Is Jezza underrated? The answer has to be yes.

Recently I was looking through an old book called Football’s 50 Greatest in the Last 50 Years by Greg Hobbs and Scot Palmer. It was released back in 1976. This book, alongside footage of Alex Jesaulenko from 1970, made me re-evaluate whether we have got it wrong in relation to where Jesaulenko sits in the top echelon of the greatest players in the game.

It seems that the definitive listing on who are the greatest players has largely been settled as a result of the rankings provided by journalist Mike Sheehan in the 2008 book The Australian Game of Football. In Sheehan’s estimation, Carey was rated at number 1, Matthews at number 2, and Jesaulenko was ranked all the way down as the game’s 26th best player. Yet in Hobbs and Palmer’s book (released before Jesaulenko had achieved his crowning glory of the 1979 premiership) Jesaulenko was rated as the sixth best footballer to have played the game within the period of 1926-76.

It got me wondering – why the discrepancy? There were other things I picked up when comparing the two books. Melbourne’s Jack Mueller was rated the 7th best player in Hobbs’ book, but the 50th best in Sheehan’s book. Laurie Nash was rated at number 9, yet not even in Sheehan’s top 50. Again, why the discrepancy?

I think the answer is that in the case of Mueller, Nash and others the value of older players has diminished with the passing of time. Whether we like it or not players prior to the 1960s, such as Mueller and Nash, are largely overlooked in the ratings of the greatest players. This is done by most judges of the best of player lists, and not just by Sheehan. It would occur naturally in part one would presume as there is no video footage to back up their deeds. Only 12 of the 50 greatest players selected by Sheehan played the majority of their football prior to The Age of Television (1956). Similarly, only three of Carlton’s 22 Team of the Century players (excluding emergencies) played most of their football prior to 1956.

But back onto Melbourne’s Mueller. His high ranking of being the game’s 7th best player according to Hobbs & Palmer’s ratings had me intrigued. The odd thing is that Mueller’s most remarkable achievement occurred AFTER he retired. This player had retired in 1948, and Essendon beat Mueller’s team of Melbourne in the second semi of that year. Mueller, however, returned at age 33 to play in the preliminary final, the drawn grand final & the replayed grand final and he kicked 20 goals in those three finals matches. That is the stuff of a legend, but Mueller’s problem was that his heroics occurred prior to the age of television. His feats therefore have become less relevant with the passing of time.

For this reason, I have devised a new way of evaluating a listing of the greatest players. Instead of it being “the greatest players of all-time” we will focus only on what we know about and it will be “the greatest players of the last 60 years”. The new listing would exclude anyone who played the bulk of their football prior to 1961. This is the starting point, as 1961 is the first year in which a full grand final has been preserved in video format. My reasoning is that it is unfair to compare a player we have no footage of to a player that has a preserved legacy on film.

Television footage for the public’s availability started in the late 1950s but most of it has been lost or misplaced from that period. How can we judge Barassi and Whitten, for example, when their best football was primarily in the 1950s? Do we get seduced by looking at footage of Leigh Matthews, seeing his blind turn in the 1978 grand final and his goals in the 1983 grand final, knowing that we cannot then compare it to what Barassi did in the 1955, 1956, 1957, 1959, 1960 and 1964 grand finals in a visual sense? (Channel Seven does not have full match footage of any of Barassi’s grand finals as a player.)

The fact is Barassi’s grand final record as a player is better than Carey’s or Matthew’s. Barassi was listed as amongst the best half dozen players on the ground in the 1955, 1956, 1957 (he kicked five goals in this match) and 1959 grand finals. Yet despite this he was another one to slip in the rankings. In Hobbs’ book he was ranked as the 11th greatest footballer, but in Sheehan’s estimation he came in at 29th.

It is because of these large changes in ranking that one must devise a system that takes out some of the biases that may occur due to the passing of time. Therefore, the criteria I have used to create a listing of the greatest players, whilst still using Sheehan’s list, is as follows:

There are 3 criteria needed for selection. They are:

  • After 1961 – The most important criterion was that the best of the player’s football career was after 1961. If I had full match footage of Mueller’s exploits from the 1948 grand final my estimation of him would logically increase. Therefore, it is unfair to compare his exploits to players I have seen in numerous grand finals.
  • Longevity – the player must have played at least 200 games. This marker has been utilised in part as a player who has performed at a high standard over 12 years should be given preference over a player who performed well for just 6 years.
  • Grand final career- The player must have excelled in at least two grand finals. Back in 2008 I released a book called Grand Final Champions and I prepared for this task by interviewing players and watching every grand final from 1965 onwards many, many times. Perhaps that experience has coloured my estimation of players.

