When it comes to AFL footy, heroes come and go, but legends remain eternal. Assembling the ultimate dream team is no easy feat, especially when you’re not just looking at statistics or premiership medals. It’s about capturing the essence of the game – players who stood out not only in their era but those whose prowess transcends time.
These are the footballers who would dominate any competition, in any era, and against any opposition. So, in the realm of what-ifs and hypothetical matchups, who would be your first pick? Jump in as we rank the crème de la crème, players who redefine what it means to be the best in AFL.
Greatest Players in AFL History
Here it is: our list of the greatest AFL players. Coming up with this ranking was tough. We’ve left out some great names and included a couple who might not make other lists. But we stand by it. We used stats and accolades but also looked beyond them to determine the most unstoppable players.
1. Wayne Carey
Wayne “The King” Carey (or “Duck”). A title befitting the player who sits atop our list of the greatest to ever grace the game. Few have combined raw power, sublime skill, sheer determination, and leadership quite like Carey. When you think of the ultimate competitor, the image of this great centre-half forward likely springs to mind.
The numbers speak for themselves. A seven-time All-Australian, Carey wasn’t just among the best; he often was the best, year in and year out. Twice crowned the AFLPA’s Most Valuable Player, it’s a testament to the high regard in which his peers held him. This wasn’t just respect; it was reverence.
But what elevates Carey even further is his storied tenure as North Melbourne’s captain. From 1993 to 2001, he led with an iron will and an undying passion for the game. Under his leadership, the Roos celebrated premiership glory in 1996 and 1999. Championships that have Carey’s fingerprints all over them.
In the hypothetical scenario of picking a team to clinch a premiership, Carey is the first name on the team sheet. With ball in hand or rallying the troops, Wayne Carey was a game-changer, the player that shifted the momentum, the man that made things happen.
The ultimate player in the ultimate team sport, Carey’s contribution to the game and his standing as the best of the best is without parallel. A true AFL legend.
Related: MoR profile of Wayne Carey
2. Leigh Matthews
Leigh Matthews, or as he’s famously known, “Lethal Leigh”, stands tall in the annals of AFL history. The moniker wasn’t just for show; Matthews earned it with his fierce and tenacious style of play. You could feel the anticipation in the air every time he approached the ball – something electric was about to happen.
With Hawthorn, Matthews didn’t just play; he dominated. Bagging the club’s Best & Fairest award eight times showcases his consistent brilliance. And let’s not forget the eight All-Australian selections – evidence of Matthews being a cut above the rest, season after season.
A key figure in Hawthorn’s successes, Lethal was part of a team that claimed four premierships. He wasn’t just a participant; he was often the driving force, the spark that ignited the Hawks.
What sets Matthews apart wasn’t just his on-field achievements. It’s the aura he brought to the game, the sheer presence every time he took the field. In tight spots, in the most tense moments, Matthews was the player you wanted by your side.
Securing the number two spot on our list, Lethal Leigh’s legacy is undeniable – a blend of grit, skill, and a winning mentality that few in the game can match.
3. Gary Ablett Jr
Gary Ablett, Jr. – known to the footy world as “Gazza” – carved his own legacy in the AFL. No, he didn’t have the sheer size and vertical leap of his father. But what he lacked in stature, he made up in on-ball brilliance.
On the field, Gazza was magic in motion. Quick thinking? Check. Even quicker feet? Absolutely. Gazza danced around the competition. Opponents tried to tackle him, but more often than not, they were left chasing shadows.
His agility? Top-notch. Few could match his nimbleness, his knack for dodging and weaving through the tightest of spots. Every move he made, every turn, every sidestep – all done with precision.
Consistency was Gazza’s middle name. Every game, every season, he delivered. His accolades tell part of the story: eight All-Australian selections, two Brownlows, and five AFLPA MVPs. But numbers alone can’t capture his influence.
Remember Geelong’s premierships in 2007 and 2009? Gazza was instrumental. A driving force, a leader, a star shining the brightest on the biggest stages.
Coming in at number three on our list of the greatest AFL players of all time, it’s clear: Gazza’s footy prowess was something special. A legend in his own right, and a joy for fans everywhere to watch.
