Brownlow Medal trend exposes telling truth in AFL

·5-min read
Pictured here, Port Adelaide's Ollie Wines poses with his 2021 Brownlow Medal.
Port Adelaide's Ollie Wines won the 2021 Brownlow Medal as the AFL's best and fairest player. Pic: Getty

Another year, another midfield winner of the Brownlow Medal.

Just as there is every year, before the count, during the count and after the count, there is the gentle hum of bemoaning that the system is rigged, that it’s stacked in favour of the group of players who are around the ball the most, under the umpires’ noses the most. 

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That it’s near on impossible for a key forward to take Charlie home these days, while defenders needn’t even bother dreaming of it.

At least the forwards have the Coleman Medal to fight over. The defenders? No such luck. There’s the occasional murmuring about a defender’s award but how it would be decided is anyone’s guess. 

Port Adelaide star Ollie Wines’s win on Sunday night continued a long tradition of midfielders winning the AFL’s highest individual honour.

The very first winner way back in 1924, Geelong’s Edward ‘Carji’ Greeves, was a midfielder. So this is not exactly a new trend.

But the truth of the matter is, no one should begrudge the tradition of ‘the midfielder’s medal’. In fact, we should embrace it. It’s how it should be.

Midfielders are the most influential group of players in the game, so why shouldn’t they be recognised as such? 

Sure, forwards kick the goals that win games; defenders who can quell those forwards are worth their weight in gold.

But listen to almost anyone in the game and you’ll find it hard to argue that the midfield cohort doesn’t deserve its place as the most esteemed and celebrated group.

They usually go something like this.

Journalist: “You booted six goals today, tell us about your performance.”

Key forward: “Yeah nah, it was good to get on the end of a few, but I was really just finishing off the good work of the boys up the ground, when you’re getting delivery like that you have to make the most of it.”

Journalist: “Coach, your backline really held up well today. You conceded your lowest score for the year and Opposition Key Forward didn’t get a sniff of it.”

Coach: “We were really proud of how our defensive structure worked, the boys in the backline did a great job, but their job is made much easier by the pressure we put on as a team. When we were able to hold them up through the middle, stop them getting quick supply in, it means our backline has time to set up really well.”

Midfielders today are more than just possession collectors. Their part in 18-man defensive zones is more important than ever.

Melbourne is in a grand final off the back of its midfield finally learning what it takes to play as a team.

Carlton was criticised all year for its midfield not doing the hard yards defensively. The Blues’ backline leaked like a sieve all year, consistently conceding significant runs of goals. It eventually cost David Teague his job.

So yes, the Brownlow is a midfielder’s medal. They’ve won every one of them for the past 15 years, and the ones that weren’t won by midfielders in the past three decades were by mobile players – mostly half-forwards and half-backs.

Jim Stynes and Scott Wynd won back-to-back Brownlows for ruckmen in 1991-92. Tony Lockett was the last key forward to claim the prize, that was in 1987.

Who can argue that midfielders haven’t deserved the accolade?

Seen here, Ollie Wines celebrates a goal for Port Adelaide in the AFL finals.
Port Adelaide's Ollie Wines is the latest midfielder to claim the Brownlow Medal. Pic: Getty

Brownlow Medal dominated by midfield stars

We remember the likes of key forwards such as Wayne Carey, Gary Ablett Sr and Jason Dunstall and question how they didn’t win a Brownlow. They were brilliant players over such a long period, but the Brownlow rewards individual games, not sustained brilliance over entire careers.

The AFL Coaches’ Association has been handing out a player of the year award since 2003. Two of the first three years it went to key forwards Warren Tredrea and Barry Hall, and maybe we thought there was finally an award that would bring a new perspective to how games were won.

But apart from half-forward/midfielder Robbie Gray and ruckman Max Gawn, all other winners have come from the midfield.

The media awards are almost always a battle between midfielders. This year was no exception –Wines, Clayton Oliver and Marcus Bontempelli the top choices among them.

Even the players themselves rate midfielders the best. The AFLPA MVP is even voted on by forwards and defenders, and they continually come up with an onballer as their most valuable players of the year.

Nick Riewoldt in 2004 was the last non-midfield winner of the Leigh Matthews Trophy.

Since the players first started handing out their own award in 1982, only one defender has ever won it. One. That was Paul Roos way back in 1986.

All of these groups – umpires, coaches, media, players – value different qualities in players and rate them accordingly. 

And yet, they still all seem to come up with the same answer – that midfielders are the most important group in the game.

Maybe it’s time to cut the umpires some slack.

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