got kicked off the mongrel page for disputing re Nic Nat suspension last season.
    The mongrel said it was wrong didn’t like being encouraged to read the rule and listen re it’s interpretation,
    Michael Christian was correct.As Swish said it’s all opinion.Defender wise my greatest mystery is how,Kieran McGuinness isn’t a 200 afl game player he was a gun and I loved,David Dench.

  5. JASON TOPPIN says


  6. Is family the pull of memory? Or memory the pull of memory? The best families – footy ones and personal ones – are forgiving places for forgetting and remembering.
    Robran, Blight, the Krakouer combo stick in the memory as genius and grace.
    At a personal level Jeremy McGovern and Bobby Gibson (West Torrens 1959 – 1972). Kept their heads when all around were losing theirs.
    (Keep safe Matt and family. The CIA invade next week.)

  7. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    I love it Matt. In arguably one of the most dangerous (and beautiful) spots in the world thinking about great full backs.
    Gary Pert, in his Fitzroy days, took on and often beat the best full forwards of his era, Lockett, Dunstall, Ablett, Capper,Taylor, Beasley,Salmon while rebounding with searing runs and 60 metre roosts. Cheers and stay safe.

  8. As young Mr Grace would have said, “You’ve all done very well”. Lots of good choices there. Taking a slightly different direction, I’d like the chance to nominate some of the very best FOOTBRAWLERS. How about Carl Ditterich and Neil Balme from Victoria and Dave Granger (grave danger) and Neil Kerley from SA? Any other worthy nominations chaps?

  9. Singers Rocket says

    Good stuff Matt.

    Particularly liked your comments about Noel McMahen.
    Not sure if he told you when you met him him but he’s widely quoted as saying his proudest moment in football was coaching Rochester to their first-ever Bendigo league premiership in 1958 because it meant so much to the people in the town and district.

  10. I adored The Ghost as well. With Disco at the other end.
    The joy of that time (yep, my teens) carried me through all the Dark Tiger Years to come.
    I love Zanotti as well. Zurbs, check out ‘93: the greatest season that ever was’ – Fitzroy ep ?

  11. Thanks all!

    Swish, feel for you mate. A lot of agro morons with no lives out there. That is why I love the Almanac so much. It is a positive place, with people who simply love their footy. People will disagree on this and that, hand have a good whinge about some topic, but can’t be stuffed getting nasty. The Almanac is great!

  12. Peter B, don’t get me started!

    Phillip. Yeah, mate, I ran into Dermie while training in a park one day and asked him about my boyhood hero, Roos. He said Roos was so busy zoning he always felt a chance, but Pert was the next generation of backmen. Tough, mongrel, taller, stronger than those before, did not want you to get a single touch, left you black and blue and could mark and kick. A huge wrap.

  13. Singers, yes mate. It was a corker tale.

    I could see how he was such a good leader. He must have been near 90 and I wanted to follow him into battle. Never met a bloke with so much presence.

  14. Mark Duffett says

    I daresay that’s the first confirmed sighting of a Dodges Ferry guernsey in Venezuela. A wonderful sight. All the best to you and your extended family there.

  15. Great to sit with you again Old Dog – the voice in your pieces makes me feel like I’m pot-in-hand at the bar with you.

    I look forward to hearing more of your observations.

    All the best to you and yours.


  16. Fisho, Balme was the one of his generation they all feared. Cold, like an assassin.Or so the players all told me. Not hot headed. Jim Jess tells a story of his second game, when there was a blue, he felt someone grab his arm, and he turn and swung. He hit Big Carl on the jaw, and Carl didn’t budge. Just said “I’ll kill you.” Balme was jogging alongside. Hearing this he turned, uppercut Carl, dropping him, sunk his knees into Carl’s ribs, then simply jogged on.

    I am not a huge fan of thuggery in footy, but I like that story for some reason. Carl was always meant to be the toughest of the tough. Maybe I liked it because it was told by Jimmy Jess!!

  17. Earl O'Neill says

    Ultra Glide In Black is a great album, about time I gave it another spin. Good live band too.

  18. The best footballer of all time. Never to be resolved! Time, place, culture, and conditions all play their part. Its sort of like trying to come up with the best city in the world. Jerusalem? New York? Barcelona? Dingle Bay?!

