Jason Dunstall loved the chase, the tackle and the assist every bit as much as a goal. Photo: Getty Images
When it came to the business of playing for a successful club in its greatest era, Jason Dunstall's timing couldn't have been better.
The champion Hawthorn full-forward's first season in league football saw him part of a grand final team. By the time his playing career finished he'd played in five, for four premierships, missing another only through injury, being part of September action just as habitual as pre-season training.
Perversely, however, in terms of recognition as one of the all-time greats of the game, perhaps Dunstall's timing couldn't have been worse.
Not only was he surrounded by a roll call of talent at Glenferrie long enough to have any kudos thoroughly rationed, but there were contemporaries in the goal square at rival clubs the stature of Tony Lockett and Gary Ablett senior.
The former, one of the most physically imposing figures to have played league football, ended up as holder of the game's goalkicking record. The latter, a man with the capacity to perform wizardry of the sort unmatched anywhere, is still regarded by many as the greatest player of all time.
Yet Dunstall's more orthodox methods remained stunningly effective in their own right. His career tally of 1254 goals is third behind only Lockett and Collingwood legend Gordon Coventry.
He finished with three Coleman Medals and passed the 100 mark on no fewer than six occasions. He won four Hawthorn best and fairests. Then, when it was all over, he hung around, first as a part-time skills coach, then as a board member, even as an interim chief executive, as the Hawks, in trouble on the field, sought to rebuild their entire football department.
The results of that latter toil can be seen in the phenomenally successful operation that is the Hawthorn Football Club of today. And while the pats on the back have always been of little consequence to Dunstall, the ultimate team man, the Hawks have ensured he is getting the kudos those efforts over nearly 30 years have deserved.
On Saturday night at a function celebrating the 25th anniversary of Hawthorn's back-to-back premiership success of 1988-89, Dunstall became only the seventh official legend of the club. To say the company he joins is elite would be an understatement, the others John Kennedy senior, Leigh Matthews, Graham Arthur, Michael Tuck, Peter Hudson and David Parkin.
So it would be to suggest Dunstall had some pretty healthy competition for the honour, other former teammates eligible including Gary Ayres, Dermott Brereton, Gary Buckenara, Robert DiPierdomenco, Chris Langford, Chris Mew and John Platten, along with three-time Hawk premiership coach the late Allan Jeans.
Not a man given to sentiment, it's clear that to Dunstall this is no ordinary gong. "It's an incredible honour," he says. "I find it very humbling, almost a touch embarrassing, but I'm just grateful the club thought I was worthy of being recognised in such a way.
"I've been part of that club for virtually 30 years now. It's been the one constant passion and driving force in my life. I loved my time there as player, and I'd do anything to help them on and off the field post my playing time."
The depth of that connection certainly isn't lost on him given it was the last thing he envisaged when he left his native Queensland to try his luck in the VFL, signed by the Hawks on an old "Form Four" prior to the days of the national draft. Dunstall had grown up a Carlton supporter, his local club Coorparoo wearing the same outfit as the Blues.
"I was desperate to go to Carlton, but they dropped off, so in the end I had an offer from Fitzroy and an offer from Hawthorn, and they weren't big offers, I can tell you that. I sat down with my old man and basically thought that Hawthorn was the more stable club, and that's why I went there.
"For me it was just an adventure. I didn't know how long it would last. It was just an opportunity that continued to grow, and I was just very fortunate to go to that particular club at that time and stumble into a position that wasn't really taken."
Another great Hawk full-forward, Michael Moncrieff, had finished up in 1983, and Dunstall's now-fellow legend Matthews, at 32, had become a defacto spearhead the following season.
But in 1985, the goal square became Dunstall's. It would remain that way for 14 seasons, during which he topped the club goalkicking every year from 1986 until 1996, and again in his final year of 1998.
He kicked tallies of seven or more in no fewer than 58 games, and his 17.5 against Richmond in 1992 at Waverley is second only to Fred Fanning's famous 18-goal haul for Melbourne in 1947.
It's that performance which best sums up the Dunstall ethos. Not so much for the incredible goal haul, but for the fact that with the record beckoning and minutes still left on the clock, the Hawk spearhead, rather than looking for the handball over the top, was chasing his Tiger opponent down the ground deep into defence.