Related: Gary Ablett Jnr on Instagram
4. Michael Voss
Stepping onto the field, Michael Voss was an embodiment of leadership, determination, and tenacity. A midfield dynamo for the Brisbane Lions, Voss was often at the heart of his team’s most pivotal moments, driving them forward with his sheer will and unmatched footy IQ. His robust play style made him a menace for opposition players, but it was his leadership qualities that stood out the most.
Voss didn’t just gather possessions; he used them with deadly efficiency, setting up teammates or going for goal himself. Off the ball, his defensive work rate and pressure set the tone for the rest of his team. Combine that with his ability to rise to the occasion in big moments, and you have a player who was pivotal in Brisbane’s era of dominance.
As a triple-premiership captain, he was the heart and soul of a Brisbane Lions team that would go down in history as one of the greatest sides ever. The individual accolades – a Brownlow Medal in 1996, five All-Australian selections, and two AFLPA MVP awards – only scratch the surface of what he brought to the game.
His fierce competitiveness and on-field generalship made him a standout, while his resilience in the face of tough opposition made him legendary. Michael Voss claims the fourth spot on our list, an exemplar of excellence in the AFL arena.
5. Gary Ablett
Hold onto your hats, because at number five we’ve got Grry Ablett Sr., also known as “God” to the footy faithful. The mere mention of his name evokes images of sheer athleticism, matched with a brand of footy that was both ferocious and flamboyant.
When we talk about power athletes in AFL, Ablett’s name is right up there. Imagine trying to tackle a freight train; that’s what it must’ve felt like for opponents facing his explosive acceleration and brute strength. Whether it was on the ground or in the air, his agility and leap meant the ball was almost certainly going to land in his mitts.
It wasn’t just raw power, though. Ablett’s skills were something to behold. Those incredible marks that seemed to defy gravity, and those booming kicks from distances most wouldn’t even attempt. He was an artist with the oval ball, painting masterpieces.
While his son, Gary Ablett Jr., might’ve been the more consistent of the two, the original Gary Ablett had those flashes of brilliance that simply took your breath away. On his day, no one could touch him. It’s a testament to his prowess that even with the occasional dip in form, he’s still regarded as one of the game’s greats.
Let’s lay down some numbers to give context to the legend: A mammoth 1,030 goals in just 248 games – that’s an average of over 4 goals a game. Add to that two Coleman Medals, four All-Australian selections, and three AFLPA MVP awards. Yet, perhaps the most telling stat is the countless jaws he left hanging and fans he left in awe.
To put it simply, at his peak, Gary Ablett was a phenomenon. A player who could single-handedly turn the tide of a game and leave an indelible mark on anyone lucky enough to witness his magic.
6. Matthew Scarlett
Sitting at number six is a man often referred to as the general of the backline, Matthew Scarlett. In the world of footy, where midfielders and forwards often snatch the spotlight, it’s rare for a defender to be heralded with such reverence. Yet, Scarlett’s class was undeniable, and his reputation colossal.
To the casual observer, a defender’s primary job is to thwart. But Scarlett did more than just stop – he initiated. His fiercely athletic style, coupled with an uncanny ability to read the play, made him a two-fold threat. Not only would he nullify some of the most potent forwards in the game, but he also had this knack for turning defense into a rapid counter-attack, often spearheading Geelong’s offensive forays.
It wasn’t just his football IQ that was intimidating. His physical presence on the field was palpable. Forwards knew they were in for a long day when lined up against Scarlett. His challenges were robust, his clearances surgical, and his interceptions a lesson in anticipation.
Though accolades for defenders might be fewer compared to their forward counterparts, Scarlett’s resume still shines brightly. A Geelong Best & Fairest in 2003, six All-Australian nods, and three premierships stand as monuments to his consistency and unmatched brilliance.
Behind the silverware and stats, though, lies a more profound narrative. Matthew Scarlett was instrumental in an era where Geelong ruled the AFL landscape. His role in the team was as pivotal as any, a foundation stone upon which a dynasty was built.
