What becomes a champion most?


by Sean Curtain

A recent Litza article on the way some members of the Channel 7 commentary team were described and the debate about the irritating overuse of certain words in football  such as ‘elite’ has led me to want to challenge a word that in my mind is thrown around far too easily in the game at present.

And, just for controversy’s sake, I want to seriously challenge the elevated status assigned to a current player.

Maybe it is hyperbole and a desire to drum up football chat and interest (seemingly a redundant exercise approaching a Melbourne winter), a poor or lazy grasp of the language or a modern trend where everyone is revered and no one should be criticised, but the word Champion is bandied around far too freely for my liking.

As a word, it seems to be mentioned with a frequency somewhere in between elite (quite commonly used, especially in relation to midfielders) and ornament to the game (seemingly on the decline in usage).

I accept that I cannot provide a suitable definition of what a champion is and what you have to achieve or have to have done to be one. I can’t be categorised simply in numbers of awards, flags, All Australian, State representation in the old days or any stats, especially at present.

And in the case of many, it seems it is like the often used description of what art is –“I don’t know what it is but I know it when I see it.”

But, I believe just as much as I can’t define what it is exactly, I can have a crack at saying what it isn’t.

The AFL has, in my view, approached their AFL Legend status inclusion reasonably well, and I believe their quota or percentage system for elevation from Hall of Fame member to Legend status is a fair way of keeping the best of our game in a select or exclusive group.

Even if you feel that there are notable exclusions at this stage to Legend status, it is hard to argue that any in that current group don’t deserve to be there.

It is similar to arguments that occur each year in relation to All Australian selection. There are always notable and worthy players who miss out, but not many who you can name who should be excluded.

Definitions are hard to tie down. There are lucky or average players (by comparison) who have played in multiple flags, otherwise good quality players who had a stand-out year and won a Brownlow, and at the other end of the spectrum, great players who have no awards or significant silverware to show for their efforts.

How does winning club B&Fs rate against flags? How do you compare a Scott West and a Martin Pike? Robbie Flower and Corey Enright?  How does a Teasdale and Woewodin, who won for stellar single seasons, rate against a career of a Chris Mew? Does two Norm Smiths get you the title? Does Simon Black have to do anything else to be seen as being at the top?

I always find it interesting to see the great players who seem to be consistently overlooked in ratings and rankings of the various eras. I was fascinated to hear Dermott Brereton rate the 5 best Hawthorn people of his playing and watching time since he joined the Hawks, and ahead of Franklin, Dunstall, Crawford and Hodge (or Tuck, Langford etc.) he placed Platten as the best he ever played with (remembering he had I think just one year with Matthews.).

Look at any top 10 of the 80s or 90s and see how often players like Williams get forgotten against others.

There are players who are champions of their club, for a variety of reasons, and Richo is an example of someone who should be rightfully revered as a Tiger champ, but even I wouldn’t place him in that elite champion category in the history of the AFL. I am sure he is due for Hall of Fame inclusion for services to our game, both cultural and playing, and I applaud that. Same goes for Brad Johnson, and as has been mentioned in recent days, Harley and Ling, great guys and fine skippers, All Australian jumpers, but if they are champions, we are spreading it around too thick.

For me though, the most vivid example of the overuse, free and over the top use of the word in modern football is Nick Riewoldt.

He is a wonderful athlete, no argument there, and fine footballer in the eyes of many. There’s his unquestioned courage, leadership, longevity and the full media package.

Would most clubs, including mine, give their eye teeth for him? Probably

But, I simply can’t accept him as a champion of the game, regardless of his unarguable ability.

In an era of stand-out players in one of the most important spots of the field, like Brown and Pavlich, and in recent memory, Kernahan, Carey and Brereton, where does he rate?

By all means, if we agree that the word champion can be loosely bandied around to include maybe 10% of the AFL ranks, he’s there. But if you really wanted to define champions in a much tighter sense, I can’t accept his status as a great of the game.

When you get past the flash and sizzle, Riewoldt, good as he is, is overrated and too often immune from reasonable criticism of his performance.

