There is a perception that the modern players sit head and shoulders above those who have come before them, and for the most part, it could quite possibly be true.
Advanced training, diet and a more professional environment have players performing at their optimum, or at least giving them every opportunity to do so. But there are some exceptions to this. There are some players who transcend eras, offering something special that would be effective in whichever era they played in.
And that’s who we’re looking at in this article.
We’re not going to dive too deep – I only have access to a certain amount of vintage games and my memory of things when I was a little fella isn;t what it used to be. However, the feats I’ve witnessed whilst watching these and conjuring memories of these contests leave no question that, with the right conditioning and modern facilities, these blokes could definitely hang with the best the AFL currently has to offer.
PETER MOORE – COLLINGWOOD/MELBOURNE
When you watch Darcy Moore grab the footy and take off from defence, you cannot help but be reminded of his father. Of course, you either have to be on the wrong side of 45 years old, or have an extensive library of DVDs to make the comparison, but Darcy is just like Peter, with a dash and burst of speed that screams “athlete!”
Moore would excel in the modern game. Graceful and poised, his ability to hit the ground running and leave his opponents for dead was a great strength in his era, and resulted in two Brownlow Medals, in 1979 and 1984. One with Collingwood, and one with Melbourne.
I can’t remember hearing as much vitriol from supporters as I heard Moore cop as a kid. The Collingwood supporters I knew went from idolising him to possessing unadulterated hatred in the space of one off-season. He has walked out on ‘The Club’ and was actually successful after he left! Damn him…
Moore reminded me a greyhound in the way he moved. He was sleek and slick with the footy in hand, doing things other ruckmen were incapable of. He’d collect at half-back and think nothing of striding down the wing, taking a couple of bounces and delivering the footy into the forward line. He was a weapon like no other at that stage of his career – balanced and in control, with the ability to swing onto that left foot and slam through a goal without breaking stride. In many aspects, he was the prototype of what rucks of the future were going to be. You hear some use the phrase ëxtra midfielder” when discussing elite rucks. That was Moore.
Easily capable of picking up 20-25 touches in a game, Moore also had the ability to hit the scoreboard in a big way. Bags of six, seven and eight goals line his CV.
With the pace of the modern game, Moore is one of the few rucks from the era that could genuinely match it for pace and fitness with the modern player. He was far ahead of his time, and with his son captaining the Pies to the 2023 flag, he did what his old man never could.
I guess it’s nice to see a son match up to the feats of his father. So often, it tends to go the other way.
ROSS GLENDINNING – NORTH MELBOURNE/WEST COAST.
There were players in the 1980s that looked like footballers, and then there was Ross Glendinning. Barrel-chested, with a physique that looked like that of a superhero, Glendinning debuted for North Melbourne in 1978 and immediately established himself as one of the premier swingmen in the game.
He won a Brownlow (1983) playing primarily at centre half-back, and his reading of the ball in flight made him an incredible asset to have when it came to both spoiling and taking intercept marks. However, Glendinning was effective as a forward as well, and in just his second season with the Kangaroos, he averaged 2.81 goals per game. His 59 goals that season were only bettered by his 73-goal season in his final year with the West Coast Eagles. Not a bad way to go out. 73 snags…
Glendinning moved back “home” to become the inaugural captain of the Eagles, and was integral in the team commanding immediate respect. His no-nonsense style and brutal but fair attack on both the contest and anyone in his way made him one of the most dangerous players in the game.
Glendinning was one of the first players to really look like a professional athlete. He looked like a man who took his conditioning and strength seriously, and as any of his opponents can attest, he was a very hard man to move out of the way if he did not want to move.
My favourite memory of him? Probably the role he played in the infamous 1980 night Grand Final. Whilst all the attention went on the last 30 seconds of the game and the way the game ended after the siren, Glendinning was a one-man wall in defence for North Melbourne, racking up the intercepts and sending North forward. The game is on Youtube if you care to have a look.
KEN HUNTER – CARLTON
People never forget the images of Jonathon Brown and Nick Riewoldt running with the flight of the ball to take ridiculously courageous marks.
However, they don’t have a mortgage on courage by any stretch. Ken Hunter was staking his claim on being the most courageous player in the caper years before these blokes were out of primary school. With little regard for his personal safety, Hunter made a habit of launching at the football in positions where most men fear to tread. His ability to run with the flight, never once taking his eye off the football and take marks is the stuff of legend, but as impressive as his aerial feats were, if that is all you remember of Hunter, then you’re only getting half the story.
