Australian Football Feet

Source: The Age

My left foot

By GREG BAUM - Published Wednesday 1 July 1998

LEFT-FOOTERS are the illusionists of football. They deceive in every way. Seemingly, there are more of them than there actually are, and more now than ever before. Seemingly, they get more of the ball and kick it more accurately, more stylishly and further. But are there? And do they?

Certainly there are more left-footers at Essendon, which has at least eight on its list, seven of them senior team regulars. There is an irony at work here, for "left-footer" was in Melbourne oldspeak a colloquialism for Catholic, and Essendon was famously a club of Masons.

Mark "Bomber" Thompson, a left-footer and now assistant coach to that most unorthodox of coaches, Kevin Sheedy, said it was incidental that the club had so many lefties. It sought only to recruit the best players, regardless of their orientation.

Sydney, Richmond and the Western Bulldogs have half a dozen left-footers each, but they are sparser elsewhere. Collingwood, you imagine, would have more left-footers as long as they behaved like right-footers. Altogether, about one in five AFL players are natural left-footers.

Still, that is markedly higher than the average for left-sidedness in the world at large, put variously between one in eight and one in 10, the inexactitude arising because of the many people who are mixed in their functions: Test cricketer Mark Taylor, for instance, bats left-handed and plays golf right-handed.

More men than women are left-sided, and the incidence is higher still in sports, both of which may be because of the association between left-sidedness and testosterone. It's been claimed all girls would be right-sided except for small amount of testosterone a woman produces while pregnant.

Otherwise, there is no proven cause for left-sidedness, although it is pretty well established that it is not genetic. Nor does it have anything to do with the biological fact that the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body and vice-versa, which in any case sounds like a Sheedy gameplan.

Left-sidedness is anecdotally linked with a whole range of dark contingencies, from alcoholism and criminality to psychosis and schizophrenia, not to mention early death. Even the language works against them; right is right, and left is, well, not right.

Left-sided people do excel, however, at art, architecture, maths and sport. Brian Lara, Garry Sobers and Allan Border head an illustrious list of cricketers, Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles an equally celebrated list of tennis players. Ivan Lendl, when asked what single improvement he would make to his game, said he would become a left-hander.

In football, left-footers have a reputation for prodigious length. The names of Mark Browning, Darren Kappler and Wayne Johnston, the personal favorite of "Bomber" Thompson, all come readily to mind, and latterly Peter Everitt's drop punts, scudding low and long under the Waverley Park wind.

DAVID WHEADON, football coach, strategist and author, and assistant at Geelong, Essendon, Carlton and now Collingwood, has been in the game too long to be fooled easily.

He counters with the names of Michael Long and Michael Mansfield, two left-footers who are neither attractive nor penetrating kicks. He also raises the names of stylish and ball-bursting right-footers such as Gary Ablett and Nathan Buckley, and the left-is-longer theory begins to slew off the side of the boot.

Nor will Wheadon have the aesthetic argument that left-footers look better, are more fluent, more stylish, more natural somehow, like left-handed batsmen and tennis players or southpaw boxers.

Wheadon said left-footers were few enough in number to immediately look different. The question to ask, says Wheadon, is whether they are distinctive as left-footers or is it because they are left-footers.

Notwithstanding, Wheadon and Thompson agree that it is an advantage to be a left-footer in AFL football."Most people are right-footers, and a right-footer's first instinct is to think that you are also a right-footer," said Wheadon.

"Left-footers play against a lot of right-footers, and know how to move right-footers around. Everyone has to adjust their thinking for left-footers. So where really quick decisions have to be made, left-footers have an advantage."

Thompson said that if a left-footer's movement threw an opponent for even half a second, that was enough at the speed of the modern game to gain him two-and-a-half metres.

That ought to be enough for him to kick on his natural foot, which for all the bilateral proficiency of modern football is how coaches still prefer it. It ought also be enough for him to kick accurately to the next man. It probably helps to create the impression that left-footers are intrinsically better kicks.

It is this aspect of a left-footer's game that makes him so distinct and so appealing, that for all the schooling, drilling and homogeneity of footballers nowadays, he can still have a confounding effect just by the way he moves.

David Parkin has said that what Carlton has missed as much as any other element this season has been Ang Christou's booming left-footers from the half-back line, two-in-one kicks that instantly turned defence into attack.

Of course, the left-footer's sleight can work against him, too. Teammates are just as apt as opponents to misread his movement, sometimes to the embarrassment of all. Running past for handballs, left-footers will frequently wrong-foot themselves, cause teammates upfield to mistime their leads and so break down a promising play.

Left-footers are more rigidly one-sided than their right-footed brethren. This is easily explained. Right-footers have to learn to kick on their left if even the fleetest of them is not sometimes to be caught.

Left-footers, on the other hand, having easily wrong-footed opponents all their junior careers, rarely learn to kick on their right until they are nearly past the age of learning.

Thompson said it took left-footers at least two years to be schooled in right-sided ways. It took him four. "By the end, I could at least get out of trouble," he said.

Thompson said it was important for left-footers to educate themselves in right-side skills, if not as part of their game, at least as a back-up.

"A lot of players use the fact that they were caught on their non-preferred side as an excuse," he said. "It's not an excuse. They have to be able to hit their targets."

Wheadon could think of many AFL left-footers who could kick competently on their right feet, but few who could kick as long or precisely as on their left.

One, he said, was the butt of a joke that postulated that he brought his right leg to the footy only so that he did not fall down. Wheadon would not name him, except to say that he was from Essendon, which guaranteed his anonymity. Our guess is Ricky Olarenshaw.

Another Essendon player, Sean Denham, who played a lot of soccer in his boyhood, is regarded as the only natural left-footer in the AFL who has coached himself to kick equally well on his right.

Bulldog Leon Cameron is colloquially famous for taking field kicks with his left foot and set shots with his right.

Garry Hocking was a right-footer who, after an injury to his right knee early in his career, worked so assiduously on his weak side that he is often now mistaken for a left-footer.

The best left-footers improvise, bluff or get by on other skills. Scott Lucas bears predictably and obviously left every time he wins the ball, but is big, fast and strong enough now that he gets away with it.

NORTH'S Anthony Stevens goes right, but with such acceleration that, in a kind of double bluff, he eventually comes back on to his left.

Paul Couch did it with baulks, feints and pirouettes, always manoeuvred on to his left foot, and won a Brownlow Medal. Tony Shaw got out of tight corners as easily as he wishes he could now. All of them made right of left.

Left-sided sportspeople carry an awful burden, namely, to redeem and compensate for the poor image of their kinfolk in other spheres of endeavor. Left has not had a good press.

From the French word for left comes "gauche", meaning awkward, and from the Latin word for left comes "sinister".

True, Leonardo da Vinci and Pablo Picasso were left-sided, but so were Marilyn Monroe and Jack the Ripper. Both of them went in a bit hard for modern sensibilities.

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