The days of the players kicking weekly bags of 10 goals may be all but gone. Lance Franklin has done it twice in his stellar career. Josh Kennedy has managed it three times, and Jack Riewoldt recently joined him. Mark LeCras and Tom Lynch have reached double figures once each. That’s it for the modern forwards.
With teams looking to share the load between multiple goal kickers in the game currently, chances of seeing big individual bags of goals have diminished. Those over thirty would have fond memories of a time when it seemed that every week there was someone ramming home a big bag of goals. Immediately your mind turns to the 1990’s, when Tony Lockett, Jason Dunstall and Gary Ablett all gave defenders nightmares.
Of course, there were a host of others who chimed in with big single game goal totals during this period as well. Tony Modra, Peter Sumich, Wayne Carey, Matthew Lloyd, John Longmire, Stephen Kernahan, Dermott Brereton, Allen Jakovich, Fraser Gehrig, and Matthew Richardson all hit double figures in a game. It was a time when big forwards held sway. This wasn’t a case of one player being selfish. They were there to do a job, and if they got the ball within range, sharing the ball wasn’t what they were being paid to do.
Through this golden era, the big three reigned. Lockett, Dunstall and Ablett combined to kick ten or more goals on 50 different occasions. Let that sink in for a moment.
Lockett was the monster, outmuscling opponent and taking down any who would dare think about dropping in the hole to cut off his lead. Dunstall was the unspectacular, chest-marking converter, and Ablett was the amazingly acrobatic football genius. Together, they provided a three-headed monster that battled for the Coleman medal and owned it eight out of the ten years from 1987 until 1996.
But who was best?
You immediately gravitate to Lockett. 1300 goals is a record that will not be broken. Buddy will register 1000 goals in the next year or two, but another 300 on top of that will probably be beyond him. It’s hard to argue against Lockett. He toiled away on a St Kilda team that was going nowhere at the time, before jumping to Sydney, where he had his shot at a premiership. Whilst the Saints languished, Plugger gave their supporters something to cheer for. Without him, where would the Saints have been?
Maybe you think Ablett would’ve been the greatest if he played closer to goal his whole career? We can only judge him on the period he did, and it was incredible. Ablett performed feats that were close to superhuman – his effort in the 1989 Grand Final is still the greatest individual goal kicking show on the AFL’s biggest day (tied with Gordon Coventry, just for the record). Still, at this point, he was still venturing up the ground regularly.
Or maybe Dunstall’s 1992 season sways you to his side? His 17.5 performance against Richmond was as complete a game by a full forward as has ever been played, and Dunstall was also renowned for doing the other, little things a team needs. Deft tap ons to teammates, chase down tackles – Dunstall was a team player who just happened to kick a ton of goals.
To be fair to all involved, you have to take them at their best. And to do that, you have to look at their best seasons.
1992 jumps out due to the incredible feats of Dunstall. He may have broken the 150 goal record had the Hawks won just one final and allowed him to line up for game #24 for the year. They fell to West Coast in the first week of the finals. Dunstall’s best shot at 150 was gone.
There’s 1991 - had Plugger not been injured, and played the full season, his 7.47 goals per game would have broken the mystical 150 goal barrier, too. Dunstall played all games in ’92 and ended up with 145 goals, but had Plugger played all games ‘91, and matched his average, he was on track to demolish the long-standing record.
Similarly, Ablett in 1993 was a revelation. After walking away from the game for a period in 1991, and having a commendable 1992 with 72 goals, it was 1993 that he made his mark as a stay-at-home forward. Had he played all games, his 7.29 goals per game would’ve seen him hold the record for the most goals in a season.
They’re tantalising prospects. The “what ifs” are such a tease. I am sure there have been many who would like a moment over again, let alone a season.
The three best seasons for each man are listed below.
Whilst I loved Plugger’s 1987 season, where he kicked 117 goals and took 164 marks, it is only his fourth best haul of goals.
1991 saw him kick 127 goals in only 17 games, at an incredible average of 7.47 goals per game.
1992 was another stellar year, with 132 goals from 22 games at an average of 6.00 per game.
1996 was his best year in Sydney, with 121 goals in 22 games, at a clip of 5.50 per game.
1988 was Dunstall’s first huge year. He had 132 goals in 23 games, at an average of 5.73 goals per game.
He backed that up in 1989 with 138 goals in 24 games, at an average of 5.75 goals per game.
His greatest goal kicking season was 1992, where he had 145 goals over 23 games, at 6.30 per game.
Ablett exploded as a forward over three consecutive years. In 1993 he got his first ton, with 124 goals in just 17 games, at 7.29 goals per game.
1994, he played 25 games and kicked 129 goals, at an average of 5.16 per game.
And in 1995, he kicked 122 goals in 22 games, at an average of 5.54 goals per game.
BEST GOALS PER GAME AVERAGES
Lockett’s 7.47 goals per game in 1991 is an incredible spell. To put it into context, John Coleman was averaging 7.00 goals per game in the six games he played in 1954 before his knee went out. His best prior to that was 6.32 per game in 1950. That figure was over 19 games that season. Had he played 22, as per the modern game, he would have ended up with 139 for the season. Had he played 24, like Peter Hudson did, he would’ve broken the 150 barrier.
Hudson’s record equaling 1971 season saw him play every game to reach the 150 goal plateau. He did it at an average of 6.25 per game. He averaged more goals in the three years before, with his 1970 season most impressive, nailing 146 goals from 22 games, at 6.64 goals per game.
Bob Pratt’s 150-goal season saw him play 21 games. His 7.14 goals per game owes as much to consistency, and ability to play all games, as it does to his accurate kicking. He didn’t miss a game all year, and holds a piece of the record as a result.
When you look longevity and consistency as the key drivers for the two men who kicked 150 goals in a season, Plugger’s back injury, sustained in a pre-season game, appears to have robbed him of the chance to match them, or go past them. Those six games, even at just over half his 7-goal average for the season, would’ve put him in the frame to break the record.
The maximum number of games of a player who has kicked 100 goals whilst averaging at least 6 goals per game being is 24. It is interesting to project totals based on that amount of games. It gives an indication just how dominant Lockett and Ablett were in the seasons they didn’t play all games. The “what if” around their projected total goals is jaw-dropping.
Sadly, we don’t live in a world of “what ifs”. Plugger was injury prone, and when he wasn’t injured, he was suspended. Ablett left his run at the record very late in his career. He was kicking a century in 1995. He was finished in 1996. The only one of the big three to come close to fulfilling his goal kicking potential in one season was Dunstall. With just one more win, the record was well and truly in sight. But he didn’t get that win, and he didn’t get record.
The way the game is currently played, there is no chance of a player threatening the record of Pratt and Hudson. After Franklin had 201 shots at goal in 2008, there was a glimmer of hope. Team defence and the need to share the load mean that Hudson and Pratt will have their names etched in the record books forevermore.
The words “what if” appeared a lot on this article. They’re two words Hudson and Pratt have never had to use. Whilst others were close, they got there and didn’t need any concessions to do so.
Ablett, Dunstall and Lockett. They were great, but Hudson and Pratt did what they couldn't.