To simplify things, we have laid out a couple of key rules for our top five:
Must have played in the AFL – Comparing VFL greats with stars from the SANFL and WAFL is an absolute nightmare, so we are only considering players who have featured in the national competition since 1990.
No current players – This might be a controversial one, as it means the likes of Gary Ablett Jr. and Chris Judd don’t get a look-in. But there are several complications in play when judging retired footballers against players at their peak, so we figured it would be best to limit the field to those who have completed their careers.
Keeping those minor constraints in mind, here are the five greatest players we’ve seen in the modern era of Aussie rules football. If you think we have missed the mark, feel free to post your own top five in the comments section at the bottom of the page.
James Hird’s reputation has taken an almighty battering in recent times, but we must not forget what an outstanding player ‘The Golden Boy’ was. Ranked as the third greatest footballer in Essendon’s history, behind only John Coleman and Dick Reynolds, Hird was the prized pupil in coach Kevin Sheedy’s class of ’93 – the ‘Baby Bombers’ – and would go on to captain his boyhood club to another AFL Premiership in 2000. He won the Essendon best and fairest five times, and in 1996 he was awarded the Brownlow Medal alongside Brisbane’s Michael Voss – his greatest on-field rival in years to come.
Hird was a natural with a style all of his own. Despite not being blessed with great pace or size, the Canberra boy was one of those players who always seemed to have time in possession. Having started life in the AFL as a utility – at 20 he played on Gary Ablett Sr. at the peak of the Geelong legend’s goal-kicking powers – he developed into a skilful yet tough forward-cum-midfielder capable of the sublime and the courageous in equal measure. He twice topped the goal-kicking tables at Essendon (1995, 1996) before a series of injuries – including crippling stress fractures of the foot – almost forced the Bombers No. 5 into early retirement.
The mark of Hird as a footballer was the way he bounced back from adversity. After a sickening collision with team-mate Mark McVeigh left him with serious facial trauma in 2002, the following year Hird won the WS Crichton Medal and earned a fifth All-Australian selection. ‘Sir Jim’ possessed a rare ability to turn a match through sheer force of will (read his last-quarter performance vs. West Coast in 2004) and was a noted big-game performer – as evidenced by winning the Norm Smith Medal in 2000, as well as a record three Anzac Day best-on-grounds.
Few captains have enjoyed the level of on-field success that Michael Voss achieved over the course of his 289-game AFL career. He led Brisbane to three consecutive Premierships between 2001 and 2003, and was the fulcrum in one of the greatest midfields in the history of Australian rules football.
Unlike his long-time rivals James Hird and Nathan Buckley, Voss was not a ready-made poster boy; he was very ginger, very freckly, and rather scrawny. But, boy howdy, could he football! After his debut for the Brisbane Bears in 1992, it was only a few years before the ranga from Traralgon established himself as one of the most dynamic midfielders in the competition. Along with his explosive work in the centre and love of the contest, it was Voss’ all-round game that set him apart. Not only did he know where the goals were, but he was remarkably good overhead for a genuine midfielder and became extremely dangerous as a pinch-hitting full forward later in his career.
Winning the Brownlow in 1996 was just the tip of the iceberg for Voss, who was promoted to captain the following season and led the newly formed Brisbane Lions’ rise to dominance. There were many stars in Leigh Matthews’ three-peat side – Jason Akermanis, Nigel Lappin, and Simon Black, to name just a few – but it was Voss who shone most consistently. Take a look at his Brownlow tally during that period: 55 votes in total, coming third in 2001, third again in 2002, and seventh (but only three points from top) in 2003. He also won two best-and-fairest titles in that time, while twice being voted the league’s Most Valuable Player by the AFLPA – along with four straight Best Captain awards between 2001 and 2004.
Ask any player from the ’80s and early ’90s who was the most talented footballer they ever played with or against, and almost to man they will say ‘God’. His son may be wowing the galleries these days (and will surely appear on this list in years to come), but Gary Ablett Sr. was in a league of his own for sheer ability. With clean hands, supreme kicking skills, blistering acceleration, and a phenomenal leap, Ablett had the lot – and then some.
