Remembering Mighty Mick Martyn

Mighty Mick Martyn

North Melbourne’s defence was built around Martyn.

The 1994 preliminary final between Geelong and North Melbourne was a time-capsule match. With seconds left in the panicked final term, scores were level when Geelong’s Leigh Tudor scrambled a 15 metre kick from the forward pocket.

 

Mick Martyn, having kept Gary Ablett to just two goals for the match, was in front of his man. Tudor’s left foot kick floated agonisingly past Martyn’s extended hands like smoke, landing gently in Ablett’s right palm. Martyn hunched down, left hand covering his face.

 

The hand of God, AFL style. The siren sounded a heartbeat later. Commentator Denis Commetti summed up the agony. ‘There is no justice in football. That was the look on the face of Michael Martyn. The master all day. And this game will be remembered for this kick.’

 

Ablett kicked the goal and put Geelong into the grand final.

 

The image of Mick Martyn, propped on a knee, head buried in his hands after Ablett goaled, should be etched into granite. It is testimony of finals failure, of the cruel nature of football…

 

The beginning

 

Mick Martyn was a slim teenager when Denis Pagan, North Melbourne’s under 19s coach, recruited him to Arden Street. Martyn had a dangerous, aggressive streak not unlike his father, Brian Skinny Martyn, who played 157 games for North Melbourne. Brian was more than blunt aggression. He could play. In 1957, he won North Melbourne’s best and fairest, the Syd Barker medal.

 

Pagan played Martyn at full-forward. In 1986, Martyn kicked 96 goals in the under 19s, winning the competition’s goal kicking award. He seemed destined for a career up forward.

 

At the 1987 draft, North Melbourne recruited Martyn under the father-son rule. His senior coach, John Kennedy, sent him to fullback. North, having recruited John Longmire and Wayne Carey, had a glut of key position forwards. Martyn, by necessity, had to learn to play fullback.

 

Round 2, 1988. Nineteen years old. About 85kg and 190cm tall. Number 50 on his back. Sitting on the bench most of the game. Told to limber up. Get ready to play on Gary Ablett.

 

I was at the MCG that day. Martyn’s debut, one kick, never settled into my memory. But as the season wound on, Martyn’s aggressive endeavour etched itself into my mind. I like to think his aggression was born from distaste of playing fullback, after he’d shone up forward in the under 19s.

 

In his debut season, Martyn played 21 games. By 1989, he was given number 4 to wear. Added bulk to his frame seemed to increase his aggression. He made opponents earn each mark and kick, becoming renowned, and reported, for tickling the ears of full-forwards. Simply, he thumped his way to fullback and owned the position, with a hatred for goals.

 

In his second season of football, Martyn won the Syd Barker medal despite playing 18 games. By 1991, he shared another with Craig Sholl. He didn’t have the svelte of Hawthorn’s Chris Langford. His build would never allow the athleticism of West Coast’s Ashley McIntosh. Martyn was bigger than Gary Pert, formerly of Fitzroy and Collingwood. St Kilda’s Danny Frawley wasn’t as quick or strong.

 

Martyn’s peers, career fullbacks from his era, may have been more skilful. Often, a Martyn handpass spun in reverse. His kicks, a bang of the right boot, often travelled further in height than distance. But he seemed born for fullback, and as North Melbourne built a team for premierships, Pagan built his defence around Martyn.

 

At his peak, it was Martyn’s presence that set him apart from other fullbacks. Mighty Mick intimidated opponents with his size, leery grin and violent stare. He was big too. A full-forward looked Martyn in the eye, he just couldn’t look around him. Whether on a lead, in a pack or a fight for the ball, a full-forward knew 100 kilograms of angry muscle was right there.

 

Success

 

It had been a long, hard road filled with disappointment, but in 1996, North Melbourne defeated Sydney in the grand final. Tony Lockett kicked six goals on Martyn, three from free kicks. But Martyn took marks and carried the ball from defence, setting up forays into attack.

 

In the 1998 grand final, Adelaide executed another freakish display, overcoming a four goal half-time deficit to defeat North Melbourne in a huge upset. Afterwards, at the club function, I approached Martyn for an autograph. He seemed built from rock. He signed away and my hand disappeared into his as we shook.

 

‘You were North’s best player today,’ I said.

 

Martyn gave me a disappointed smile and mumbled thanks. His partner rubbed his back. ‘He was the best,’ she said. ‘Not sure what happened to the others.’

 

Wandering away, I couldn’t help but recall the image of Martyn, distraught, when Ablett kicked that goal.

 

Redemption was one season away. North Melbourne defeated Carlton in the 1999 grand final.

 

Aaron Hamil, after a reprieve from suspension, kicked one goal against Martyn, when the game was long over. Carlton players seemed scared of Martyn that day. He simply busted packs open, running with the ball and marshalling the backline.

 

A throwback to ancient times amidst an era of diets, athleticism and aerobic capacity, Martyn grew into a fullback, a bulk, solid mass of muscle. He is proof that fullbacks are made fullbacks whereas full-forwards are born as full-forwards.

 

His single-minded attack on ball and body was bone-crunching and breath-taking. He dominated great full-forwards, and had pace off the mark. Watching Mick rant after giving away a free kick was memorable. Waving arms, shaking head and complete disbelief completed the comedy. When Martyn was reported he’d shake his bewildered head, wondering what all the fuss was about.

 

From the crowd a chorus of taunts emerged, about his pace, age, ability and appearance. Intelligence too, at times. He looked middle-aged since his hair began receding in 1992.