Much is made of players who are versatile, and can move from defence to attack with ease. Few made it look as easy as Hunter.
He kicked 5+ goals on nine occasions as both David Parkin and Robert Walls swung him from end to end to impact the game. Hunter’s run from half-back, or ability to take strong marks up forward, and/or keep his feet in the contest would be invaluable in the modern game.
The ALFPA’s Most Courageous Award commenced in 1991. It’s a pity it wasn’t started about ten years earlier. I reckon Hunter may have had a mortgage on it through the 1980s.
MALCOLM BLIGHT – NORTH MELBOURNE
Here was the conundrum – you had players like Gary Ablett Senior and Leigh Matthews; both of whom could play in any era, but how long do you think these guys would last in the highly-officiated, whistle-happy game we have now? Matthews would be spending half his time in the grandstand, watching the game play out before him as he served suspension after suspension, and the poor discipline of Ablett might see him spend more time on the sidelines as well.
Could they both play right now? Yes, of course they could. So could Phil Carman on pure talent, but they’d be umpired out of the game. Matthews, in particular, made his name on the back of his brutality as much as he did his skill – mostly legal back in the day, but not even slightly tolerated now.
But if you are looking for supreme skill combined with a wonderful temperament on the field, it’s hard to go past Malcolm Blight.
Blight, like Matthews and Ablett, played both midfield and forward. His early career was spent racking up touches in the middle, or off the half-forward flank, before moving to the position of full forward later in his North Melbourne tenure. But unlike the other two, Blight wasn’t really accustomed to dishing out the physical punishment. He was a ball player, supremely skilled with a knack for finding the goals from even the tightest of angles. In that regard, he reminded me a lot of Jason Akermanis, yet he had the body of a key forward.
Blight averaged under a goal per game just once in his career – his second season, and his last was his best in front of goal, securing the Coleman Medal with a 103-goal blast. I mentioned Glendinning going out with a bang, with 73 goals in his last year. Blight kicked the bloody ton before heading back to the SANFL for a couple of years, and in 85, he slotted the lazy 126 goals for Woodville
Yes, there are peers who could have played in this era if they curbed their aggression – Blight wouldn’t need to do that. He was Zen-like in his approach to the game; a thinker before deep thinking about the game was cool.
My favourite Blight story involved Ron Barrassi. The North premiership coach was so pissed with Blight taking a banana kick from the pocket instead of centering the footy, that on the Tuesday at training, he singled Blight out and made him go back to the same spot. He wanted to make a point by showing his team that, though Blight kicked the goal on the weekend, the percentage thing to do was to kick the ball to a better position for a teammate.
Well, Barrassi wanted Blight to take twenty shots from the pocket – a nice easy number to calculate the percentage of misses. He predicted that Blight wouldn’t kick one, but after ten attempts, Barrassi called the experiment off. Blight had slotted four of the goals, and hit the post twice.
“What about the other ten,” asked Blight.
Barrassi had seen enough. “You’re a freak. Get out of here.”
SIMON MADDEN – ESSENDON
I sometimes get asked who the best ruckman I’ve seen is. I’ve written about it before, and many gravitate to Dean Cox when this question arises. I can see why – Cox was incredible and took the combination of tap-ruckman and workhorse to a new level with West Coast, becaming the best mobile ruckman of his era.
But long before Cox was running around, strutting his stuff, Simon Madden was providing the perfect blend of ruck/forward in the game. His tap-work was exceptional, and with a natural leap, combined with impeccable timing, Madden worked tirelessly to give the Bomber mids first use of the ball.
Madden would drift forward and punish teams on the scoreboard, taking towering marks and averaging less than a goal per game just twice in his 19 seasons at Windy Hill. With a total of 575 goals to his name, no other ruckman ever provided the dual impact of one who could play in the centre square or the goal square.
Madden has three All-Australian selections to his credit, but also claims six VFL team of the year honours, which are more or less the equivalent of AA honours now. Keeping in mind that the record for most AA selections is eight, thats how good Madden was. Unlike his brother, Justin, Simon was no plodder, and his ability to cover the ground to play both ends was exceptional.
