Almanac Book Extract – Cazaly: Reappraising the Legend

Cazaly: The Legend is the first biography to examine the life and times of champion footballer Roy Cazaly. In this extract from his new book, Allen recalls what Cazaly’s contemporaries said of his prowess, reveals the process of selecting the inaugural Australian Football Hall of Fame inductees in 1996 and discusses the challenges of identifying and ranking great players from across different eras.


Almost since Australian Football’s very formation, spectators and commentators have debated, compared and argued over its greatest players.


Many players from Cazaly’s era ranked him among the best to have played the game. A number who played alongside or against him considered him the best all-rounder or follower they had seen, including Laurie Nash, former South Melbourne coach Artie Wood, Richmond defender Vic Thorp, Geelong rover Alex Eason and Collingwood champion Syd Coventry. Others, such as Coventry’s brother Gordon, bracketed him with Fred Fleiter and Mark Tandy in the best ruck combination they had seen.


Sporting journalists of Cazaly’s time were lavish in their praise. In 1923 The Argus’ Reg Wilmot included him in a list of the best ruckmen from the previous four decades. Seven years later, The Sporting Globe’s Wallace ‘Jumbo’ Sharland described Cazaly as the best all-round player since Essendon champion Albert Thurgood, who had last played in 1906. Sharland had “not the slightest doubt” Cazaly would have won the Brownlow Medal at least once had it existed earlier in his career. In the same year, The Referee’s Harold Prider described Cazaly as probably “the greatest utility player in the game’s history”.


In 1942 experienced football writer Hec de Lacy set out to rank the best players he’d seen during the previous two decades. He first listed a number of qualifications:


“He must be a match winner. He must be able to turn the cause that seems lost. He must be dynamic—able to take advantage of every break coming his way in the game. He must be a stubborn fighter in the face of relentless opposition. He must have all the gifts—be able to mark and kick well, dispose of the ball accurately, have a good football head and afford a measure of protection for his teammates.”


Using this criteria de Lacy assessed the merits of a number of players before rating Cazaly number one, ahead of dual Brownlow medallist Ivor Warne-Smith, Laurie Nash and Syd Coventry.


In 1958, football historian Cec Mullen took a longer view, including Cazaly in his list of the 13 best players in the first hundred years of the game. Mullen had been born in 1895 and followed the game his entire life, so his judgment can be said to carry weight.


The modern era saw renewed interest in the game’s greatest players, with further attempts to compare and rank them. One of the first to do so was sports journalist and author Jim Main, who in 1977 compiled his own list of the best hundred footballers of all time. Main approached his task chronologically, starting with St Kilda’s Vic Cumberland and concluding with Essendon’s 1976 Brownlow medallist Graham Moss. He placed Cazaly at number four, between Dick Lee and Ivor Warne-Smith.


In 1981, the Herald and Weekly Times published a list of 240 VFL greats. The Herald’s chief football writer Mike Sheahan and The Sporting Globe’s Greg Hobbs reviewed the game’s various eras, named its great players and selected the best ever from each of the VFL teams. Cazaly was included in an article contributed by The Herald’s former chief football writer Alf Brown and he was chosen as one of South Melbourne’s best ever 20 players.


Cazaly was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame (SAHOF) in 1987. Athlete membership is limited to those who have achieved the highest honours in their sport and embody its values of courage, sportsmanship, integrity, mateship, persistence and excellence. To date, Cazaly is one of only 21 Australian Footballers among the SAHOF membership, alongside such greats as Ron Barassi, Kevin Bartlett, Peter Hudson, Leigh Matthews, Laurie Nash and Bob Skilton.


But Cazaly’s highest sporting recognition was yet to come. As the centenary of the VFL/AFL in 1996 approached, the League’s Chief Executive Officer Ross Oakley decided to establish an Australian Football Hall of Fame to recognise those who had made a significant contribution to the game since its inception. Oakley’s vision was inspired by a visit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Established in 1939, it has grown to become a national institution and the template for many other sporting halls of fame around the world.


Oakley adopted the rigour of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s approach to honouring their greatest players but departed from its model in two key respects. First, rather than establish a cumbersome series of selection panels, he appointed a single committee to consider candidates for the Australian Football Hall of Fame. In establishing the committee, he sought out people with a passion for the game and an understanding of its history across various eras.


Oakley’s second departure from the Baseball Hall of Fame model was to ensure that eligibility criteria for the Australian Football Hall of Fame was not overly prescriptive. The number of games played, coached or umpired were important but candidates were also assessed on the basis of their ability, integrity, sportsmanship and character. This latitude allowed committee members to consider an individual’s excellence and overall impact on the game—broader criteria more likely to stimulate useful discussion than a simple, black and white review of their career statistics.


