We are currently facing quite a strange phenomenon in our game. The player who is deemed the best footballer of his draft year by being taken with the prestigious number one draft pick is not translating potential into actual output in the AFL.
Let’s take a look at the past six drafts. In 2007, Matthew Kreuzer was taken with the first pick by Carlton. In 2008, Jack Watts, at the same pick, was drafted by Melbourne. The year after, Tom Scully joined him at the same club. In 2010, we saw David Swallow join the Suns. 2011 saw Jonathon Patton became a Giant, and last year, Lachie Whitfield also took the title of the player drafted at pick one when he joined him there.
Excluding the last two draftees, as it is too early to make a proper judgement for them, it is fair to say that every one of these players has underperformed and for some not been able to justify their selection place. It isn’t just a massive coincidence that in modern times, the so-called ‘best player’ of the draft has not performed to the level expected of him. It is the heavy burden of having the title of the ‘number one pick’ that is causing these players’ talent to be squandered.
It’s a common saying in the AFL. ‘Ruckmen take longer to develop.’ That’s all good and fine but for how long can this saying be an excuse for poor performance? Matthew Kreuzer is in his sixth year of AFL football. He should be showing the football world why he was taken at pick one. In contrast, his feats on the field provoked arguably the greatest player and coach in history, Leigh Matthews, to recently declare that he is “a B-grader at best”.
Kreuzer is an athletic specimen with nous for Australian rules football. His situation really incites the thought that perhaps his career would have been different had he not been forced to bear the shackles of the media-pumped up title of the best player in the draft.
Likewise, Jack Watts has been the most maligned number one draft pick in recent history. After completely failing in his favoured position as a forward, Melbourne, in a frantic attempt to revive any remnant of his 2008 junior glory, made him as a loose player in their defence. This tactic failed and a confidence-bereft Watts was made the subject of extreme criticism. Not only did the media scrutinize him, but even his own club publicly shamed him by continually dropping and substituting him.
There is no doubt that if he did not hold the burdensome title of the ‘number one player’ of his draft, he would not have received anywhere near the same harsh scrutiny that he was forced to undertake. Had he not been bombarded with the heavy media attack and level of expectation, the tale of Jack Watts may have been a different story.
Speedy on-baller, Tom Scully also drafted to Melbourne was the centrepiece of a huge controversy in 2011. This was because he abandoned his club in search of monetary benefit and a better club environment. Phil Davis, who at the time shared a very similar impact to Scully in terms of performance, also left his club for similar reasons. However, the difference in media coverage was immense. The only explanation of this discrepancy was that Scully was the number one draft pick.
It is undeniable that this media crucifixion has had an adverse influence on his career. This is strengthened by the fact that the AFL Player Ratings rate him as only the eleventh best player of his pool in what is widely known as a relatively weak draft year. How can a number one pick be rated so lowly? The player was supposed to be the best under 18 footballer in the entire country.
Moreover, the 2010 AFL Draft is already boasting a pool of exciting young players such as Jack Darling, Jeremy Howe, Dyson Heppell, Andrew Gaff, Dion Prestia, Reece Conca, Luke Parker, Harley Bennell and Tom Liberatore. So who was deemed to be the best player in Australia in that impressive draft year? It was none other than the underachieving Gold Coast midfielder, David Swallow.
Swallow, who has been relegated from the Suns’ midfield into their defence, is certainly not playing bad football. However, he was not drafted as an offensive defender and he is simply not living up to the potential of his pick. In Swallow’s case, it isn’t the media who are putting the enormous pressure on him, but the expectation of performance which comes with the number one pick. Time is certainly on his side, but there are definitely some justified concerns.
In the earlier parts of the millennium, the players who were taken at the first pick in the National Draft actually justified their selection and proved that they were worthy of the title. Nick Riewoldt, pick one of the 2000 National Draft is a modern day legend. Adam Cooney from 2003 is a Brownlow Medallist. Brendon Goddard, Luke Hodge and Brett Deledio are all highly-respected players in the AFL. So why is it different now?
It’s attributed to the fact that the expectation which has been enforced onto these unfortunate players by the blood-hungry mass media was not as evident in those times as it is now. This ridiculous expectation of performance needs to come to an end. Obviously we will expect better things to come out of high draft picks, but it’s almost as though the football community have become vultures waiting for these players to make a mistake.
If we want our wonderful game to provide us with an even higher level of quality, we need to allow the country’s best players to develop properly. We must not become victim of judging by ridiculously high expectation, but rather by actual performance.