Having failed to perform when his team needed it most on the largest stage, 3 out of 3 times, when his goal kicking is so poor and unreliable, then I think he has under-delivered. Like the club he represents, with its amazing array of talent through the last 10 years, they have consistently underperformed in relation to what they should have got from their players and draft picks

There seems to be too much ‘oh, poor Nick’ commentary in relation to his goal kicking and finishing, people only saying that he lets all his good work down with his kicking, without real objective viewing of the fact that he has a variety of roles on the field , but clearly one is to convert opportunities and score. There’s too much emphasis placed on his marvellous ‘gut running’ when he takes simple chest marks all the way up on the wing, too little notice of his habit in trying to take side-on chest marks in contested situations, which when spilled is written off as his courage to fly in a pack.

Carved up by a then less experienced Harry Taylor in one GF, but excused away as it not being a day for forwards.

Double teamed by the Pies in his 2nd, and excused as being a victim of poor delivery.

Run down by Heath Shaw in the replay in a brilliant defensive act that set the tone for the day for both sides, showing a lack of awareness and urgency and an under-appreciation of his role as a leader on the field.

All these things get written off as not his fault, whereas lesser talented players like Raf Clarke in 09 and Matthew Stokes in 08 and Leon Davis vs. Brisbane get criticized for going missing on the big stage.

Riewoldt will again this year probably be the downhill skier his team have been for years, belting up lesser teams at Etihad indoors in the winter, but letting it slip as they did under Thomas and Lyon at the G in the spring.

I realise that these sort of statement are fraught with danger. Whilst not in the same category, Bill O’Reilly famously justified his lack of public comments about his true feelings towards Bradman as “you don’t piss on statues”.

And I appreciate that views like this are often written off as sour grapes, or turn into tit for tat cracks about the merits of the author’s own side and capabilities. I accept that, and that Nick has his cousin covered and Deledio or Cotchin haven’t dominated as they should or could have.

However, I believe that the rush to idolise too many players and the desire to place marketable key figures within clubs and the game on pedestals has seen us beatify some players without looking first at their feet of clay.

Riewoldt will rightly leave the game revered by Saint supporters, acknowledged by the football community (including me) as a gifted and exceptional athlete and player and most likely idolised in embarrassingly sycophantic style by MacAvaney etc.

However, in terms of what could have been, and what he should have done, in my mind he falls short of legitimately being a hailed as a true champion of the game, and an example of the overuse and loose interpretation of what should be a very select group.

About Sean Curtain

"He was born with a gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad". First line of 'Scaramouche' by Sabatini, always liked that.


  1. I agree with much of what you wrtie Sean, but you’re a brave man.

  2. Pete – that makes you brave too!

  3. Curioser and curioser.

  4. Thanks Dips, but that’s whay I said “much”. I have an out if it gets too scary…

    Saw a photo of Billie Smedts in a paper yesterday. The caption read, “Geelong champion Billie Smedts…”
    I kid you not. Cannot find the photo again though so perhaps they have pulled it.

  5. Pete, a clip from yesterday’s blog.

    Phantom says:
    February 27, 2012 at 8:05 am
    They are all champions down at Geelong, Craig. And you know it. The players, the coaches, the boot studders, the tuckshop ladies, the cleaners……….the dogs that pee on the car tyres in the carpark, the seagulls that attack the rubbish tins, the ants that swarm round the spilled blobs to tomato sauce on the seats………………………………………..

    Billie Smedts must be ok. The Phantom wouldn’t say anything outrageous and get it wrong.

  6. Phantom, the ghost who walks, the man who cannot die, I like your comment about Geelong champions, but you haven’t included us supporters. Are we just good ordinary supporters as Jack Dyer might say?

    Do you still produce the skull ring? I have lost mine which was obtained by sending a comic coupon about 50 years ago.

  7. Intrinsic value would be astronomical Mark. Hang on to it.

    Don’t hit any villain with it, for I am sure to be blamed.

