Retiring Adam Goodes leaves a hole that only the truly great can fill

EXIT

He kicked the first and last goals of the game, dived for and juggled acrobatic marks but in the end, Adam Goodes couldn’t stop his depleted Sydney side from being dumped from the finals in straight sets.

Then within half an hour of game’s conclusion the champion Swan linked arms with his old mucker Michael O’Loughlin in the rooms and told his team-mates that one of the greatest AFL careers of all had come to an end.

On the way off the ground Goodes had let retiring team-mate Rhys Shaw enjoy the limelight, chaired off between a guard of honour. Limelight might be the choice of words given the flat atmosphere at ANZ Stadium, actually. If you factored in the travelling North fans, only 25,000 or so home supporters turned up despite the firm suspicion that the greatest player of their most successful era would bow out. The ones who did bore witness to a three-hour long footballing sigh.

Everything went to plan at the beginning when Goodes kicked the game-opener. His team-mates swarmed around him, knowing that his greatness still flickered. Maybe everything was going to be okay. But it was false hope. The personnel losses were too hard to cover and for every vintage Goodes moment there was a reminder that age had brought him back to the pack a little; a miscued snap at goal he’d usually nail; one of the most graceful and explosive players of the modern age turning into trouble and being set upon by two North Melbourne players.

In recent years Goodes has worn the most figure-hugging guernsey in the league, one of many subtle evolutions of the game in his 18 years at Sydney. It accentuates the remarkable top-heavy physique that has long seen him cut a distinctive shape as he slashes his way through the midfield or bounds in towards another goal. When he’d duck and weave out of traffic he looked like a bodybuilder performing ballet, Jørn Utzon’s opera house motif on his chest contorting like some strange new muscle group.

This wasn’t always the case. When he arrived at Sydney Goodes was rake-thin and held a reputation for lacking the intensity and presence we’d later grow so accustomed to. The years have made us kind of forgot what a staggering transformation he’d made. In the early days that jumper hung from his spindly frame like sackcloth. It was baggy and loose, befitting a club in need of major alterations. But Goodes and his contemporaries loaded it with a meaning it had never had. To pull on a Sydney jumper carried grave responsibilities and they’ve often played their football accordingly.

Sydney actually held him back for a full year on arrival but in 1999 – his debut season of league football – he tore into games in ways the doubters hadn’t expected and won the Rising Star award, setting the template for his entire career; consistent excellence and heightened levels of distinction against the very best.

Four years later and not even close to fully-formed as a player, Goodes was a 23-year-old Brownlow medalist as an athletic ruckman who ran the old-fashioned loping talls ragged. They were chasing around their own redundancy notices. Some players adapt to the game’s evolution; players like Goodes are the evolution. “Just a student of the game” is what he called himself after that first Brownlow year, but he was already schooling veterans.

The knee injury that followed is in some ways the classic Goodesian football tale; never again would he contest centre bounces but through it he still strung together 204 consecutive games, reinventing himself as a midfield general who’d crash into congestion and swoop away with the ball or head forward and kick goals, 464 of them all told. That ties him with Dermott Brereton, a chief antagonist in the national discussion of race that centred on Goodes this year but also his peer in a footballing sense. Both filled the hearts of their supporters with joy and brought them premierships.

For that reason, Swans fans probably half expected that Goodes would lift their injury-ravaged side to one last win but though he showed in those 372 magnificent games of football that he could play in any position on the ground, he could never play in all of them at once. They’ve relied on him for so long. In his first game Goodes played alongside Andrew Dunkley, now 47 years old and 13 years removed from league football. Last night he played with second-gamer James Rose, 28 years Dunkley’s junior.

“He’ll take a deep breath now and he needs it,” said Swans coach John Longmire after the game and he’s right. No player could have had a more taxing season this year than Goodes. A small but significant number of the North Melbourne fans present booed him throughout Saturday’s game, a petty and small-hearted act that they might eventually evolve enough to regret. Another pity was that there weren’t more Swans fans there to drown them out.

As ever, Goodes ensured the finale didn’t fold into some neat narrative of good and bad. In the third term he unsuccessfully campaigned for a free kick against North full-back Scott Thompson, throwing himself backwards onto the ground and lashing out with his feet in frustration. It was that kind of game.

There was always a kind of exaggeration to the way Goode played his football; the puffing of the chest and spread of the arms to make himself appear even bigger than he was as he approached the contest or roamed free space; the theatrical turning circle as he clasped the ball in one hand; the boyish hopping on the spot as he unloaded high fives on team-mates and revved himself up.

But show ponies don’t carry an entire team on their back at the age of 35 like Goodes did last week against Fremantle. They don’t spend the best part of two decades providing one of the hardest opposition match-ups in football and they certainly don’t challenge the prejudices and hypocrisies of an entire nation with the dignity that Goodes has.

After he won that first Brownlow, Goodes talked about the respect he had for co-winners Nathan Buckley and Mark Riciutto and how it wouldn’t have felt right to snatch it away from the two of them. In response, Buckley hit upon the eternal appeal of the Swan. “Adam Goodes epitomises everything in modern-day footy, he is athletic and he just goes out to play footy.”

But now he won’t just go out and play footy, and that leaves a hole on the football landscape that only the truly great can fill.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Russell Jackson, for theguardian.com on Sunday 20th September 2015 01.16 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010