No, this isn’t a review of that seminal Australian 90s classic featuring Alex Dimitriades (later Scott Major) and Claudia Karvan, nor is it the Hollywood blunder with Ben Stiller, however it is a follow up Mongrel article, and the reference in the heading is to the classic Hot Shots sequel; a favourite of David Schwarz if we need a tenuous football link.
AFL Grand Finals are filled with stories, heroes and villains, break out players, drought breakers, redemption, failure and success, but there is another group, often out of the spotlight, those who have just missed the starting line, the Heartbreak Kids.
The 2021 version is no exception, one on each team have received the sympathy of all footy followers, Josh Bruce the Bulldogs leading goalkicker struck down by the scourge of an ACL tear in the dying seconds of their round 21 match against the Bombers and due to covid arrangements, immediately removed from the team environment. Nathan Jones, the former Demon skipper, 300-game player, three-time B&F winner, and general shining light in his club’s darkest era. Unfortunately for Nathan while the mind is no doubt willing, father time has caught up with him and his place in the side has been usurped by a group of fierce and hungry young men. Regardless of the result on Saturday, bittersweet tears will be shed by one of these fine players.
A couple of years ago, the Mongrel published the first of this series of historical chronicles, The Heartbreak Kids – focussing on some of the best players ever to miss out on wearing a premiership medallion. This feature will depart slightly from that brief and instead concentrate on players who through reason of form, fitness or cruel twist of fate found themselves without a coveted medal while their teammates sipped from the holy grail long into the night.
Due to the focus I’ve chosen here that means we will exclude all-time greats whose club was never quite good enough to win a flag in their tenure, so Nick Riewoldt, Robbie Flower, Bob Skilton, Patrick Dangerfield, Robert Harvey, Matthew Pavlich will have to wait perhaps for a part 3 for their particular story of heartbreak to be told. We will also skip over some of the oft-told tales of Derek Kickett, Robert Murphy, Tony Modra and Brett Deledio covered with the boss Mongrel’s typical flair in the early edition.
Also just missing out in this chapter are Peter Schwab, suspended in the 1989 Second Semi Final and missing what became possibly the greatest game ever played, his story not quite as miserable due to the three medallions he’d already secured in the Hawks incredible rampage through the 80’s. A measure of redemption was also achieved by Swans coach John Longmire in his playing days, a star full forward who booted 464 goals in six seasons leading up to his club’s drought-breaking centennial premiership in 1996 which he missed due to yet another knee reconstruction. He forced his way back into the team in the unfamiliar role as a back up ruckman and was in and out of the side over the next few years before tasting ultimate success in his 200th and final AFL game in 1999.
And so we move on to the real heartbreakers, the players who enjoyed careers of varying success, but for a moment of madness, an untimely dip in output, or a shockingly timed injury missed out on their opportunity for immortality.
Carl Ditterich – St Kilda 1966
Sensationally best afield on debut as a 17-year-old in Round 1, 1963, Big Carl played in the Saints losing 1965 Grand Final, collecting 13 touches and 4 marks. The following season he was suspended in Round 17, for 6 games for striking Daryl Peoples of Fitzroy, missing his beloved Saints only premiership success. He later played in the famous 1971 Grand Final, again contributing solidly with 17 disposals, 4th most for his side, but was beaten by Don Scott, who was widely considered best afield.
Neville Crowe – Richmond 1967
A 3-time B&F winner and former skipper, Crowe was still performing to a high level as Richmond made a run to the 1967 finals after a 23-year premiership drought. His 150th match brought about his first ever report for ‘striking ruck counterpart John Nicholls as the boundary umpire rushed in to penalise the retaliator after a skirmish that resulted in a free kick and 15m penalty to the Tiger. Without the benefit of video evidence which showed a clear dive from the so-called Blue hardman, along with a lack of adherence to the forged in steel players code which resulted in Big Nick repeatedly claiming he had no memory of the incident as he was provided leading questions by the Carlton supporting tribunal chairman. The four-week suspension meant Crowe would never play again but was integral to the club as President during the Save Our Skins campaign in 1990. He passed away in September, 2016 just before the Tiger’s return to the top.
Rod Lester-Smith – Hawthorn 1986
A star in WA, playing in a premiership with East Fremantle as a tall winger, Lester Smith was drafted to the Hawks in 1982, moving across for the 1984 season. Played in the losing Grand Final that season, before he reached his peak in 1985, playing all 26 games and being named All Australian, another losing Grand Final ensued, but he was one of the Hawks best. He began 1984 like a man on a mission winning six Brownlow votes in the first four rounds, before injury and a loss of form kept him out until mid-season. After 11 consecutive games he was dropped for the Preliminary Final and only an emergency for the Grand Final as the Hawks saluted. Eventually claimed an elusive premiership as skipper of the Brisbane Bears Reserves in 1991, the first flag to go outside Victoria.
