I was having a debate about a week ago. The same debate many people have had in pubs and on couches for the last ten or twenty years:  Why can’t today’s players kick the ball through the big sticks?

It seems to many that the more professional and strategic the game has become, the more the skill – especially goal kicking – has gone out the window. However, I’ve always sat on the other side, suggesting we only remember the great games and we tend to forget the average ones, and we’re watching a lot more footy these days. Well, we were, anyway.

Could it be that goal kicking itself hasn’t changed at all – we’re just forgetting that maybe it’s always been an issue?

Now obviously, I’m not talking the number of goals here – blind Freddie can see that the game is typically more defensive and lower scoring. That much is obvious. I’m focusing here on the accuracy of the players.

And I’m not one to let a question go unanswered. So, I hit the stat books to sort it out.

Firstly, I want to apologise if this comes across like a Champion Data article. We are dealing with stats here, but I’ll try to make it more interesting. And I’ll try not to get things completely wrong.

When collecting the data, the first thing I had to do was determine was who to target and how much data I required to get a good picture. My main issue was shots that went out of bounds or didn’t make the distance. Unfortunately, there’s no clear stat for these, so I had to assume that most players shank the occasional shot on goal – and there’s certainly no stat saying how many shots fell short and whether they ended up as a good pass or a turnover.

So, I am strictly working with scoring shots here.

Secondly, how far back to I go? That one was easy – the stats prior to 1965 can get a little inconsistent and behinds aren’t often registered. So, I’ve landed on 1970 as the starting point (using 1965 as a starter for those who may have debuted early but played into the 70s). Plus, that gives a nice round 50 years to work with.

Finally, the biggest problem was whose goal kicking was I going to be judging. I didn’t think it fair just to work off the best goal kickers from the Coleman medal list, as that doesn’t give us a broad enough spectrum, but just tallying the total scoring shots of the competition each year may have taken too much away from those who kicked the majority of the goals, and there are far too many players in that time to record everyone (the Mongrel will have to triple my wage for that sort of commitment!).

I learnt some very interesting things doing this. I was quite surprised at how many people topped their goal kicking list for a season and then were delisted or sent to the backline, sometimes kicking more than half their career goals in a single season. So take from that what you will, but for the purposes of the exercise, I can only use them as the best of their team’s goal kickers in that season.

I settled on some sort of compromise. I would tally up the total scoring shots for each year and work out how accurate the competition was, then to get an assessment of the better (or at least major) goal kickers, I would choose the two players from each team that kicked the highest number of goals in the third, fifth, and eighth year of each decade.

The result, after many double-ups, is a list of 302 players, most of whom were major goal kickers for the game – the likes of Ablett, Lockett, Lloyd etc, but also features many players who had one stellar year in front of goals before either being delisted or shoved in the back line. Alas, some very good players like Adam Goodes and Alan Didak missed out; I did, however, cross-reference a few of these guys to ensure I wasn’t missing any outlying good or poor player who may have needed to feature, but I apologise if I have missed anyone glaring. I considered this amount of data a reasonably even spread of talent from each decade.

Unfortunately working with stats also makes contextualising the way goalkickers kick their goals a tad more difficult. They become a bit like Disposal Efficiency – where it tells you supposedly how well a player uses the ball, but simply penalises players who have to rush their disposal more or who have coaches wanting longer kicks and benefits players who chip it around the backline collecting easy stats. Still, we work with what we have and can assume safely that there is a reasonable collection of both ground and marked balls – though if I must give one era more marks, anecdotally it would be the powerhouse forwards of the 80s and 90s.

The final difficulty is breaking it into decades or eras. There are many players we associated with the 80s who played well into the 90s, etc… I’m going to largely leave the subjective term of “era” up to you and put the work into decades as much as possible, respecting of course that there will be some cross overs.

 

THE 1970s

The 70s. Oh, who could forget the names like Walls, Bartlett, Quinlan, Wilson and Wade? (Well, me for one because I was not yet born). They were some great goalkickers in their own right- or were they?

The 70s produced 71,897 shots over ten years – but almost half of them missed the target with a 52.7% success rate.  The 71 goal kickers I researched from the three years I researched managed a better percentage at 58.3.

Simply put, it’s pretty average, and poses some interesting questions as to why. In my overall stats, two of the top five goalkickers, Larry Donohue (339 at 73.7%) and Kelvin Templeton (593 at 72.5%) over their careers, began their career well within the 70s and featured during this decade. In fact, the top goal kickers all do pretty well. It’s the bottom goal kickers who ruin it for everyone else.

