To the casual observer, Fremantle captain Nat Fyfe looks like the perfect footballer.
He’s a consummate professional and a competitive beast who regularly hoists his team onto his shoulders and tries to carry them to victory, and at his best seems nigh on unstoppable on a football ground.
He also divides opinion.
Fyfe is currently nursing a hamstring injury as his team languishes in 17th on the AFL ladder with an 0-4 record, but he has arguably been copping more of a battering off-field than on in recent weeks.
Australian Football Hall of Famer and three-time premiership coach Mick Malthouse renewed his regular criticism of Fyfe in the lead up to the Dockers clash with Gold Coast on Saturday night, going so far as to say the dual Brownlow medallist was not a champion in his eyes.
“To be a champion, you must finish off your work for a start. He is not a good finisher in front of goal. When the chips are down, I wouldn’t rely on him.
“He’s got an attitude that ‘I don’t have to defend’. If he has to run with his opponent when the ball goes into the opposition forward line, he is 15, 20 metres away, hoping that the backs get it and get it back to him.
“There’s a lot of great players that don’t defend, so I’m not saying for one moment that he is Robinson Crusoe.
“But in my mind to be the best player you’ve got to be, you’ve got to be able to do all the things that your coach wants you to do for your team so your teammates look at you and go, ‘Gee he defends so well.’
“Because the other stuff’s natural. He takes a big mark. Reasonable kick. Reasonable handpass. [But] you’ve got to defend.”
More criticism, and a former ally responds
Malthouse’s strong and polarising opinion followed a week in which both Fyfe’s former and current coach were compelled to defend him after he was slammed by outspoken Port Adelaide premiership player Kane Cornes over an effort at a stoppage that led to a Power goal.
Another Footy Classified panel member and former Dockers coach Ross Lyon said Cornes was out of line.
“It’s easy to critique Nathan and I find it ironic because we’re all talking about attacking football,” Lyon said.
“There is no better offensive player and ball hunter in the competition, yet we want to destroy him when three other players don’t do their job.”
As Malthouse owned, Fyfe is not alone when it comes to the defensive running he is talking about.
Most of the great midfielders like Patrick Dangerfield and Dustin Martin are also offensively minded. Fyfe averages more tackles than both of those Victorian superstars but seems to cop more flak.
Two Brownlows and still at his peak
Jimmy Bartel casually remarked a few weeks ago that Fyfe would win a third Brownlow Medal.
Nobody shouted down the retired Geelong champion, who himself claimed the game’s highest individual honour in 2007.
Why would they, you may ask? Fyfe is a special player, one of the most watchable the game has seen. He already has two Brownlows in the bank and at 28 is still at the peak of his considerable powers.
But to put Bartel’s comment in context, only four players in the league’s history have achieved that feat, and not in almost 50 years since Ian Stewart won his third in 1971.
Gary Ablett Jr and the retired Chris Judd are rated alongside Fyfe as modern-day greats. Both have two Brownlows. Ablett is in his final year at Geelong and looks like he will almost certainly remain a dual Charlie winner.
Fyfe has not only been a remarkable player since he burst onto the scene as a skinny forward who had a knack of clunking a big mark in 2010, he has also been a remarkable poller on Brownlow night.
The truth is that, if not for suspension and injury, the now-midfield beast, who was named All-Australian captain in 2019, would already be a triple Brownlow medallist.
It is curious then that Fyfe continually cops criticism from within the industry. Why is he as much lambasted as he is celebrated?
Marching to a different beat
AFLW player and Grandstand AFL expert Lauren Arnell got to see Fyfe in the flesh in round two and was blown away by just how impressive the contested bull was in a losing cause.
It led Arnell and retired Richmond and Greater Western Sydney gun Brett Deledio to ponder why Fyfe cops so much negativity.
Though Fyfe has deep roots in country WA and endearingly regularly returns to drive trucks for the family business, he has always marched to the beat of his own drum.
He speaks and looks different to most AFL players and has even hit the catwalk on occasion as he builds his on and off-field brand.
“It is an interesting one. I think a lot of us do judge players on the way that that carry themselves, [when] what we have to do at times is just look at their performance,” Arnell said.
“If anything, you’d say perhaps he’s very much a forward half player. You look at his running patterns, that’s what he can add to the team.
“He can go forward, he’s a huge guy, he’s 190 centimetres plus. He takes a contested mark as well as anyone in the competition.
“It’s easy to take a pot shot at a guy who has just won a Brownlow and chooses to wear a beanie and no shirt. All credit to him, he’s a superstar and I really enjoy watching him play footy.”
Injured Fyfe bides his time
Deledio suggested the criticism was nothing to do with Fyfe’s on-field performances.
“Is it because he turns up with a cane to the Brownlow, he’s a rockstar, he’s got his photos always with the rig out or he got caught surfing when we were supposed to be in lockdown?” he said.
After watching the closing stages of his side’s loss to the rising Suns from the bench with ice on his right hamstring, Fyfe will have to bide his time before he writes the next pages in his storied career.
It is doubtful he will ever change Malthouse’s mind or others who have decided they don’t rate him, even if he does become just the fifth man to claim a third Brownlow.
But Fremantle fans will be desperately hoping that the number 7 is there on July 19 when they take on fierce rivals West Coast at Perth Stadium.
Those same people who criticise Fyfe will give the Dockers scant chance of winning without him.