Who is the face of football?
It’s a moment every serious footy fan has experienced: the instant you realise you’re talking to someone who has, at best, no more than a passing interest in the sport.
It’s not your fault, of course. Your second cousin at the family barbecue should’ve known what he was in for when he asked out of politeness how you thought your club would fare that year. “Well, Dan, I’m glad you asked. Here’s my eight-point plan for what they need to do to host a qualifying final.”
The passion oozes out of you until the sudden realisation you’re being met with a blank stare. They might try to cover it by smiling, nodding along to match your enthusiasm, but there’s no hiding the fact they are counting the seconds until the conversation changes to a more familiar tune.
Whether these sportsballers are simply incapable of comprehending how you can get so worked up over “just a game” or they’re quietly hating themselves for initiating the conversation in the first place, it has become apparent you’re speaking different languages.
Not that we need to explain ourselves (they’re the weird ones for not caring, after all) but I’ve long found the best way to reach common ground with these people is by comparing AFL – or any sport, for that matter – to their favourite TV show. Both have season-long storylines and countless subplots. There are highs and lows as it ebbs and flows. Each has triumphs and failures, heroes and villains – and, of course, every show has its star.
(For the record, if you don’t like sport or TV, then I’m not convinced you were meant for this planet.)
For the better part of the past decade, the star of the AFL show has been Gary Ablett Jr.
Having a father whose mastery of the sport earned him the nickname “God” gave Gary Jr the pedigree of a champion before he’d even made his debut. He twice took home the game’s highest individual honour during an eight-year stretch in which he polled 20 or more Brownlow votes and was named to the All-Australian team every season. He is firmly in the conversation for the best player of all time, yet he always seemed a reluctant star.
Early in his career, Ablett avoided the spotlight as best a player of his standing could. In his prime, he headed north to the AFL’s wasteland. Now, in his age-33 season and with perhaps only a handful of games left in his career, he still manages to shine under the weight of unrealistic expectations on the field and unfair scrutiny off it.
Even at the best of times, media appearances seemed like the only thing that didn’t come naturally to him. In recent years, they’ve looked harder than ever. Criticism of his attitude, ability, leadership and future have been wildly overblown, but it has served as a stark reminder of what we’ve known for some time: that the Little Master has long since lost his crown as The Face of Football.
Pinpointing precisely when Ablett vacated that title is open to interpretation.
But it wasn’t when he left Geelong for Gold Coast at the end of 2010 and it wasn’t the moment he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in a Brent Macaffer tackle in 2014. Most likely it was sometime the following season when, after a return that lasted two uncomfortable games, he was sidelined for close to three months, and the realisation set in that he’d never be the same.
With Ablett on the shelf, Nat Fyfe did all he could to become The Face. Fremantle looked every chance for the flag as they claimed the minor premiership, and Fyfe hobbled home from Crown Palladium with the Brownlow – having playing almost an entire preliminary final with a broken freaking leg. He’d spent the season showing he was a near-unstoppable force both in the air and below his knees, and had just polled more votes than any winner not named Dane Swan since the turn of the century. He was as tough as nails, confident yet humble, and he didn’t lose any fans when he posted this photo.
But alas, much like Ablett, an injury suffered in one season carried on into the next. Freo limped to an 0-5 start and the dominant Docker limped from Domain Stadium – the last time we’d see him take the field in 2016. And with that, Fyfe relinquished his crown before he’d even had time to decide how he’d style his blond locks underneath it. (Although he still managed to get drafted at No.1 in our inaugural three-year draft last year.)
Had his encore season not been doomed from the outset, it would have been difficult to argue against Fyfe as Ablett’s obvious successor. The main thing working against him would have been that he plays half his games in Western Australia – but, like it or not, that is a factor.
The spotlight simply shines brighter in Victoria. While you could certainly make a case it was Lance Franklin – not Ablett – who was the league’s main man in his Hawthorn days, Buddy never threatened to ascend to the throne when injury forced Ablett from it.
Franklin kicked 113 goals when the Hawks won the flag in 2008 and landed his lucrative long-term deal with the Swans after again leading Hawthorn to premiership glory in 2013. He does things no other player can do, he’s got a nickname that was made for Australian headlines and he even went ahead and married Miss Universe for good measure. He’s long been the AFL’s rock star.
But being The Face requires more than just on-field brilliance. Franklin shied away from the media as he battled mental illness and he’s now on the wrong side of 30. Filling Ablett’s shoes requires the capacity to rip the competition apart on a weekly basis for the foreseeable future, as well as the ability to handle the attention that comes with doing so.
With all due respect to a handful of talented young guns, there are only two names to consider. The first is Patrick Dangerfield.
A bona fide star for the Crows at 25, all he did in his first year after crossing to Geelong was poll the most single-season Brownlow votes in history. He was at his explosive best in the Cat’s biggest games – 43 touches against Hawthorn in round one, and 35 and 39 in Geelong’s two finals – and let’s not forget that 48-possession, two-goal masterclass against North Melbourne.
But he is more than just a damaging accumulator. Despite knowing he’d be leaving Adelaide at the end of 2015, he was everything the Crows could have asked for in his final year with the club, particularly in the wake of Phil Walsh’s death. He arrived at Geelong under the weight of immense expectations and still managed to blow everyone away.
In this era of second-screeners, he makes himself available to media outlets, has a strong Twitter presence and is a must-have in fantasy formats. He hasn’t missed a game since 2013, he’s got “Danger” built right there into his name, and the AFL spent half a quarter in round one with a picture-in-picture camera dedicated to him jogging around behind the play.
He’s the star of the show. Everyone knows it, and he embraces it.
But he has a challenger. And his name is Marcus Bontempelli.
The 21-year-old was seemingly born for the big stage, and fans are fortunate his freakish weekly exploits are filmed in front of a live studio audience.
In 2007, Ablett racked up 20 Brownlow votes and led his team to a drought-breaking premiership.
In 2016, Bontempelli racked up 20 Brownlow votes and led his team to a drought-breaking premiership.
Entering those seasons, Ablett had played 100 games in five seasons and polled 14 career votes. Bontempelli had played just 37 in two seasons yet polled 17.
If anything, the Bulldogs’ magical premiership run might have actually done Bontempelli’s star status a disservice. While the Cats still can’t seem to shake the oh-so-popular “Dangerwood" narrative, the Dogs – like all grand final teams – had storylines coming from everywhere.
Liam Picken had the month of his life and Jason Johannisen won the Norm Smith Medal. Matthew Boyd was named an All-Australian at 34 before Tom Boyd justified his much-maligned contract in a half of football. Sidelined skipper Bob Murphy reached demigod status as the team’s spiritual leader, while second-year coach Luke Beveridge instilled such belief in the group it seemed as if his players would willingly chop off an ear if he told them it’d provide an edge at stoppages.
In the middle of all that, Bontempelli was forging his way as one of the very best in the business. Yet if he’d gone to the US a month after the grand final, he still wouldn’t have been able to buy himself a celebratory beer.
The Bont has the size, the strength and the smarts. He has poise, power and precision. His resumé features a premiership medal, a club best-and-fairest and an iconic September moment. He may not yet be the face of the AFL, but he was the overwhelming choice to be the face of AFL Evolution.
For now, Dangerfield is the The Face of Football – in large part because he wants to be – but there’s a young pup nipping at his heels. And you can't help but feel that if it’s a title The Bont wants, then a changing of the guard could come sooner than you think.