Midfielders win games, defenders win premierships, but forwards win acclaim.
From the very first time a Sherrin was punted between the two long poles, the goalkickers have enjoyed a special place in the hearts of footy fans.
And when it comes to forwards, bigger has always been better. From Coventry to Coleman to Dunstall to Lockett and beyond, the big bloke with the sticky mitts and the booming boot has always reigned supreme.
The same is true today. Sure, the goals have been in steady decline for 20 years or so and the game has evolved beyond its mano e mano past, but the adoration and desperation for the star key forward remains.
But there’s a problem. A generation’s worth of successors to the great forwards of yesteryear have fallen behind or left the game completely, creating a vacuum that will shape the AFL for the next decade.
For the sake of the exercise, the league’s current key forwards can be split into four distinct groups — the veterans (aged 31+), the players in their prime (26-30), the next crop of superstars (22-25) and the youngsters (18-21).
It’s that third rung — the players in their early-to-mid 20s with a few years of experience who should theoretically be ready to take control of the league — that has become problematic.
The veterans are still doing their thing. They’ve basically traded the Coleman Medal between themselves for a decade, but even as the likes of Lance Franklin, Josh Kennedy, Jack Riewoldt and Tom Hawkins start to approach the end, they are clearly still doing essential jobs for their teams.
While a few players in their peak years are currently low on form — Ben Brown, Jack Darling and Taylor Walker especially — Charlie Dixon and Jeremy Cameron are holding up their end of the bargain, while Brody Mihocek and Tom Lynch aren’t miles away. There are All Australians aplenty in that group.
Which brings us to the next group, players drafted in the mid-2010s and about to hit their peak athletic years. Giants’ pair Jeremy Finlayson and Harry Himmelberg are playing well, but probably aren’t pure key forwards in the traditional sense anyway, and Eric Hipwood is a key cog in an excellent Brisbane team.
As far as absolute top-line performers go, that’s basically it.
Now, this hasn’t been caused by a shift in emphasis by clubs at the draft table or a dearth in underage talent. The circumstances that have befallen many of the most promising players in this age group have been unforeseeable and unfortunate, but have nevertheless conspired to swing the balance in that crucial age group.
We’re talking about the likes of Jesse Hogan (second pick in the 2012 mini-draft), Tom Boyd (number one pick in the 2013 draft), Paddy McCartin (number one pick in the 2014 draft) and Josh Schache (number two pick in the 2015 draft).
These players were more or less considered sure things pre-draft. They dominated underage footy and were drafted under the assumption they would become key lynchpins for their respective teams’ futures.
But in reality, not so much.
Hogan has been cruelled by injury, battled mental health issues and run into off-field troubles through a six-year career that has promised far more than it has delivered. At his second club but injured again, Hogan could yet become a serviceable forward at Fremantle but is unlikely to be the player his teenage potential suggested.
Schache too has switched clubs, moving to the Western Bulldogs after failing to find his feet at Brisbane. Once considered the best forward by some distance in his draft class, Schache was once again dropped by the Bulldogs last week. His road ahead is unclear.
The other two, Boyd and McCartin, are both currently out of the league. While McCartin, whose career was derailed by persistent and serious concussion, still has eyes on a comeback at some stage in the future, Boyd last year made the admirable decision to prioritise his mental health and happiness and retire from the game.
All of these players have been unfortunate. In most cases, to suggest their struggles have been self-inflicted would be callous and incorrect. Sometimes in sport, things just don’t work out.
But that doesn’t change the fact that an entire generation of promising key forwards has failed to develop properly. Imagine if all of Kennedy, Riewoldt, Franklin and Hawkins ran into significant and potentially career-threatening misfortune in the formative years of their careers — the league would be different in unimaginable ways.
No other line in that age group is suffering in the same way. Midfielders of that age include Patrick Cripps and Marcus Bontempelli, and the key defenders include Harris Andrews, Jacob Weitering and Darcy Moore.
So the next question is: what fills the gap up forward? There are seemingly three possibilities.
The first is that a number of late bloomers emerge from that depleted age group to become genuinely elite forwards. The most likely candidates would be Harry McKay, Sam Weideman or Hipwood, but all have faced their own issues and are difficult to back long term with any great confidence.
Another possibility is that the the age of the small forward is upon us, and the league is about to be overrun by a plague of mosquitos. Given Tom Papley, Dan Butler and Charlie Cameron are all among the top-five leading goalkickers so far this season, you can’t rule that prospect out completely.
But the most likely — and most exciting — outcome is that the fourth generation seizes its moment earlier than expected. It’s only early days, but the signs of progress and promise from this group have been impossible to ignore.
You could easily imagine us spending the next 10 years asking which of Ben or Max King is the better brother, placing Todd Marshall in the echelon of Port’s great AFL-era forwards, watching an Oscar-Allen-captained West Coast and ranking Aaron Naughton hangers.
Throw in the much-hyped Mitch Georgiades, the mobile Nick Blakey and the inconsistent-but-mouldable Darcy Fogarty and there is a pool of players worthy of hanging your hopes on.
So despite the frustration at the spurned potential, the sympathy for the unfortunate players and concern for the aesthetic future of the game, there are grounds for optimism.
The series of events that have led to a demographical void being created will naturally also lead to that void being filled, one way or another.
As long as there is footy, there will be big lugs making their living kicking big bags.