  8. A champion is just a champion. We all know one when we see one. Its the whole vibe.

  9. Ok, I”ll wade into all this ( I still have my old Phantom comics but no rings) and I have only been really engaged with the St.Kilda football club in the last four years, going to most of the matches and so have only history of this particular time (before that, I was too busy with too young a family). And from a mad Sainter, I am pretty disappointed. I haven’t seen proof of the hype. My uncle, who’s been there for many years, has seen him when he was more successful, but in the last four years, I’ve seen the moments of promise and the greater moments of disappointment. And I feel for the players, because you can see that he is equally disappointed in himself. That is what I am most aware of, that he holds himself to a higher standard and knows he’s not reaching that either. Now that he’s had all the operations, and a new coach, I hope to see something different and not disappointing. I also don’t think the club use him well. When he is on the ground, they bomb more to him instead of steadily passing it man to man and giving him a go. When he didn’t play the last game, they played so differently. So I was happy to see him not play, and he should be dropped if he is not performing, or to give the team time to work out different patterns and not the same old. I have a feeling the system will change with Watters, or is it that I am bloody well hoping it does. I want to see what was once exciting about him, and all the others. The same can be said of Kosi, when he has moments of very good work, and then, I just feel sorry for him. Not great.

    And I agree, about a champion being a champion and we know. Lenny Hayes is a champion. Darryl Baldock was a champion. I have no trouble using this word with either of these men. It’s the spirit as well as the talent.

    And as a Saints supporters (and Doggies would feel the same) WE are champions for continuing to support and love through such trials and tribulations, and for continuing to hope regardless of the lack of that “particular” reward which is a silver trophy.


  10. Sean,
    Agree with the basic premise that Nick Reiwoldt is not a champion for all the reasons you outlined.

    How many players running around now would be worthy of the title?? Gary Ablett, Jonathon Brown, Simon Black, Chris Judd and Buddy would be the leading contenders. Nick would be in the next rung with Dustin Fletcher, Scarlett, Hodge, Bartel, Pavlich, Goodes (consistency perhaps restricts elevation) and Lenny Hayes (love him but not a champion- Baldock was).

    St Kilda champions in last 50 years are Ian Stewart, Baldock and Plugger – that would be about it though I may well have forgotten others?!!

    Suspect some may disagree!!

  11. Sean Curtain says

    Thanks Budge and Yvette for continuing the debate.

    I am not a Nick knocker, and admire his talent, but feel he is overrated which contributes to the hand dog expression Yvette aludes too, as he expects too much of himself and marks himself hard.

    My issue is the overuse of the word, and he sadly is the most vivid example.

    Yvette, I share (some of) your pain as a Tigers man, having had so many lean years but comfort myself that having at least seen flags, I can’t imagine the pain you (and Dogs fans) feel with th agony of waiting. Do you have a view as to Nick’s GF performances with that waiting in mind?

    Budge, no argument with the list you have and those waiting as potentials. Who of the recently retired would you include? Buckely, Lloyd, Richo, Riccutto, Cousins? I wouldn’t have Hall there, nor the recent Cat retirees.

    Pete, be brave too, enter the debate, have I overstepped and which bits do you agree/disagree with?

    Is NIck criticism off limits???


  12. Sean,
    Of the recent retirees you quoted, I would probably rank as: Buckley, Cousins, Lloyd, Ricciuto, Richo. I guess Buckey ranks as a champion for consistent high performance over the period (happy to accept arguments to the contrary!). Could make cases for all bar Richo (entertaining to watch and apparently fantastic bloke but not a champion player). Enigmatic would be a more likely tag!

  13. Andrew Weiss says

    For me a champion is someone who can perform at the highest level time and time again and can always be counted on to produce the goods when it comes crunch time (and there is no bigger crunch time than a grand final). Unfortunately for Nick it has been shown that he is a great player and can quite often turn a match but has not really delivered on the big stage when the team has needed him.

    I have to agree with Brereton when he says one of the best players he played with was Platten. Being from South Australia he was a superb player for Central Districts (in the SANFL) before he went to Hawthorn. He was first picked every year for SA when State of Origin meant something and you could put money on him putting in a brilliant performance week in week out. The unfortunate thing for Platten is because he played in a team with so many good players and he did his work quite often unnoticed he will probably never be given the term champion.

    This begs the question – if you play in a team with many great players in it does that diminsh your chances of being recognised as a champion.

  14. Alovesupreme says

    I’d rely on the boxing mantra: A champion gets up when he can’t. When Bill Collins opined “Kingston Town can’t win”, less than thirty seconds later the champ identified himself by refuting the accurate one’s assessment .

