Gary Dempsey – Former Australian Rules Brownlow Medal Winner
With 18 VFL seasons to his credit, 12 with Footscray and six with North Melbounre, Gary Dempsey (22 November 1948) is the next in our series about footballers who have won the game’s highest individual accolade, the Brownlow Medal. He was the fifth Bulldog to win the award, the first being Allan Hopkins in 1930, although his was presented retrospectively. The tenth and most recent was Adam Cooney in 2008.
Dempsey won the award in 1975 with 20 votes, one better than Stan Alves of Melbourne. He had come in fourth in Brownlow voting in 1974 when Keith Greig won the second of his two consecutive. What is interesting is that following his win in 1975, he received more votes in 1976, 28 in all, but he was again in fourth position to Graham Moss’ 48 votes. This was the result of the VFL’s decision to add a second field umpire, both of whom awarded votes in accordance with the 3 -2 – 1 voting system that started after the 1930 season that found three players tied.
Under this system, Dempsey received 27 votes in 1977, which put him far in arrears to Graham Teasdale of South Melbourne, who amassed 59 votes in the second and last season of using separate votes from two officials. Beginning in 1978, the officials conferred after the game to determine which player or players received votes under the 3 – 2 – 1 system, so vote totals declined, so that when Dempsey received 16 votes in 1978, he was in fifth place and only six behind Malcolm Blight of the Kangaroos. Sports statistics are often like that, with different systems adding to the complexity of comparing players on the basis of cold, hard numbers. That is why some say that the favourite punctuation mark of sports statisticians is the asterisk. Records show that Dempsey finished in the top 10 for Brownlow votes 13 times and in total received more votes than any player in history to this point. That statistic is obviously skewed by there being twice as many votes available for a couple of seasons, but it must also be said that there were only three seasons in his entire career where Dempsey received zero votes and of the 15 remaining seasons, he was in double digits in all but two of them.
At any rate, with 18 seasons of footy to his credit, you would expect Dempsey to rank highly on all-time lists and your expectation would be correct in that as of 2015, he is 23rd all-time for games played at 329 and 19th in terms of most games played for Footscray with 207. Either singly or combined, that’s a whole lot of footy.
Gary Dempsey made his debut in 1967 when he was not far past his 18th birthday. The Bulldogs were in a rough patch and in Dempsey’s first three seasons, they finished on the bottom three rungs of the ladder every time. Dempsey himself encountered severe adversity of his own when he was badly burnt in a bushfire near his Truganina home that had medical experts predicting that he would not play football again. He did get back on ground for rounds 19 and 20 of the 1969 season, defying the predictions of his demise.
He played 22 games in 1970, Footscray legend Ted Whitten Senior’s final season, but the entire decade of the 1970s was one that held little promise for the side. Dempsey did what he could from his ruck position, but his supporting cast was not equal to the task. The club routinely posted losing records, basically never exceeding average. They managed to get to the finals in 1974, promptly losing in the elimination round to Collingwood by the dismal score of 124 – 55.
In his Brownlow season of 1975, Dempsey played in all the Bulldog’s games save one. That was one of the better years for the side. Footscray managed to win 11 games against 11 losses to finish in seventh place. He was the club’s best and fairest, as he had been in 1970, 1973, and 1974 and would be again in 1976 and 1977.
After his Brownlow season, he played three more seasons for Footscray. They finished fifth on the ladder in 1976 and snuck into the finals ahead of Melbourne as the result of having drawn one game and thus having one fewer loss, even though they were almost three percentage points worse than Melbourne. This go in the finals, they were far more respectable in the elimination round against Geelong, but when the siren sounded, they found themselves seven points behind. The 1977 and 1978 seasons were devoid of any hope for Bulldogs fans.
Desirous of success from a team perspective, Dempsey transferred to the North Melbourne Football Club in 1979. The Roos were a force at the time, and Dempsey got to play in three finals games in his first season with the club, superior to his entire finals appearances in 12 seasons with Footscray. He added his seventh best and fairest accolade, but it would probably be accurate to state that he would have traded that for a premiership, which eluded North Melbourne after losses to Carlton in the semifinals and Collingwood in the preliminary.
A second consecutive finals round appearance followed in 1980, but once again Collingwood knocked the Roos out of the picture in a close match that saw Collingwood building a slim margin in the first three quarters, and then resisting a comeback by North Melbourne in the fourth. The Roos out-performed the Tigers in all phases, with the 20 behinds by the Tigers accounting for the difference in the final tally.
The Roos stumbled in 1981, but returned to the finals in 1982. They beat Essendon in the elimination, but lost the semifinal by 52 points to the Hawthorn Hawks. Dempsey and Roos got another chance in 1983, but losses in the semi and preliminary final put an end to premiership aspirations for that season.
Gary Dempsey closed out his career in desultory fashion in 1984, playing in only five games, his 329th career and final game a round 8 loss the Sydney Swans, the former South Melbourne club that relocated in 1982.
Gary Dempsey was made a ruck coach for Carlton after the 2005 season, where he no doubt schooled Blues ruckmen in the finer points of the game. He is on the Teams of the Century for both the Bulldogs and the Kangaroos and was inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame in 1996.