Yet the pressure is on in Grand Finals and it is where careers are made or lost whether we like it or not. Grand finals are the most important aspect of our game, so extra weighting was given to it.

This criterion, however, is unfair on some players such as Tony Lockett, who only got one shot at a grand final. You could say this criterion discriminates against some of the greatest players, and that is a fair conclusion to draw.

However, as the game values grand final careers so highly it is an unfortunate by-product of that weighting. For example, how often is Hawthorn’s Dermott Brereton introduced as “a five-time premiership player” compared to Brereton being introduced as the “211-game player who won the Hawthorn best and fairest in 1985”?

So of the 25 players rated above Jezza from the book The Australian Game of Football we are left with a reduced list of just nine players that have equal or greater standing than Jesaulenko if we utilise this criteria. I will not attempt to put them in order, as it is largely based on personal preference. However, it should be noted that Kevin Bartlett played over 400 games and was exceptional in four grand finals. Bartlett should therefore rate highly in anyone’s list.

Controversially, Wayne Carey does not qualify using this ranking system, as he was not among the best in at least two grand finals. In 1996, Carey impressed, yet in 1998 his opponent Peter Caven dominated, and in 1999 he came up against the Fullback of the Century, Stephen Silvagni. When shifted off Silvagni, Carey was a reasonable contributor in that match, but it wasn’t enough for this qualification.

These are the remaining players from Sheehan’s list of greats based on this criteria set.

Player excelled in these grand finals

2- Leigh Matthews – Hawthorn 1978, 1983

5- Jason Dunstall – Hawthorn 1986, 1988, 1991

7- John Nicholls – Carlton 1968, 1972

9 – Kevin Bartlett- Richmond 1967, 1969, 1973, 1980

10 – Greg Williams – Carlton 1993, 1995

11- Ian Stewart – St Kilda/Richmond 1966, 1973

18- Royce Hart- Richmond 1967, 1974

19- Michael Voss – Brisbane 2001, 2002

25- Bruce Doull – Carlton 1972, 1981, 1982

26- Alex Jesaulenko – Carlton 1970, 1972

Note: Nicholls was also impactful in the 1970 grand final, Hart in 1973, Dunstall in 1989 amongst others, but this list above is of when these players could be viewed as being amongst the top five players on the ground.

Using this new formula, Jesaulenko would rank in the top 10 players to have played the game since 1961. However, what makes this task even more complicated is that if one uses this formula for grand finals after 2008 we would have to include more players for consideration. The most notable players to have played over 200 games & have excelled in at least two grand finals since 2008 are Richmond’s Dustin Martin and Hawthorn’s Luke Hodge.

Ranking players is never easy, and many would agree with Mike Sheehan’s selections and his appraisals based on 40 years of exceptional football writing. Many would also agree with his high ranking for Kevin Bartlett. Few previous judges of the greatest players had Bartlett so high on their listing. Sheehan had Bartlett at number nine whilst Hobbs and Palmer’s ranking of 33 for Bartlett seemed to need modification. However, the big discrepancy appeared to be Jesaulenko’s selection at 26 in the 2008 book. On reflection, it was a puzzling selection.

I have to admit I took Mike Sheehan’s ratings of players as the gospel truth prior to reading Football’s 50 Greatest as he is arguably the most esteemed journalist in the game. It had been ingrained into my consciousness that it was out of Carey and Matthews as to who are the greatest players of our game largely due to Sheehan’s rankings. Furthermore, television commentators further emphasise that point in interviews when they refer to Matthews as the “best player of the 20th Century” and Carey as “The King”. These opinions seep into your consciousness until something shakes you out of it.

It was opening that Hobbs and Palmer’s book from 1976 called Football’s 50 Greatest that shook me out of my set beliefs and got me to re-evaluate how we judge players. There is no doubt that all ways of judging players will have flaws. Some might base it on the number of goals scored, or Brownlow votes and if that was the case then players such as Tony Lockett or Chris Judd would be placed well up in the order. However, this task had one major aim. I was going to make up my own mind based on all the matches I have seen as to who are the greatest players– and Jesaulenko comfortably sits in my Top 10.

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Miles Wilks has written two books. His first book Grand Final Champions (Bas Publishing 2008) focused on the great players of Grand Finals dating back to the 1950s. His second book Australian Football Clubs in NSW (Bas Publishing 2011) had the aim of acknowledging the significant contribution of New South Welshmen to Australian football. Miles is a strong believer in having a properly recorded history of the game, as without it he believes the game will be at a disadvantage when compared to other sports in the years ahead. He has written articles on past players for various publications including Inside Football, the Richmond website, Hawthorn's Hawk Talk and Carlton's Inside Carlton.