    When that’s translated to football, it’s the player who by direct action, example and inspiration can will his side to achieve what it couldn’t without him. Buckley, Hird, Hayes, Carey, Judd, Ablett snr. and jnr. all meet that criterion, imo. That is obviously not an exhaustive list.

  15. Back to Nick. I was at all three grandfinals and was very disappointed not just with Nick but with all the mature boys. Milne underachieved. Its’ too bloody hard to remind myself, but the feeling of watching good play turn into bad play, of leading and then Geelong finding that extra gear that winners need, and seeing Collingwood do that the next year, just that finding of something more in the empty closet and I don’t know if it’s the desire or the belief or the selfishness one needs to grab something for yourself and your team, whatever it is, the team lives on with the memory of not having it. I think that’s why we’re so desperate for new younger players who aren’t living with those ghosts who walk. I also think that that’s what might drive them this year, to give it one more go before they all retire en masse! I read Baldocks biography last year, and that champ had the courage to actually drag the team with him to be winners. If he hadn’t been there, playing through injury, driving the team on, Collingwood would have another in the chest and we’d still be waiting for the first. And for Saints supporters, he’s our only guide to champions, he’s the one who did that, pull past pain and fear and desperation and make the impossible possible.


  16. You went extremely close in the 1st grand final against Collingwood Yvette. I watched it closely and on several occassions you were gone but came back and if it had not been for one fickle bounce you would have won.

    History tells us that Collingwood drew that game and that they won the replay. Collingwood supporters incessantly tell us that that team was a team of champoins – I haven’t heard many say they were a champion team as they seemed terribly tied up in the quality of individual players myth.

    Had little mister Milne kicked that last goal he would be a champoin and so would the team. Collingwood would , conversely, not be and the jury would still be out after last years mass capitulation.

    I would argue that what, or who, is a champion is a value judgement, often made by persons in a highly emotionally charged state.

    Therefore I argue that there is a very thin line in the champoin stakes and put it to you that in many cases we confuse the difference between our champions and our heroes.

    In the end it does not matter. If your saints players and supporters are heroes in your mind then that is fine by me. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

  17. …and this is why I love The Almanac

  18. Sydney Malakellis says

    I would suggest that your Nick Riewoldt rating is also applicable to (controversy to ensue) Jonathan Brown. There’s no doubting he has a massive presence, is obviously a good bloke to have a beer with, and is courageous, but his peak years have lined up with when Brisbane have been no threat.

    He is always referred to as a three time premiership champion, but let’s be honest here, he was less a key to those flags than Cameron Mooney was to Geelong’s first two, and no one says Mooney was a champion. Not saying Mooney and Brown are level pegging, of course, but look at the Brisbane team in the early 2000s. Black, Voss, Power, Akermanis, Lynch, Leppitsch, Michael, White, Johnson, Lappin the list goes on. Check the best players on ground for the 2001-2004 Grand Finals and you won’t find his name there.

    My current day champions would include: Ablett, Bartel, Judd, Goodes, Pendlebury, Black, Hodge, Franklin, Scarlett, Cox and that’s about it.

  19. Mark Doyle says

    I agree with most of your article Sean. The use of words such as elite and champion by supporters and media commentators is subjective, misleading and meaningless. It is also often ridiculous as someone mentioned the Geelong player Billy Smedts has been labled a newspaper champion, and he is yet to play a game. This type of discussion is nothing more than light hearted banter by heroworshipping supporters, who think the shit of their favourite player doesn’t stink.
    I believe that current players should not be called champions and that this status is best acknowledged by recognition as an AFL legend at the end of a footy career.
    It is often bemusing that the Melbourne centric media and supporters do not acknowledge a lot of great players who play for non-Victorian teams. Blokes such as Michael Voss, Simon Black, Paul Kelly, Adam Goodes, Matthew Pavlich and Mark Ricciuto were and are often not rated as good as blokes such as Melbourne based players such as Jim Hird and Nathan Buckley.

