“Loyal, dependable and durable”.
These are the words Matthew Lloyd uses to describe Dustin Fletcher.
The football community will tonight celebrate the third adjective Lloyd mentions, as Fletcher runs out for game number 379 – in his 22nd season – and breaks the Essendon games-record, previously held by Simon Madden.
“I’ve had it long enough, so I’m quite happy to hand it over to him,” Madden told aflplayers.com.au this week.
“He’s everything you could ever want in a teammate” – Matthew Lloyd
“He can do all the media stuff for playing the most games with Essendon now!”
But Fletcher has never been one to embrace the limelight. Despite 22 seasons in the game, the 38-year-old has kept a relatively low profile. His achievements on the field have made him a household name, but Fletcher’s social media profile is non-existent and as Madden points out, “he hasn’t been too interested in media, appearances, talks or anything like that” throughout his career.
Having played with Fletcher in 216 of his 378 games, Essendon champion Matthew Lloyd knows the famous number 31 better than most. The Bombers’ all-time leading goal-kicker describes Fletcher as a “unique” character who has rarely, if ever, seemed flustered by the challenges that accompany an AFL career.
“I’ve never seen another person like him in the way he handles pressure,” Lloyd told aflplayers.com.au.
While Lloyd was referring in part to Fletcher’s cool head on the last line of defence, he’s also amazed by Fletcher’s ability to deal with the growing demands of AFL.
“The scrutiny – he gets that like anyone else and cops some negative criticism, but he just deals with it in his manner,” Lloyd says.
“He never gets bitter. He never doubts himself – or never shows anyone that he’s doubting himself [if he is]. He’s one out of the box in terms of the way he’s been able to handle himself on and off the field.”
— Essendon FC (@essendonfc) March 19, 2014
It’s clear Lloyd admires Fletcher’s mental resolve; though Lloyd had a number of injuries that prevented him from playing at his optimum in the twilight years of his career, he admits it was the mental side of the game that ultimately led to his retirement.
“Personally, I always knew that I didn’t want to play long into my 30s because the game and its challenges and the pressure of it was something that I didn’t want to deal with forever,” he says.
“But Fletcher just thrives on it. He’s the first to training, he sits there and reads the papers and listens to the radio for half an hour before he even walks into training. He just thrives on the contest and can’t think of himself doing anything else because of his love and passion for the game.
“I’m quite happy to hand it over to him” – Simon Madden, on the Bombers’ games record
“He’s pretty nervous before games, but footy is what he’s always known. He’s a serious type with his footy, but he’s never let it consume him like it consumed me. That’s why he’s been able to play for 21 years – it’s a great skill that he’s got.”
Madden agrees, saying Fletcher has been well-served by his ability to keep things in perspective.
“He plays his footy and then goes home and tries to have as normal a life as possible.
“He’s been happy to just be the footballer and has been very good at it; you’ve got to give him some credit for that. Maybe that insulates him a bit from all the other stuff and means he can really concentrate on playing good footy.”
Madden points out that scrutiny has only become worse in recent seasons, particularly given “everybody’s got a mobile phone with a camera; everybody’s got an opinion and can publish their opinion.” But while the masses are tweeting, taking pictures and filming videos on their mobiles, Lloyd says Fletcher pays little attention to his.
“He doesn’t answer his phone. He deals 100 percent in text messages,” Lloyd explains with a laugh.
“You’ll ring him and he won’t answer, but a minute later you’ll text him and he’ll text you back. I’m not sure what his story is there – I’ve never really asked him about it.
“He’s a serious type with his footy, but he’s never let it consume him like it consumed me” – Matthew Lloyd
“But mind you, if you text him and say ‘Fletch, could you please help me out with this’, he’s the first one to get straight back to you.”
Lloyd says Fletcher’s quirkiness and laidback approach to footy and life has always been of great benefit to his teammates.
“I wouldn’t say he’s a joker or a larrikin; it’s more that he’s got this dry sense of humour,” Lloyd explains.
“When the mood needs to be lightened up he comments on stuff not trying to be funny, but his laidback style and how he says things just gets everyone laughing. It’s just his nature.
“He was always putting a smile on guys’ faces in the dressing room. You might’ve lost three games in a row and Fletch would just say something in his understated style to get everyone laughing again.”
“He’s everything you could ever want in a teammate.”
Remarkably, Fletcher has been a teammate to 142 players during his 22-year tenure at Essendon. Lloyd has previously said Fletcher is on par with James Hird as the best player he’s played with. As full-back and full-forward, Fletcher and Lloyd didn’t often cross paths on the footy field; but their positions meant they often competed against one another at training.
Asked how Fletcher compared with other full-backs he’d played against, Lloyd said, “I think he stacks up as well as any full-back the game’s ever seen.”
“Along with Stephen Silvagni and Matthew Scarlett – they’re the best three full-backs in the last 40 to 50 years, in my opinion.”
What makes him such a good defender? Lloyd reels off a list of assets as long as one of Fletcher’s arms.
“He stacks up as well as any full-back the game’s ever seen” – Matthew Lloyd
“His reading of the play is very, very good,” Lloyd says.
“He’s always been able to cut off the angles and he plays in front most of the time. He’s able to know the direction the ball’s coming in, so his timing – to match his leg-speed off the mark – is what makes him so difficult to play against.
“The other thing is he knows his opponents very well – he studies them. So if there’s someone who’s physically stronger than him he won’t ever get caught up in a body-on-body contest, which is why he’s able to use his reach to spoil.”
Fletcher has always had the ability to use his long limbs to spoil a high ball when he’s been out of position, or to stretch and get a fingernail to a ball just before it floats over the goal-line. Those gangly arms and legs have proven incredibly useful over the years, but Madden says they may have had a more direct impact on the length of his career than many realise.
“If you look at Michael Tuck and Kevin Bartlett [the only two players to have reached 400 games] they’ve got that wiry body, which is what Fletcher’s got. I think he’s been able to take the rigours of football without too much weight on his body and too much injury.”
Physically, Fletcher has inherited a lot from his father Ken, who played 264 games for Essendon and was Madden’s captain during his playing days.
“He was built like a race-horse – didn’t have any weight on him,” Madden recalls.
“Dustin was running around the rooms with my kids when I was playing… I think it was in his genes, to start with.”
Madden retired in 1992 – a year before Fletcher made his debut as a lanky 17-year-old. Between them, they’ve represented the Bombers in every season since 1974.
“Me being the old footballer around the club and him being the young one – and me knowing his Dad – we sort of crossed paths a bit,” Madden says.