The 6 Brownlow Medallists who were told they’d never make it


TOO slow, too fat, untalented – they’re taunts I’m sure we all hear from siblings at each and every family gathering I attend.

But they’ve also been used as fuel to spark some of the best footy careers we’ve ever seen.

In a game where the goalkicking record is held by 120kg monster, and the games record is held by a twig, it’s difficult to understand clubs not taking a punt on the ol’ footballer first, athlete second. But it happens, and the ramifications can be spectacular.




THE late and great Paul Couch. It truly sucks to be writing that in 2016.

A product of the Hampden Football League – where all the best footballers and journalists started out – Couch (pictured with father Bill), whose zoned club was Fitzroy, was told by the Lions in 1982 that he was too slow to make it in the big time.

Known for their legendary lack of foresight, the Lions not only missed out on a midfielder that went on to play 259 games, they missed out on the 1989 Brownlow Medallist and a bloke roundly considered one of the nicest guys in football.

But it all turned out alright for Fitzroy … in the sense that when they folded in 1996 it was no longer possible for them to make a similar monumental recruiting stuff up.

Go Roys!




HERE’S the thing about speed. Kane Tenace had speed. Richard Tambling had speed. Usain Bolt has speed. But speed doesn’t make any of them any good at footy.

Greg ‘Diesel’ Williams had a lot of attributes, but speed wasn’t one of them. When Carlton came knocking in 1982 – and then again in 1983 – the biggest criticism of him was that he wouldn’t be able to outrun Rene Kink wearing Warwick Capper’s shorts.

So the Blues twice sent him packing back home to Golden Square, before Tom Hafey and the Cats took a punt on him in 1984.

An instant success, Williams was lured to Sydney in 1986 with promises of big money and not having to live in Geelong,  and he promptly won the Brownlow Medal with Robert Dipierdomenico (above).

Almost a decade later, Diesel won the award again, this time waddling around in the Carlton jumper he’d been denied twice for being too slow.




THE brutality of football is exacerbated 10-fold when there’s every chance a ruckman might swallow you whole.

Standing at just 163cm tall, Tony Liberatore decided that the best way to prove height doesn’t matter in footy was to win every fucking award he could get his hands on.

Playing for North Melbourne in the under-19s competition in 1984, Libba won the Morrish Medal for the league best and fairest.

The Kangaroos then cut a long story short by dumping Liberatore in a wicker basket at the door of Western Oval with a note saying “we think you could do a better job raising him”.

So Footscray proceeded to play Libba in the reserves, where he went on to win two more league best and fairests before the Bulldogs decided he might just be good enough to deserve an extended run at the big boys’ table in 1990.

Playing 19 games, Liberatore kept the tradition of winning all the things alive by taking home a well-deserved Brownlow Medal, and putting to bed all the jokes people made about him being short.

It was a win for the little guys.




IF you think the current love-affair with American basketballers in the AFL is bit far-fetched, just imagine how batshit insane footy fans thought Melbourne were in 1984.

Placing ads in Irish newspapers, the Demons were looking for “applicants who are to be under 18-years-old, over 183 cm and at county standard”, like a creepy Aussie bloke looking for a tall, rural Irish teenager in the personals.

Jim Stynes answered, and packed up his bodhrán and cipín and pissed off to Melbourne to be a footballer.

With Stynes ploughing away in the VFA with Prahran – and with fellow import James Fahey having already gone home – questions were raised over the Irish experiment.

But Stynes fast became the best ruckman in the competition, making his debut in 1987 and winning the Brownlow in 1991.

He was also a bit of a decent bloke, too.




THE Bombers were crying out for a half-decent ruckman in 1964, so they invited North Resevoir giant Len Thompson to training at Windy Hill.

Then they told him bugger off.

Despite his exceptional size, ability and athleticism, Essendon figured the gaping hole in their ruck stocks would fill itself and gave Collingwood the opportunity to poach Thompson instead.

268 games, 217 goals, five club best and fairests and a sneaky Brownlow Medal later, Thompson became a Collingwood legend and Essendon were forced to fork out mad stacks of cash to lure Graham Moss to Victoria from Perth.




UNLIKE the other players on this list, Gary Dempsey’s “you won’t make it” moment didn’t come from recruiters or coaches – it came from doctors.

In 1969, and with two seasons of VFL footy for Footscray under his belt, Dempsey was horrifically burnt in a bushfire at Truganina.

The ruckman had been working on the family farm when a wind-change pushed the flames in his direction.

“I just ran. Shit I ran. I dived through barbed wire fences and I ran (about 300m) to this tennis court at a property owned by a guy called Don Meyers,” Dempsey told Mike Sheahan in 2009.

“I remember just sitting in the middle of this tennis court and then watching the fence start to burn. I thought I was gone. The tennis court saved me.”

Dempsey suffered burns to 50% of his body – mostly on his back – and was in a critical condition for about a week. He stayed in hospital for a month and a half. Doctors said there was a chance he’d never play footy again.

The bushfires happened on January 8. He was back on the field on August 23.

It was that kind of tenacity and guts that saw Dempsey play 329 games, and win a Brownlow for Footscray in 1975.











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