The return of the goal-kicking midfielder


Matthews-Martin-Dangerfield- Illustration copyright Harv


-Bell at a GOAT


What Leigh Matthews and Kevin Bartlett were to the 1970s, Dustin Martin and Patrick Dangerfield can be from 2018 onwards.


There has been constant speculation since he burst onto the scene, that Dustin Martin will be the reincarnation of ‘Lethal’ Leigh. Attending the Round Four clash at the MCG between Richmond and the Brisbane Lions, I was humiliated and left at three-quarter time. The only thing I learned from my experience, besides the fact I should’ve snuck in a stiff drink, was just how good ‘Dusty’ Martin is. Sitting in the top tier at the Punt Road end I watched how ‘Dusty’ kept moving the Lions defenders around until he was left one out with only one defender 35-40m from goal. Six goals later and I’ve now started to believe this man could be as lethal as Franklin or even the great Matthews if he stays forward. It would be a difficult task for even Stephen Silvagni to play on him. Martin is near impossible to outmanoeuvre when one out in a marking contest. At 187cm and 92kg, Martin is the prototype midfield-forward and if he played a similar role to Leigh Matthews in the 1970s he would have kicked buckets of goals by now.


Standing 2cm taller and weighing the same is 2016 Brownlow Medallist Patrick Dangerfield, who last year had a season shaded by Martin’s brilliance. Danger finished the season with 718 disposals at 29.92 and kicked a remarkable 45 goals finishing equal 10th in the Coleman Medal, not bad from one of the best midfielders in the country. Although they play in different positions, Danger kicked the same amount of goals as Toby Greene yet had more handballs than Greene had disposals;  quite remarkable. Handballing has become more common and an integral part of any footballer’s tool-box, far from the days when Kevin Bartlett averaged two handballs a game.


The impact of Danger’s 2017 season is astonishing to say the least. In round nine against the Bulldogs, Danger finished the game with 13 kicks 23 handballs and four goals, a good day for any footballer. His impact around the contest was far more impressive as he also recorded 12 tackles, 20 contested possessions and 10 clearances. Whilst being able to effectively hit the scoreboard, Danger also impacted the contest. During the round 15 draw against the fast-improving GWS Giants juggernaut, Danger brought the Cats back into the game, finishing the match with 45 disposals, 25 contested possessions and 13 clearances. Although he only kicked one goal, Danger showed us his versatility firing off 29 handballs and dominating the clearances against a midfield featuring Callan Ward, Tom Scully, Dylan Shiel and Josh Kelly. Two weeks later after dominating the Lions, accumulating 38 disposals and three goals, Danger injured his left leg in the first quarter blockbuster against Hawthorn and on one leg he was moved forward and kicked five goals six behinds to show how good he can be if he plays more time forward.


There were no interchange rules in the 1970s and 1980s. Midfielders spent a quarter or two of their game time in the forward 50 resting. No player in history gets close to Leigh Matthews as the greatest resting forward. He averaged 2.76 goals a game across his 17 years. There are only three players that breathe the same rarefied air as Leigh Matthews, and they are Keith Forbes, Des Fothergill and Dick Harris. Forbes was Essendon’s first dynamic rover before Dick Reynolds. Forbes played 10 seasons at Windy Hill and kicked 415 goals in only 152 games. He was the first Essendon player to kick 400 goals and finished runner-up in the Brownlow twice. He kicked 40 goals or more six times in a season and won Essendon’s B&F twice.


Fothergill was a sporting prodigy. A stocky rover who played at 178cm and 88kg, he had two Copeland Trophies by the age of 18 and a Brownlow at 20, averaging 3.03 goals across his 111 games, which netted him 337 goals. At only 18 years of age Fothergill had 28 kicks and kicked six goals  in the 1938 Semi Final against Footscray, he backed this up in the Preliminary Final against Geelong with 26 kicks, nine marks and five goals. Fothergill remarkably kicked 50 goals or more in five of his seven seasons. Dick Harris was a small goal-kicking rover who won the VFL leading goal-kicker (pre-Coleman Medal) with 64 goals in 1937 and had a career high at 31 years of age kicking seven goals in Richmond’s 5 point Grand Final win in 1943. Finishing his 196-game career in 1944 with 548 goals at an average of 2.80.


Matthews, however, cemented his position as the ultimate goal-kicking midfielder between 1971 and 1978. This period Matthews played 166 matches, kicked 492 goals and 404 behinds at an average of nearly three goals a game. He also averaged 25 disposals a game, collected 140 Brownlow votes, the Hawthorn B&F six times, three flags and the Coleman medal in 1975. Remarkably ‘Lethal’ in 21 of his 166 matches kicked at least 5 goals and had 25 disposals in a game. Kevin ‘Hungry’ Bartlett also kicked 50 goals or more five times across his career and became one of the leagues deadliest goal sneaks when he couldn’t keep up with the midfielders. Bartlett’s ability to find the goal was akin to his ability to find the behinds. If ‘Hungry’ kicked at least half the points he missed he would’ve kicked 1000 goals and would’ve kicked 100 more than once. Not many players kicked more behinds in their career than goals, yet Bartlett still kicked 778 goals compared to his 781 behinds across 403 games.


