Unlike in many other sports, there is no real consensus surrounding who is the greatest
football player in history. There are many strong views, but with the VFL/AFL being well over
One hundred years old, and the game has changed so drastically in that time, it’s tough to pinpoint
one single player as the unequivocal best. There are plenty, however, in the
conversation, so let’s have a look at ten of the greatest footballers of all time.
There’s no consensus as to who the Greatest of All Time is in the VFL/AFL in the same way
that there is for many other sports, but Leigh Matthews might be the closest thing. An adamant midfielder and forward, Matthews played 332 games for the Hawks,
kicking 915 goals, winning eight best and fairest, and winning four flags. He then went on to
have a 461-game coaching career which included leading the Lions to their famous three-
peat between 2001 and 2003, making his football resume perhaps the most accomplished in
Gary Ablett Sr
No list of the greatest VFL/AFL players of all time would be complete without the original
Gary Ablett and many who saw him play rated him the best to ever pull on the boots.
Despite coming in at just 185cm, Ablett was renowned for his incredible marking prowess
and the ability to kick goals like few others in history. Over 248 games – 242 of which were with
Geelong – the man, known by many simply as ‘God’ snagged 1031 goals, three Coleman
Medals, four All-Australian appearances, and was famously adjudged best afield for his nine
dreams in a losing side in the 1989 Grand Final, a game widely regarded as one of the best of
Gary Ablett Jr
There are few father/son combinations in sport with as accomplished a collective resume as
that put together by Gary Ablett Sr. and his son. Ablett Jr. was a markedly different player to
his high-flying father, but cutting his cloth proved no impediment for The Little Master.
Viewed by most as the best player this century, Ablett was a dominant force for Geelong as
they began their dynasty and moved to the Gold Coast, where he played almost a lone hand
from 2011-to 2017, before returning home to the Cats for a final couple of years of the his
career. By the time he wrapped things up, the effortlessly skilled younger Ablett had
accumulated 357 games, 445 goals, a couple of flags, a couple of Brownlows, eight All-
Australians and six club best and fairest.
When Lance Franklin was drafted at pick number 5 in the 2004 draft, most of those who had
watched him as a junior were aware of his ineffable natural ability. Few, however, could
have predicted the heights he would reach. One of the unique talents in the game’s
history, Franklin, has brought crowds through the turnstiles throughout his career, with his
athleticism combined with his size and skill with ball in hand enabling him to do things that
nobody else can. Making Franklin even more fascinating is that he is very ordinary at one of
the most valuable skills for a key forward; overhead marking. One can only imagine how
Good, he would be. Was he even a decent mark? Despite that limitation, he became
the sixth player in history to surpass the 1,000-goal mark in 2022 in an era in which
individual forwards hit the scoreboard with far less regularity than their predecessors.
Bob Skilton is one of the most recognizable names in the AFL world even nearly 50 years
after his retirement, and for a good reason. Throughout 237 games for South
Melbourne, he accumulated awards like they were going out of fashion, most notably
winning three Brownlow Medals – a feat only three other players have achieved in the
almost 100 years it was awarded. He also captained South Melbourne for nine
years and won their best and fairest nine times; the award is now aptly named in his
Tony ‘Plugga’ Lockett is the greatest goalkicker in the history of the AFL. Playing 183 games
for St. Kilda and 98 for Sydney, he was an unstoppable force playing out of the goalsquare,
and by the end of his career, had put the ball through the big sticks an incredible 1360 times
– a record that will likely never be broken. He kicked over 100 goals in a season six times,
and twice averaged more than 7 per game in a season; obviously, the game was more suited
to kicking bags in the ‘80s and ‘90s when he played, but those are some
Anyone who gets nicknamed ‘The King’ must be doing something right, and that was
certainly the case for Wayne Carey. The center half-forward was one of the most dominant
players in history, something to which his seven All-Australian appearances – four of which
were as captain – are testament. An abrupt end to his life at North Melbourne and
a subsequent brief stint at Adelaide clouded the conclusion of his career, but it did nothing to
tarnish the enormous impact on the game as a player.
It’s often hard to recognize just how historically good a player is when they’re still in the
midst of their career, but by the time Dusty hangs up his boots, he will well and truly be
recognized among the game’s elites; for many, he already is. The midfielder/forward has
always had plenty of talent, but it wasn’t until Richmond ascended to football’s throne that
he made his mark. Throughout the Tigers’ dynasty, he showed an unmatched ability to
dominate the most important of games, winning three Norm Smith Medals in four years; no
other player has ever won three. By 2020, perhaps most indicative of the standing in
which he is held was just how short a favorite he was for the medal with AFL betting sites;
it was almost an expectation that he would be Best on Ground on the game’s biggest day.
Another player whose nickname is reflective of his standing in the AFL community, ‘Mr. Football.’
was a dominant key position player at both ends of the ground. Throughout his illustrious
career, Whitten won five best and fairest for the Bulldogs, captained them for 14 years,
and was later named captain of the AFL Team of the Century. He also coached Footscray.
His years as the captain made him one of the most influential players in the club’s
– and the VFL/AFL’s – history.
John Coleman might have only played 98 games, but what he lacked in longevity, he more
than made up for in output. In just over five seasons, he kicked an incredible 537 goals at
a rate of 5.48 per game, with his explosive speed and athleticism, as well as an innate sense
for the game, making him close to unstoppable as a forward. Unfortunately, just five years
into his career, Coleman suffered a knee injury from which he would never return, cutting
short what could have been the most extraordinary career in the game’s history.
A case could be made for each of the ten players above as the best of all time.
Each excelled at the top level for different reasons, demonstrating the wide variety
of skills involved in our great game. But regardless of which side you sit on, one thing which
no one would argue with is that each of them has had an indelible impact on the game.