The Brisbane Bears knew they had a special talent on their hands long before Michael Voss stamped his authority on the AFL, but just to make sure everyone knew he delivered an astonishing reminder to the football world in July 1992.
In what was then called the Teal Cup carnival, the Australian Under-17 championships in Victoria, he was judged the best player in division two after an astonishing one-off performance confirmed his standing as one of the very best prospects in the country.
Truth be known, the Bears would have loved to play him in the AFL side earlier in the season after he’d made his senior State of Origin debut for Queensland against New South Wales at 16 in May to show he was more than comfortable at the level.
But coach Robert Walls and CEO Andrew Ireland wanted to give the emerging superstar the honour of leading his State on the national junior stage. They sent him off under Queensland U17 coach Phil Davis after Walls had already pencilled his name in for his AFL debut as soon as he got back.
With four games in a fortnight at the carnival they were looking to minimise the young midfielder’s workload. So in game three against Tasmania coach Davis, originally from Ballarat, played him at full forward.
It was a moment he still remembers well. The game, on the day after his 17th birthday, was played in Traralgon in the Gippsland region of Victoria, where he was born before spending his early years in Orbost.
He kicked 14 goals. It was double the previous carnival record of seven goals kicked 13 years earlier by Hawthorn superstar-in-waiting Dermott Brereton. And 29 years on, despite the championship age being pushed up to 18, nobody has come close.
It was the beginning of a remarkable 15-year AFL career with the Brisbane Bears turned Lions in which Voss stamped himself as one of the very best of all-time.
Highlights? You could name a hundred and miss just as many. But 10 very special moments that will always have a prominent place in his unforgettable football journey, in chronological order, are:-
- AFL DEBUT
Michael Voss played AFL football before he could drive, vote and drink in a public place. On Saturday 18 July 1992, 11 days after his 17th birthday, he made his debut against Fitzroy at Princes Park. Even with his delayed selection he was then and forever will be the club’s youngest player.
Wearing jumper #56, the highest number ever worn by a Brisbane player, he joined a Bears side that had won once in 12 weeks. With two wins and a draw from 16 games they sat at the bottom of the ladder as they prepared to face a Fitzroy side still in finals contention.
It was as if Voss waved a magic wand over the group. They led at every change and won 16-18 (114) to 10-13-73. It was their first triumph in Melbourne in three years. The fresh-faced and freckled redhead, still with final year school exams ahead of him, played on John Blakey on the wing. With a team-high 26 possessions he had much the better of an opponent who would go on to total 359 games and rank 12th in the AFL all-time.
- ROUND 16 1995
Three-quarter time at the Gabba. Brisbane, 14th on the ladder, trailed 10th-placed Hawthorn by 45 points. Yet 35 minutes later they walked off victors by seven points. It was and still is the biggest final quarter turnaround in AFL history.
Michael Voss was an inspiration. He had 24 possessions and kicked three goals to pick up two Brownlow Medal votes as his side piled on 9-7 to 1-3 in the final quarter. It was his 16th win in his 48th game and one that would never lose its lustre.
It was a massive turning point for a young side which included a third of the side which six years later would win the 2001 premiership. Voss, Jason Akermanis, Marcus Ashcroft, Shaun Hart, Craig McRae, Chris Scott and Darryl White.
They won six of their last seven to sneak into the finals, losing only to runaway minor premiers Carlton by 14 points in Melbourne in the run to their first finals appearance. And despite the fact that their glorious run ended when they lost again to the eventual premiers in the qualifying final, this time by 13 points, they were clearly the second-best team in the competition at the time. Especially when Carlton beat North Melbourne by 62 points in the preliminary final and Geelong by 61 points in the grand final.
The Bears’ mindset had changed. Finally they believed they were good enough. And leading the way was a 20-year-old 55-gamer who polled 13 votes in the Brownlow Medal to finish tied for 11th and delivered on a brave and confident prediction that, when filling in a club profile pre-season in which he’d been asked ‘who would win the club championship?’ he’d nominated himself.
“It said to be truthful so I thought ‘why not?’ It’s what I wanted to do,” he explained later, having found very early in his career the performance balance between confidence and humility. One down, four to go. And so much more.
- THE BROWNLOW
Brisbane Bullets basketball legend Leroy Loggins used to say famously “I don’t predict … I just produce”. And so it was with Michael Voss in 1996. No predictions but a whole lot of production, headed by an astonishing win in the Brownlow Medal.
On Monday night, 29 September, at the World Congress Centre in Melbourne, the 21-year-old veteran of just 79 games was crowned joint winner of the game’s highest individual honour with Essendon’s James Hird.
It was a three-way deadlock at the top of the leaderboard, with Voss, Hird and North Melbourne’s Corey McKernan polling 21 votes, but McKernan was ineligible due to a contentious one-match suspension.
In the ‘live’ count Voss was two votes behind St.Kilda pair Nathan Burke and Stewart Loewe and one up on Hird with four games to play. He polled 1-3-2 votes in Rounds 19-20-21 to lead by two from Geelong’s Garry Hocking. Hird was one back with Chris Grant from Footscray, as the Western Bulldogs were then known.
Four players could still win it. Voss and Hocking didn’t poll. It all came down to Essendon v Footscray. It was first game of the final round and, of course, the last game of the count. Essendon won by three points. Grant polled two votes to finish one back, and Hird three to tie it up.
