SAM Mitchell is about as qualified as anyone to talk about Lance Franklin.
The former Hawthorn midfielder played with ‘Buddy’ at the Hawks for nine seasons, including winning two premierships together. He then faced him as an opponent – first when the Swans took on the Hawks, and then when he crossed to West Coast and matched up against Sydney.
Since then Mitchell has spent the past four seasons in coaches boxes – first at the Eagles and then Hawthorn – as an assistant trying to plot Franklin’s demise. This year, he will take him on as the Hawks’ senior coach.
He already knows what will be a talking point amongst his coaching panel in the lead-up to that clash, scheduled for round six.
“Coaches have a ‘What if?’ meeting normally where it’s about ‘What if this happens?’ ‘What if that happens?’ ‘What changes there?’ And I would say half of every coaches’ meeting ever playing against Lance Franklin has been about ‘What if Lance Franklin does this? How will we fix it?’ ‘And then what if he does that how will we fix that?’,” Mitchell told AFL.com.au.
“When you have a player who can have so much influence over the opposition’s coaches box, you know you’re in pretty elite company.”
Franklin may join even more illustrious company on Saturday night at Accor Stadium as the Swans start their 2022 campaign. The champion goalkicker enters the season perched on 995 career goals – just five straight kicks (or, in Franklin terms, maybe five right-to-left reverse swinging shots) away from becoming the sixth player to reach the magical 1000-goal milestone. Franklin looms as the last of his kind.
Be it round one against the Giants, round two against the Cats or even deeper into the season, his fifth goal of this year will spark euphoric and memorable scenes in a career shaped by moment after moment of brilliance.
Chris Fagan, now Brisbane’s coach but formerly a Hawthorn assistant and football boss, was at Glenferrie Oval as the 2004 No.5 draft pick started to hit his straps as an emerging player.
“When he was a young bloke he was just such a mad trainer. He wanted to be good. He was a great athlete and he’s got great skills, but they’re not there by accident, he’s worked really hard to develop them,” Fagan told AFL.com.au.
“His capacity to kick goals for a man of his size, to be able to do it more like a rover at times, he practised that a lot. He’s not the great player he is by chance. I think he has an entertainer’s mindset. When people go to the footy they go there to watch him.
“When we trained, he was always one of the last blokes off because he’d be out there doing dribble kicks and kicking them around the corner. All that stuff you’d see in a game, he practised that. It was his playground really, the footy field, and anywhere within 50m of goal.”
Franklin’s instinctiveness made him a player to watch from the very start. The lanky left-footer from Western Australia made an inauspicious start at AFL level, having gone goalless on his debut for the Hawks, but it was far from a sign of things to come, as he finished his first season with 21 goals to his name from 20 games.
By 2007, the rocket had lifted off, with Franklin booting 73 goals including seven in the Hawks’ elimination final win over Adelaide. And by his fourth year, Franklin was the game’s biggest star, kicking 113 goals and 88 behinds in Hawthorn’s surprise 2008 premiership. He is the last player to reach the 100-goal milestone in a season. Mitchell, who was Franklin’s skipper in that flag season, reflects fondly on the ‘budding Buddy’.
Lance Franklin is mobbed by fans at Marvel Stadium after kicking his 100th goal in the round 22 match against Carlton in 2008. Picture: AFL Photos
“When I think back to Lance it’s of that growing era of him. When he first walked in he was this young jubilant kid who ran and kicked. He ran as fast as our fastest player. However fast they ran, he ran as fast. He didn’t know what he could do,” he said. “Over time he became more self-aware and started to understand his own talents and really utilise them. It was brilliant watching him grow up and mature and grow into himself as a player first and then as a person later.”
As he took Hawthorn to new heights, Franklin also rose in fame. The highlights reel kept expanding. There was the boundary line double-act against the Bombers and a trailing Cale Hooker, the hurdle and long bomb against Collingwood, the twirl out of trouble against a pack of Bulldogs and striking left-foot kick, the dribble against Geelong, the outside-of-the-boot preliminary final special against the Magpies.
With every goal, Franklin’s legend grew. And with future generations, too. Josh Kelly, who will line-up for the Giants on Saturday night hoping to delay the milestone, was one of the thousands of fans who streamed on the Docklands turf in 2008 when Franklin booted his 100th major. Kelly was 13.