Kind of like the dumb kid in the class bringing down the average test results… which is why schools now try to farm them out to other programs. Shifty education department…

There ARE eight players who all listed under 50% accuracy, with the great KB being the last to squeeze in there, with his 778 goals coming at only 49.9%. He played so long that he drags overall numbers down for everyone over the decade, though he marginally improved in 1980 for a couple of years before bottoming out in 1983 at 45%. Robert Walls is another culprit at 52.2%. I wonder how many times those two have lamented poor goal kicking as part of their commentary duties?

Leigh Matthews is another one who I put in the 70s, though you could argue to place him into the 80s – I’ll leave that up to you. He went at 55.8% which is pretty much average. The great Blighty went at 58%.

The best goal kicker of that era was Doug Wade, who kicked 1057 goals at 66.9% for his career.

The best year was 1978 at an overall accuracy of 55.5%.

The best individual performances of the three years were Footscray’s Kevin Templeton with 118 goals at 64.5% and George Young for the Saints in 1978 with 70 goals at 76.9% – the highest of any player analysed in that tally.

 

THE 1980s

The 80s. The start of the powerhouse forwards era, and the start of the AFL as a national competition. There have been an extra five thousand scoring shots compared to the last ten years, and across the board, accuracy has improved from 52.7% to 55.1% with the lead goal kickers going at 61.2% for the decade.

Would it be this or the 90s who won? Most people I’ve spoken to would argue a mix – with Lockett, Brereton, Ablett, and some other key players who featured in both.

There was an improvement in the 80s between the best and the worst kickers. Only three of the leading goalkickers achieved less than 50% – Brad Hardie at 45.6% in ’88; Darren Davies at 47.7% in ’88: and Barry Mitchell with 48.6%. The top tier was mostly similar, all in that low 70% range with Simon Madden topping the table at 79.9% – and those numbers were pretty similarly represented across the players’ careers.

The goalkicking tally of the 80s was quite similar to that of the modern era, though there were a few hundred plus goal seasons – one for each season analysed. The top goal kickers were kicking around 48 for the season, a slight increase from 45 in the 70s.

The careers of some key names

Tony Lockett entered the scene in the 80s; no questions around him being the greatest goal kicker of all time – and the accuracy backed that up – with a career going at 69.7%. He was the best of all goal kickers I studied who kicked over 600.

Mark McClure went at 56.6%. The great BT was excellent in front of goal at 64.6, and Demie was well above the average at 61%.

 

THE 1990s

The 90s were really about the power-house forwards. Many of the big named players who started in the 80s, kicked it up a notch come 1990, with six performances above 100 goals in the three seasons studied and the average goals per individual studied lifting to 49.9 goals per season from the teams’ two top goalkickers.

Again, there was an improvement in the difference between the best and the worst. For the most part, the best was equivalent in that it was around that low to mid 70% mark, but there were more players featured. As for the worst, only two players, John Hutton and Garry Lyon managed to sneak under the 50% mark for a season and only Brad Rowe maintained a fail grade for an entire career at 46.5%.

Lockett was the dominant outlier with a staggering 81.3% accuracy. The worst, however, was a vast improvement.  Gary Lyon had the worst season of the three studied, at 49%, well below his career average of 60%. There were many more players in the 60s with the like of Tony Modra (65.6), Jason Dunstall (66.2), Paul Salmon (64.9), Sav Rocca (64.5), Alastair Lynch (63.9), Roger Merrett (64.8), and Darren Jarman (64.8) all amongst the best.

Overall the competition went at 57%, but the best goal kickers went at 62%, providing accuracy in an era, especially early, that was often reliant on a single goal kicker. This is best exemplified in ’93 when Modra kicked 129 (at 65%) and the next best was Liptak with 23 (at 58%).

 

THE 2000s

The 2000s proved the best of the decades overall, with the combined competition coming in at 59.2% accuracy and the best kickers at 63.1%. We lost the big goal kickers, but the average season for players analysed only dropped a few goals – to 46.

I was a bit undecided about whether to include Lloyd and Brad Johnson in the 00s or the 90s, as they featured prominently in both, but both were up there in the best of both decades at 68.6% accuracy apiece. There were a few seasons of above 70% accuracy featuring the likes of Russell Robertson, Matthew Pavlich, Stephen Milne, Matthew Lloyd Lloyd, Daniel Motlop, and the great Austin Wonaeamirri topped out in 2008 with a 24.4 season at 85.7%.