  20. Phanto – love the bit about the difference between champs and heroes, good call.
    Budge – Buckley, pains me to say it, was the best kick I have seen since Browning and Healy in the glory days of the Sawns. When the Pies were awful, he did eveything. Hird’s my best of the last 10 years, just seemed to have more time than anyone else. Richo is in the same category as Neitz at the Dees, Johnson at the Dogs, Ling at the Cats, even Trevor Barker at the Saints as a great club champ/top bloke, but not at the next level.
    Sydney – fair call on Brown, but I’d have him kicking after the siren for a win ahead of Nick R.
    Mark – agree and think that if Pavlich played in Melbourne, he’s be acclaimed like Nick R is (despite also letting himself down with poor kicking and finishing).
    Litza – spot on!
    Yvette – you have nearly (nearly mind) swayed me to want the Saints to do well, if only for the supporters like you and your family who are owed so much, like the Swannies people when they got up vs the Eagles.
    Andrew – agree, I think players like Langford and Mew get overlooked having played with Dermie, Dunstall and Platten.

  21. Is Stephen Milne a champion player? My answer is a “no”.

    Is Stephen Milne a champion forward pocket? Hmmm, who am I comparing him to? And if I find that he is the best forward pocket of all time, does that necessarily make him a champion forward pocket? If he is deemed to be a champion forward pocket, why then is he not a champion player?

    Is Ian Nankervis a champion player? Not sure, but he was a champion back pocket and he is a legend.

    When I think of Nick Reiwoldt, I think “centre half forward”. When I think centre half forward, I think “Wayne Carey”. When I think Wayne Carey, I think “champion.” Nick Reiwoldt is a terrific player, but he is no Wayne Carey – not even close. Could he still be a champion? Maybe, but only if there is a scale – Wayne Carey at the top of the champion scale, Reiwoldt somewher at the bottom. In my opinion though, he doesn’t make the grade at all.

    I won’t say he cost the Saints th 09 Premiership, but I think he got in the way more than he helped. A couple of reckless attempts at marks actually cost the Saints possession at critical times and one of them in the last quarterultimately resulted in a Cats goal.

  22. Rick Willcock says

    Hi there Sean

    I have never bothered to reply to an article on this website before but your “nonsense” about Riewoldt has prompted me to do otherwise. I don’t know you but I gather you’re a Tigers man, so perhaps 30 years of watching the most underperformed team in the competition has coloured your thinking. But never let bias get in the way of fact.
    Firstly, if it hadn’t been for Riewoldt St Kilda wouldn’t have made either GF in ’09 or ’10. He was the difference in both the prelims against the Bulldogs. His game in 2010 was a standout.
    Re the Grand Finals. In ’09 he tore a hip muscle on the Thursday night before the game. I suggest you read David Misson’s book “The Bubble” to broaden your horizons before putting pen to paper next time. Despite the injury he was serviceable (although it clearly slowed him in the latter stages of the game in the wet conditions), rather than “carved up” as you put it.
    In 2010 he was one of the key players that got his team back into the game in the second half. In terms of the replay, it should never have been played (only the AFL has replays), but the truth is St Kilda was physically gone before it started. Just accept that Heath Shaw made a magnificent intercept rather than use it to denigrate another player over one piece of play !

  23. Rick

    Love the passion and glad I got you involved and online.

    As to Richmond, I couldn’t agree more, we are massive underperfomers and as much as the Saints have missed their chance in the last ten years, at least they have been in the hunt, unlike my mob who can already in my view book their holidays for this September, yet again. We should auction off the Round 1 game to the highest bidder to play us as all we’ve done in recent years is boost the Blues membership coffers and percentage by flogging us year after year. Considering the start we have, we could be gone by May.

    As to the Shaw smother, I agree that’s a stunning piece of play that lifts one side incredibly and can have a very negative impact on the other. I do think Riewoldt should have had more awareness than he did for a player of his ability, but Ottens and Mooney probably feel the same about their misses vs Hawthorn in 08.

    Passionate defence on your players is a great part of the game and this site, so I welcome the feedback and comments.

    I’d argue that Riewoldt, natural and gifted as he is, would not have been the player he is had we drafted him, as our history with taking good players in the draft and developing them is so poor. So I am glad he went to the Sainst as I think he was well managed and developed by Thomas, supported by Lyon very well and I am sure Sainst people like you can’t wait to see what happens under Watters.

