‘Don’t have the medal’: Footy legends debunk 58-year AFL premiership myth

Is a great football player’s career a failure if they fall short of winning a premiership?

The age old debate has reared its head again as St Kilda’s never ending drought drags on and the AFL landscape debates whether Scott Pendlebury has had a better career than Nathan Buckley, ahead of the Collingwood star’s 400th game.

Pendlebury will become just the fifth player ever to play 400 games later in the season, and with two premierships in 2010 and 2023 book-ending his career, ‘Pendles’ will go down as one of Collingwood’s finest.

Whether Pendlebury leapfrogs Buckley as the greatest Magpie of all time was debated on the Footy & Friends podcast, where Buckley’s lack of a premiership was counted against him.

But former Richmond and GWS player Brett Deledio bristled: “You can’t judge a player just purely on flags because you need 21 other teammates.

“Too much is made of it! You might have been the sh*ttest player in the bloody team. ‘Oh he’s got a premiership so he’s better than you!’”

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Buckley was seriously unlucky not to win a flag. He lost two grand finals to Brisbane as a player, winning the Norm Smith Medal in 2002, and lost the 2018 decider as a coach by five points.

Some of the greatest players ever missed out on ultimate glory. The list includes Gary Ablett Sr, Tony Lockett, Tony Modra, Nathan Buckley, Nick Riewoldt, Matthew Richardson, Robert Harvey, Lenny Hayes, Matthew Pavlich and Bob Skilton.

If you recognised a few St Kilda greats there’s a reason for that — the Saints now have the longest drought in V/AFL history, with their one and only premiership coming back in 1966.

St Kilda have won plenty of pre-season cups but losing in 1997 and three more grand finals in 2009-10, including the infamous draw, is a missed opportunity the club is yet to truly recover from.

That St Kilda group of players was certainly a premiership calibre team — stacked with Riewoldt, Leigh Montagna, Hayes, Brendon Goddard, Nick Dal Santo, Stephen Milne and Justin Koschitzke.

Montagna told the Back Chat podcast last month: “We always say we don’t have the medal, but we’ve got the bond of like a premiership team.

“We don’t have the medal, but we’ve got that connection. You can look across the street or across the table, and we went through a lot together and we’ve got that respect for each other.

“We’ve got the utmost respect for one another. We get on really well. We still catch up once a year. We do prelim week, can’t do the grand final reunion.

“Of course it’s disappointing you don’t have the medal, but there are a lot of players that have a premiership medal that might not have the same relationships and friendships and bonds with their teammates.

“That’s probably as important to me as displaying the medal and having it on the CV. We’ve actually got a bond as a group that will last a lifetime.

“It’s a game of footy. Missed kicks, missed goals, that happens. You can’t live your life going what if, because that’s what the game is, that’s what we love about it.

“We were dominating that game against Geelong (in 2009), just didn’t put the score on the board and left the door open for that brilliant team to come back. That’s probably the one that got away.

“That’s the best part of it, the bond you have with your teammates. You’re like brothers.

“You probably go through more life lessons with your teammates than you do with your own family.

“You go through the highs, the lows, off field dramas. We were all in tears after the ‘09 grand final sitting in a room. You go through these life experiences that give you this bond.

“We were lucky. A good group of us that were around the same age, came through together, we were winning wooden spoons and finishing bottom two in 2002-03, to then be a good team and a strong team.”

Dal Santo, who also went on to lose two preliminary finals with North Melbourne, echoed his old teammate’s sentiment.

“I do agree with ‘Joey’,” Dal Santo told news.com.au.

“Leigh Montagna’s one of my good mates. We talk about this from time to time. We went through a lot together, we moved to Melbourne together.

“I joined the Saints at 18 years of age and left when I was 30. You spend a lot of time together. Friends and then wives and kids. We naturally do have this relationship and friendship.

“We won a lot of a games, which was really pleasing. We had a great time. It was the time of our life as footballers.

