There was much mirth at Geelong last week when a consignment of new guernseys was opened to reveal outfits so shrunken that Jimmy Bartel ran out against Adelaide last Saturday having barely squeezed into the No.17 jumper that was meant for Hamish McIntosh.
For Nathan Deans’ sake, hopefully this was a sign from the footy gods that small is back in vogue.
Deans reports his height as just under 167 centimetres, adding ”unfortunately”. At 18, he fears his growing days are done.
His lack of height in a game that has long been smitten with tall timber has made him an unusual eye-catcher in recent weeks, as he pushes for a berth in the final squad that will defend Geelong’s VFL premiership. He’ll find out next week if he makes the 21, and is well-versed in being told he’s not built for the game.
”People lean towards it without putting it straight out there,” Deans says of assessments that focus more on his physique than his football. ”They just say, ‘You probably haven’t got the build for the game at the moment’.”
Matthew Knights had a famous on-field run-in with the shortest player to make an AFL list in the recent times, 163-centimetre Western Bulldog Tony Liberatore, but Geelong’s VFL coach bears no sizeist scars. Deans has impressed him.
”As a coach you take them on face value – you respect everyone’s talents regardless of size, [height] is a little bit irrelevant from a coaching perspective,” Knights says. ”It hasn’t really fazed me too much, and Nathan doesn’t seem fazed by it himself.”
Knights cites Deans’ appetite for the contest as the standout feature of his game, his work at stoppages, his fierce tackling. Deans describes himself as an in-and-under type with a strong defensive game.
At football’s elite levels, his ilk was once as common as today’s 200centimetre-plus giants. The evolution has been stark; none of the 10 shortest players in VFL/AFL history have played since the shortest of them all, 155-centimetre Jim ”Nipper” Bradford, played the last of his 16 games for Collingwood and North Melbourne in 1949.
None of which concerns Deans, who since grade 2 has been known as ”Speedy”, and recently picked up ”Nugget” as a nod to the effect of some serious gym work on his 75-kilogram frame. ”I haven’t really thought about it too much – when I was younger you got the hint [that size could hold him back], but now I just enjoy my footy.”
He won Grovedale’s best and fairest last season in the strong local league, and admits that the further his football has taken him the more pointed have been the reminders that modern football isn’t supposed to accommodate men who stand five-foot-five.
”Especially in senior footy you cop it, everybody sledging you, calling you short-arse, saying ‘You won’t be able to kick that far with legs that short’ when you’re having a shot at goal.” Deans lets it wash over him, content to show them he can roost a ball further than they think.
He impressed against Essendon’s VFL side in a practice game last weekend, and thinks it’s a bonus that he’s come this far. Knights won’t be looking him up and down in making the decision. ”It’s a hard list to make, but he’s certainly in there slugging.”
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.