Importantly, there was no single player in the 00s with a percentage under 50%, which was a first for the study. And only two – Akermanis (46.7) and Richardson (49.3) to have a season under 50% (both in 2003). Anthony Rocca couldn’t quite outdo his brother – featuring in 2003 with a career at 59.2%, which was just under stalwarts, Nick Riewoldt (61.2%), Fraser Gehrig (65.8%), Barry Hall (63.9%) and Pav (61.7%).

Gary Ablett Jr got a chance to prove whether he was better than his old man or not and at 56.9%, he just fell a little shy of his old man (59.9%) and current team mate Dangerfield (57%). Although not listed in the best, I was curious so I compared them to Fyfe and Dusty, with the latter two both winning out on 58% and 58.5% respectively.

 

THE 2010s

And then we come to the latest decade, the one with goal kicking greats like Chris Mayne, Tyrone Vickery, Josh Jenkins, Travis Cloke and Levi Casboult.

It’s almost painful to suggest but believe it or not, the 2010s are pretty much in line with the 2000s as the most accurate decade of the last 50 years.

Let that sink in.

Sure, we are a lot down on goals per individual, at an average of 40 per top player, but the accuracy was as good as it can get. The standard across the competition was 58.1, just shy of the naughties but across the top goal kickers it improved to 63.8

Those names I mentioned above were all generally respectable – Mayne (62.7%) was helped out by his impressive 2013 (75.5% for that season), Cloke went at 55.1%, and Casboult at 57.1 which puts him roughly equal to the likes of Dangerfield, Cale Hooker, Bernie Quinlan, Dale Thomas, Jason Akermanis, Chris Tarrant, and a touch below Lance Franklin at 58.2% (though I know who I’d rather have in my side). Josh Jenkins at 63.7% pretty much made me want to throw this entire exercise out the window, but my sanity was saved when it fell below Betts’ 65.7%.

Tom McDonald was a surprise with 67% just beating out fellow McDonald, of the Anthony Tippa-variety, who goes at 65%.

Jack Riewoldt is slightly better than his cousin at 62.8%.

Ben Brown’s 67.7% should come as a surprise to very few people – he rarely misses.

Jack Gunston (67.9%) and Luke Bruest (63.6%) kept popping up in Hawthorn’s best, and along with Roughead at 61% highlighted how skilled that side was compared to everyone else. Strangely their coach appeared in the 90s section with an unimpressive 85 goals at just 53.1%. They do say that those who can’t do, teach.

The only player to have a career over 70% throughout the 2010s was the most accurate kick I could find who had kicked over 100 goals: Tory Dickson. 181 goals at 74.8% accuracy. I almost spat out my soup.

But this lack of players in the 70%-range was off set by only having one player under 50% for his Career – Aaron Hall at 49%.

In other news, Kurt Tippett is a better kick than Franklin at 61% (once again, I know who I’d prefer).

Josh Kennedy, Mark LeCras and Jack Darling are all dynamite for the Eagles at 65.1%, 63.5%, 65.3%, but finally, Freo had one over them with Michael Walters clocking in at 65.6%.

 

For the record, the greatest kicks at goal I could find were:

0-100 goals: Michael Murphy, 63 goals at 76.8%

100+ goals: Tory Dickson, 181 goals at 74.8%

300+ goals: Larry Donohue, 339 goals at 73.7%

500+ goals: Kelvin Templeton, 593 goals at 72.5%

600+ goals: Tony Lockett, 1360 goals at 69.7%

 

And the worst I could find:

0-100 goals: John Pitura, 95 goals at 43.2%

100+ goals: Ken Newland, 217 goals at 44%

300+ goals: Alan Noonan, 420 goals at 46.5%

500+ goals: Kevin Bartlett, 778 goals at 49.9%

800+ goals: Leigh Matthews, 915 goals at 55.8%

 

Overall, of the 302 players I surveyed, the average career total was 195 goals and 59% accuracy, spanning from Wonaeamirri at 37 goals to Lockett at 1360.

Anyway, I had a lot of fun doing this. Well done if you’re still with me, though I suspect most of you have given up (sorry, I did say it was a bit Champion Data-ish). But it does seem as though goal kicking has generally improved across the board.

If you want to know about any player in particular, let us know – I’ve listed plenty of them and can probably give you the stats. But next time you’re at the pub (when they reopen) and you’re talking about footy, you can confidently look your mate in the eye and say not only has goalkicking never been better, but Travis Cloke was better at it than Kevin Bartlett; it’s probably a good way to lose friends though.