This article was originally published on the 30th of August, 2014, during the week in which Luke Ball played his final game for Collingwood.
When a great player retires, there’s often one image that encapsulates his career.
When Jonathan Brown called it quits earlier this year, we gained a new appreciation of his signature stance: head slightly bowed, with one arm raised and a finger pointing to the sky. After Dean Cox announced his retirement we re-lived the siren sounding in the 2006 Grand Final, when Cox fell back with arms outstretched and a huge grin brandished across his face.
There were plenty of great photos of Luke Ball on show yesterday, but the image that will stick with me is one not as instantly recognisable as those listed above.
In fact, the moment in my mind didn’t even take place on a footy field.
It was June, 2011, and every player who was on an AFL list at the time was there to see it. The AFL Players’ Association had called a meeting at Crown Casino in Melbourne; all Victorian players were present and all the interstate clubs were connected via video-link.
Alongside then-CEO Matt Finnis and former President Luke Power, Bally stood before the entire playing group and assisted Matt and Luke in talking through the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). The leadership he displayed in explaining the current state of negotiations with the AFL had nothing to do with what had occurred on the field the weekend before, or what would happen the weekend after. His message was clear: we were all in this together.
For a lot of people, in the media and throughout the wider football public, that night was the first time in a very long time the playing group as a whole was seen as a unified body. At that time, it was imperative the players get together and show some solidarity on an issue that affected all of us.
The subsequent Collective Bargaining Agreement delivered great benefits to all players: a world class retirement scheme, a greater emphasis on player health, welfare and personal development and an increase in total player payments.
Luke played a huge part in all that happening, and has led the Players’ Association brilliantly since he took over from Luke Power in 2012. Seeing him that night is something that sticks with me because it sums up a lot of his great qualities, as both a person and a footballer.
Bally is a great leader and has always been proactive when the occasion has called for it. There wasn’t a player who went harder at the ball on the footy field; it was a similar story off it, where Bally has always been prepared to give a little more than most of those around him. His work with the PA, as well as charities such as Ladder, is testament to that.
One of the words that best describes Luke is ‘composed’. Whether he was speaking in front of 800 peers – with cameras flashing in his face – or in the heat of battle in a tense final, Bally never seemed too flustered. Collingwood fans will always remember the 2011 finals series, where he kicked late goals in two consecutive finals – against West Coast, and then Hawthorn – to help the Pies to the Grand Final.
Luke was at his absolute best, from a football perspective, throughout the mid-2000s. He had a fantastic ability to win the contested ball, was a fierce tackler and made great decisions with the footy. He was admired by opposition players for these reasons, as well as his ability to overcome some pretty debilitating injuries.
He bows out as an All-Australian, club captain and premiership player – who knows what else he might’ve achieved, had osteitis pubis and a knee reconstruction not intervened.
There’s been talk for a while about whether Luke would be able to play on next year. Knowing Bally, his decision would have been a selfless one based on what was best for Collingwood and what he thought he’d realistically be able to contribute in 2015. He’s always had a great sense of perspective and an ability to make the right decision. I’m sure this situation was no different.
It’s often said that a great clubman leaves his club in a better position than it was when he arrived, but Bally has been bigger than that. His legacy as a player goes beyond Collingwood and St Kilda – it will benefit players and the AFL industry for years to come. It’s hard to think of a year in which so many greats of the game have retired. Luke Ball will exit the game with a legacy as big as any of them.
— AFL Players (@AFLPlayers) August 28, 2014
Matthew Pavlich has been vice-president of the Players’ Association throughout Ball’s entire tenure as President. The two have played against one another on 13 occasions throughout their careers.