In the annals of footy history, many will remember the game-changing goals, the dazzling runs, and the match-winning marks. But for those in the know, Scarlett’s steadfast presence in the backline, his relentless pursuit of excellence, and his unmatched ability to control the game from the rear will forever be etched as legendary.
7. Graham Farmer
Seventh on our list is the incomparable Graham “Polly” Farmer. The term ‘revolutionary’ often gets thrown around in sports, but for Farmer, it’s the perfect descriptor. He didn’t just play the ruck position; he transformed it, creating a playbook all on its own.
Before Polly’s time, ruckwork had a certain predictability. But with his entrance, the midfield dynamic shifted. His handballing wasn’t just utilitarian; it was visionary. Farmer used it strategically, setting up plays that often left spectators and opponents alike in awe.
His blend of size and athleticism was noteworthy, but it was his superior skill and balance that truly set him apart. He moved with an elegance unexpected from someone of his stature, deftly manoeuvring around opponents and distributing the ball with precision.
His achievements stretch across coasts, having dominated both the WAFL and VFL landscapes. With three Sandover Medals and two Simpson Medals, his brilliance was consistently acknowledged. His influence at Geelong was profound, as evidenced by his 1964 Best & Fairest award.
Team successes also punctuated Farmer’s illustrious career. Three WAFL premierships and the 1963 VFL Premiership stand testament to his ability to be a difference-maker, turning competent sides into champions.
The cherry on top? Farmer was named as the first ruck in the AFL’s Team of the Century – an affirmation of his undying impact on Australian Rules Football.
8. Peter Hudson
Slotting in at number 8 is the goal-kicking genius, Peter Hudson. When we talk about football prowess, it’s not always about towering giants or Herculean strength. Sometimes, it’s about the magic in one’s boots and the ability to be precisely where you need to be when it counts. Hudson had that, in spades.
Not physically dominant in the traditional sense, Hudson’s game was all about intelligence, timing, and an unparalleled goal sense. He seemed to have the footy on a string, always in the right spot at the right time. It was as if he had an internal GPS guiding him to where the ball would drop. That intuition, combined with his impeccable skills, made him one of the most potent forwards the game has ever seen.
His average of 5.64 goals per game isn’t just impressive; it’s unparalleled among AFL forwards. To put it in context, Hudson wasn’t just consistent; he was consistently extraordinary. This stat alone gives a glimpse of his enormous contribution to the game and his team each time he stepped onto the field.
The four Coleman Medals in his cabinet, paired with five Best & Fairest awards at Hawthorn, paint a picture of a man who was repeatedly acknowledged as one of the best in his role.
The beauty of Hudson was his adaptability on the forward line. Place him anywhere, and you had a surefire bet that he would deliver goals. It didn’t matter the defender, the conditions, or the stakes; Hudson found ways to score. His 1971 premiership win serves as a testament to his pivotal role in Hawthorn’s success.
In essence, Peter Hudson was a masterclass in forward play. A maestro who could weave magic in the forward fifty, making him an undeniable choice for our top 10 list.
9. James Hird
Securing the 9th spot on our illustrious list is James Hird, and if you’ve ever watched him lace up for the Bombers, you’ll need no explanation. But for the sake of giving this AFL genius his due, let’s deep dive into what made Hirdy so special.
First off, the bloke had a footy IQ that was off the charts. You know those players that always seem two steps ahead, like they’ve got the game unfolding in slow motion? That was Hird to a tee. He could read the play like an open book, anticipating moves well before they unfolded.
Then there’s his balance. Hird was poetry in motion, gracefully gliding across the oval. The champ could keep his feet and composure under pressure, making him a defender’s nightmare. And talk about skills! Whether it was a pinpoint pass, a clutch goal, or a vital intercept, Hirdy had a toolbox that was overflowing.
But what really sent shivers down opposition spines was his sheer versatility. From the midfield to the forward line and even in defence, Hird was like a Swiss Army knife, mastering almost every role. This meant that no matter where he was, he was always a threat. Opposing teams would often find themselves scratching their heads, wondering just how to negate his influence.
