What difference does a premiership medallion make to a career?

Further, what does a big performance in a Grand Final do for the reputation of a player? And a poor showing in the finals? What does that do?

I’ve been reading a bit lately about how we should not factor in a team’s accomplishments when it comes to evaluating the career of an individual player. After all, is it ever the fault of just one player that the team was unable to win a flag? Both the victory and the loss are shared between 23 players, a coach and really, the entire club. Whilst only 23 players get medals, they are all part of the premiership. On the other side, everyone on the losing side feels the pain of defeat.

However, there can be no arguing that a premiership enhances the career of an individual, at least in terms of the way he is perceived. If we’re looking at the elite members of the competition, there is no doubt that Dustin Martin’s reputation has been enhanced greatly by the addition of three premierships. Ditto Tigers’ captain, Trent Cotchin. And this season, Christian Petracca shot to prominence with both a dominant finals series, and a massive Grand Final effort.

Looking back through the history of our game, names such as Luke Hodge, Michael Voss and James Hird have been hailed not just as great players, but great players who stood up in finals. Would they be held in the same regard without premiership success? Those who couldn’t quite get the job done, even in spite of their own individual efforts often have the line “but he never won a flag…” tacked onto any description of their career.

Is it fair?

Probably not.

Does the lack of a premiership medallion make Gary Ablett Senior any less of a player on his day? How about Tony Lockett? Robbie Flower? Bob Skilton?

Of course, it does not diminish what they DID accomplish. Gary Ablett is considered by many as the best to play the game. Plugger is the all-time goal kicking leader, whilst Skilton is one of the rare three-time Brownlow Medallists, and Flower is considered one of the greatest players in his club’s history.

Yet that spectre of never winning a flag hangs pretty heavily over their heads. It seemed to be the all-encompassing story surrounding Nathan Buckley for the latter parts of his playing career, and then followed him into his coaching tenure at Collingwood, as well… that eternal pursuit of a flag and the times he has fallen short are the stories that never cease to relent when it comes to Bucks.

Looking at another sport for comparison, it is interesting just how important premierships, or in the case of the NBA, “championships” are considered when considering the legacy of a player.

I was a big NBA fan for years. I say “was” as I cannot really bring myself to support them anymore given their hypocritical stance on the dollars coming in from China whilst championing other causes… but I digress.

When discussing the greats of the NBA, anyone under 50 automatically gravitates to Michael Jordan. Dominant, over-powering and successful, he was the be-all and end-all of basketball in the 1990s. His six titles from six finals appearances and six Finals MVP awards to go with them, have him comfortably sitting at the top of the tree in the eyes of many.

Bill Russell is another who has accolades rained down upon him. With more championship rings than he has fingers (I wonder where he wears the eleventh one?), his greatness is hailed by all based on his team’s success. yet he had a bloke directly opposing him who set individual records.

Bill Russell’s team won titles, but Wilt Chamberlain is the most dominant player the world has ever seen. With a season averaging over 50 points per game, 100 points in a single game and a list of records that makes a mockery of other individual performances, Wilt is unquestionably the greatest single player in the history of the sport.

But he “only” won two championships. That’s the knock on him. He “only” won twice.

Despite his physical dominance, his amazing skill-set for a big man, and his unparalleled athletic ability (hit youtube, guys), people disregard him too quickly in the discussion about just who is the greatest of all time because his teams didn’t have continued success.

In many ways, he is punished for his teams not winning, yet this is something we tend to overlook in the AFL. If a player cannot get over the premiership hump, we tend to make excuses for them. We give them the out of not equating their own performances with the lack of team success.

Maybe we’ve got it a little backwards?

 

And as we allow the dust to settle on the 2021 season and remember fondly the efforts of Christian Petracca standing up in the big game, the flip side of the coin allows for reflection on what the 2021 season – another season of “what could have been…” – means for the Geelong superstar, Patrick Dangerfield.