Bernie Evans – Carlton 1987
The Swans club champion requested a trade to Carlton rather than relocate full time to Sydney after the 1985 season. Evans kicked five goals in the victorious ’86 Second Semi Final but Hawthorn reversed the result in the Grand Final against the odds, the following year Evans was again in the headlines in the Second Semi Final, this time for striking Hawk ruckman Greg Dear. Dear attempted to uphold the players code claiming he was milking a free kick, but Evans was suspended missing out on the premiership two weeks later. In a bizarre footnote he is featured in the official club premiership photo while players on the day Ken Hunter and Paul Meldrum were absent.
Peter Motley – Carlton 1987
A football prodigy, Motley already a 2-time All Australian representing the Sturt two-blues would form part of a star quartet of highly credentialled recruits to Carlton before the ’86 season alongside Craig Bradley, Stephen Kernahan and Jon Dorotich when he moved to Melbourne aged 21. Initially struggling to secure his place in a strong Blues line up he nonetheless played 13 matches including the losing Grand Final in ’86. In ’87 a move into the midfield had him ready to take the competition by the scruff of the neck but a horrific car crash left him with severe head trauma, and he never played again. Carlton went on to win the Grand Final that season, spurred by the fight Motley showed in surviving his injuries and dedicating the win to him and Des English who was diagnosed with cancer.
Ron McKeown/Alan Richardson – Collingwood 1990
McKeown a Magpie favourite played 123 career games across 10 seasons, in the drought-breaking premiership year of 1990, he played a career-high twenty matches and averaged his highest number of disposals with 11, also claiming Brownlow votes in two matches. He held his place in the side from round 4 through to the replay of the Qualifying Final after that famous draw at Waverley but was overlooked for the Second Semi in preference of Craig Starcevich. Two goals by Timmy from Thomastown’s all-time favourite ensured McKeown’s premiership dreams would be shattered.
The former Saints coach and present Melbourne Head of Football, Richardson played 114 games across nine seasons for the Carringbush. He contributed 13.5 disposals per game in his 18 matches across 1990 but unfortunately injured his shoulder in the Semi Final. Despite declaring publicly ‘she’ll be right, coach’, his cracked collarbone was re-broken by coach Matthews in a shuddering bump during a last-minute fitness test before the game and he was replaced in history by Shane Kerrison.
Jason McCartney – North Melbourne 1999
Drafted to Collingwood the season after their famous 1990 flag, McCartney became a journeyman moving to Adelaide after a few seasons and after missing out on their premiership side in 1997, moved to North Melbourne. McCartney established himself as an important tall defender in this great Kangaroo side, unfortunately on the wrong side of another Crows title in 1998, he set himself to go one better in 1999 and delivered his best season at the top level. However, his premiership dreams were left in tatters as a brain fade of epic proportions occurred late in a big Preliminary Final win as McCartney swung wildly collecting Clark Keating high and subsequently being suspended for four matches, missing another premiership. Best known for his inspirational return to the field for round 11, 2003 after surviving the Bali bombing, he duly kicked the winning goal and retired, now the GWS list manager.
Matthew Kennedy – Brisbane 2001
So very almost a great success story for the great northern experiment, Kennedy was a local player from Southport who went on to play 188 games across twelve seasons. He performed admirably down back through the dark times in the early 90’s and was a consistent performer as the Bears/Lions began their slow ascend to the top. Was in an out of the side during 2001 but played in the big win over Richmond in the Preliminary Final before being pushed out of the Grand Final side by a returning Alaistair Lynch. Retired at the conclusion of the season, unable to compete with the recruited Mal Michael in a stacked Lions backline.
Matthew Primus – Port Adelaide 2004
The runner-up B&F in Port’s inaugural season, Primus was elevated to captain from 01-05, coinciding with a period of dominance for the lack, silver and teal. However, his heartbreak was never allowed to heal as Port Adelaide tripped up in the finals after consecutive minor premierships, before his knee buckled in round 3, 2004 in his only game of the season. His club would go on to yet another minor premiership, but this time famously hold their historic first cup aloft with stand-in skipper Warren Treadrea beside a delirious Mark Williams.
