Neil Roberts – Australian Rules Brownlow Medal Winner
Neil Roberts (15 June 1933), in 1958, was the second consecutive player of the St. Kilda Football Club to receive the Brownlow Medal for Best and Fairest of the season in the VFL, following his teammate Brian Gleeson in 1957.
Roberts is in the middle of a Brownlow Medal trifecta that was completed in 1959 when Verdun Howell was the top vote getter.
The left handed amongst us, especially the golfers who in past decades were compelled to play with right-handed clubs because of the scarcity of left-handed ones, can appreciate the concept that despite being a prodigious scorer as a lad playing footy for the Melbourne High School Old Boys, Roberts’s kicking in the VFL was a weak point. Years after his career with St. Kilda was concluded, he discovered from testing that he was better suited to kicking with his left foot. This was during an era, which had persisted for hundreds of years, when left-handedness, or left footedness in Roberts’s case, was actively discouraged by dogmatic parents and teachers.
Another relic of his era was that training methods and attention to the physical needs of footy players being what they were, Roberts played his entire career with one thumb wrapped in electrical tape, the result of a break that happened when he was nine years old that had not received proper medical attention. Times being what they were, he probably had to supply his own tape as well.
Despite that handicap, however, observers of the game remark that marking was his greatest skill. Perhaps the tape gave him extra-sticky fingers.
Neil Roberts made his VFL debut about a month past his 19th birthday. He first appeared in round 13, a loss to South Melbourne. Six consecutive losses followed that, as a hapless Saints side concluded another season of futility where they won only two of the 19 games they played, losing seventeen by an average margin of 27 points. Roberts would have been a participant in a round 16 match against Collingwood where the Magpies showed no mercy in subjecting the Saints to a 139 – 55 drubbing. That demoralizing game was the set up for the following week, where the Bombers made it 147 – 51.
Despite kicking with the wrong foot, Roberts kicked 13 goals in his rookie season, his second best of his 10-year career. The Saints had been grooming Roberts to play as a forward, but his marking ability was not adequate compensation for somewhat unreliable kicking, where despite the 13 goals, countless behinds were holding down the tally.
In the 1953 season, it was much the same story. Roberts kicked 17 goals, his career high, and even attracted six Brownlow votes for his appearance in 14 senior-level games, but the Saints finished the season ahead of only Richmond, Melbourne and Hawthorn on the ladder.
The 1954 season was again one of futility for the Saints, but in the middle of the season, Roberts made the switch from forward to centre halfback. Switching ends of the field proved to be the precise tonic to turn Roberts from competent to exceptional player.
His first full season at centre halfback found him finishing third in the Brownlow voting with 16 votes from 17 games. Unfortunately, the 1955 Saints won only one game. The only consolations for Roberts would have been his declaration as St. Kilda Best and Fairest, along with his being chosen to represent Victoria in interstate play.
Roberts endured two more similar seasons in 1956 and 1957, the year his teammate Brian Gleeson won the Brownlow. His Brownlow vote total declined to 12 in 1956 and plummeted inexplicably to only one in 1957. That 1957 was unique in another aspect. Roberts had played his first five seasons pro-bono in order to maintain his amateur status in his other sport, surf lifesaving.
When Gleeson suffered a knee injury during a practice game in 1958, an injury that proved to be the end of his VFL career, Roberts was the natural choice to assume the captaincy of the club.
The leadership role apparently suited him well. The Saints had their best season in many years, although they still won only seven games. His contribution was acknowledged with 24 Brownlow votes, giving him a margin of two over Hawthorn’s Brendan Edwards. Rather naturally, it would seem, he received his second Best and Fairest award for the Saints. He also received the symbolic distinction of recognition that comes from being selected as a member of the All-Australian Team.
Roberts was officially appointed captain in 1959 when it became clearly obvious that Brian Gleeson could not return. That season saw him drop from 24 Brownlow votes in the previous year to just two, quite hard to imagine. The Saints improved to nine wins against nine losses.
They duplicated that record in 1960. Since making the change from forward to halfback in 1954, Neil Roberts’s goal kicking difficulties were no longer an issue, since he was not expected to score. In fact, after that switch, he kicked only 10 goals for the remainder of his career after posting 30 in his first two seasons.
The best season for the Saints in a long while, and the best whilst Roberts was on the side was 1961, when they won 10. He received just two Brownlow votes, following five in 1960, so beyond his 24 in the year he won, he was never again a factor. He did have the good fortune to make his one and only finals appearance, a semifinal against Footscray on 2 September at the M.C.G. Trailing at the half, the Saints made a match of it in the third and fourth quarters, but came up nine points short from advancing.
His final season, 1962, his eleventh, saw him kick his final four goals, giving him 40 for his career. He played 14 games, missing rounds 13, 14, and 15. He was just beyond his 29th birthday.
After footy, Neil Roberts had a typical experience of the retired footy player, becoming a TV commentator. A unique experience, however, was when he became the commander of Australia’s base in Antarctica.
Neil Roberts, inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame in 2015, still looks as though he could get on the ground if he was so inclined, with the exception that this time he would kick the ball with the right foot, which is his left foot. He was one of those early adopters of hyper-fitness that at the time had some people describing him as a “fitness crank.” It is called cross-fitness these days, and in Neil Roberts’s case, along with giving you a run on the oval, it looks as though he could easily pull you out of the surf afterward.