A player like Gary Ablett Senior is revered not just for the amazing feats he displayed on an almost weekly basis, but as much for the way he put the Geelong team on his back in what many consider the greatest Grand Final of all time. In the 1989 decider, it was Ablett kicking a record-equalling nine goals to keep his Cats alive, almost pinching the game from the exhausted, and beaten up, Hawks.

Many would liken Ablett’s disappointment at never getting over the line in the big one to that of current star Cat, Dangerfield. However, there is a huge difference in the two. Ablett gave his team a real chance to win in 1989.

Dangerfield has failed to do the same in recent seasons, fading into the background in the 2019 Preliminary Final, repeating the dose in the 2020 decider, and adding yet another Prelim failure in 2021.

Go back four or so seasons, the talk was of Dangerfield and Dustin Martin as contemporaries. Three Norm Smith Medals and three flags have elevated Dusty way beyond the level of Danger right now.

Both sustained injuries throughout 2021 – Dangerfield’s woes hampered him getting a clean run at the season, whilst Dusty’s lacerated kidney ended his season, and could have been a lot worse. And with both of those players sitting on the sidelines or struggling for form, the wolves climbing the mountain took their place on top. Petracca, Bontempelli, Oliver… they all elevated their standing in the game in 2021, leaving Dangerfield an afterthought – unlike Martin, he didn’t have the previous premiership success to fall back on.

Their reputations grew. The reputation of Martin is untouchable. Danger… he seems like the odd man out in this equation. All the others now have premiership medallions.

Arguments can be made that a premiership medal does not make a player great. I’ll happily concede that. Is Marlion Pickett, a two-time premiership player with Richmond, a better overall player than Dangerfield?

No, of course he isn’t, but it is only when you have two players closely matched in terms of their career accomplishments that how they performed in big finals, and yes, Grand Finals becomes a determining factor.

Would you rather the career of Jason Dunstall, or Tony Lockett?

Would you like the career of Jack Riewoldt or Nick Riewoldt?

Or for some older fellas, how about the career of Keith Greig or Robbie Flower?

I know which one of them I’d pick in every case – the bloke who achieved the ultimate success. If he has some individual successes thrown into the mix, then all the better.

So whilst a premiership medal is not the be all and end all of success at AFL level, it remains the reason the game is played. To be part of the best team of the year is the goal, and whilst individual awards are nice, it is the team that stands with the cup at the end of the season that is the envy of all others.

For years we’ve heard the comparison – Danger v Dusty. Their explosiveness and ability to take the game on (and over) set tongues wagging about who was the better player.

That debate has well and truly been put to bed by now. Martin has elevated his game when it mattered most. Danger could not.

And now, with 2022 looming on the horizon, a new group of superstars are doing their best to make the game theirs.

Where does this leave Dangerfield? And without a flag for all the home and away success, where does this leave the legacy of the modern-day Cats?

The consensus seems to be that Geelong is loading up for one last shot at the title with this group in 2022. Dangerfield is a wonderful player, and nobody can doubt what he is able to bring to the table when at his best, but he’ll turn 32 in April. Joel Selwood and Tom Hawkins will turn 34 during the season. Isaac Smith will turn 33, Zach Tuohy will be 32 and the Cats just recruited Jonathon Ceglar, who’ll turn 31.

If you’re wondering if this will be this group’s last shot at it, those numbers should convince you that indeed, it is. They are built to win now – it’s just that winning when it counts that has let them down.

There are not many like Dangerfield in the game, and he could go down as the only nine-time All-Australian if he has one more year of excellent footy in him. That accolade alone will see him remembered as one of the all-time greats, but there will be plenty who will remember him as the man who was just never able to get his team over the hump.

Sadly, there is really only one way for Dangerfield to fix this – he needs a flag in 2022 or he’ll be remembered as a great home and away player who never quite delivered in the finals.

Winners are grinners in the football world and right about now, there’d only be an expression of grim determination on Danger’s face when it comes to footy.

It’s all or nothing in 2022. Can the Cats do it, finally?

 

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