Five players that made AFL the game it is today

You can count on a number of things happening at the start of a footy season these days: Richmond beating Carlton, Brent Harvey playing again, concerns over free agency and complaints about how the game isn’t what it used to be.

When it comes to the latter, I’m of the opinion that just because footy is being played differently doesn’t necessarily mean it’s being played worse than it once was, and that the game rotates between attacking and defensive eras.

But if you can predict how the game will be played in the future, you can also understand why it’s being played how it is right now by revisiting the past.

Here are five players through whom the recent evolution of the AFL footballer can be measured.

Matthew Scarlett

Fate placed Stephen Silvagni – the 20th century’s greatest full back – in the era of the AFL’s greatest forwards – Gary Ablett, Tony Lockett and Jason Dunstall. It meant the great defender made a name for himself as a spoiler, a man who was regularly tasked with nullifying the influence of one player despite having the skill to cover the entire defensive 50 and set up plays from half back.

While this century’s greatest full back (so far) often had forwards on his plate – Matthew Lloyd and Fraser Gehrig chief among them – the game had by and large moved on from the power forward when Scarlett reached his prime. It meant in addition to stopping his direct opponent getting the ball, Scarlett could be Geelong’s quarterback, working up the field to launch attacking plays and rack up disposals.

It’s emblematic of Scarlett’s ambidexterity that despite all the forwards and goals he stopped in his triple-premiership career, he’s remembered first for an attacking play: his toe-poke in the centre of the ‘G in the 2009 Grand Final catalysed a piece of play resulting in Paul Chapman’s match-winning goal.

Today, you can see Scarlett’s influence in creative playmakers like Grant Birchall and Kade Simpson, and reliable last-line defenders like Alex Rance.

Scarlett’s partner in crime Harry Taylor also deserves a mention in the influential department: Taylor’s forays into the forward line as a marking target have been copied by present-day key defenders Ryan Schoenmakers, Cale Hooker and Ben Reid.

Dean Cox

The great ruckmen of the 20th century sowed the seeds for the development of the modern big man with superb athleticism (Len Thompson), innovative tap work (Graham Farmer) and knack for reading the play usually associated with midfielders (Roy Wright). But come the 2000s, it was Cox who demonstrated that having these skills as a ruckman was not exceptional but essential.

At 204 centimetres 106 kilos, Cox certainly had the body to outmuscle opponents at stoppages and direct the ball down to midfielders with aplomb. But few expected the same enormous body to be capable of such nimbleness and versatility (the video below a case in point). Modern ruck stars Todd Goldstein, Nic Nat, Ivan Maric and Aaron Sandilands all possess this agility, and are at their best when playing the jack of all trades around the ground that Cox was.

Anthony Koutifides

Kouta was the prototype for the modern footballer, particularly the one that today’s coaches and Brownlow medals select for. At 191cm and 100kg, he was much taller and powerfully built than most midfielders of his day – save for perhaps Michael Voss and Mark Ricciuto – and used it to bust out of packs, thump goals from beyond 50 and take heroic screamers over much taller players.

Swiss army knives like Koutifides kind have never been more adored, desired and demanded than they are right now, given the modern game has been steered into defence-focused football where midfielders take to every part of the ground. The brute strength, multitalent and penchant for the spectacular that Kouta brought to the game can be seen today in Patrick Dangerfield, Jack Ziebell, Josh P Kennedy, Jobe Watson, Dane Swan and the one to rule them all, Nat Fyfe.

Matthew Richardson

Richo was one of the best athletes on the field at the turn of the millennium, and along with Adam Goodes, he would create the mold for the modern forward: A great contested mark, a jack of all trades who can do just as much damage in the ruck or the midfield as in the forward 50 (and also, lamentably, a deplorable kick for goal).

Richo started out as a fresh-faced power forward in the 90’s that could take huge marks and kick a bag for his team, eventually finishing his career on the wing to give the next generation of forwards the space to develop. In this way, he was instructive to forwards like Nick Riewoldt and Lance Franklin in how to still be useful as a forward when you’re having a bad day/season in front of the big sticks. Moreover, the advent of big forwards like Jarryd Roughead and Jeremy Cameron using their marking skills and big bodies around the ground can be traced back to the Tigers legend.

Gavin Wanganeen

The modern game favours the opportunist and frequently underestimates the players with small bodies and electrifying pace. It makes small forwards crowd and coach favourites as they regularly kick freakish goals (Eddie Betts, Lindsay Thomas), surprise with the odd soaring mark (Thomas, Paul Puopolo, Cyril Rioli) and balance out their pure talent in front of goals with team-lifting performances in the midfield (Chad Wingard, Rioli).

Wanganeen did all of this across his career at Essendon and Port Adelaide, using his low centre of gravity to craft memorable passages of play and win the ball for his team in ways few others could. The indispensability of small forwards in the modern game has its roots in the indigenous superstar from Mt Gambier.

About Alex Darling

Melbourne-born, Horsham-based footy fan. Lover of the Saints, classic rock guitar and good writing on each of these topics.


  1. Jim Johnson says

    See “The First Drop Punt? Recent research from a kick historian”
    The most important influence on the game as it played today was the drop kick in to the drop punt and the stab kick in to the stab punt. See “The First Drop Punt? Recent research from a kick historian” as published in the Footy Almanac of the 26th June 2015.
    Jim Johnson

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