    But my contention remains that as good as he is, the champion mantle doesn’t sit with him in my view, and the jury should reconvene at the end of his playing career.


    PS. Will track down the book, I promise.

  24. Rick Willcock says


    Yes … you did get me involved and online !
    As you say, let’s reconvene in a couple of years or so at the end of his career! But if only Scott Watters could improve his kicking for goal in the meantime!
    Actually, I’d like to see him play this year more like the role Richo played at the end of his career – across the wing and drifting forward rather than the way Lyon used him as the sole key forward copping a physical battering each week.

    ps don’t get me started on Lyon – that’s another story !

  25. I still don’t think anyone has actually come out and voted for Reiwoldt as a champion to date. Lots of thrust and parry but at the end of the day everyone seems to agree that he falls short of that mantle- no shame in that, of course the vast majority fall short.

  26. Peter Flynn says



  27. Stephanie Holt says

    Great point to raise, though I’d be more interested in seeing the obvious players being knocked off the bottom of the list, rather than finessing distinctions at the top end of the scale.

    It’s the constant use of ‘star’ for any player who can hold down a spot in the starting 18 that fuels this kind of adulatory footy ‘bracket creep’, with the inevitable result for the terms of higher praise – be that ‘elite’, ‘champion’, and such a lovely reminder ‘ornament of the game’ (though I think of that as a particular kind of esteem, not just about on field contribution).

    Is Nick a champion? By my reckoning – undoubtedly. Well, a ‘St Kilda champion’, which might be a more generous category. But I’d be hard pressed to put any of his teammates in that category, based on sustained performance and achievement, except for Hayes and maybe Goddard. (Maybe ‘champ’ will do for those admirable not-quite-champion blokes like Dal Santo, Milne, Montagna, Fisher etc)

    Champions can have bad games and even bad seasons. But even when he does, there’s almost always signs in Riewoldt’s performance of his extraordinary skill, endeavour, commitment, bravery and athleticism – and his potential to take command of a game. And he’s been showing that at least since 2004 (All-Australian, AFLPA MVP, second – of currently five – club B&Fs).

    I don’t really get the obsession with Grand Final performances – admirable, and they bring out the best in many, but there are so many other factors at play, and so many crunch games to get there, it seems churlish to me to say a player isn’t a champion until proven on that big day. There are so many variables – opposition tactics and team role not the least of them, and of course playing in a team capable of giving the opportunity. By the GF performance measure, is Jason Gram a St Kilda champion and Nicky Winmar (for example) not?

    Also wondering – does a champion cease to be a champion when he’s on the wane? Will we look more kindly on Riewoldt (and others in similar position – Goodes and Fletcher come to mind) when his career’s finished and we can assess the totality of it?

    And don’t get me started on Robert Harvey. I don’t think his name’s come up here anywhere! As a previous St Kilda champion, as a champion among recent retirees, as a great of the modern era … What does the guy have to do? Hating Nathan Buckley though I do, I’ll be forever grateful that when journos threw their list of his greatest contemporaries at him last year and asked him to pick the one he thought the best, he picked the obvious ommission from the list – our beloved Harves.

  28. Apologies – Robert Harvey was a CHAMPION.

  29. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Great article Sean and a fantastic debate to me a champion has to stand up in big games and key moments that’s where I rate Wayne the dominator Johnson and Dermie so highly and while you can’t say , Robbie Flower , Bob Skilton etc are not champions because they didn’t play in a GF a failure to perform in a GF like Riewolt does push you backwards and of course he should have been aware of , Shaw . Milne is another 1 who goes backwards rapidly re his failure in key moments . Glad that you are a Richmond supporter with common sense re Deledio in my opinion a huge disappointment and another could be player who turns it up and doesn’t work hard enough when tagged and then when in defence lacks awareness and desire and was exposed by Duigan and Carlton in general as Malthouse planned but yet again media goes by stats only re BPs . The word Champion is used far too regularly it must be for a player over a long career who stars and dominates and lifts in the crunch a area where Eg Dangerfield is amazing at but is not a champion yet as needs to do it for at least another 6 or 7 yrs . Standing up in the crunch over a long career and in key moments is why I rate Simon Goodwin a champion while others may rate him a very good player
    Great stimulating debate Sean

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