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Fletch! A Tribute to a Legend

Dustin Fletcher at Windy Hill. Photo: Daniel Mahon

At the time of writing, Dustin Fletcher has been on an AFL senior list for 7204 days. Michael Tuck joined Hawthorn in 1971, topped the club’s reserves goal kicking and found a comfortable groove in the on-ball division for a total of 7562 days. Robert Harvey was at St Kilda for an incredible 7538 days and is the modern-day record-holder for length of career between first and last senior games (7351 days). The all-time record for that statistic is held by Vic Cumberland, who made his debut in 1898 with Melbourne and was still playing with the Saints 8030 days later, in 1920.

I was on Hawthorn’s list for 218 days. Michael Tuck went off the day I went on. Undoubtedly, the club would have been better off giving him my 218 and letting Tucky attempt to chase down Vic Cumberland. My career as a contracted player is the shortest in modern VFL/AFL history, and my legacy at the club is eight unspectacular reserves games, one stellar performance at the player skit night, and a sit-and-reach record of +17 that was a testament to long arms and stretchy hamstrings – that, and the fact that I broke Ricky Nixon’s ribs, 18 years before everyone wanted to. He was playing on my team at the time. Alan Joyce sought me out the following week to offer the only morsel of personalised feedback I received in my AFL non-career: “Willo, how about we don’t injure any of our guys today?” There is no longer a mid-year draft, and the collective bargaining agreement now demands two-year rookie contracts, so my record could last as long as Cumberland’s.

There’s nothing more certain in this world than the fact that Dustin Fletcher is also better than me at the sit and reach. His antenna-like arms are legendary and the fact that the footy media still recall Inspector Gadget to describe them says something about the man’s durability. The last first-run television episode of Inspector Gadget went to air on November 13, 1985. Even allowing for a decade of re-runs, there must be dozens of Fletcher’s young teammates whose entire knowledge of Inspector Gadget comes from reading Dustin Fletcher articles.

Among those young teammates, four (Luke Davis, Elliott Kavanagh, Jackson Merrett, and Nicholas O’Brien) were born after Fletcher was selected in 1992 as a pre-draft father-son selection. Another dozen were not out of nappies. Hopefully, the story of Dustin Fletcher’s debut season is being handed down to them, as a treasured part of Essendon lore.

He was barely a gram over 70 kilograms when he made his debut in 1993, a kid in his last year of school. “Most people told me he was too skinny to play,” says then-Bombers coach Kevin Sheedy. “He’d come to training dressed in his uniform, sucking on an icy-pole … he actually looked a bit like an icy pole himself.” The image is also imprinted upon Paul Salmon, then halfway through his own 20-year career. “He kept to himself a bit in those early days. He’d have his schoolbag slung over his shoulder, a young kid in such an adult world. In the very early days, we were careful about the sort of things we’d talk about in front of him. Fletch was such a young pup.”

Another of the veterans, Tim Watson, was actually Dustin’s babysitter in the late ’70s, when Watson himself was a teenage Bomber and Dustin’s father, Ken, a well-travelled teammate. “Dustin was such a quiet sort of fellow,” Watson recalls, “very unassuming, and yet he always did just enough of what was needed to get where he had to go.” I never do find out if Watson is speaking as a teammate or a babysitter. Either way, Essendon’s greatest number 32 has an eternal soft spot for its greatest number 31.

Ken Fletcher was keenly involved in his son’s life in those early days at Essendon. Ken was a legend of the club, and therefore comfortable in its corridors, as well as coaching Dustin in the Penleigh and Essendon Grammar School First XVIII. “We had him contracted to play eight school games, and eight reserves games,” Ken says. “He ended up playing 17 games and a premiership in the AFL, and three games and a premiership at school. It was just a phenomenal season.” Indeed, the miracle of Dustin’s longevity as a footballer is nearly matched by the miracle of his rapid ascent. Not only did the teenage Fletcher play more games in his debut season than anybody could have anticipated, he was assigned the footballing equivalent of the Twelve Tasks of Hercules. In 1993, Tony Modra, Gary Ablett and Jason Dunstall all kicked more than 120 goals. Tony Lockett, Wayne Carey, Stephen Kernahan, Alastair Lynch, John Longmire and Peter Sumich were not far behind. Star forwards were isolated in vast deserts of space because “zones”, “presses” and “defensive structures” were neither clogging up the footy vernacular nor the attacking third. To be a full-back was to be alone. To be a 70-kilogram rag doll of a schoolkid full-back was to commit career suicide. Except if you were Dustin Fletcher.

“He was thrown to the wolves a bit in ’93,” recalls Ken. “Rosemary and I used to sit in the grandstand, wondering if he’d get broken in two. I would have hoped he could have eased into it on the wing, or at half-back, but they ended up being smarter than I was.”

The “Fletcher to the wolves” thinking was integral to the 1993 premiership win. “It was to keep Dean Wallis free,” Kevin Sheedy grins, “and we had very few defensive talls … In fact, in Mark Harvey we had the shortest centre half-back in a premiership side in AFL history. Fletcher was not only tall, he was also very agile and very, very quick. He was an extremely gifted young tennis player. We knew he’d take some beatings, given his age and stage, but it was irrelevant how many got kicked on him. He was always going to keep playing there.”

