You can dress it up any way you like but there’s no getting away from it: the Brownlow Medal, the AFL’s premier individual gong, is a deeply flawed award.

Defenders have got virtually no chance of winning it. Permanent forwards are only a marginally better prospect: they at least have been represented three times in the past 50 years.

No, the Brownlow is invariably won by a midfielder or onballer, a player who wins a lot of the ball, is usually skilful and flashy, is constantly under the umpires’ nose, and often but not always has blond hair. It’s that simple, as the last 14 winners are testament to. Everyone else need not apply.

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The favourite for tonight’s award at Crown Casino, Geelong’s Gary Ablett, happens to satisfy all those requirements. But Ablett, who manages to showcase his brilliance despite being tagged each week, would be a more than worthy winner.

The same cannot necessarily be said of one or two former winners who have also hailed from the midfield. Shane Woewodin, Tony Liberatore, Paul Couch, Brad Hardie and Brian Wilson were all good players, to be sure, and coming off career-best seasons when they triumphed, but only their most ardent supporters would describe them as top-shelf, rolled-gold champions.

Tony “Plugger” Lockett, the burly full-forward from St Kilda (and latterly of Sydney), was the last non-midfielder/onballer to win and that was back in 1987. The last two ruckmen to be draped in the tiny medal and its blue ribbon were Jim Stynes in 1991 and Scott Wynd in 1992.

Backmen, the doughty defenders upon whom every good team relies, have been seriously under-represented in the Brownlow pantheon. Carlton’s centre half-back Gordon Collis may have been the last of their number to prevail, and that was in 1964. This, of course, is patently ridiculous. Steven Silvagni, Chris Langford, David Dench and Kelvin Moore all played full-back with distinction at various times in the past 30 years, and were crucial elements in their team’s premiership successes, but none of them ever looked like winning the Brownlow, much less polling double-figure votes.

In last year’s count, you had to go down to 19th place before you found a player who spent any time as a permanent backman and that was Adelaide’s Marty Mattner, whose dash off the half-back line made him a quasi-midfielder anyway.

Brisbane full-forward Jonathan Brown and Port Adelaide key-position player Chad Cornes are the biggest threats to the midfielders’ dominance this year. But that means polling better than Ablett, Brent Harvey, Jimmy Bartel, Sam Mitchell and others. If recent history is any guide, that will prove a tall order.

So they can leave the victory speech behind and content themselves with a free dinner and bevvy of Crown Lagers. And perhaps the thought that football’s most sought-after individual decoration should be re-named the Midfielders’ Medal, or Onballers’ Accolade. Or, if they’re feeling really cynical, maybe even the Bottle-Blond Bestowal.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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