“But we never ultimately got what we wanted, which was to win just one premiership. It wasn’t even about winning three or four, we just wanted to win one!

“But our relationship and friendship has gone past football, it’s more than that now. We catch up, we don’t really do reunions. We see each other quite regularly. At least once a year we all catch up as mates.

“We do have a special bond but that’s more through spending so much time together and going through a lot together.”

Asked if not winning a premiership plays on his mind, Dal Santo said: “I do, I think about it quite often. But it’s not something that we live daily.

“But it’s something we’re exposed to because I still work in football. I think if I was out of footy, it wouldn’t get spoken about as much.

“Because I continue to work in the footy industry in multiple spaces, you always relate back to your own experiences, reflect on them and learn from them.

“I’m in the coaching space as well so you try to share that experience and try and impart some of that onto other people.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it but it’s not changing my life right now where I’m crying myself to sleep or anything. Nothing like that.

“I think if either team (St Kilda or North) started playing really well or playing finals, I think the feel of joining in on the journey would feel different but at this stage with both teams not going overly well, you just watch on as a spectator.”

A philosophical Dal Santo said players can still be considered legends of the game without a premiership on their CV.

“I played with Nick Riewoldt for the majority of my career,” he said.

“He’s probably the best player I ever played with, one of the best Saints of all time. I look at him and someone like a Tony Lockett and think, ‘Well they didn’t win one but they’re still very, very good players’.”

Fox Footy’s commentary team features a mixture of ex-players — hard luck stories like Buckley, Montagna, Dal Santo and Garry Lyon who never won a flag — and multiple premiership winners like Jonathan Brown, Jordan Lewis, Jack Riewoldt, David King, Jason Dunstall and Dermott Brereton.

“Within the office, everybody’s very respectful,” said Dal Santo.

“We’re well aware of who’s had incredible careers, who’s been an individually fantastic player, All Australians, who’s won multiple premierships.

“But I’ve never experienced anyone rubbing it in your face. In saying that, I could probably give you Jono Brown’s CV, I know Jordy Lewis’ CV, I know Jack Riewoldt’s CV. But that’s only because I played against them or know them as a footy lover.”

Lions legend Brown, who won three premierships relatively early in his career, mentioned the “bond” shared by teammates who go all the way.

“At the end of the day it doesn’t define your career,” Brown told news.com.au of the premiership or bust argument.

“But it’s the bonds you share, the connections and friendships — you’re fortunate enough to have premiership reunions. You’ve got that bond for life. I’m not saying the other boys don’t.

“I suppose to get to appreciate what it feels like on the biggest stage is a pretty amazing thing. It’s just something you’re proud of.”

Brown admits he puffs his chest out occasionally towards his On The Couch co-host Buckley, who he beat multiple times in grand finals.

“Absolutely. I spend a lot of time with Bucks so I try not to be too disrespectful about the great man,” Brown said.

“It certainly wasn’t his fault his teams never won a premiership. Certainly in 2002 he did his absolute best. Nearly dragged them over the line single-handedly.

“I do enjoy working with the boys. Myself and Jordy (Lewis) stick the chest out a little bit more when we’re talking about premierships. But Gaz (Lyon) has obviously been to grand finals as well. Great boys to work with.”

‘Bloody hard to win’

Adelaide Crows royalty Mark Ricciuto missed out on the Crows’ inaugural triumph in 1997 due to injury, returning to win his sole premiership the following year.

“It’s the main reason you play,” Ricciuto told news.com.au. “For the majority of players in their career, the goal is to win premierships.

“I thought I’d lost my chance when I missed out in ‘97, but I was lucky enough there were a few others who missed out and we still had the hunger to go back-to-back.

“But any more than one … I had an appetite to win another one as captain, that was driving me for the latter stages of my career. But that’s being a bit greedy.

“To win one is an unbelievable experience. To win two, three, four or five – that’s just a fairytale sort of stuff.