The selection committee met several times from mid-1995 to decide who to recommend for the initial Hall of Fame intake. Those on the committee recall it being an intensive and exhaustive process. Nominations were made by clubs, leagues and committee members themselves. Clarifying information was sought on particular candidates when required and their suitability further discussed. Shortlists were drafted, compared, debated and rewritten. To help ensure a consensus, each nominee required the support of three-quarters of committee members in order to be endorsed.


The committee eventually recommended 136 Hall of Fame inductees, of whom 12 were selected as inaugural Legends. To be eligible for Legend status, players must have made a significant and permanent contribution to the game. In choosing the inaugural Legends one committee member revealed that E J ‘Ted’ Whitten was the only automatic selection agreed to at their first meeting, a decision hastened by the fact that Whitten was very ill at the time. Another recalled that John Nicholls was not on the original shortlist but was added after another candidate was withdrawn. When attention turned to Cazaly, some on the committee were familiar with his career while others initially knew little beyond Mike Brady’s song. One member later said there was no doubt the song helped but added that Cazaly had an impressive record and there was no question about his standing. His inclusion was unanimous.


The 12 inaugural Legends selected by the committee were Ron Barassi, Haydn Bunton snr, Roy Cazaly, John Coleman, Jack Dyer, Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer, Leigh Matthews, John Nicholls, Bob Pratt, Dick Reynolds, Bob Skilton and Ted Whitten.


The selection committee’s broad criteria and the fact their decisions are made behind closed doors has led to occasional public debate about the judging process and the merits of various candidates. It has also caused controversy, most notably when Collingwood president Eddie McGuire and many fans campaigned to have Lou Richards elevated to Legend status during the lead up to the 2009 Hall of Fame inductions.


Eventually, Ross Oakley went public to defend the Hall of Fame criteria and the integrity of its selection process:


“The title of Legend was established very clearly for on-field performance. It was reserved for the very best in the game, those who had a tremendous impact on the game on-field, and changed the game in some way for all time. If you look at the Legends nominated, they all fit that category.”


Other recognition followed. In 1999, a dozen of the Herald Sun’s football writers marked the impeding millennium by ranking their top 200 footballers of the 20th century. Of the first 50 players selected, only Haydn Bunton, Dick Reynolds, Gordon Coventry, Bob Pratt, Laurie Nash, Ivor Warne-Smith, Jack Dyer and Allan Hopkins played before World War II. Roy Cazaly was named at number 56, ahead of such modern greats as Tim Watson, Gary Dempsey, Stephen Silvagni, James Hird, Gerard Healy and Paul Kelly. Among his contemporaries, Cazaly was listed ahead of Albert and Harry Collier, Syd Coventry, Dick Lee, Dave McNamara, Carji Greeves, Horrie Clover, Colin Watson and Vic Cumberland.


In 2008, football journalist Mike Sheahan took on an even more ambitious task: selecting and ranking the best 50 players from the game’s first 150 years. He considered many factors when compiling his list but his “guiding principle” for inclusion was that a player had to have consistently influenced the game over a long period. Sheahan candidly admitted his task was next to impossible and “reckless at best”. He knew his selections would prove contentious as they were based on the subjective analysis of just one judge. He also acknowledged the difficulty of assessing those who played before he was born.


As Sheahan predicted, his selections sparked controversy. Much of it related to his ranking of individuals from the game’s modern era but there was also a side debate concerning the lack of representation from the period Sheahan’s Herald Sun colleague Trevor Grant called the ‘Dark Ages’ of Australian Football. Grant noted that Sheahan’s list included only nine players from the pre-World War II era and just four who played before 1930: Dick Lee, Gordon and Syd Coventry and Albert Collier. Essendon’s Albert Thurgood, probably the greatest player from the game’s formative years, was left out, as were Peter Burns, Horrie Clover, Vic Cumberland and Cazaly, who Grant described as an “unlucky omission”.


In recent years, the criteria for selecting “best players” has been broadened and redefined to better acknowledge the contribution of players from different cultural backgrounds. A Greek Team of the Century was announced in 2004, an Indigenous Team of the Century in 2005 and a VFL/AFL Italian Team of the Century in 2007.


In July 2013 the AFL named a Multicultural Team of Champions, the “best 22 VFL/AFL multicultural players” since 1896. In order to be considered, a player or at least one of his parents had to have been born overseas. Although this was probably not the intent, this criteria favoured players from the game’s earliest years and from Australia’s post-war era – the two periods when players or their parents were most likely to have been born overseas. From a squad of 50 nominees, Ukrainian-born Alex Jesaulenko was chosen as captain, Jock McHale (of Irish parentage) was named coach and Cazaly secured a “double guernsey” selection in the ruck, on the basis that his father James was English and his mother Elizabeth was born in Scotland.


In 2013, the Australian Football website invited Jim Main to review and update his 1977 list of football’s greatest players, taking account of those who had emerged in the three and a half decades since he had compiled it. After careful consideration, Main ‘delisted’ and replaced 20 players from his original hundred, but retained Cazaly.