“I was there when he kicked his 100 goals. I ran on the field that day,” Kelly said.
“He’s without a doubt one of the greatest of all time. At times it’s surreal to share a field with great players, and he’s one of them. To be sitting on 995 goals is pretty incredible. It’s pretty obvious we’ll be hoping he doesn’t kick his 1000 against us, but whenever that does come is a pretty huge occasion and a pretty huge milestone not just for himself, but footy in general.”
Western Bulldogs star Bailey Smith grew up a Hawthorn fanatic and had photos with Franklin as a kid.
“He’s my favourite of all time,” Smith said. “I was on the couch at my grandparents’ house sweating bullets every time the ball would go near him on the night he kicked his 100th. I’ve never felt more invested in someone achieving something than that as a little kid.
“How tall he is and how athletic he is – he is such a threat in the air and on the ground. He’s so iconic. He gives me LeBron James vibes how he has performed over a long period of his career and how he can still turn it on.”
Franklin’s career can essentially be split in halves: following nine years at Hawthorn – and in one of footy’s most clandestine moves – after the Hawks’ 2013 premiership win over Fremantle he took up a nine-year offer to join Sydney as a free agent.
He played 182 games and booted 580 goals for the Hawks, itself a phenomenal career return. But he wasn’t done there, playing another 136 games and kicking an extra 415 goals (so far) for the Swans.
That, too, has extended his legacy and although unsuccessful (again, so far) in landing a flag with the Swans, Franklin spearheaded them to the 2014 and 2016 Grand Finals and has been a four-time All-Australian at Sydney, including skipper of the team of the year in 2018.
As a city, Sydney has provided some shelter for Franklin away from Melbourne’s prying eyes although his celebrity extends nation-wide.
“He doesn’t like the attention. He’s super humble. We like to razz him up about it every now and then, but he’s super down to earth, quiet and enjoys his own time,” said Swans teammate Callum Mills.
“He’s a big larrikin, a big kid. But he’s super friendly and a really good person. All of the boys love him and he’d do anything for anyone.”
Mills was drafted by the Swans from their Academy two years after Franklin had joined the club. He had been around the team for the seasons before he officially became a member of the red and white and a supporter for even longer. As a child, Mills wished his name was ‘Tony’ after Tony Lockett, the greatest goalkicker of all time whose career followed a somewhat similar trajectory as Franklin’s after starting at St Kilda. Mills is now one of Franklin’s three co-captains and remembers first meeting Buddy.
“It was a shock, just the size of him. When you’re an 18-year-old kid you just can’t fathom it. He has this aura about him, but he’s also super personable. He shook my hand and said ‘hello’, even though he didn’t know who I was. It’s a real testament to his character,” Mills said.
Franklin has always been something of a contradiction. How can someone so big be so fast and agile? How can such an expressive entertainer and showman be so shy off the field? But the incongruities have perhaps only further enhanced the enjoyment provided by his career. There has always been a wonder about Franklin: have we seen a player like this before and will we again?
Franklin’s path to the landmark 1000-goal barrier has long been under construction. But in recent years in looked like injury could forbid him reaching it.
A long layoff with a hamstring injury saw him miss months in 2019 before he returned in the final round for his celebrated 300th game and then he missed all of the 2020 season after a serious hamstring injury early in the year.
With doubts on his future and two years still to run on his contract, Franklin returned last season to some of his best, booting 51 goals from 18 games and being a big presence in the Swans’ rise up the ladder.
Now into the final year of his free agency deal, the 35-year-old Franklin will wait until later in the year before deciding on his next move in 2023. Time will tell whether a 19th AFL season awaits, but his Swans coach John Longmire knows his longevity is another one of his strengths.
“Since he’s been here, there’s been so many moments where you look at him and shake your head in amazement at times at what he’s able to achieve and what he’s able to do on the footy ground for a bloke of that size. He does it so often,” Longmire told AFL.com.au.
“When I think of Lance Franklin, I think of a massive competitor. People see the talent, which is there for everyone to see, but when you’re in the inner sanctum, you see how much of a competitor he is and how ruthless he is.
“For me, that’s what stands out about Lance Franklin.”