“It is an amazing feeling to win one. I still remember running around on the MCG in the last few minutes when I realised I was about to win one. It’s just unforgettable.

“The work you put in as a young kid, the work and sacrifice your parents make to get you there is unforgettable as well.

“So when you win a premiership, even if you’re pretty young, you know it’s not just about you. I certainly did. I was 23 when I won, but I sort of felt it was as much for the family as it was for me.”

Now on the Crows board as football director, Ricciuto knows a maiden 21st century triumph would bring joy to fans who ride the team’s fortunes every weekend.

“As you get older, and even to the point now where I’m on the board, the reason why I want to win a premiership again is so that all the people who were too young to experience that back in ‘98 can experience it,” he said.

“The supporters go through so much, just cheering from week to week. Everything they go through in their day to day lives, they take to the footy on the weekend and want to see their club do well.

“The players, as much as the board and the coaches, want to win it for their thousands of supporters. That’s what drives me in my position as board member.

“I remember we had 100,000 people in a ticker-tape parade in the city when we won. I remember flying around in a plane to all the country towns and taking the cup.

“What it does for kids, middle aged people and older people is unbelievable – the smile it can put on their face. That’s why the players and the clubs try so hard and do everything they can to win one every year.

“In a competition with 18 teams, it’s bloody hard to win. But that’s what makes it all the more special when you can.”

Premierships not the only measure of footy success

With an 18-team competition to welcome Tasmania later this decade and a 20th team later down the line, the capacity for teams to fall short of their expectations and disappoint each season will only grow.

Richmond’s three-time premiership winning captain Trent Cotchin believes premierships shouldn’t be the only measurement of a player or club’s career.

“I mean, there’s a lot of unsuccessful footy clubs if a premiership is the only measure of success,” Cotchin told news.com.au.

“You do need to find ways so you’re continually checking yourself re progression and whether we’re improving. Sometimes they’re weird KPIs, sometimes they’re very simple.”

Richmond famously had an internal reckoning following a dismal 2016 season, and Cotchin believes such hardship can spark success, even if it doesn’t eventuate in a premiership trophy.

“For me, the fulfilment didn’t necessarily come from winning a flag. It was actually the journey we were on,” he said.

“It’s all well and good to speak in hindsight but the journey we went on as a footy club on the back of such a crap year in 2016 and the growth we had — the lessons and the willingness to be open and try new things.

“That to me was what I determined a success. Not necessarily the end result.

“That probably instilled my beliefs from that moment on. Whether it be other footballers currently playing or my own kids, the definition of success is a really interesting one to unpack for people.

“I have no doubt there’s some people you’ve spoken to who didn’t win a premiership and they deem their careers not a failure, but not quite as successful because they didn’t win a premiership.

“I suppose the part for me is the thing it (a premiership) does give you is an opportunity to reflect on the other parts of those years because there was a milestone in that season.”

Does a long premiership drought add to the burden of expectation and pressure to win?

Melbourne, Richmond and the Western Bulldogs have broken massive premiership droughts in the last decade, and St Kilda’s 58-year drought is the next to go — although their midtable mediocrity suggests a few more years in the wilderness.

Cotchin said: “Earlier in my career, I think we placed or felt there was a lot of expectation and pressure on previous success or the lack thereof.

“But once we started to embrace it and accept that was part of our history and this year is another opportunity to play your best footy and celebrate all those little things along the way.”

Dal Santo added: “I was well aware of the premiership drought going back to 1966 and only one premiership in the club’s history.

“But when I was playing, it didn’t take on extra pressure. I don’t think (the burden) was any bigger given the drought, it was just trying to be the best player I could and win a premiership.

“I get the other side of the fans and the desperate of feeling of just having some moments of success. That’s probably the feeling I have when I look back at those missed opportunities in grand finals.

“The feeling for fans, just to know for a moment in their lives, they were really proud and got to be really happy on grand final day, opposed to coming oh so close multiple times.”

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