"I didn't know about the record," he laughs. "There were parts of the history of the game that were unfamiliar to me because I didn't grow up in Victoria." Not that the knowledge would have made much difference.
Because aside from his great leading, vice-like hands and accurate kicking, Dunstall loved the chase, the tackle and the assist every bit as much as a goal, for the 1980s, a spearhead ahead of his time. And in that regard, he always had it over the stronger Lockett and the more spectacular Ablett when it came to those endless debates about the great full-forwards.
Long-time mentor and confidante George Stone, who worked closer with Dunstall the player than anyone, was on his table on Saturday night to see his one-time pupil honoured.
Asked to recall a memory that sums up Dunstall the player, it's of the pair out on the MCG the Wednesday before another grand final appearance, a non-training night, the full-forward taking shot after practice shot at the goals.
"He was the least spectacular of the three," Stone concedes of Lockett, Ablett and his mate. "But he was certainly the most consistent and team-orientated of them. He was really strong on team ethics.
"He was such a competitor on or off the field, whether it was football or table tennis, that you knew every week what you were going to get out of him. You knew he was going to put pressure on, you knew he'd tackle, you knew he'd always give it off to someone in a better position."
Dunstall laughs at the suggestion he made boring efficiency an art form. "No, it doesn't offend me," he chuckles. "Look, you've got to go with the tools you've got. I think I played the percentages.
"I tried to play in front every time, and I think I had good hands. I didn't have a great leap like an Ablett, and I wasn't the size of 'Plugger', so I had to go with leading and playing for front position.
"And to me it was an all-round thing. Defence to me was the same as attack, and if there was a chance to be involved, I was just as desperate to chase or tackle or whatever. Maybe that's also coming from Queensland, and playing a bit of rugby. But I know I got as much satisfaction from giving a goal off to a teammate as getting one."
And post-career, Dunstall got just as much satisfaction from his club's achievements, too. Hawthorn's 2008 flag under Alastair Clarkson, whom Dunstall as fill-in CEO campaigned to have appointed as coach, is particularly special.
"To get to that stage after four years before being near the bottom of the ladder came through the hard work and brilliance of a lot of people at all levels of the club," he says. "I never thought it could satisfy me anywhere near as much as playing, but I took so much pride out of watching them win it in 2008 … it probably surprised me how much it meant to me."
As does Saturday night's recognition of just how large looms the name Dunstall in the pantheon of Hawthorn greatness. Not that most who witnessed his career need any convincing. And if Dunstall still refuses to blow his own trumpet, there's plenty only too happy to.
"He doesn't talk about his past deeds much, but I reckon he'll be pretty proud about it," says his great mate Stone. "I've been hanging around league footy now for 30 years, and he's one of the all-time greats, certainly up there with the best we've seen."
JASON DUNSTALL – FIVE OF THE BEST
1. 17.5 v Richmond, Waverley May 1992. Fred Fanning's record of 18 goals is under serious threat as Dunstall runs amok against the Tigers. Typically, with time still to beat the record, he's chasing opponents into his own backline.
2. 1986 grand final v Carlton. Dunstall's first grand final the season before had been one to forget, the Hawks thrashed and the young spearhead held goal-less. This one announced his coming of age, booting six goals straight on Carlton champion Bruce Doull in his side's 42-point win.
3. With the Hawks looking likely to merge with Melbourne, the two clubs play each other in the final round of 1996 at the MCG. In a magnificent contest, Hawthorn emerges triumphant by one point, its spearhead booting 10 out of 15 goals, including his 100th for the season.
4. Hawthorn is in danger of missing the finals late in 1996 after two straight losses when it meets Footscray at Waverley. The Hawks' spearhead turns it on, booting an incredibly accurate 14.2 in a 20-goal tally, or 70 per cent of his side's entire score.
5. A year after missing a grand final through injury, Dunstall makes his return to the biggest stage count, booting 7.2 as the Hawks thrash Melbourne by a then-record 96 points, the seven-goal haul in a flag-decider at that point bettered only by Gordon Coventry and teammate Dermott Brereton.