Throughout his career, Matthews collected 450 disposals and kicked 40 goals or more in a season eight times. Kevin Bartlett achieved it five times, the remarkably consistent Brad Johnson achieved it four times and Wayne Carey, who played much of his career at centre half-forward, proved how he revolutionized the impact of the forward by achieving the mark three times. Unheralded players such as Brian Walsh, who was named rover for Carlton in the 1973 Grand Final; the spectacularly freakish Allan Davis who won a flag for St Kilda at 18; Ray Shaw, father of Heath and brother of Tony; Robert Scott, who kicked 7 goals and had 30 disposals in a game for Geelong, yet didn’t poll a Brownlow vote; and gutsy midfielder Andrew Bews find themselves on the list. Walsh in 1973 played 23 games, collected 483 disposals, kicked 60 goals and didn’t poll a single Brownlow vote. The Geelong midfield of 1991 containing Garry Hocking, Mark Bairstow, and Brownlow Medallist Paul Couch could rival their 2018 midfield of Danger, Ablett, and Selwood. Both Hocking and Bairstow finished with more than 600 disposals for the season and both players kicked more than 40 goals.


The roles that GWS hot head Toby Greene and Port Adelaide magician Robbie Gray play now across the midfield and half-forward were perfected by players such as James Hird, Brad Johnson, Jason Akermanis and Stevie Johnson. Greene and Gray both feature on the list, whilst freakish goal-kickers in Akermanis and Johnson feature twice. Both ‘Aker’ and ‘Stevie J’ played similar roles in their teams, both won three premierships. Brad Johnson, on the other hand, didn’t experience flag success throughout his 364-game career and was overlooked for Brownlow votes finishing with only 77. Johnson’s impact on the Western Bulldogs was remarkable. In 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2006 Johnson accumulated 450 disposals and kicked more than 40 goals. A six-time All-Australian and All-Australian captain in 2006, Johnson at the age of 30 finished third in the Coleman Medal kicking 74 goals as a half-forward.


Another superstar to pull off this feat was Wayne Carey. I talked about Carey in my last article about how controversial he was, so I thought it was time to break down how unbelievable the ‘King’ was as well. Between 1993 and 2000, Carey was the undisputed champion, much like Buddy Franklin is today. During this eight-year period, Carey captained North Melbourne, played 170 games, kicked 524 goals, and averaged 19 disposals and eight marks a game. He won three B&F’s at North Melbourne, was the All-Australian centre half-forward seven times, the All-Australian captain four times and won the AFLPA MVP twice. Carey also had 450 disposals and kicked more than 50 goals in three of those seasons, including more than 180 marks and 80 goals in 1996 and 1998. If you thought he was done there, he also captained the Shinboners to the 1996 and 1999 flags. The only players in the history of our great game to average more than 20 disposals and kick 80 goals in a season are Matthews, Bartlett and Franklin. As it currently stands in round four, Franklin has already kicked 17 goals and is averaging 18 disposals a game. Dustin Martin, thanks to Richmond’s midfield depth is playing more time forward. He has kicked 12 goals from 4 games whilst averaging 23 disposals. Martin played half his game up forward against Adelaide in round two, kicking five and collecting 25 disposals. For the first-time in round four, Martin played predominantly deep in the forward line, kicking six from 17 disposals.


Martin’s impact already this year is unbelievable considering he won the Brownlow last year playing in the midfield. Who’s to say if Martin keeps playing up forward he can’t kick 60-80 goals? I back him to do so and I think it is time for Damien Hardwick to flick the switch and turn him into the next Lethal.


About Sam Harvey

To celebrate the stars, skills, stats and stories of the past that have been long forgotten. ‘Bell at a GOAT’ is inspired by my Papa’s great skill at butchering the English language. We believe he was trying to say bull at a gate!


  1. Dave Brown says

    Interesting analysis. I’m firmly of the belief that particularly Dangerfield, but also Martin, would have been great full forwards in a different time, but the change of the game and greater emphasis than ever on the midfield means they were only ever considered as midfielders. The time they spend forward seems sometimes a luxury, sometimes a necessity. They will kick as many goals as they are allowed to spend time forward, so difficult are they to defend, but as the Crows showed in last year’s prelim, the ball needs to get to Dangerfield for him to be able to score.

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