    Trying to organise a visit to South America in the next year or two. Peru high on the list.

  19. I agree with you re SOS. Champion, yes, but the GOAT? No. He relied too much on the tactics of Micky Gayfer and was a very average kick (c’mon let’s be honest).

    I’m a big Scarlett fan, but there seems to be one name that has been totally forgotten in these discussions: Chris Langford. He was the best full back of that era 80s and 90s and Gary Ablett Senior confirmed this when asked. In terms of a stand-your-man full back he was the best and hardest to kick goals on.

    But mate, you’ll hate me for saying this, I reckon it’s easier to play behind the ball that in front of it. It’s easier to punch the ball than to mark it. That’s why I can’t go pass Carey, Ablett and Lethal.

  20. “The border is a circus of people trying to touch your elbow, shouting, spruiking, dust, strange foods.”
    Beautiful observation; beautiful opening.
    Magically you describe both the edge of Venezuela and whether or not to select Ronny McKeown.

    Always humans with their arbitrary borders, rankings, delineations.
    Always touching elbows, shouting, spruiking.
    Love it Old Dog.

  21. Great piece Old Dog.

    Isn’t it strange and wonderful that you’re in Venezuela and thinking about footy. A symbol of how happy and relaxed you are. I think there’s something in that. When we were in Singapore for three years I reckon I thought and read more about footy that at any other point in my life. Possibly I had more opportunity, but also I think being out of the country meant I missed it more and needed to be connected to it, to keep my bearings. Strengthen my sense of self.

    Enjoy your travels and your family. Looking forward to reading more.

  22. Colin Ritchie says

    My late dad, a fanatical Bulldogs supporter, always told me John Coleman was by far and away the best footballer he ever saw. For myself, I loved watching the magic of Michael Long and Leon Baker. Peter Hudson always seemed to kick a bag of goals against the Bombers, and so effortlessly! Billy Barrot bouncing out of the middle of the MCG and kicking long goals was memorable. Ian Stewart was probably the most skillful player I have seen. Always consistent and could be relied upon to fulfill the role expected of him.

  23. Thanks John!

    Balassone, yeah mate, I’d go Pert over Langford, just, from what I’ve seen and been told. Had what Langers did, but also that bit of dead-set mongrel. But I’m no Abltett, so maybe that’s just me barracking.

    Micky, I think it has more to do with the fact I have been working 16 hour days while trying to be a family man, so have hand no time to write about footy! I am totally gutted I never thought to bring one over, though!!!! What a rookie mistake!

    Colin, I drool at the thought of seeing Coleman! IF and it’s a BIG if, the only way to judge the best is how much better than their peers they were at the time, Coleman would have to be close!

  24. Great stuff Matt and what a time you and yours must be having.

    I do have to call you up on your Zanotti observation (wearing my WA hat). He did play for one successful club in Subi. They won the 1986 GF and he won the Simpson medal. He was good.

    As far as best first albums go it’d be hard to go past The Clash (1977). Hardly a dud on it and youthful anger driving the thing full throtle.

    Hodgey was our, I mean a pretty good backman.


  25. Top read and great photo. In terms of both backmen and the best player I’ve ever seen (in terms of seeing their real artistry in the flesh, which TV did not do justice) was Andrew McLeod. His ability to read the game in both directions was repeatedly astonishing. It was like he was playing the game 5 seconds ahead of everyone else.

    As for favourite backmen, mine wasn’t really great and wasn’t really a backman. Brett Zorzi played as a 6 foot nothing full back for Norwood in the mid ’00s in a mediocre team, regularly giving up 5 inches and 20kg to his direct opponent. Not surprisingly, he got beaten regularly but he gave every bit of himself at each contest, never shirking, always honest. A reminder that football must be about more than just winning because good people can do worthwhile things in defeat while dropkicks remain dropkicks in victory. Happily when the Redlegs got good again he moved into the midfield and was superb, winning a couple premierships and the Jack Oatey Medal in his last game for the club.

  26. Rick, I rate Norms over Brownlows. Hodge was the duck’s guts!

    Dave, you are a champion! No wonder we’re mates! Please, do a piece on Zorzi! Has to be done!!!!

  27. Great reading, this, Old Dog. And great food for thought.

    Have fun. Stay safe.

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