Firstly, you'll have to forgive me for the Harry Potter-inspired title. I'm a geek.
Usually associated with the stock market, recency-bias sees investors looking at the short term performance, rather than the proven performers. A stock that has a great last six months and made tremendous gains is viewed as superior to one that did a similar thing over a long period of time, possibly reaping better results overall.
Dustin Martin finished the 2017 season brilliantly, becoming the second ever Gary Ayres medallist as the best player over the course of the AFL finals. He was the flavour of the month, and the season, so to proclaim his efforts as the best ever had the benefit of recency in his favour.
Martin’s season cannot be tarnished by discussing it, nor can it be elevated further. He polled the highest number of Brownlow votes ever recorded, won the Norm Smith and Leigh Matthews Medals as well as a host of media awards; and indication of just how dominant he was in 2017. A Tiger premiership was the icing on the cake for Martin, but it’s difficult to fathom that what we may have just witnessed could be the greatest individual season of all time, particularly when you consider those who came before.
At some point in the last month or two, you may have heard a proclamation which may have sounded a little outlandish. However, given the standing of the person who made the proclamation, you couldn’t help but take notice.
“No player has ever had as good a year, I suspect, as Dustin Martin.”
That quote is attributed to Leigh Matthews, widely regarded as one of the greatest players to ever play the game. It may have been made flippantly, but when Leigh Matthews speaks about football, the football world listens.
It seems that every year we hail a player’s season as one for the ages, and usually, it is. They are immortalised with honours and awards that go to only the best of the best. This year was no different. Only, it kind of was different. This year we had people stating that Martin’s season was not one of the best, but the best of all time. Was it, or was this football’s version of recency-bias? People were buying stock in Martin while ignoring the tried and true performers. Matthews, himself had a year that could compare favourably.
In 1977, Leigh Matthews took his Hawks to the preliminary final. Having belted the Kangaroos in the Qualifying final, the Hawks could’ve been forgiven for thinking they were about to repeat the dose in the prelim. Unfortunately, they ran into a Kangaroo outfit that’d learned, and then applied that learning. Under Ron Barassi, they turned the tables on Matthews and the Hawks, to advance to what would be an historic Grand Final.
For the season, Matthews collected a healthy average of 27.42 disposals per game despite splitting time between playing on-ball and resting in the forward pocket. Whilst Dusty has him covered for disposals per game, there are other areas Matthews impacted the game far more effectively. Goals, for instance.
Matthews kicked 92 goals in 1977. Let that sink in for a moment. He spent half his time running around the midfield, and also went forward to kick 3.79 goals per game. To further put into context how outstanding Matthews’ year was in front of goal, 92 goals would’ve been enough to secure him the Coleman medal every year except one since 2002; the year Buddy Franklin kicked his one and only ton in 2008.
Amazingly, Lethal Leigh was not the focal point of Hawthorn’s attack when he drifted forward. Peter Hudson returned to the club in 1977 after a couple of years away from the game. Hudson occupied the space around goals en route to 110 goals of his own, meaning Matthews was second option.
It was quite an act of humility by Matthews to rank Martin’s season over his own from 40 years ago. Matthews moved from successful player, to successful coach to successful commentator and analyst. He doesn’t need to stroke his own ego at this stage in life. He willingly pushed aside his own season for that of Martin, warranted or not. While there is no disputing Martin’s presence on the ground, no one intimidated like Matthews. If you were near the ball, you could justifiably fear for your safety. The game was different then. Not better, not worse; just different, and there were some aspects Matthews brought to the table that are not part of the modern version.
Wayne Carey’s career reached the highest of team highs with two premierships, but when assessing individual performance, we saw peak-Carey in 1996. He averaged 19.44 disposals and backed that up with 3.28 goals per game. Statistics for contested marks were not compiled until 1999, but ‘The King’ was a beast in this department in ’96.
He backed up his outstanding 1996 season with an equally impressive 1998, averaging 19.56 disposals and 3.20 goals per game. Carey was a dominant leader for the Kangaroos during this period, willing himself into aerial contests he had no right to be in. He took games by the scruff of the neck for a five or ten minute stretch, changing the course almost single-handedly. For those who don’t remember, running back with the flight of the ball into packs wasn’t invented by Jonathon Brown and Nick Riewoldt. It was a staple of Carey’s game in those years.
In Round 15, 1998, St Kilda felt the full force of the North Melbourne captain, as he tallied 26 touches, 14 marks and 6 goals. The next week he racked up 20 touches and 11 marks to go with his 5 goals against the Eagles. He followed that by booting 8 goals against the Demons to combine with 24 disposals and 11 marks. It is impressive as any three-week stretch by a key forward as you’ll ever see. During this period, Carey was untouchable. The funny thing was, jokes aside, you could touch him. You could hack at a player’s arms as he reached for a mark in 1998. There were no arm-chopping rules designed to make it easier to take a grab. He was dragging in these marks with people smacking at his arms as the ball arrived.
It is difficult to compare Carey to Martin as the power-forward role Carey played is quite a distance removed from the midfield role Martin plays so well currently. Both players would impose themselves physically on the game, however there were very few behind-the ball possessions for Carey. His all came hard earned. Martin has his fend off. Carey has the contested mark. They’ve both got a lot of strings to their bows, and both had fantastic seasons.
For those with shorter memories, we can look at Gary Ablett Jnr.
Really, we could take any of Ablett’s years from 2007 to 2013 and stack them up against Martin’s 2017. The ‘Little Master’ was in a class of his own during that stretch. The numbers simply do not lie. The lowest amount of disposals he averaged from 2009 to 2013 was 30.25 per game. The highest was 33.82 in 2009. The football public got used to him performing at such a consistently high level that we may have taken how good he was for granted.
Gaz averaged 31.5 disposals per game whilst bagging a career-high 44 goals in 2010 before heading to the Gold Coast. This was Ablett’s statistical standout year in a string of years that saw him capture 5 AFLPA Most Valuable Player awards. Incredibly, 2010 wasn’t one of them, pipped by Dane Swan of Collingwood.
Finally, for those whose memories are the shortest, there is Patrick Dangerfield.
Averaging over 31 disposals per game in 2016, Dangerfield was close to unstoppable. He broke from stoppages, won hard balls, and was everything Geelong hoped he would be when they convinced him to move from Adelaide. He went on to poll a record number of votes at the time in the Brownlow, won the Leigh Matthews trophy from the AFL Players Association, and took home a swag of media awards.
Stats-wise, when comparing his 2016 to Martin’s 2017, Danger has Martin covered when it comes to disposals, tackles, marks, clearances, contested possessions, and contested marks. Even only 12 months removed from this outstanding season, it appears Dangerfield has fallen victim to a form of recency-bias. Because it was fresh in mind, Martin’s season seemed better.
With Dangerfield’s 2016 discounted, what hope is there for Matthews’ 1977 season, Carey’s ’96 and ’98 bookends, or any one of Ablett’s mercurial seasons?
When discussing some of the great seasons of all time, the 2017 effort of Dustin Martin deserves all the accolades it gets as one of the best. He did things at times that made even opposition supporters rise out of their seat or shake their heads in awe. Just as Leigh Matthews did, Wayne Carey did, Gary Ablett did, and just as Patrick Dangerfield did only a year before.
Martin’s season is one of the greatest of all time; there’s no denying that. But is it THE greatest? Maybe for the next 12 months or so.