If you had to pick the best year of a player’s career, which one would it be and why?
That’s the concept behind what I hope will be a long running series, rather imaginatively titled “The Best Year”. I never have been any good at thinking of titles.
Who else to start with than the NMFC goat – which I will not hear any objections about – Wayne Carey.
We have 15 seasons to choose from, but we can quickly give a handful the flick for various reasons:
- 1989 (four games played)
- 1991 (14 games played, shoulder injury)
- 1997 (14 games played, shoulder injury)
- 2001 (14 games played, groin injury)
- 2003 and 2004 (the Adelaide years)
With those seasons eliminated, there are nine remaining to work with: 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000. From bottom to top, here we go:
The Emerging Tier
9. 1990 – 21 games, 38 goals
8. 1992 – 21 games, 46 goals
It was John Longmire who received the lion’s share of attention in 1990 as he closed in on kicking a century despite North missing out on the finals by two games; this in the day of the top five.
But in the background Carey was slowly building, with hauls of seven (Round 13) and six (Round 21), showing a glimpse of what would have been likely in 1991 if it wasn’t ruined by injury.
Wipe out 1991 and the first half of 1992 and you arrive at the start of a truly outstanding stretch of football.
Carey kicked 26 goals in his last eight games of 1992, all while averaging more than 20 disposals and almost 10 marks a game. Remember those numbers are in 1992, not the current era. Adjusted for inflation now those numbers would probably be enough to break Supercoach.
The Announced Himself Tier
7. 1993 – 19 games, 64 goals
This was when Carey truly broke onto the scene. He was anointed captain at just 21 years old and responded with a blistering first two-thirds of the season.
North had finished 12th (out of 15 clubs) in 1992, yet after Round 15 in 1993 they were on top of the ladder. It was the first time the club had made the finals since 1987, Carey won another Syd Barker Medal, earned his first All-Australian selection and was just two votes away from winning the Brownlow Medal.
The Disappointing Ending Tier
6. 1995 – 25 games, 65 goals
5. 2000 – 23 games, 69 goals
On sheer numbers alone, both 1995 and 2000 are better than the next season in the list. However, I’ve marked them down due to being well held in key finals (1995) and not being close to his best because of injury (2000).
Can we take a moment to reflect on how ridiculous it is when a season with 65 goals, leading the league in marks and contested marks, All-Australian selection and winning the AFL Players’ Association MVP is nowhere near Carey’s best individual year?
But still, Carey was held goalless in the 1995 Semi Final and to just one goal in the Preliminary Final; 2000 just edges ahead by what he was able to do while barely being able to train from week to week.
Before groin issues ruined Carey’s 2001, they severely restricted his week-to-week preparation in the latter stages of 2000. Before they flared up, he was outstanding playing all over the ground.
Consider that Carey had nine rebound 50’s in one game, missed a week and then kicked 13 goals over the next fortnight. In six games between Round 4-10, he averaged 26.7 disposals and 11.5 marks – all North Melbourne wins.
The Established Himself Tier
4. 1994 – 19 games, 63 goals
Think of all the times we’ve seen a player have one outstanding season, but then never come close to reaching the same level. Opponents adjust, there are new strategies, more attention paid to you and you must improve even further to avoid going backwards.
It’s why I’ve placed 1994 up here at number four. Carey took all the above on board and then improved on his 1993 with dazzling performances on the big stage.
His two finals still remain as some of the best big-game performances in memory. In the famous extra-time qualifying final against Hawthorn, Carey had 32 disposals, 10 marks and 4 goals. A fortnight later against Geelong, he had 24 disposals, 14 marks and 6 goals.
Here’s the kicker: both those games were played with a torn calf muscle.
The Top Tier
95 percent of AFL players would be envious of one season like Carey’s remaining three here.
To think a premiership year where he averages close to four goals a game only comes in at number three.
3. 1999 – 20 games, 76 goals
It’s so tough to divide 1999 from the remaining two years. There was the freakish performance against Essendon, when Carey kicked 10 goals – including arguably the best of his career.
The qualifying final against Port Adelaide produced arguably Carey’s most underrated game. In the wet, he had 24 disposals (18 contested), 11 marks, nine inside 50’s and six goals.
In the end the five games he missed early in the year through injury knocks 1999 down ever so slightly.
It leaves us with two seasons – 1996 and 1998. Let’s split them into different categories and see which one comes out on top.
1996 – 25 games, 82 goals
1998 – 25 games, 80 goals
Standout individual performance
While Carey turned in a number of stunning games in 1998 – two hauls of eight goals, five sets of three Brownlow votes – they can’t hold a candle to one particular Friday evening in 1996.
Against Melbourne in Round 17, Carey single-handedly destroyed the Demons. 31 disposals, 15 marks and 11 goals brought this headline from The Age: ‘Was this the greatest performance of them all?’
Even those numbers don’t do justice to how dominant Carey was. He cycled through practically the entire Melbourne backline during the night – double and triple teamed at various stages – and nothing could stop him.
Advantage: 1996, 1-0
How the season ended
Not many people outside of North Melbourne fans know this, but Carey’s 1998 was so good that for the first time ever, the season just straight up ended after the preliminary final and there was no Grand Final.
To be that good that there was definitely no Grand Final ever played against Adelaide is truly impressive.
Advantage: 1998, tied at 1
The pressure on the team
There comes a point where once a side has been ‘up’ for long enough, you have to see some reward for your work before the weight of getting so close begins to weigh you down.
North entered 1996 coming off two successive preliminary final losses, and there were a couple of big losses in the first half of the season. Add the merger talk exploding onto the front and back pages of the papers and suddenly the focus was squarely on the club. Who knew what North would even look like in 1997?
The merger fell through and then all three of North’s finals opponents owned a home and away season win against the Roos.
For Carey to lead the side through all of the above and to run away from Sydney in the decider – where he was runner-up in the Norm Smith voting – demonstrated his leadership in addition to the obvious on-field talents.
Winner: 1996, 2-1
That is the first part of the new ‘Best Year’ series. Feel free to share the link around to get the word out, drop a line in the comments or subscribe to the blog via email on your right. We’ll be back on Thursday morning looking at what we’ve learned from JLT 2 against Richmond at Ikon Park, or whatever the ground is called this week.