There is no more respected figure in Australian Football. With more than 50 years of excellence as player, coach and media expert, Leigh Matthews is synonymous with winning. Considered by many to be the greatest player of all-time, his incredible coaching record and astute media insights have rounded out a resume worthy of a Hall of Fame Legend.
Leigh played his junior footy for Chelsea and was already playing senior suburban football by the age of 16 when the Hawks recruited him in 1969, winning their Best First Year Player as a forward pocket before moving into a midfield/forward role in 1970 where he took the competition by storm.
In his 16 year playing career, Matthews played 332 games for Hawthorn and amassed an astonishing list of records and accolades that rank favourably alongside any to have played the game.
Four Premierships, eight Best and Fairests in a period of complete dominance for the Hawks, a League leading goalkicker and Players’ Association MVP, three-time All-Australian in the era of national carnivals and 14 games for the Big V as one of the most skilful, explosive, fearless and terrifying competitors in the game’s history, capable of turning a game with a moment of magic or mayhem.
He retired as an all-time great player at the end of 1985, taking on the Assistant Coach role with Collingwood. But when senior coach Bob Rose stepped down just X games into the season, Matthews was suddenly thrust into the senior role.
He was the key figure in rebuilding the Magpies from a position of on and off-field peril in 1986 to win a famous 32-year drought-breaking premiership just four years later, in what was one of the most brilliantly orchestrated turnarounds in football history.
Matthews would go on to coach the Magpies for nine years before deciding to take a step back from the relentless demands of coaching.
He spent the next three years establishing himself as a top-quality media performer, where his experience, knowledge, sharp analytical mind and clear matter-of-fact delivery became a key piece of Seven’s AFL coverage, while his work in radio and print was equally respected.
But the competitive fire still burned deep inside and the Brisbane Lions successfully coaxed Matthews back into the coaches’ box in 1999. Once again, he faced an enormous challenge, given the newly-formed Lions – just two years post the Bears-Fitzroy merger – had finished 1998 as wooden spooners.
But as he did at Collingwood, Matthews set about rebuilding the club in his own image and the talented young list gelled with their veteran leader and leapt from last to a Preliminary Final in their first season together.
Within three years, Matthews had guided the Lions from last to first as they embarked on an incredible hat-trick of premierships from 2001 to 2003 – the first VFL/AFL club since Melbourne in 1955-57 to win three consecutive flags.
Matthews retired from coaching at the end of 2008 with four premierships and as the eighth longest-serving coach in League history. One of the greatest players of all-time was now one of the greatest coaches of all-time as well.
But his lifelong contribution to the game was far from over, Matthews remaining involved behind-the-scenes with the Brisbane Lions and re-establishing himself as one of footy’s most respected analysts with Seven and 3AW – relationships which continue to the present day.
Four premierships as a player, another four as a coach, a member of the AFL Team of the Century and an inaugural Australian Football Hall of Fame Legend.
Quite simply, a living legend in every sense of the word.
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