Is Eddie Betts The AFL's Greatest Ever Small Forward?

When Eddie Betts retires this weekend, he'll finish as one of the most loved footballers the game has ever seen. His contribution off the field to both the game and wider Australian society has been immense, with his efforts to fight racism inspiring love and admiration from people around the country. 

Eddie is widely acknowledged as being one of the great entertainers on the field, performing feats that kids spend hours trying to emulate in parks all around the country. But he might just retire as the best forward pocket to ever play the game. 

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Eddie the Entertainer

Eddie’s resume is outrageous. As a forward pocket he managed to lead his club in goal kicking six times – twice in his early years at Carlton (2010 and 2012) and four times at the Crows (2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017). He is a three time All-Australian (2015, 2016, and 2017). But perhaps the most impressive stat is that Eddie has won the Goal of the Year award a record four times (2006, 2015, 2016, 2019) – something we’ll come back to, just like he did with the Blues.

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Eddie’s Approach to Footy

It can be hard to set the criteria for working out which of the great players are the best at their position. But, since it’s Eddie’s week this week, let’s use the criteria he set for himself. In his Instagram post announcing his retirement, Eddie mentioned two things that stand out as a hallmark of who he is and how he played the game. 

Eddie said: “I hope at some point in my career I was able to put a smile on your face. If I did, I’m happy and my work is done here.” Well, nothing brings a smile to football fans faces quite like a beautiful snag, and Eddie has snapped plenty of those through the big sticks. His record around the goals is brilliant.

But Eddie has always been about more than just kicking his own goals, in his words: “My family, back home for teaching and raising me that it’s always important to look out for others and be selfless in the way we go about things. We will only get better if we look after each other.” Eddie has always been great at setting the table for other forwards and helping them get in the scorebook. In fact, he’s one of the best to ever do that as well.

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The Goal Kicking Machine

He currently sits 29th on the all-time AFL/VFL goal-kickers list, with 638 goals to his name – at an average of 1.83 per game. There is no one shorter than him higher on the all-time goal kicking list. Given the number of shots from Eddie’s pocket that he has fired off, he could be forgiven for inaccuracy, but he has only kicked 342 behinds, giving him an accuracy in front of goal of 65%. 

For a position where consistent scoreboard impact is challenging, Eddie has managed to defy the odds. At the peak of his powers over a span of 92 games from the beginning of 2014 through to the end of the 2017 season, Eddie kicked a goal in all but 7 games. In that same span he kicked 5 or more goals 15 times. That is remarkable consistency for a small forward.

At his best, Eddie’s a damaging goal-scorer with the ability to win the game off his own boot. He has managed to bag over 50 goals in a season on 5 occasions (only 2 players have kicked that many in 2021). His best return in a single season was 75 goals in the 2016 season, kicking five goals in a game on seven occasions. 

Of course, anyone who has watched Eddie play footy knows that not all goals are created equal, and it’s in kicking exciting goals that Eddie truly excels. To that end, he has been nominated for goal of the week 27 times – including twice this year. 

He doesn’t just get nominated though, Eddie is the master of the Goal of the Year award, having won it 4 times. Buddy is the only other player to have won the award more than once. The longevity of Eddie’s craftiness is impressive – with his first win in 2006 and his last win in 2019. 

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Eddie Betts and His Mates

In the forward half there’s no better way to look out for a teammate than setting them up for a goal. To that end, when he retires on the weekend, Eddie will be the all-time leader in Goal Assists with 318. 

At 0.91 goal assists per game over his 350 game career, he also ranks fifth for goal assists per game (minimum 50 games), showing that it’s not just his longevity that explains his lead. Ahead of Eddie in goal assists per game are Cyril Rioli (0.99), Robbie Gray (0.98), Jason Akermanis (0.93), and Warren Tredrea (0.92), and equal with Eddie is Stevie J (0.91). That’s some impressive company.

Much like his goal kicking, the consistency Eddie has in this area of the game is outstanding. Over a nine-year period between 2009 and 2017, Eddie managed to crack at least 20 goal assists each season. Currently there’s only 11 players with that many goal assists in season 2021. 

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For the Love of the Game

It would be easy to Eddie’s achievements off as pure talent. But if you watch his Instagram stories, you will see him working hard at practicing his craft with his kids at home. In the park. Wherever you can kick a ball. The pure joy found in the game, in doing the impossible with a smile on the face, is the calling card of Eddie Betts. 

That same joy has been present in some of the most special moments that fans have been treated to by Eddie. Perhaps no better encapsulated than in the Round 13 2019 Goal of the Week that Eddie kicked, then went back to have a moment with Richmond youngster Sydney Stack. Where others rub a player on the head, Eddie shared an embrace with an opposition player in the middle of the game. It was a beautiful moment, like so many others that Eddie has been a part of, and one that fans deeply appreciated.

When it comes to the class of entertaining, Eddie stands alone. A man who has played the game with an unparalleled freedom and creativity, his ability to wow the fans will stand the test of time. Hopefully he can pull out a few more tricks on the weekend to get us out of our seats one more time.

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Jeremiah Brown

Jeremiah is an academic researcher and a passionate sports fan who loves looking at the numbers underneath the game. His PhD deals with the measurement and analysis of complex concepts, and he brings that same analytic approach to how he thinks about sports. He is a long-suffering Blues and Chicago Bulls fan, and a cricket tragic, trying to understand why his teams never seem to win. You can find him on Twitter @jeremiahtbrown 

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