Jake Niall’s top 20 footy players since 1987


Tony Lockett, ranked third on my list and No.4 on Carey’s 20, is another player in the conversation for best of that time. Plugger was a force of nature and, as with Leigh Matthews (who had retired by ’87 ), the full-forward carried a rare element of intimidation alongside superb skills.

Listen to Wayne Carey give the reasoning behind his top 20 selections, and the honourable mentions, in this week’s episode of the Real Footy podcast.

Anyway, here’s my version of the game’s top 20 since 1987, which takes issue with Carey’s on a few rankings and names:

1. WAYNE CAREY
As a key forward, Carey was slightly less consistent than the premier midfielders, but this is only because forwards cannot control their supply. Carey combined speed, power, courage and size with superb marking and ball skills. He influenced results more than any other player of his era; without him, North would have just made up the numbers.

2. GARY ABLETT snr
The most electrifying and explosive match-winner since the game was properly televised, Ablett, as one coach put it back in 1989, could “do more things than anyone else” – leap ruckmen in a single bound, roost goals from 70 metres, out-sprint smaller men and fend off much taller defenders with one arm. He had one obvious weakness – stamina.

3. TONY LOCKETT
Plugger’s innate brutality, burly physique and diffident temperament should not obscure his extraordinary skills for a 110-plus kilogram beast. His kicking for goal – and to teammates – was as good as we’ve seen. And defenders, quite reasonably, got out his way when he was on the lead.

Tony Lockett was in both Carey and Niall’s top 20 lists.Credit:Getty Images

4. LANCE FRANKLIN
Buddy is the last player to kick 100 goals and, given the drying up of scoring, he will surely be the last for the forseeable future. Like Lockett, Buddy had speed for a massive man, but unlike Plugger, he also had an enormous tank. If not a super-mark as Carey says, he was super at everything else.

5. MICHAEL VOSS
Voss was the most complete midfielder, in that he could play inside and out, use the ball brilliantly, mark over bigger men and play forward or back if necessary. His ability to lift and lead in key moments was crucial in Brisbane’s three-peat.

6. JASON DUNSTALL
Carey ranked him No.1. I don’t think it’s insulting to place Dunstall, another explosive power athlete with vice-like hands, sixth. He was a super specialist, in that it is hard to imagine him playing another position besides full-forward. But why would a coach play him anywhere else?

7. JAMES HIRD
Hird was the most uncanny player of his generation. He wafted around the field, finding the ball at will and also had that special quality of making the game slow. He inserted himself where the battle was most intense, or where he would make a difference.

Greats of the game Jason Dunstall, Carey and James Hird.

Greats of the game Jason Dunstall, Carey and James Hird.Credit:Craig Abraham

8. GARY ABLETT jnr
Once Gaz turned truly professional in 2007 at the behest of teammates, he became the game’s premier midfielder. A prolific ball-winner who was hardly worth tagging, Ablett’s five Most Valuable Player awards, two Brownlows (one at Geelong, one at Gold Coast) and two flags make him a probable future AFL Legend in the Hall of Fame, alongside more mercurial dad.

9. CHRIS JUDD
In his first six years at West Coast, Judd was the game’s best midfielder – a lightning-quick player who could win the ball inside, evade and break into space. At Carlton, he remained a superstar, but was more akin to Muhammad Ali than Cassius Clay, with a greater reliance on smarts and guts as injuries (groin mainly) dulled his fast-twist supremacy.

10. GREG WILLIAMS
No one read the play better than Diesel, whose brilliance was combined with a nasty streak that surfaced when some taggers grabbed him one time too many. Too slow, too short, too fat, too bloody good.

11. NATHAN BUCKLEY
Few players have carried a heavier burden than Buckley, by dint of the way he came to Collingwood and then because of initially poor teams he carried. An all-rounder like Voss, with outstanding ball-getting and kicking skills, Buckley added a more physical edge to his game and became nigh-unstoppable.

Collingwood great Nathan Buckley.

Collingwood great Nathan Buckley.Credit:AAP

12. ROBERT HARVEY
Harvs had that wiggle that enabled him to create space in front of him. He could run and run like few others, grinding taggers into the ground. A modest champion, whose quiet style meant he was sometimes overlooked in conversations about the best when his record put him right up there.

13. DUSTIN MARTIN
In 2020, he stands – slightly – apart as the player of the past few years. A powerful midfielder, whose deft kicking is combined with that famous fend-off, Dusty doesn’t just accumulate disposals. He makes his possessions count and no opponent enjoys facing him isolated in the scoring territory.

14. NAT FYFE
He’s won two Brownlows and who knows whether he’d have another if not for that broken leg. Fyfe is a monster midfielder, who crashes packs and emerges with the footy, plus a superb overhead mark. The only weakness is his kicking is less reliable than some other superstars.

15. PETER MATERA
Matera was a match-winning wingman, whose blinding acceleration and clean skills and evasion changed the course of games – including finals. Ranks as the best Eagle outside of Judd, ahead of Glenn Jakovich (Carey’s choice as next to Judd) and Ben Cousins.

16. LUKE HODGE
Some will dispute that Hodge belongs here, because, as Carey noted, he played across half-back for much of his career, rather than in the midfield. I’d counter that he could play midfield and even forward and his big-game record (two Norm Smith medals) and leadership needs no elaboration.

Luke Hodge missed out on Carey's list.

Luke Hodge missed out on Carey’s list.Credit:AAP

17. JONATHAN BROWN
Brown could mark against two or three opponents. The Lion key forward wasn’t quick, but he had a huge tank and also played with a measure of useful nastiness. Injuries did afflict him more than his rivals Nick Riewoldt and Matthew Pavlich, but he was the most imposing and influential of that trio.

18. ANTHONY KOUTOUFIDES
At his zenith in 2000 and 2001, Kouta was the best player in the game. He was, as Leigh Matthews once observed, the player you would clone to fill all 18 spots on the park. A super athlete with amazing hands, Koutoufides’ major failing was that it took until the 1999 preliminary final to unleash his vast array of gifts and then he did his knee.

19. STEPHEN SILVAGNI

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Whereas Jakovich makes Carey’s 20, SOS is the only key defender on my list. Immensely strong in the torso, Silvagni took on all of the great forwards of his time – Lockett, Dunstall, Ablett, Tony Modra and Carey – and more than held his own. He could play forward very effectively, too.

20. MATTHEW PAVLICH
Pavlich beats out of host of players – Adam Goodes, Nick Riewoldt, Matthew Scarlett, Andrew McLeod, Mark Rucciuto, Scott Pendlebury, Stephen Kernahan, Patrick Dangerfield, Matthew Lloyd, Matthew Richardson and Joel Selwood – for the final spot in the 20. He played all over the field, booted heaps of goals and turned games from the middle. He shouldn’t be penalised for the absence of a flag any more than Ablett senior, Lockett, Harvey or Buckley.

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