The best footy player you hardly ever heard of

Turned on the TV last night and caught an interview with one of my favourite footballers from back in the day.

Leon Baker was not only a great player, but also an enigmatic character, which greatly added to his appeal. He arrived at the club in 1984 as a mature age recruit – 27 – and made an immediate impact as a skilful, precise and elusive centreman. He made All-Australian that year, but is better remembered for kicking the first goal of the last quarter in the grand final against Hawthorn, and the goal that put us ahead. He danced a little jig at that point knowing that we were on the way to victory. We kicked 9.6 in that quarter (a record till the following year, when we kicked 11.3) to come from 4 goals down to win by the same amount. It was one of the great premiership quarters.

Baker was instrumental in that win, and was in our success the following year, when we dominated the competition. He was such a clean, clever footballer, and devastating on his day. To Essendon supporters of the day he’s a favourite because he was so good, and rated higher by us I think than by followers by other clubs. There’s always players like that, players that you know the value of watching every week that opposition supporters don’t appreciate. Baker is one of the best players I’ve seen at Essendon, which is a big statement because there have been some great one’s in my time.

I reckon Baker would be in the top 10. The top 3 would be Hird, Madden and Tim Watson. The rest get mixed up after that, but there are some great names – Terry and Neale Daniher, Matthew Lloyd, Michael Long, Paul Van der Haar, Mercuri, Bomba Thompson, Jobe, Lucas, Salmon, Wanganeed, Misiti, and so on. Baker sits easily in their company.

What makes him different is that he was not the run of the mill VFL/AFL character. He was a bit of a drifter, a shy, quiet type who went from one place to another seeking out experience before and since his footy career. He would fly out with his partner in the off-season to see the world with a back-pack on his back. As a footballer you’d describe him as a journeyman, but right off the top shelf. As an individual there was something bohemian about him. By all accounts he’s led a full life, and in my mind at least it adds to his lustre.

He might be the best player you don’t know about – unless you were a Bomber supporter through the eighties. He only played 86 games, but they were all quality.


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