As Dustin Martin stood on the podium receiving his Norm Smith medal just a couple of short weeks ago, those not caught up in the delirium of a Tiger premiership had to feel for Bachar Houli. The Norm Smith medal is one of the highest achievements in the AFL, alongside the Brownlow and the Players’ Association MVP award. To have an accolade like that bestowed upon you is an honour few receive.
To some, it may not have mattered too much – the premiership was the important thing. Dusty had won everything else, anyway. What was one more award? But it did matter. The Norm Smith medal matters greatly.
The names Gary Ayres, Andrew McLeod and Luke Hodge are synonymous with the Norm Smith medal. Ayres, described by Allan Jeans as a “good driver in heavy traffic” was integral to the Hawks dominance of the 1980s. McLeod was like a Rolls Royce off half back for the Crows as they notched back-to-back flags in 97-98, and Hodge cemented his stature as the general of the Hawthorn Football Club with commanding defensive performances in 2008 and again in 2014.
These three men have undoubtedly proven that they perform on the biggest stage of all – Grand Final day. They have the medals to prove it. It mattered to them, just as it matters to every player on that field in every grand final. It’s a tremendous honour – being crowned the best of the best.
Forty medals bearing the name Norm Smith have been handed out since the award was introduced, but only the three times has a player been good enough to win it twice. It’s an outstanding achievement to win it once; to be named the best player on the best team (with one or two notable exceptions). Winning it twice leaves no room for doubt as to just how good you were when the heat was on.
Wayne Harmes was the inaugural winner in 1979 for Carlton, and names such as Hird, Buckley, Rioli x 2 and Judd have all earned the medal. However, prior to ’79 there were a host of players whose efforts have never been officially recognised. These are players whose skill, courage and ability to perform on the biggest day of the football year was proven, but they’re also players who have not had their accomplishments lauded, as Hodge, McLeod or Ayres have.. Their exploits, however great, have not been celebrated even remotely similarly to those in the modern era.
Perhaps foremost amongst these players is Brent Crosswell.
‘Tiger’ as he was known, could hold the unique distinction of being judged best on field in two grand finals, for two different teams. The first effort came for Carlton in 1970. Crosswell was named the Blues’ best in their win over the Magpies in a game famous for the Jesalenko “you beauty” mark. Crosswell collected 17 kicks and 6 handballs, and was one of few Carlton players to stem the tide as the Magpies established a seemingly insurmountable 44-point lead. .
He transferred to North Melbourne in 1975, just in time to help usher in their first premiership. Crosswell was named best for the Kangaroos with 24 disposals (22 kicks) and a goal. He was what former journo Ken Piesse described as an “incredible big game player”. His ability was only matched by his volatile temper. Crosswell’s on-field exploits would be fondly remembered by both older Carlton and North Melbourne fans, but his reputation within the football world would be enhanced with two Norm Smith medals to his name.
Kevin Bartlett proudly accepted his Norm Smith medal in 1980 as the Tigers ran over Collingwood. ‘Hungry’ finished with seven goals, equalling a then-record, and was clearly the best player afield. The vision of him streaming past Michael Roach to receive the handball and run into the open goal was burned into the memory of ever Tiger supporter who saw it, as was the memory of him leaving Stan Magro in his wake on the boundary as he turned towards goal and slotted his seventh goal. But seven years earlier, Bartlett had another stellar outing.
Richmond knocked over Carlton by five goals in the 1973 Grand Final as Bartlett racked up 26 disposals – all kicks unsurprisingly, and kicked a goal. A retrospective medal for his ’73 outing would only enhance the legend of KB, and it would be even more fitting that it happened in a game where he did not see the need to handball even once.
The accolades Ron Barrassi received during his career are many, but due to the era he played, a Norm Smith is something he could never obtain. That Norm Smith was actually coaching him at the time kind of prevented that.
Barrassi was named best on ground in both the 1957 and 1959 Grand Finals, kicking five in ’57 and adding another four in ’59. Naming him as a dual Norm Smith medallist is probably something Barrassi doesn’t want or need at this stage in his life. His career is etched in stone as one of the greatest of all time, but if you ask a modern fan of Barrassi’s achievements, they may struggle to tell you. He was a master coach, and many remember him as such, but Barrassi, the player, was equally as good. Two Norm Smiths would be all that you need to know about him as a player.
Despite the greatness of those mentioned above, one man could even top all of them when it came to big game performances. You’ll be forgiven if his name doesn’t automatically ring a bell.
Percy Beames of the Melbourne Football Club was in contention for three consecutive best on ground awards in Grand Finals from 1939-41. His six goal haul in ’41, playing as a rover left no doubt as to his prowess. MCC members would be well aware of the Percy Beames Bar at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and those who follow amazing individual sporting achievements may be aware that Beames is the only sportsman to ever play 200 VFL games and 200 cricket matches for Melbourne and Victoria. He went on to become the chief football and cricket writer with The Age. He sits in the forward pocket in Melbourne’s Team of the Century, which is an amazing set of accolades. Adding “triple Norm Smith medallist” to the CV is something no one else could lay claim to.
There are many others whose careers would be greatly enhanced with a retrospective medal. Robert Diperdomenico was arguably best on ground in 1978 although many swear it was Leigh Matthews. Arnold Briedis’ five goals and 28 touches were good enough to earn best on ground for the Kangaroos in the 77 Grand Final Replay. Don Scott (71), Robert Walls (72) and the great Kevin Sheedy (74) could all stake a claim to be recognised as retrospective Norm Smith medallists as well.
The Norm Smith medal enhances a player’s reputation. It is a source of pride; recognition that when it was all on the line, the player awarded the medal was the one to stand up and make a difference. The AFL has footage of grand finals dating back many years before the inaugural award. There are newspaper reports detailing the games dating back before that, too; a compilation of reports detailing the best player on the ground is not too far removed from the voting system currently employed.
The players who came before the award was instituted deserve the honour just as much as the modern day heroes. It’s time for some retrospective Norm Smith medals. Sadly, for some of those great players, their time with us has ended. That’s all the more reason to ensure their legacy is preserved.
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