Madden rated Gary Dempsey, Len Thompson, Don Scott and even his brother Justin as the toughest players he played against, however, if you ask any ruck from those days who their toughest match-up was, and the name of Simon Madden will undoubtedly come up.
I find it amazing that this bloke ended up playing for four clubs, but due to circumstance and the need for good cashola, Raines went from being a beloved Tiger to playing 120 for three additional clubs over the next seven seasons.
Raines was the perfectly balanced wingman who seemed to float through the air with such ease that it was ridiculous, and his smooth-moving running style gave the impression that he was doing things effortlessly. His long kicking and ability to run through the middle ignited the Tigers as the eighties began, but his confidence in the team and himself was eroded with the arrival of Maurice Rioli – recruited to play in the centre. Recruited to play Raines’ position.
Raines’ ability and eye-catching displays were enough to establish him as the 1980 Brownlow favourite. He’d averaged over 24 touches per game and was a standout in the Richmond midfield. He received zero votes.
Many think it was due to his backchat toward umpires, but we really don’t know. Maybe some Tigers were simply better?
Looking at Raines, and his style of play, it is easy to see him slotting into the AFL right now. His run and carry, and penetrating kick would be potent weapons on any team.
WAYNE JOHNSTON – CARLTON
The Dominator, huh? He could do it all, and in an era where strength and conditioning weren’t taken all that seriously, Johnston was a bit of a freak.
He could run all day and still have the capacity to hit contests at full pace late in the fourth quarter.
Growing up watching Carlton, many would remember the names of Jesaulenko, Southby, Doull or Fitzpatrick as important cogs in their premiership-winning ways, but for me there was always a trilogy of talent that seemed to bob up and turn games. It consisted of Jim Buckley, Wayne Harmes and The Dominator.
When Carlton needed a lift, so often if was Johnston stepping to the fore in big games.
The quintessential Johnston game is burnt into my memory. The family dragged me out to Waverley to watch the Blues and North Melbourne. It was a slaughter, and Johnston put on a clinic. 43 touches and five goals capped a mammoth day for Johnston as he simply took a highly talented North Melbourne side (Dempsey, Dench, Schimma, Krakouer Brothers) and tore them to shreds. It remains one of the most devastating individual performances I have ever seen live. I was in awe that day.
The thing about Johnston is that he had a bit of mongrel in him. He liked to beat the hell out of a team. There was no mercy in him, and if you were down, he’d figuratively sink the boots in, and do it happily.
He was the embodiment of the Carlton sides of the 1980s; confident to the point of cockiness, self-assured to the point of arrogance, and bloody good at what he did. Who would he be in the current game? He is Toby Greene, but tougher. He’s Jordan de Goey without the off-field reputation… and that is likely only because a lot of stuff wasn’t reported as often.
And he’d still be The Dominator.
PETER KNIGHTS – HAWTHORN
People simply forget.
They remember the name, and they remember the high-flying marks, but as more and more great players emerge in the modern game, just how good Peter Knights was becomes a little more lost.
A brilliant intercept mark across half-back, Knights could control a game of football without ever hitting the scoreboard. Players like him and David Dench started to add some flair to positions that were largely the domain of dour, purely defensive types. With his run and carry, Dench revolutionised the full back position. With his high marking and dash from half back, Knights became the centre half back teams dreamed of having.
His highlight reel is as good as anyone in the game, and his ability to go forward and hit the scoreboard was every bit as good as any that have played the game. Much is made of David Neitz’s transition from centre half back to full forward in the 90s. It was a remarkable change of position, but Knights was able to switch spots mid-game and have a huge impact on proceedings.
He kicked 5+ goals on seven occasions as he took his high-wire act forward and became a target for the Hawks. In 1978 he finished second to Malcolm Blight in the Brownlow Medal, and you have to wonder whether people would so readily forget his status in the game had he worn Charlie home instead, that night? He also finished second in 1976 despite breaking his collarbone in Round 14 and missed the final seven matches of the season
He is also one of just two men to win mark of the year three times (along with Tony Modra). Knights won in 1972, 75, and 77, and it must be remembered that he was working in an era when not every game was televised, so I can only imagine how many hangers he took that never made it onto your TV screen.
So, got any more you think could easily make the jump from the semi-professional era into the modern game? List ‘em – I am all ears