Stuart Maxfield – Sydney 2005
An integral cog in the famed bloods culture that propelled the Swans into contention for the best part of two decades, Maxfield moved from Richmond to Sydney and collected 15 touches in their fairy-tale Grand Final appearance in 1996. The hunger awoken by that loss drove the clubs’ leaders and Maxfield assumed the captaincy in 2003, holding that post until midway through 2005 when he succumbed to a knee injury ending his career. Despite playing in 22 or more games in eight of his ten seasons on the harbour, he was unable to replicate that in 2005, the season which finally ended a 72-year premiership drought for the red & white.
Jaymie Graham – West Coast Eagles 2006
The tall Eagle defender played 24 matches in 2006, torturously dropped for David Wirrpanda in the lead up to the Grand Final, in which West Coast avenged their narrow loss the year before to return the cup to Perth. Injury and indifferent form meant he never returned to his 2006 heights, and he retired from the AFL in 2008 never again to get the chance to claim that much sought-after medal.
Simon Prestigiacomo – Collingwood 2010
Complications from a badly corked thigh in Rd 20 in 2010 saw dour Pie defender Presti sidelined until the Grand Final. Selected for the big game ahead of youngster Nathan Brown he injured his groin in training, hiding it from teammates and coaches until after the traditional Grand Final parade when he selflessly revealed it to Malthouse, not wanting to interrupt the formalities. Feted for his team first mentality across 233 games in fifteen seasons, the beloved Magpie knew he would not be able to contain a rampant St Kilda skipper, Nick Riewoldt in full flight, and his sacrifice may have contributed to his club ultimately walking away with the cup.
Leon Davis – Collingwood 2010
The ultimate story of redemption was being written as the 2011 Grand Final played out, Leon Davis maligned through a zero-possession game in the 2002 playoff, only marginally improved the following year in another devastating loss had re-invented himself as an attacking defender and was playing a game for the ages. All Australian selection in 2009, book ended another career blip in 2010 when Davis was sadly dropped for the Grand Final replay after recording only six touches in the drawn match, however in 2011 he returned to the AA team and was willing his team to back-to-back glory. Twenty sublime touches, complemented by a game-high 11 tackles had the star Pie on the precipice of long-awaited glory at three-quarter time, but a Stevie J led flurry ripped that last hope from him and sent him into retirement with 225 games, but no medal.
Ben McGlynn – Sydney 2012
Started his career brightly at Hawthorn where he was an emergency in the 2008 triumph, before being shipped to Sydney following the 2009 season along with Josh Kennedy. Quickly became an important player in the game plan able to run through the middle and also hit the scoreboard, offering significant defensive pressure as well. In the Swans run to the flag in 2012 he only missed two games throughout the season before his hamstring pinged in the Qualifying Final against Adelaide and he was forced to watch on as his teammates celebrated an upset victory on the biggest stage. 2014 the tables had turned and the Swans were favourites, McGlynn had an outstanding year, polling 8 Brownlow votes in a stretch of 3 games late in the season before a minor hamstring again interrupted his lead in, he returned his lowest possession tally for the year as his Swans were ambushed on that last Saturday in September. Finally, 2016 arrived and his chance for redemption after averaging 16 touches and 2 goals in the previous 3 finals, unfortunately in his final match at this level he only contributed a meagre nine possessions as his dreams were callously ripped away one final time.
Brendan Whitecross – Hawthorn 2013, 2014, 2015
Drafted in the ’08 draft after a Hawk flag, Whitecross soon established himself as a vital player, one of the better players in the thrilling ’11 Preliminary Final loss, then enjoyed his best season in 2012 until he ruptured his ACL in the Qualifying Final, missing the narrow Grand Final loss. He returned towards the end of ’13, re-establishing himself in the team from round 14 until just after three-quarter time of that epic Preliminary Final when he once again tore his ACL. He missed that season’s premiership and the whole of 2014, another premiership year. He struggled to regain his form and pre-injury mobility, only playing 4 times in 2015, yet another flag year. He won his place back in 2016 by round 17, and played the remaining games as Hawthorn finished third, playing both finals as they missed their last realistic chance for glory.
Nic Natanui/Andrew Gaff/Brad Sheppard – West Coast Eagles 2018
The star Eagle triumvirate missed their club’s epic 2018 last gasp triumph through varying reasons of season long knee reconstruction, suspension for that infamous hit on Andy Brayshaw and a wonky hamstring. Each easily considered within West Coast’s best side, and each All Australian, the consensus was they would get their opportunity for glory in the coming years as the Eagles star-studded side looked ready for an era of greatness, but to date they have not returned to the greatest stage. Turning 32, 30 and 31 respectively next season the old adage it’s later than you think cruelly applies to these most unlucky players.