You’ll often hear old timers lament that the one skill that has never improved is kicking for goal. As a matter of fact, you’ll hear them say it’s got worse over the years. Fitness and aerobic ability have taken precedence in professional football, and clubs defer to their fitness gurus when constructing a training regimen for players to follow.
Brian Taylor tells the story of his frustration when returning to Collingwood to aid Travis Cloke with his kicking for goal. He wanted time with Travis after training to refine his technique and practice all facets of his action. He wanted repetition in order to drill a routine into Cloke, and that required time. Taylor's purpose at Collingwood was to make Cloke a better kick for goal, but the opportunities just weren't there. Mick Malthouse was so dialed into the fitness-first mantra that he told Taylor to talk to David Buttifant, then the fitness coach at the Pies. He did so, only to be allocated 10-15 shots with Cloke after training as the excess work wasn’t part of the forward's overall workload/fitness plan. Suffice to say, Trav's kicking for goal didn't improve.
We’ve all seen crucial games decided by a final shot at goal. Hawthorn fans watched Isaac Smith’s shot against the Cats in the 2016 Qualifying Final drift off to the right, sending the Hawks to the first of two consecutive losses in the 2016 finals and signalling the end of a dynasty. Conversely, Luke Shuey showed West Coast fans how it should be done, slotting a goal that never looked like missing as his team squeezed past Port Adelaide in the 2017 Elimination Final.
There are those we regard, almost unanimously, as great shots at goal. Tony Lockett looked solid as a rock when he kicked for goal. Head over the ball, deliberate run up, and great ball drop. He was methodical, and almost mechanical when he kicked for goal, and he holds the all-time goalkicking record as a result. His 16.0 day in front of goal in 1995 is testament to how accurate he was.
In a recent discussion on The Mongrel Punt Facebook Page, readers were asked who they'd choose to kick a goal for their lives depended on it. A simple shot, from 45 metres, directly in front. But there was a catch... Tony Lockett was the one holding them hostage! His name was taken out if the equation. Names that came up were Jason Dunstall, Matthew Lloyd, Peter McKenna and Bernie Quinlan, but even goalkicking greats can have a bad trot. You might be surprised by a few who appear on the list of most behinds kicked in a single season.
Lance Franklin is one who can be either red hot or ice cold. Whilst his 2.11 performance against the Western Bulldogs in 2007 isn’t the worst string of misses in history, it was a shocking day in front of the sticks for Buddy. He took ten marks and had 22 disposals that day, and was still one of the Hawks’ best, but his inaccuracy could’ve cost them in a closer game. Whilst Buddy was terribly inaccurate, there was one who kicked more behinds.
The worst single performance in front of goal goes to Alex Jesaulenko in 1969. Jezza slotted six goals in Round 2 as his Blues decimated Hawthorn by 20 goals, but it could’ve been worse for the Hawks. Much, much worse. Jezza had 23 touches and six marks, but along with his six goals came an astonishing 12 behinds. It is the most behinds by a single player in a game on record. You beauty?
If kicking for goal has gotten worse, as former players have lamented, it is strange to note that over the course of an entire season, only one current player ranks in the top 20 for total behinds scored – Franklin in 2008, when he also bagged his only ton. The next most recent was in 1995, when Gary Ablett Senior kicked 85 behinds. Whilst Ablett was known for kicking big bags of goals, we was unreliable at times, and could be quite wayward on any given day.
Perceived as a lot more reliable was Jason Dunstall, yet The Chief appears in our list of behind kickers three times. Dunstall kicked 145.84 in 1992; his most spectacular goalkicking year. He also had 138.76 in 1989, and 132.66 in 1988 so his conversion rate remains quite steady. There is often discussion about Dunstall v Lockett and who you’d prefer. Both had amazing careers and offered something a little different, but it is safe to say that if Dunstall had Lockett’s conversion rate, he would’ve broken the 150-goal barrier in 1992 and may be regarded as the greatest full forward of all time. Dunstall had a conversion rate of 66%, marginally behind Plugger.
Dunstall's 229 shots at goal in 1992 is the highest number on record.
It may shock some long-term supporters to see Peter McKenna not only appear twice on the list, but hold two of the top eight positions. McKenna was featured prominently when people were asked who’d they’d pick to kick for their lives. Some went as far to say he "never missed" which was obviously a huge exaggeration, but is indicative of how McKenna is remembered by those who saw him play.
McKenna kicked 143.80 in 1970, and 134.79 in 1971. Incredible back to back seasons, but more than his fair share of behinds for a guy who "never missed." Still, he knew how to get his hands on the ball. Over 200 shots at goal in a season is quite amazing.
Ablett Senior makes the list three times as well. He kicked nine behinds in a game once, and eight behinds on three separate occasions. His 85 behinds in 1995 were accompanied by 122 goals, and his 79 in 1994 had 122 goals beside it as well. Finally, Gaz scored 67 behinds in 1985 when he kicked 82 goals playing further up the ground. That’s a lot of shots at goal for a midfielder.
The highest behind total for a single season sits with former West Coast Eagles spearhead, Peter Sumich. His best season in the league was 1991, which saw him register his only ton, kicking 111 goals and 89 behinds. It is Sumich’s only appearance in the list of most behinds kicked in a single season.
His 1991 season was something to behold. Had he the same conversion rate as Tony Lockett, or Matthew Lloyd (68.5%), that 1991 season would be right up there with one the best ever by a forward.
The current crop of AFL stars has quite a few accurate kicks for goal within their ranks. Ben McEvoy has a conversion rate of 74.47% for his career, which is good enough to rank him 2nd* all time for those with 50 or more shots at goal, whilst Tory Dickson boasts career totals of 149.52 for a conversion rate of 74.13% to slot into 3rd*.
Over the course of his career, Plugger Lockett traveled at a conversion rate of 69.74%. For context, that is equal with the current conversion rate of Tom Liberatore, and behind the following current AFL players; Harry Cunningham (71.93%), Tim Membrey (70.0%), Nathan Vardy (70.0%), and Jake Neade (69.86%). Granted, Plugger took a helluva lot more shots than any of those guys, and didn't play under a roof with no wind to deal with, but the big fella may not have been as completely reliable as people will lead you to believe.
The next time you hypothesize about someone kicking for goal to save your life, you may want to stop looking backwards and focus on some of the talent in the league right now. People may say that goal kicking has got worse, but there will always be uncharacteristic misses that even things out. Whilst the legends mentioned above took many more shots than their modern counterparts, it's important to remember that legends missed sometimes, too. Lucky your life wasn't in their hands...
* Stats taken from https://afltables.com/afl/stats/teams/allteams/playershi.html which only offers stats from 1965 onwards.