Who is the Greatest Finals Player of All Time?

We have short memories in football.

For every season we marvel at the feats of Dustin Martin, Patrick Dangerfield and Lance Franklin, a little of what we remember about those who paved the way for those superstars slips from our consciousness.

At the conclusion of the 2017, Leigh Matthews stated that we may have just seen the greatest individual season of all time by Dustin Martin, discounting some pretty decent efforts along the way. Those he discounted included some incredible seasons from Lethal Leigh himself.

But it isn't just performances over a season that make a name for players; it's being at your best when it matters most. It means being a big game player. It means playing well in finals.

Whilst Dusty won the Gary Ayres Medal for the best player in the 2017 finals series, many more made their name by rising to the occasion when it mattered most. In front of the big crowds, with the tension palpable, they took the game on and made it their own.

Sadly, many will have their exploits forgotten, or at least see them fade. The game is faster, more skillful, and has never been more accessible. The grainy footage of what once was makes way for a sport that now lives in the moment, with every second of every game recorded and dissected by Monday's experts.

There are some players, however, that are simply unforgettable. The aura surrounding Gary Ablett Senior has not faded. His skills transcend eras and his highlight real rivals anything we see produced today. His explosiveness out of packs is equal to that of Martin, or Chris Judd at his peak. His aerial feats are comparable to any who’ve ever launched into the back or onto the shoulders of an opponent, and his propensity for using his body, or forearms, or elbows to inflict punishment on an opponent meant that people always thought twice about dropping in the hole when Gazza was on a lead.

Cementing Ablett’s legend was the 1989 finals series, and one of the most memorable Grand Final performances in history. In that series, Ablett put together three of the greatest finals games ever seen.

First to feel the effects of Gary Ablett in full flight were Melbourne in the Semi Final. Ablett lit up the MCG with 24 disposals, 14 marks and kicked 7.7 as the Cats powered home.

Next came a date with the Bombers in the Preliminary Final. In short, Ablett tore them to shreds. His 23 touches, 10 marks and 8.5 set up his first ever Grand Final appearance. Ablett's supreme ability to rise to the occasion was on display as he took the ball against the right half forward boundary in the third quarter. Realising he had a bit of space due to a nice shephard, he took a bounce, and from 55 metres, set sail for home. It never looked like missing. The crowd rose as one. On the back of Ablett's brilliance, the Cats set up a clash against the Hawks in the big one.

Ablett was amazing in the Grand Final. His 15 disposals and 8 marks yielded 9.1 to earn him the Norm Smith medal – one of only four players to ever win it in a losing side.

Gary Ablett's 1989 finals averages

Four games v Essendon, Melbourne, Essendon, Hawthorn

Ablett’s feats after this series were also incredible. He kicked a ton several times, and pulled down a highly disputed mark that many claim to be one of the greatest ever taken, but that four game series in '89 is where he made his mark – playing his absolute best at the pointy end of the season. It was peak-Ablett, and no one could stop him. It was his first Finals series, and his best. He had steady performances in other series, but other than back to back six goal hauls against the Western Bulldogs and Carlton in the 1994 Qualifying and Semi Finals respectively, big finals performances from Gaz were never close to that level again.

His career finals averages remain impressive but are a slight drop off from his career stats. Though the perception may be that Ablett was big in the finals, comparative numbers tell a different story.

Gary Ablett Finals v Gary Ablett Career

Kevin Bartlett was a finals maestro. Long renowned as one of the best rovers in the game, his ability to win the ball off a pack without breaking stride was unequaled at the time. Some may have matched it since, but in terms of being able to do it consistently, all through the 1970s, KB was in a league of his own.

When you combine all the above with his ability to turn it on for the big games, it’s hard to top KB. He was the perfect rover – quick, agile and knew where the goals were. His ability to read the flight of the ball, push off an opponent, create space and collect a footy whilst running at top speed is something only a handful of players have been able to do since to a similar level. He could finish from the boundary, turn a player inside out with a change of direction, and once in a while, he may even handball. Not often, but here and there.

Consistency is something often thrown at small forwards as a problem in their game. We’ve seen that argument used recently against players like Eddie Betts and Cyril Rioli. Both have been accused of going missing at times, or not having a big enough impact when things aren’t going their way. This isn’t an argument you could use against Bartlett.

Get a load of these numbers in the biggest of games.

In the 1969 Grand Final victory over Carlton, Bartlett collected 24 touches (all kicks) and a goal to be amongst Richmond’s best.

Three years later in the 1972 Grand Final loss to Carlton, he amassed 28 kicks and one handball.

The next year, in 1973, his 26 kicks (no handballs again) and a goal helped steer the Tigers home against the Blues.

In 1974, his 27 kicks (again no handballs) powered the Tigers as they overran North Melbourne.