Irrelevant to an experienced coach although, in the normal course, potentially not irrelevant to a teenager in his debut season. And yet, outwardly at least, Fletcher remained undaunted. In his third game against Geelong, Gary Ablett kicked 14 goals, some (but not all) on Fletcher. Essendon won the match. In round 12, Allen Jakovich booted eight. In round 15, Longmire and Carey combined for 10. Fletcher also had his wins. In his fifth game, he kept Modra to three kicks and earned himself a Brownlow vote. He held Sav Rocca and Sumich (twice) to four goals or less. He won 16 disposals against Richmond and polled another Brownlow vote.

“He was cool in the heat,” says Sheedy. “With his expression and body language, he never ever looked like he was suffering anxiety; he just kept working at his task. I think his mother was a terrific person to have around. Whenever I needed a heads up on how he was going emotionally, I’d ring Rosemary. With footy stuff, Ken and I sometimes discussed that, but his mum was very tuned in to how he was holding up to the stresses.”

“Fletch’s demeanour never changed,” Salmon remembers. “From the moment he walked in with his schoolbag to the moment Sheeds said, ‘OK, you’re playing on Lockett’ or ‘Right, you’re playing on Dunstall’, it just didn’t seem to worry him. I mean, everyone now knows how durable he is physically. But right from the start, he was just so durable emotionally.”

Grand final day 1993 was like so many others in that telling first season. Fletcher played every minute of the game matched to Stephen Kernahan, Carlton’s centre half-forward and captain of its Team of the Century. Kernahan took 10 marks and booted seven goals four. He was probably the most influential player on the field, but Fletcher was competitive – with six tackles and 13 disposals. More importantly, his coach had managed to peg the most difficult defensive post, and the rest of the team was free to run amok. The Dons won by 44 points.

It was an auspicious beginning, which led to an extremely long and auspicious middle, and an auspicious and seemingly interminable end. Fletcher is a sporting Methuselah, an anomaly, a freak. Of the class of 1992, the second-last survivor was former Richmond forward Matthew Richardson, whose body gave way in the mid-season of 2009. Fletcher has completed three pre-seasons since then. Carlton half-back Andrew McKay retired to a vet practice nine years ago, and has since chaired the match review committee, spending a fair chunk of his time watching Fletcher tripping opponents in slow motion. Full-forward Scott Cummings pulled the post-career ripcord way back in 2002. The Tigers’ Damien Hardwick took a lengthy assistant’s road to become a senior coach and is now a reappointed senior coach. Footscray defender Danny Southern has had 12 years to retire to Egypt, become a travel guide and is now a Muslim named Mustafa. Even a survivor such as Scott Burns, who played 265 senior games, hasn’t graced the field since 2008.

“Physically, he’s well put together,” says Essendon Football Club’s senior medical officer Bruce Reid, who has seen 30 years worth of Bomber bodies. “He’s lanky and wiry, just like Tuck and Bartlett. He’s not hyper-mobile, which means he doesn’t dislocate fingers or rupture ligaments. In fact, I reckon he’s probably missed more games as a result of those lanky arms and legs tripping up other players than he has through injury. The amazing thing is that his joints just keep on going, and he hasn’t lost any of his speed. He’s still under three seconds for 20 metres.”

“Up until two years ago, he would have been top three for speed at the club,” agrees Ken Fletcher. “He’s also a beautiful kick … a long kick … and he hardly ever misses a target. And he’s a good decision-maker. He doesn’t get caught with the ball.”

“He does have speed,” says Fletcher’s defensive coach and former teammate Sean Wellman. “But it’s more about anticipation. He knows where the ball’s going. Yes, he’s got the natural gifts but he’s also ultra-determined. He just hates to be beaten.”

“If the criteria are durability, reliability and consistency, he’s in the best three Essendon players of the last 30 years,” says Salmon. “He’s been outstanding; truly breathtaking in what he’s been able to do.” Sheedy, unsurprisingly, picks Fletcher at full-back in his best-ever Essendon team. “Paul Weston’s not happy,” he laughs, “but given what Dustin’s done as a kid in ’93, and then winning a best and fairest in another premiership year (2000), I don’t think it’s too controversial. In fact, I think he’s up there in the same league as Bruce Doull … and, as somebody who watched Doull from close quarters, I can tell you that is some league.”

I was once fortunate enough to have a close quarters viewing of Fletcher’s talents. It was 1996, and I was attempting to apply the defibrillator paddles to my AFL ambitions by completing a pre-season at Essendon. A simulation match drill involved forwards leading, defenders spoiling and onballers crumbing, which pitted me against a 20-year-old Dustin Fletcher. What followed were 10 horrifying minutes that crystallised my understanding of our respective futures. He was too fast, too long of arm, too co-ordinated and too agile for me to beat him on a lead. If it came to body contact, he was deceptively strong, especially given his light frame. He anticipated the ball drop better. He recovered his feet quicker. When he got it, which was often, he disposed of it perfectly. At the end of the session, I concluded that if we played the same roles for the next 20 years, I wouldn’t win a single contest.

As it’s turned out, I needn’t have felt embarrassed. Far better forwards than me have experienced similar troubles. And 20 years is about what Fletcher had in mind.

Tony Wilson’s latest picture book is The Emperor’s New Clothes Horse (Scholastic, 2012). You can follow Tony on Twitter@byTonyWilson

Fletch! A Tribute to a Legend