A country boy who didn’t mind a snipe behind play, Ablett was not everybody’s cup of tea as a bloke. Just ask Hawthorn coach Allan Jeans, who tried and failed keep the Drouin native in line during his first foray into the VFL. But on football alone, the Geelong No. 5 was unanimously adored and the envy of every other club in the country. Nobody has a highlight reel quite like Ablett’s, full of high grabs, slinky runs, and goals, goals, goals. And yet, despite four Grand Final appearances, he never won a flag – although his nine-goal performance to win the North Smith Medal in 1989 suggests the Cats’ September yips were hardly his doing.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Ablett’s stay at Kardinia Park was his seamless conversion from playmaker to poacher. Playing in a new role out of the goal square, the ageing star kicked 124 goals in 1993 to win both the Coleman Medal and the Players Association MVP. He would go on to break the ton again in 1994 and 1995, thus topping the AFL’s scoring charts for three consecutive years – a phenomenal achievement in an era dominated by full forwards such as Jason Dunstall and Tony Lockett.
If ever there was an archetypal AFL front-man, it was Tony Lockett. Where Ablett as a freak, ‘Plugger’ was a beast who demolished everything in his path on his way to an all-time record 1,360 goals. He remains the only full forward to win the Brownlow Medal, which he shared with Hawthorn’s John Platten in 1987 – a year in which he also won his first of two St Kilda best-and-fairest titles and claimed the AFLPA Most Valuable Player award.
Lockett won the Coleman Medal four times and racked up six 100-goal seasons – both records in the modern era. And yet, years later, the question still lingers as to who was the best full forward of the age: Lockett, or Hawks legend Jason Dunstall. Many cite Dunstall’s four Premierships at Glenferrie as a decisive point in the Queenslander’s favour, but that is what makes Lockett’s achievement so impressive: he banged in goal after goal despite the Saints’ appalling win-loss record during the ’80s and early ’90s.
The legend of Lockett only intensified when he joined Sydney in 1994, as the Ballarat boy was an enormous drawcard for a club that had struggled to pull crowds since moving from South Melbourne. Within two seasons he had helped the Swans to their first AFL Grand Final appearance, famously scoring a point from 55 metres out after the siren against Essendon in the prelim. But alas, the Kangaroos denied the big man the only thing he never ticked off his to-do list: a Premiership.
Even in a list that included VFL greats such as Leigh Matthews, Ted Whitten, and Bob Skilton, the one they call ‘The King’ would remain a very strong contender for top spot. For Wayne Carey was without question the greatest player to grace the AFL era (Ablett Junior’s ongoing brilliance notwithstanding), and probably the most dominant centre half-forward to have ever played the game.
Born in Wagga Wagga and thus zoned to Sydney, Carey’s surprise move from North Adelaide to Arden Street for a meagre $10,000 fee in 1988 proved one of the most significant deals in VFL/AFL history. Partnered with ex-Swans man John Longmire in Denis Pagan’s unconventional forward setup, Carey was the talisman in North Melbourne’s powerhouse team of the 1990s. He led the Kangaroos to two Premierships, while winning the Leigh Matthews Trophy twice along with four club B&F awards.
Carey was a supreme athlete who dominated just about every facet of football. His overhead marking was a thing to behold, as he crashed packs with reckless abandon, and his ability to create and score goals on either foot made him a nightmare for opposition defences. His tussles with West Coast’s Glen Jakovich – one of the game’s great centre half-backs – made for the most fascinating one-on-one rivalry of the ’90s.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Carey, however, with scandal and intrigue dogging him since his acrimonious split from the Roos in 2001. But for all the problems he may have had off the field, one thing will never change: Carey will always be ‘The King’.
Who have we missed? We know some will be bawling for Nathan Buckley’s inclusion (like several of the staff here at AustralianGambling.com.au). Is Greg Williams a little bit stiff? What about Adelaide’s human bulldozer Mark Ricciuto, or two-time Norm Smith winner Andrew McLeod? Post in the comments section below and let us know your all-time top five AFL players.
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