And as every footy fan knows, it’s not just about raw talent but how you impose it. James Hird had this uncanny ability to stamp his authority on a game, largely thanks to his multi-dimensional play and sublime skills. When the chips were down, you could bet your bottom dollar Hirdy would be there, pulling Essendon over the line.
And if we’re to talk accolades, well, where do you start? Five times he was named All-Australian, a testament to his consistent brilliance. In 1996, he clinched the prestigious Brownlow Medal, and come 2000, the Norm Smith Medal was his after a grand final masterclass. Two premierships with the Bombers just further underscore his indelible mark on the game.
In essence, James Hird wasn’t just an AFL player; he was a maestro, orchestrating proceedings with unparalleled flair and finesse. And that’s why he’s more than earned his stripes in our top 10.
Related: Footywire stats for James Hird
10. Matthew Richardson
Sliding in at number 10 on our list is none other than Matthew “Richo” Richardson, and here’s the story behind that choice. Picture this: a 197cm AFL behemoth, equipped with a surprising burst of speed and the endurance of a marathon runner. That’s Richo for you. Attempting to halt his charge every weekend was like trying to stop a freight train dead in its tracks. And when it came to aerial contests? His 8.1 marks per game set him apart as one of the game’s elite.
Now, while a cursory glance at awards and numbers might paint one picture of Richo, they barely scratch the surface of his contributions to Punt Road. In a Richmond side that had its fair share of challenges, his game-changing plays were the stuff of legend. And though the coveted Brownlow Medal never found its way into his hands—perhaps a few spirited on-field reactions playing a part—his credentials were undoubted.
It’s worth noting that while Richo might not have a Norm Smith medal or premiership flag in his locker, it’s not a true testament to his individual brilliance. With a bit more luck and a stronger surrounding cast, who knows what milestones he might’ve notched?
The man wasn’t just about numbers though. He was pure theatre on the footy field. An absolute magnet for the ball, and with emotions always in the spotlight, he made every match must-see TV. But let’s talk numbers for a moment: three All-Australian selections, two best and fairest awards for Richmond, leading the Tigers’ goal tally for thirteen seasons, and racking up a staggering total of 800 goals. Oh, and here’s a feather in his cap: no one has booted more goals on the hallowed turf of the MCG than Richo.
For those who had the pleasure of seeing him live, it wasn’t just about watching footy – it was about experiencing the phenomenon known as Richo. And that, mates, cements his place amongst the AFL’s greats.
Related: Richo on Instagram
Players Just Outside the Top 10
“Danger” is still playing but certainly borders on the top 10. With his explosive ability to win the ball around the ground, make penetrating runs, and play up forward, he is a candidate for the best footy player of all time.
Chris Judd’s accolades speak volumes about his football prowess. Winner of the Brownlow Medal in both 2004 and 2010, a six-time All-Australian, and recipient of the AFL Players’ Association Most Valuable Player Award three times – his trophy cabinet is bursting. With his searing pace and ability to read the game, time runs, and get clearances, Judd was leaps and bounds ahead of many of his peers. However, Judd did have limitations when it came to marking, his physical presence, and kicking accuracy. For our top-tier list, we want players who’d outshine their competition at any level.
Tony ‘Plugger’ Lockett, with 1,360 goals, holds the crown as the AFL’s all-time leading goalscorer. A powerhouse of a man, he was surprisingly agile for his size, with both fantastic hands and a dead-eye kick for goal. The 1987 Brownlow Medalist didn’t make our top 10 list. Why? Well, we give a little more weight to those forwards with a bit more versatility – who can single-handedly turn a game around. While Plugger, averaging over 4 goals a game, was undeniably dominant when fed the ball well around or in the forward 50, we felt there were others who brought just a bit more dynamism to the entire ground.
Lance “Buddy” Franklin recently hung up his boots, leaving behind a legacy of spectacular running and long-range goals. He dazzled fans throughout his career. Yet, Buddy’s overhead marking was often a weak point. Averaging just over 3 goals per game and with limited handball counts, these facets kept him out of our top 10. Despite his unforgettable moments, when measuring up the greats, every strength and flaw counts.