 

Martyn was unfashionably solid and always entertaining. Significantly, he played for the team, for his club. He learned his role and perfected it.

 

Consider the full-forwards Martyn played against, and you’ll realise how good he was.

 

Mick Martyn’s notable opponents:

 

 

Player Goals Games Average Premierships
Tony Lockett 1360 281 4.88 0
Jason Dunstall 1254 269 4.66 4
Gary Ablett 1030 248 4.15 0
Stephen Kernahan 738 251 2.94 2
Matthew Lloyd 695 189 3.67 1
Saverio Rocca 685 228 3.00 0
Alistair Lynch 633 306 2.06 3
Stewart Lowe 594 321 1.85 0
Tony Modra 588 165 3.81 0
Matthew Richardson 580 194 2.98 0
Paul Salmon 561 324 1.73 2
Peter Sumich; 514 150 3.43 2
Chris Grant. 496 296 1.67 0
David Neitz 495 247 2.00 0

 

 

Martyn holds an ignominious record, the unfortunate victim of a three-peat. Not his fault, it was just timing.

 

Round 18, 1993, Geelong played North Melbourne at the MCG. Gary Ablett, opposed to Martyn, kicked ten goals as the Kangaroos were thrashed by 91 points. Ablett kicked his 100th goal for the season opposed to Martyn. The crowd invaded the MCG.

 

Round 20, 1994, Geelong played North Melbourne at Princess Park. North defender Dean Laidley received a free kick and Ablett imposed himself, sparking a reaction. Laidley’s free kick was reversed. Martyn was livid. Denis Pagan called Laidley to the bench. Ablett, just metres out, kicked his 100th goal for the season opposed to Martyn, one of just two for the match.

 

North Melbourne lost by a point.

 

In the 2000 qualifying final, Matthew Lloyd’s seventh goal against Martyn was his 100th for the season. Amid the crowd invasion, Lloyd was ushered from the ground. It was the only time Martyn looked relaxed during the match. Lloyd came back and kicked two more.

 

Essendon won by 125 points.

 

All fullbacks have difficult days. I can’t recall any other fullback in VFL/AFL history being opposed, three times, to a full-forward when they kicked their 100th goal.

 

The end

At the end of the 2001 season, Denis Pagan delisted Martyn, only to redraft him. In the build up to round 11 2002, Martyn received permission from the AFL to wear number 30 in honour of his father, who had just days left to live. North defeated Richmond by 11-points. After the game, Martyn ripped his jumper off and held it up, number 30 to the front, so Brian could see.

 

At the end of 2002, incoming North Melbourne coach Dean Laidley culled Martyn from the list and this time the cut remained unstitched.

 

An icon was gone. Martyn, with nothing to prove, nominated for the draft. Pagan, who had moved to Carlton, was criticised for selecting him. Martyn was written off amid talk of knee issues, milestones and the insistence that he wouldn’t last the season.

 

Pagan hoped Martyn would bring experience and hardness to an imploding club and a woeful playing list. He ignored Martyn’s recent history, trouble with hamstrings and the tribunal. Twenty-two games must have seemed like a long journey as Martyn pulled on the Carlton jumper for the first time.

 

Had Carlton not been penalised for their salary cap rorts, Martyn might have been forced into retirement as a one-club player. Pagan took a punt and rightly justified his decision to the media and Carlton supporters. But Pagan had always supported Martyn.

 

Martyn was born with a cleft palate. It was Pagan who convinced a teenage Martyn to have corrective surgery. Pagan had been involved with Martyn for his entire career, except 1992 when he coached the Essendon reserves to a premiership.

 

In round 18, 2003, Martyn became the 42nd player in AFL/VFL history to play 300 games. He got there on one knee, and promptly retired. It led to taunts about Mighty Mick becoming Milestone Mick. Regardless, he played 300 games across 16 seasons against a litany of great full-forwards. They provided Martyn with tough moments, but there were games when he beat them all.

 

Mick Martyn retired with a bunch of accolades. Dual Syd Barker medals, which is rare for a fullback. Dual premierships. Selection in the back pocket for North Melbourne’s team of the century. The Michael Tuck medal for best on ground in the 1995 pre-season grand final.

 

Former Richmond champ Kevin Bartlett labelled him ‘Mighty Mick.’ Former Collingwood captain and coach, Tony Shaw described Martyn as the ‘fullback of the 90s.’

 

If John Kennedy didn’t have John Longmire and Wayne Carey at his disposal, Martyn might’ve dominated the fullbacks of his era, and kicked hundreds of goals. But a man can’t choose his era or his teammates. Martyn was needed in defence, and finished his career with just 16 goals.

 

When Martyn stepped onto the dais and accepted his premiership medallions in 1996 and 1999, the crowd roared. He was an uncompromising cult hero, a North Melbourne legend. His medals and his career are testimony to success. Playing to his limitations. Infinite passion for his coach, the club and his teammates.

 

Mick Martyn was arguably the best fullback of his era…

 

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About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…

Comments

  1. Saw Mighty Mick at a pub in Williamstown just last week, looks a lot smaller nowadays but i must say he is completely different off the field to what he was on it, very jocular and friendly

  2. Colin Ritchie says

    Great tribute Matt, certainly a tough man and truly representative of those shinboners of old!

  3. Excellent article, very enjoyable. Loved watching him play, would have had him at Port Adelaide if it had been possible!! Suspect he may not have gone too well in this entitled age, but there aren’t the full forwards around either. Suspect he would thrash most of them today. Or last season…

  4. Bilbo Baggins says

    Good writeup!

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