Sam Mitchell is a champion of the game. The phrase is often bandied about, sometimes undeservedly, but for this Hawthorn great, it isn’t an overstatement.
Few players have been able to consistently churn out as many high-level performances as the man known as “the extractor”.
The triple-premiership player has the perfect mix of having the ability to dominate games of football with a knack of flying under the radar. Media hype has rarely surrounded Mitchell’s performances, even though he has polled the second most Brownlow votes in a count on two occasions in his career.
With the finals fast approaching and Mitchell ready to go after missing the second last game of the 2015 season, it’s appropriate to acknowledge just how good he has been, especially at this time of the year.
Having been overlooked in the 2000 draft, Mitchell established himself as a first-class rover for the Box Hill Hawks, which earned him selection in the 2001 draft for Hawthorn. He managed nine senior games in his first season and was still good enough to win the J.J. Liston Trophy,the VFL’s equivalent to the Brownlow Medal. At 179 centimetres and drafted a year late, perhaps the odds were somewhat stacked against Mitchell. His incredible ability around stoppages, however, made him something special. Statistics will show that Mitchell ranks second all-time for clearances, averaging 5+ a game in 12 of his 14 AFL seasons.
If the fact he won the J.J. Liston Trophy in 2002 from just 11 games wasn’t enough to convince the Hawks they had a star in the making, his 2003 Rising Star award win may have cemented his future in the brown and gold. At this stage, he joined the likes of Cousins, Nathan Buckley, Adam Goodes and Nick Riewoldt as winners of the award.
Mitchell has never been a typical, smaller midfielder. While he was extremely effective with his clearance work, his move to a more all-round midfield role, where he could play as a ruck rover and on the outside, made him far more dangerous. He has never had the speed to break away from contested situations or opponents, but his subtle sidestep and pinpoint accuracy set him apart from most.
Over the past six seasons, he has ranked top 10 for average effective disposals per game in five of them. To put that in perspective, only Scott Pendlebury has been better than Mitchell in this statistic over this period. Mitchell’s ambidexterity, uncanny ability to create attacking plays from nothing and unmatched peripheral vision he possesses, have formed a dangerous and underrated weapon, crucial to Hawthorn’s successes.
In 2013, Mitchell played a lot more across the half-back line during the home and away season than he had previously, with his ability to anticipate and create adding another dimension to Hawthorn, as an avenue linking defence to attack. As a 32-year-old, Mitchell is once again playing predominantly as a midfielder with some time a kick behind the play in his defensive half. For the second time in his career, he is averaging 30+ disposals and for the 10th time in a row, 25+ disposals. They’re astonishing numbers and they may well result in another 20+ vote season in the Brownlow.
Mitchell was a very, very good player from 2006-2011, and has been elite since. His one percenters, which measure certain uncategorised acts like spoils, shepherds and smothers, steadily improved over the past five seasons. Never has Mitchell been a selfish player, but his off-the-ball work is finally getting some recognition.
There’s a sporting adage, suggesting one does not have to be captain to be a good leader. Many felt this accurately represented Luke Hodge when Sam Mitchell was captain in 2008-2010. It rings just as true nowadays, the other way around.
Mitchell is unassuming on- and off-field. He always appears to be talking to his teammates, helping with positioning without coming across as forceful. He provides casual guidance more often than giving stern instructions. There hasn’t been a time where he has demanded the plaudits he gets and deserves.
Approaching his eighth finals series, Mitchell’s record speaks for itself. He averages 27.6 disposals, six clearances and nearly five tackles in his 18 finals matches, all above his career averages. His performances in preliminary finals in particular have been outstanding.
With 280 games so far and another year to come at least, Mitchell is likely to reach the 300-game mark. He has four best-and-fairest wins, is a two-time All-Australian, is ranked top 10 for most Brownlow votes in the history of the game and is a triple premiership player. It’s as impressive a record as could be seen in the game.
In a decade, when we look back at the best players of the modern era, many will produce names like Ablett, Judd, Franklin and Swan. Mitchell comfortably sits among these players. For now, he isn’t done and neither are the Hawks. There’s still time for Mitchell’s record to improve even more and for him to further cement his spot as a future Hawthorn and AFL Hall of Famer.