The quandary faced by Main, Sheahan and various Hall of Fame selection committees in assessing those they never saw play underscores both the difficulty of compiling such lists and the contrasting approaches taken. For historians such as Main, a close study of football history leads them to conclude that the enduring contribution of certain players will always guarantee them a place among the game’s greats. Main included Cazaly in his 1977 list on that basis and retained him when he later revised it.


Many journalists and administrators take a different approach. The fact that most of them grew up during the television era has resulted in a preference for players from the modern era when selecting teams of the century and similar representative squads. Football writer and historian Adam Cardosi argues that this inbuilt bias has skewed the Australian Football Hall of Fame selection process:


“With very few exceptions, the achievements and relative merits of the men of the pre-TV era are not canvassed, and their case for inclusion almost never made. That is because popular debate about footy history tends to be confined to living memory, which now stretches back no further than the war years. As such, it is widely assumed that because no one alive today saw the ‘old-timers’ play, can watch them on video, or can otherwise assess their contribution visually or by first-hand account, they are beyond assessment and therefore cannot be considered.”


As a result, says Cardosi:


“If we take the HOF at face value, footy legends only started to appear in number from the 1930s, and reached a high point in the 1960s and 1970s … Thus, according to the HOF’s reckoning, the first 65 years of the game is worth one legend, while the next 65 years is worth 24 legends.”


Another difficulty in comparing early players with their modern counterparts is the absence of detailed statistics from the game’s formative years. While goals and, later, behinds were recorded from football’s early days, it was not until the 1930s that newspapers began publishing the total kicks, marks, handballs and free kicks from each game. Detailed individual player statistics came even later and were not regularly recorded until the mid-1960s.


The advent of Harry Beitzel’s Footy Week magazine in 1965 ushered in a statistics revolution. For the first time, supporters could now read and analyse their favourite player’s match statistics in detail each week. According to Carlton premiership player and latter-day statistics guru Ted Hopkins, it was the first time kicks, marks, handballs, scores, free kicks and tackles were available for every player, every round.


Hopkins, who founded the sports statistics company Champion Data in 1995, acknowledges the difficulty of assessing footballers from the distant past. But while noting the dearth of early statistics, he cites other criteria which can help identify great players from any era, including superb athleticism, fitness and conditioning; a pursuit of excellence in training and skills development; career longevity; and consistent performance at the highest level. For Hopkins, these are enduring yardsticks, which can be used to separate the approach of the professionally minded player from the “casual amateurism” of the rest. His benchmarks call to mind Cazaly’s own description of that internal “dynamic drive to succeed”, which he believed set great players apart from their peers.


Commentators, historians, statisticians and fans will continue to review, debate and rank Australian Football’s best players. If we accept the premise that the stamp of greatness can be identified regardless of playing era then Roy Cazaly’s continuing place among the game’s champions seems assured.

About Robert Allen

Robert is a football history tragic who lives in Brisbane with his three children and a ginger cat named Thomas O'Malley. He recently completed a biography of Roy Cazaly, in which he endeavoured to avoid what Gideon Haigh has called the two facets of most Australian sports biographies: cut-and-paste and tongue-in-bum.


  1. Rocket Singers says

    Thanks Robert for this thoughtful piece and your book on Roy Cazaly. Well done!

    Too much emphasis in the modern game on “longevity”, not enough on “impact”.

    There is no doubt that Cazaly had impact.

    The Swans ToC is poorer with his absence; far too many contemporary players.

    I don’t think the selectors knew just how good Cazaly was…
    they do know if they read your book!

  2. bring back the torp says

    Thank you Robert for your magnificent biography. It is a fantastic story about the game’s rich history. Your contribution to our history/culture is superb, and your work will resonate strongly forever.

    Sadly, the AFL has little LASTING interest in promoting the history of the game -& celebrating it widely.
    The AFL claim that there was a “clash”of jumpers between Richmond vs. Adelaide was preposterous -white shorts & black shorts eliminate any possibility of confusion. Richmond was thus forced to replace its lovely traditional jumper with the canary-yellow monstrosity.

    It is very difficult to compare players from early eras to the present. Modern players have the benefit of being full time professionals, with multiple specialist coaches, superior grounds & facilities, better medical attention/ recovery etc. In the early eras, players had onerous jobs, often working 45+ hours pw, with limited training etc.

    Would you agree with the view that Yarra Park should be named Wills Park?
    Cazaly should have a statue there?
    And that a Heritage Round every year should publicise the contributions of at least 4 heroes (including non-Vic.players) from the early eras?

  3. Robert Allen says

    Thanks for your kind words Rocket Singers and bring back the torp. Writing the book certainly gave me a deeper appreciation of our game’s rich history and the great players – many unsung – who helped make it what is. I agree that Heritage Round is a great opportunity to showcase more of these great players – especially those who thrilled the crowds before the advent of television – as well as a chance to educate younger fans about how the game evolved, and not just in Victoria. As for a statue of Cazaly, I may be biased but I’d love to see one outside the ‘G!

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