Over the past couple of years, there’s been two guaranteed methods of getting football fans to unleash torrents of venom about something not connected to their club.
One, it almost goes without saying, is the Essendon supplement saga. The other, less fathomable example, is virtually any discussion involving now retired Collingwood captain Nick Maxwell.
Family man: Nick Maxwell with wife Erin and children Archie and Milla on Wednesday. Photo: Getty Images
When news of the premiership skipper’s impending retirement began to trickle out on social media on Tuesday evening, it didn’t take long for the barbs to start going tweet for tweet with the pats on the back for a fine career.
You could fill several pages with the catalogue of insults, but some more popular recurring themes seemed to be “worst captain to ever play the game”, “worst to play 200 games”, “role model for hack footballers”, to the more succinct “tosser”.
The criticisms of Maxwell over recent times have come from more informed sources, too, like former Geelong champion Matthew Scarlett, who in his autobiography last year claimed: “None of our players had any respect for Maxwell.”
Yet Scarlett also conceded he’d had nothing to do with Maxwell beyond their on-field clashes. And a teammate of his who had, Jimmy Bartel, remains a close friend of the Magpie defender. Indeed, speak to most people who’ve dealt with Maxwell, either players and coaches at Collingwood, or in the media, and the praise is almost universal.
So what is it about the man who is now one of only four surviving Collingwood premiership captains that seems to get under people’s skin so much? The most likely reasons, frankly, don’t have a lot of credibility.
One appears to lay in the difficulty footy fans still have getting their heads around the fact that a great captain needn’t necessarily be a great player. Despite the different skill sets required for playing and leading, most skippers still tend to be if not the best, then among the most gifted players for their teams.
Maxwell certainly wasn’t for Collingwood. He came to the Pies via the rookie list, and through his entire career spoke self-deprecatingly about his modest natural talent.
Yet he also remained a better player than many believed, good enough to win All-Australian selection in 2009 and even as recently as earlier this season, play a pivotal role for the Pies as a third man up and highly effective floating defender.
Many Magpie greats will remain ahead of him when Collingwood’s best are discussed. Yet were it not for him, the Pies might very well now have only three surviving premiership captains.
In that dramatic drawn grand final of 2010, two acts from Maxwell probably saved the day for the Pies.
One was his desperate dive to touch a shot from St Kilda’s Nick Riewoldt which was bouncing through for what would have proved a match-winning goal. Then, with less than four minutes left on the clock and the Pies trailing by a point, he took a towering intercept mark and courageously centred the ball, launching the attack from which Collingwood would score its last goal of the game.
Former Geelong defender Tom Harley was another player not among his club’s best handful who nevertheless became a highly respected premiership captain. Indeed, Scarlett in his book said the Cats hated how Maxwell was compared to Harley. “It was simply wrong,” he wrote.
Those pondering why Harley was never a target for the same sort of disdain Maxwell has attracted would cite his less overt behaviour out on the ground. There’s been more obvious intensity about Maxwell, never afraid to confront teammates who haven’t followed the team rules.
It can irk plenty of fans in the outer when they see a player reading the riot act to an obviously more talented teammate. Yet even the Collingwood colleagues he could become visibly frustrated by never disputed his right to do so, nor that when it occurred, he was in the right.
They’d been aware of his leadership qualities early in the piece, qualities that are harder to spot if you’re not inside a club on a day-to-day basis watching how a leader can pick up and drag along those around him towards a common purpose.
I can recall spending a week inside Collingwood at the beginning of 2007, when Maxwell had yet to even pass the 50-game milestone. You couldn’t help but notice not only how vocal he was in various team meetings, but equally how much the far more senior likes of then-captain Nathan Buckley, Scott Burns, James Clement and Anthony Rocca valued his input.
It was apparent to the club’s hierarchy even then that Maxwell was an obvious future leader, and few on-field leadership transitions have gone as smoothly, or proved as effective, as the passing of the baton from Buckley to Burns and then him.
As a public representative of his club, too, Maxwell has been unfailingly generous with his time, and more recently as a media commentator, has always presented a thoughtful and articulate opinion on a game he clearly loves as much as anyone.
Perhaps some of those opinions have occasionally rubbed people up the wrong way, another interesting contrast with Harley, whose media work doesn’t often see him take a controversial or blunt stand on a topic.
That’s not a criticism of him, either, but his now fellow retiree Maxwell shouldn’t be viewed more dimly just because he’s more prepared to call a spade a spade.
In fact, his honesty even with himself has for many of us made Maxwell a pleasure to deal with. And even his detractors surely couldn’t dispute that, while there’s been plenty of players better than him, there’s only a handful who you could argue got nearly so much out of what abilities they had.
Hopefully, on reflection, Maxwell’s detractors will concede those are the sort of qualities which should be lauded, not pilloried.