Leigh Matthews Retired AFL Player and Coach
Leigh Raymond Matthews AM is a former Aussie Rules footballer and coach known for his skilful style of play.
While he was one of the star players for Hawthorn in the Victorian Football League he went on to coach Collingwood and the Brisbane Lions. Fondly known as ‘Lethal Leigh’ due to his reputation to give and take hard bumps, the short legged and barrel-chested Matthews won several recognitions during his playing career.
This includes the ‘best player of the 20th century’ by the AFL or Australian Football League, which is a great achievement in itself. He is also a Legend in the AFL Hall of Fame and secures a firm place in the Hawthorn and AFL Teams of the Centuries.
Leigh Matthews is also in second spot in Mike Sheahan’s list of the Top 50 players of all time. The list is featured in ‘The Australian Game of Football’, a book released by the AFL to commemorate 150 years of Aussie Rules football.
Leigh Matthews followed in the footsteps of his brother Kelvin who played 155 games during his career at Hawthorn and Geelong. He had a glorious start to his career, playing junior football for Chelsea Football Club before being signed up to play for Hawthorn. His first match as a senior player was against Melbourne as a forward pocket in Round 16 in 1969.
This match was undoubtedly the stepping stone to a glorious career on the field with Leigh Matthews scoring a goal with his first kick. He went on to win the Best First Year Player award after scoring at least one goal in his five games during the season.
Leigh Matthews stepped into the 1970 season as a regular in the Hawthorn side and obliged his team with 20 goals from 16 games at the end of the season.
His 1971 season was even better with an impressive 43 goals, which was an average of almost 2 goals per match. This was the season of many firsts for Leigh Matthews who earned his first Victorian Guernseys of his fourteen, his first of eight Hawthorn Best and Fairest awards, and his first playing premiership medallion of which he went on to procure three more.
One of the dark patches in his 1971 season was a series of violent lapses that began with an elbow to the head of Barry Cable. Ironically, Cable was one of the game’s fairest players. This ultimately led to a conviction for criminal assault. However, that did not deter Leigh Matthews from a blistering start to his 1972 season. He scored 8 goals against North Melbourne in Round 2 and six against South Melbourne in Round 18, to end the season with 45 goals.
Rising Through the Opposition
His second best and fairest came that year, a perfect gift for his 21st birthday. Leigh Matthews finished the 1973 season with 51 goals from 19 games from which 11 came from a single game against Essendon in Round 3. His brilliant solo efforts often resulted in major victories for Hawthorn, and he was one of the toughest, lethal players in the history of Aussie Rules by the end of the 1974 season, which he ended with 52 goals and an average of 21.8 disposals. 7 goals from 24 disposals came in the semi final match against Collingwood.
In 1975, Leigh Matthews won the Coleman Medal for becoming the VFL’s leading goal kicker with 68 goals and an average of 22.9 disposals per game. 47 goals came from his first 12 games while he helped Hawthorn decimate Footscray in a game in Round 9 by wrapping 6 goals from 28 kicks.
Although Hawthorn managed to reach the Grand Final in 1975, Matthew failed to score in a match which they lost to North Melbourne. His goal-scoring spree continued in 1976 while he also became one of the most effective ball winners in the history of the game.
His season ended with 71 goals that included 7 goals from 13 scoring shots against North Melbourne in the Qualifying Final. 1977 was even better for Leigh Matthews who posted career highs in goals, marks, kicks, and handballs. He averaged 3.8 goals per game and finished the season with 91 goals.
Being Number One
By the end of the 1978 season, he reaffirmed his position as the number one players and added 71 goals to his tally. Injuries forced Leigh Matthews to remain on the bench for the last 8 games in the 1979 season. During the 1970s, he won six best and fairest awards and then claimed his seventh in the 1980 season.
Leigh Matthews took over as captain of Hawthorn in 1980 and continued with the responsibility until his retirement in 1985. He also captained the Victorian State of Origin team. Injuries took a toll on his 1981 season although he was still effective as a full forward in several games, taking 10 marks and scoring 11 goals. Despite missing five games between rounds 3 and 8 Matthews managed to finish the season as the side’s leading goal kicker with an average of 3.0 goals from 16 games.
Leigh Matthews Trophy
Leigh Matthews came back fit in 1982 and averaged 3.4 goals per game for the year and took home his eighth best and fairest award. He also won the Players’ Association Most Valuable Player award which is now renamed in his honor as the Leigh Matthews Trophy.
During the 1982 season Leigh Matthews lived up to his reputation as ‘Lethal Leigh’ where he managed to run into a behind post and break a piece measuring 1m that hit the boundary umpire. He entered his fifteenth season in the VFL in 1983 and scored an impressive 2.9 goals in his first twelve games. In the last 12 games he averaged 3 goals per game and finished the season with 20.1 disposals and 3.6 goals per game. Matthews must have definitely found it tough to bid adieu to his favorite sport at the end of the 1985 season.
He was deregistered by the VFL for four week following an incident involving Geelong’s Neville Bruns which resulted in Bruns’ afflicted with a broken jaw. His final game was against Essendon in the 1985 Grand Final, which was his 332nd appearance. Matthews ended his glorious career with 915 goals and 202 Brownlow Medal votes, the third highest of all time. He never did receive a Brownlow Medal despite his eight best and fairest awards.
Leigh Matthews’ association with Aussie Rules continued post retirement. He signed up as assistant coach for Collingwood Football Club and replaced Bob Rose as head coach after Round 3 in the 1986 season. The Collingwood side stood to benefit from his services, winning the 1990 premiership against Essendon, which incidentally ended Collingwood’s 32-year premiership drought.
His ten seasons with the Magpies included 224 games, which ended in 1995 after an unsuccessful season. After a 3-year hiatus Matthews was back to coach the Brisbane Lions who rose from wooden spooners in 1998 to making it to the finals in 2000.
Leigh Matthews had an uncanny knack of inspiring his side to victory.
While Essendon were comfortably poised at the top of the ladder and as defending premier in 2001, he spurred the Brisbane Lions on in a Round 10 game using the quote – ‘If it bleeds, we can kill it’ from the “Predator’. The match ended in a 28-point victory for the Lions who went on to win their first AFL premiership while their winning streak of twenty games only ended in the early 2002 season in a match against the West Coast Eagles.
The Lions made it to four consecutive grand finals under Leigh Matthews. Major victories were over Collingwood in 2002 and 2003. He completed his 200th game as coach of the Brisbane Lions in 2007 and had the unique distinction of playing or coaching 200 games for three different clubs during his career.
Leigh Matthews career statistics as coach includes an impressive 255 wins from 442 games with 179 losses, 8 draws and a win percentage of 57.7%. His finals coaching records stands at 27 Finals with 17 wins, 9 losses, 1 draw, and a win percentage of 63%.
Leigh Matthews’ strict coaching style not only brings laurels to the teams he coached but also brought him four premierships and a total of eight premiership medallions. With an impressive record, numerous awards, and recognition as a Legend of Australian Sport in the Sport Australia Hall of Fame along with Ron Barassi and Ted Whitten there is no doubt the ‘Lethal’ Leigh Matthews is one of the most prolific sportsmen to rule the world of Aussie Rules.
His association with footy continues as an expert radio commentator for 3AW Football and a respected AFL television commentator for the Seven Network. Matthews is also a commentator and feature writer for the Herald Sun.
A fearless player, authoritarian coach, a legend, outspoken commentator and celebrity speaker, are only a few of numerous words that describe ‘Lethal’ Leigh Matthews. A few terms that caused many a nightmare for teams in the Aussie Rules league for almost three decades.