1975 saw him fall short of the Grand Final. It was his worst finals performance in a long line of great ones, compiling only 13 disposals and going goal-less in the Prelim.

It was a long wait for redemption, and in 1980, Kevin Bartlett made certain that his 1975  finals let down would not be the performance he was remembered for. 1980 would be his year.

In the Qualifying Final, Bartlett ran riot, collecting 22 disposals and four marks. However, it was hitting the scoreboard that he was best at. Hit it, he did. KB finished with 6.3 as Richmond dismissed Carlton by 42 points. But there was more to come. Much, much more.

Geelong felt the full force of the elusive and deadly Kevin Bartlett in the Semi Final. His 17 disposals and eight goals from the diminutive rover set up a spot in the Grand Final. He didn’t miss that day, and it set up a clash with the Magpies on the last day in September.

The Norm Smith Medal was instituted just the year before, with Wayne Harmes awarded the inaugural award. After scintillating outings in the lead up, KB was one of the favourites to take it home. Bartlett collected 21 disposals, nine marks and slammed home 7.4, a then record number of goals in a Grand Final. He took home the Norm Smith, and had it been around years before, could’ve easily made it his second.

The 1980 Grand Final put the icing on the cake for Bartlett, and one moment is remembered by the Richmond faithful above others. Bartlett gathered the loose ball in the right forward pocket with Collingwood defender, Stan Magro hot on his heels. He feigned to the right, turning away from goal. Magro started to follow, but KB turned swung back towards the boundary. He had the goals in his sights. Magro couldn’t recover. Bartlett steadied, lined up from the boundary and casually slotted his record-setting  seventh goal.

Kevin Bartlett's 1980 finals averages

Three games vs Carlton, Geelong and Collingwood

Like Ablett, there is a slight drop off for Bartlett in terms of finals output compared to his overall career stats. Only a slight one, but a drop off nonetheless.

Bartlett Finals v Bartlett Career

Of the modern players, only Luke Hodge can compare in terms of finals numbers. Almost across the board, Hodge is a better player in finals than he is during his career as a whole. In particular, Hodge's Grand Final returns are significantly higher. When the team required him to elevate his game, their General answered.

Luke Hodge stat differential

As if you'd expect anything else from Leigh Matthews, his finals averages are wonderful. However, they do not improve on his overall career numbers. Matthews had singular standout games (33 touches and 7.6 against North Melbourne in the 1976 Qualifying Final was one of his best), but no punctuation mark series like Bartlett in 1980, or Ablett in 1989.

Grand Final Performances. Bartlett v Ablett Sr v Hodge

Hodge does not have the standout series in terms of goals, as many associate with dominant performances, but his 2014 finals series was a thing of beauty, culminating in a 35 disposal, Norm Smith-earning Grand Final win over the Sydney Swans.

Luke Hodge's 2014 finals averages

Three games vs Geelong, Port Adelaide and Sydney

Granted, stats are not the be-all and end all of choosing the greatest finals player. Ablett was sensational, but for all his efforts, he does not have a premiership medallion to show for it. Hodge has four, Bartlett has five, but none of them won in finals as often as Michael Voss.

Voss played 19 finals for 15 wins, with 13 of them coming in the Brisbane golden age of 2001-04. His team fell off a cliff following their glorious four straight Grand Finals, so he didn't suffer a slow decline like others listed. During the four years from 2001-04, Voss managed to accrue the bulk of a win percentage that puts others to shame, particularly when you consider some of those players competed in teams that were dominant for several years as well.

Finals win percentages

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Whilst Voss' win percentage is incredible, it must be factored in that Bartlett's wins came over 16 years in which the Tigers were up and down and also ran into successful teams such as Hawthorn and North Melbourne through the mid to late 70s, and Carlton in the late 70s and early 80s. He played 27 finals in that period where there was only a final four. In some years, you'd play a Semi and the Grand Final, and that'd be it. There were no "easy" finals, as such.

So who is the best finals player of all time? We could point to stats all day and we'd end up proving something different for each candidate. It will always come down to a matter of opinion. Some will take the toughness of Lethal Leigh Matthews over the opportunistic and skillful KB in a final. Others will swear black and blue that the spectacular Gary Ablett is their go-to guy based on the heroics of '89. Others still prefer the leadership of Luke Hodge, as was on display in 2014. For mine, there's not much in it, but I'll leave you with this - they don't erect statues outside the MCG for just anybody.

Maybe one day as you get off the train at Richmond station and wander your way through the car park to the MCG, you'll see a statue of Luke Hodge with his arms raised, celebrating another Hawthorn premiership, but until then, KB is the man.

So, who have you got as the greatest finals player of all time? Let us know on our Facebook Page, or say g'day on Twitter @themongrelpunt