A modern champion

WITH the star goalkickers having their style ever more cramped by the modern game, a new football discussion has begun. 

Darrel Baldock in his playing days at St Kilda.

Darrel Baldock in his playing days at St Kilda.

How would the goalkicking giants of the past have coped in the current era?

Could John Coleman have regularly soared over the top and taken his freakish marks? Would Peter Hudson have managed to out-fox dense zones of defenders the way he bamboozled one, two, and even three at a time? 

Would Tony Lockett have crashed through anyone in his path on his stampeding leads (at least until they were polite  and sensible  enough to grant him unfettered passage)? 

Would Wayne Carey play in the sticks or up the ground?

All good discussion stimulants and all impossible to conclude with confidence.

For better and for worse, today's is a very different game.

At Carlton, they point out that Chris Judd is only a centimetre shorter than John Nicholls: the former one of the finest roving midfielders of any era, the latter a legend in the Hall of Fame for his greatness as a ruckman.

Would a young man born 20 years ago, with the same physical and football prowess as Nicholls, make it today? And if so, in what role?

No doubt such a youngster would have gone through a very different physical preparation in his attempt to reach the big league. 

As a result, his body shape would be vastly different from Big Nicks. 

His shorts might be the same length as those of the Carlton giant, but if the thigh-diameter was the same they would be worn baggier than those of Eddie Betts.

But back to the specialist forwards. The diminished scoring output of Lance Franklin from the time he booted the AFL's last century of goals tells the story in numbers.

Since accumulating a profligate 113 goals and 88 behinds in 2008, Buddy's most productive year delivered 82 goals. 

Otherwise, with his roles at Hawthorn and Sydney modified, he hasn't kicked 70 in any of four seasons.

And Franklin at his best was the most freakishly talented and exciting player we've seen in years. 

In short, and sad to say, the extreme team defence played today has curbed the greatness of the star forwards. The likes of Franklin, Jonathan Brown and Nick Riewoldt can't influence outcomes week-in and week-out the way the gun forward of yesteryear did. 

Or the way they, themselves, did not so long ago. They must now graft for every scoring shot.

The top-line midfielder has for a considerable time been the man of influence, a fact expressed in two decades of Brownlow Medal outcomes. 

As the goals dry up for the forwards, the midfielders' perceived monopoly increases.

So, within the parameters of the modern game, is there a champion forward of the past of whom it could be said with certainty would still have prevailed today?

I would say there is one. Indeed, a statue struck posthumously in his honour will be unveiled today. 

The ceremony will occur in the unprepossessing environs of Gilbert Street, Latrobe. 

The player's name: Darrel Baldock.

Baldock stood at 179 centimetres, and dominated through seven years at St Kilda playing centre half-forward. 

He and triple Brownlow medallist Ian Stewart shared the club best and fairest through five of those years; Baldock winning it three times.

Even by the standards of the time, he was undersized in his role. Centre half-forward was considered the most difficult position on the ground and those who excelled inevitably copped the lot from the opposition every week.

Today there is scarcely such a position and certainly no role to correspond with how it was then played. And Baldock wouldn't play as a forward today. 

He would be a midfielder. Indeed he wouldn't be unlike Gary Ablett jnr.

When it next bobs up on pay TV, have a look at the 1965 VFL grand final between Essendon and St Kilda. The Saints were thrashed that day by a Bomber outfit containing such greats as Ken Fraser, Jack Clarke, Barry Davis, and John Birt.

It's very much a black-and-white, VFL-era game .th.th. except when Baldock flashes into the frame. 

Then, it's as though one player from the modern era has somehow found his way into an old replay. He is quick, balanced, two-sided and incredibly skilful.

If he played today, Baldock would be finely chiselled and slimmer than the thick-set figure of that time. 

And he wouldn't paddle the ball around, waiting for an opening or a free kick, as he did in those days.

But he would be as strong as an ox, dazzlingly brilliant, and, like Ablett, almost impossible to tackle. 

He would win the Brownlow Medal that eluded him in the 1960s, and perhaps another for good measure. 

For, like Gary Ablett jnr now, Baldock was a football genius then, and his skills would transport easily to today's game.

Today's unveiling will be as the Doc would have liked it: modest and unpretentious. 

And he will stand forever more at the gates to the Latrobe Oval, a ground he illuminated both before and after his salad days with the Saints.


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