Home Australia The long and the short of how player heights in Aussie Rules have changed over time

The long and the short of how player heights in Aussie Rules have changed over time

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Max Gawn

Being a good soccer player is often not about being the biggest, strongest, fastest, or tallest; It’s about making the most of what you have and playing to your relative strengths.

In 2014, the AFL created the Laws of the Game Charter, designed to provide the AFL Commission and the Laws of the Game Committee with an overview of the guiding principles and fundamental elements of Australian rules football.

These principles broadly cover key elements such as player positioning, movement and the free flow of the game. Among these principles is one that establishes the physical characteristics of the players of the game.

“Players of different sizes, football and athletic ability have the opportunity to succeed in the game played at the highest level.”

Last night in their win over Adelaide, Max Gawn and Kysaiah Pickett lined up side by side for the 82nd time.

That four-year partnership has generated a huge amount of individual and team success, including the 2021 Melbourne premiership.

Kysaiah Pickett and Max Gawn, side by side. Their height difference is one of the largest in league history.(Getty Images: Steve Bell/AFL Photos)

Both are integral parts of the Demons set-up, even if their heights span the extremes of the current football spectrum.

The gap between Gawn and Pickett is, depending on which source you trust, 38 cm, or one foot and three inches in the ancient language.

That 38cm gap is just 4cm shy of the record gap between Fremantle teammates Matthew “Spider” Burton and Peter Miller.

Australian rules football has long been a sport contested at two different levels. For a team to be successful, it must be adept in both the air and the ground. A good team is balanced between the tall trees and the mosquito fleet, symbiotically feeding on each other to form an unstoppable force.

For much of football history, the height of the general player pool followed that of the general population. But in recent decades there has been a move away from this trend, of ever-increasing heights between theoretically big and small players.

Measure to find the right data

Since the VFL’s inception in 1897, more than 13,000 players have played in the league.

Currently there are height lists for about 12,300 of them. Many of them have been taken from sources such as club yearbooks, newspapers and media guides.

This combination of official and unofficial sources makes it difficult to tell the story of height in football.

Take Gawn and Pickett, for example. AFL Tables, the unofficial and very reliable source, list them at 208cm and 170cm respectively. The AFL currently has teammates measuring 209cm and 171cm, with other measurements available for pitchers of different heights.

Two other curious cases involve two of the game’s current great stars.

Tim English and Harry McKay have adopted dramatically different trends in the progression of their official AFL roster heights over time, in a way that confounds normal growth patterns.

In short, there are individual discrepancies that make this exercise more difficult, but not impossible.

That’s nothing compared to calculating how tall ordinary Australians are.

There are few long-term sources that track the height of Australian men and women over time. Instead, a mosaic of different studies conducted at different times of different cohorts of Australians emerges.

Altitude surveys have been used for various reasons over time for different important purposes. Academics believe that height can be used as an indicator of improvements (or sudden declines) in living conditions, nutrition and healthcare.

For example, historians believe that the decline in the average height of military recruits in the late 19th century may have been impacted, at least partially, by the economic depression of the 1890s.

Changing size throughout the game’s story.

For much of the football league’s first half-century, the height of elite footballers largely remained that of the average Australian man (as estimated by ABC Sport), albeit at a distance of approximately 5cm. .

This includes that drop in player height at the turn of the century, just when the late effects of that economic depression of the 1890s were expected to hit.

Around 1950, the trend between average height and the height of professional footballers began to diverge. As the years have gone by, more and more distance has been placed between the average Australian and the average footballer.

In the VFL, individual height barriers were slowly removed over time.

Geelong’s Eddy James was the only 6ft 4 (193cm) player in the VFL’s first season and he wasn’t just filling out the numbers: he was also the league’s first (joint) top scorer.

Fifteen years later, Melbourne’s Tim Lane was the first player to exceed 195cm in his only season in the VFL.

The Herald described Lane as:

“A tall man, just over 6 feet, and athletically built. He is as active as a five-foot man and can kick with revealing effect.”

In 1929, Len “Booby” Mills was the first VFL player to break the 200cm barrier when he debuted for St Kilda at the age of 31. Mills was neither a late bloomer nor a flyer for the Saints; him instead of having a full life and career before joining the club.

Leonardo Mills

Football players Leonard Mills and Héctor Brooks.(State Library of South Australia)

Mills joined the army for World War I at the age of 16 and went on to become one of the most feared military boxers of his time.

One of the greatest ruckmen of the era, two-time Magarey medalist Bruce McGregor, called Mills his toughest opponent, capable of earning hits without getting off the ground.

Fitzroy’s Dean Farnham was the first to clear 205cm in 1974, and Matthew Burton became the first to clear 210cm in Fremantle’s debut season in 1995.

The record for the tallest player in the AFL is currently held by three different players at 211cm: Peter Street, Aaron Sandilands and Mason Cox.

Richmond rookie Mate Colina is set to break this tie if he debuts, with the former basketball player measuring 213cm.

At the same time, the heights of the shortest players in the league have also extended further and further into the sky.

This year, Hawthorn rookie Nick Watson took over as the league’s shortest player, an inch shorter than Pickett and Caleb Daniel.

A forward-thinking reason?

Given the trend away from the national average height, a more important question arises: why?

Perhaps a clue can be found closer to the goal.

While the height of the average goalkeeper has not increased significantly over time, the height of spearheads (those who kick three or more goals in a game) has moved ahead of the general trend.

Gordon Coventry, the game’s second-best goalscorer and leading high-scoring exponent of his era, was the same size as current Swans midfielder Chad Wingard (183cm).

Bob Pratt, considered by some to be the best forward of the 20th century, was only 180 cm tall, the same size as forwards Orazio Fantasia and Charlie Cameron.

The great strikers of yesteryear tended to be placed in one-on-one battles, and often only had to defeat one opponent. Groups did not have to collide to make disputed holds to kick goals.

As football has evolved, it has become much more aerial in nature.

The development of the drop punt during the first half of the 20th century and its eventual widespread adoption in subsequent decades has led to more predictable high-scoring contests.

This likely led to an arms race for teams to target increasingly taller players to target in the forward half.

Defenses have also had to keep up with this increase in size. You can’t mess up a mark you can’t hit, and to mess up Harry McKay you need a defender the size of Ben McKay.

Recent years have seen a move towards increasingly complex team defenses, designed to stop easy scoring opportunities and subsequent goals.

But eagle-eyed readers might notice a slight dip in the trend of top scorers in recent years.

This trend could be partly strategic and partly symbolic of a larger change at play across society.

A downward tick over time

This year there have been 41 shots of three or more goals. Seventeen of those bags have been kicked by players shorter than the league average, and only 13 have been kicked by players taller than 195cm.

Teams are increasingly relying on more complex forward configurations, often with a small dominant left deep in space.

Focal points like Toby Greene, Charlie Cameron and Tom Papley have taken the place of more traditional seniors, forcing defenses to adapt in the same way.

Overall, player height across the league appears to have plateaued in recent years. Shorter players are now being considered again at the top end of the draft: Watson was the No. 5 pick last year and Pickett was the No. 12 pick in 2019.

There is also a broader theory among some academics that the “great Australian growth push” may be coming to an end.

In this sense, football may simply be the canary in the coal mine.

Football has long been a reflection of society at large. It has represented broader social trends, including community size. If Australia is getting smaller, it makes sense that football is too.

Or all of this could just be a small blip, a strategic anomaly, and the race for football’s height could be heating up.

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