It was the first of Voss’ five top 10 finishes in the Brownlow. With 16-19-17-19 votes in 2000-01-02-03 he was twice equal third and twice equal seventh. With a career 150 votes he polled more than every Brisbane and Fitzroy player other than Simon Black (184) and Kevin Murray (178). Garry Wilson has 138.5 votes on adjusted totals.
- A NEW PARTNERSHIP
In Round 11 1998 Voss suffered an horrific broken leg as the Lions fell to Fremantle by 71 points at Subiaco Oval in Perth. As he spent a week-plus in hospital on the other side of the country his beloved club, at the bottom of the ladder with a 2-9 record, imploded. Coach John Northey was sacked and replaced on a caretaker basis by long-term captain Roger Merrett.
It was precisely 300 days later in Round 2 1999 that he would return to football. And, almost appropriately, it was back at Subiaco.
It was a rebuilt Voss and a rebuilt Lions as the skipper defied medical expectations in his comeback from a complicated fracture that had some pundits questioning whether he would ever be the same again.
It was his first game under master coach Leigh Matthews, who, after three years out of coaching, had guided the Lions to an 85-point Gabba win over St.Kilda in Round 1. Voss had 15 possessions and kicked two goals in a 10-point loss to West Coast in what was the start of an extraordinary partnership between captain and coach.
One of the very best captains in modern football with one of the very best coaches. A perfect leadership formula for the overwhelming success that was to follow.
5. THE START OF THE RUN
Round 10 2001. The Lions were ninth on the AFL ladder with a 4-5 record as they prepared to host Essendon, the defending premiers who were chasing two flags in a row at 8-1. It would be a defining moment in the career of the Brisbane champion, who, still only 25, was in his first season as solo captain after sharing the role with Alastair Lynch for four years.
Coach Leigh Matthews pulled a motivational masterstroke, stealing a line from Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie ‘Predator’ in which he said “if it bleeds, we can kill it”.
Voss had been on crutches in the lead-up to the season-defining match, but there was no way he was going to miss. With Simon Black best afield the skipper was his unusual powerful self as the Lions tamed the mighty Bombers by 28 points in front of a sell-out Saturday night crowd of 36,149 to start a 20-game winning streak which would include the 2001 premiership.
- A DREAM FULFILLED
For as long as he could remember Michael Voss dreamed of winning an AFL premiership. Like most aspiring youngsters, it was everything to him. But it was a long wait filled with many down moments on and off the field. Some serious injuries and embarrassing losses. None worse than a 131-point hiding from West Coast Perth in game two after his debut win. He won only 11 of his 34 games and was 125 games into his career before he squared his win/loss record at 50%.
But on 29 September 2001 it was all worth it. In his 176th game the dream came true when Brisbane, wooden-spooners just three years earlier, came from 14 points down at halftime to beat Essendon 15-18 (108) to 12-10 (82) in the grand final.
Voss was in the votes for the Norm Smith Medal with Shaun Hart and Nigel Lappin after collecting an equal team-high 23 possessions and kicking the goal that sealed the best moment of his football life. But he could not have cared less about that medal. It was all about the other one. The premiership medal.
Bruce McAvaney called it perfectly in commentary on Channel Seven: “Voss … in the pocket ... close … he’s done it … the captain … how fitting that the player of the year in so many ways has delivered the knockout blow,” he said.
It was late in the final quarter. Voss received a short handpass from ruckman Beau McDonald and from 30m on an almost impossible angle at the Punt Road end of the MCG, on the Brunton Road side of the ground, he wobbled the most beautiful ugly kick through the big sticks. An exquisite inside out torpedo.
In the exhilaration of the moment Voss forgot a promise he’d made to Alastair Lynch when Lynch stepped down from the shared captaincy at the start of the season, having told his long-time mate they’d lift the premiership cup together with Leigh Matthews.
But it was irrelevant. Lynch had already had his special moment, finishing with the ball in hand at the final siren, holding it aloft before a loving embrace with Chris Scott and a rampaging onslaught from out-of-control teammates. And Voss had what he’d always craved. A premiership medal.
- TWO IN A ROW
Twelve months less one day later, on 28 September 2002, Michael Voss enjoyed his once-in-a-lifetime moment for a second time. Raging hot favorites on a cold, wet day at the MCG, the Lions survived the fright of a lifetime.
Jason Akermanis, responding to a message from coach Leigh Matthews to ‘get to the front’, roved the ball beautifully off an Alastair Lynch marking contest and, hearing Lynch scream “you’ve got time” he balanced up and snapped truly on his left for the clincher.
It was the last score of a game in which the lead changes hands 13 times. After six more minutes without even a scoring opportunity for either side the Lions won 10-15 (75) to 9-12 (66). It was the biggest margin of the game.
Voss had 26 possessions and a goal. None was more memorable than one in the second term when he crashed a pack and was pole-axed by Collingwood’s Scott Burns. He bounced back to feet, dived into the fray again and fed out a handball to Black for the Lions’ second goal.
His 55m spiral goal late in the third term was inspiration-plus. He won the ball for Luke Power to set up Lynch’s late go-ahead goal. He took a twisting mark going backwards with Collingwood players on the fly forward. A game-saver. And he pumped the ball into the Lions forward 50 zone 12 times – still an AFL grand final record
Had voting for the Norm Smith Medal not been done midway through the final quarter he would have won it. Surely. His five key possessions in the last five minutes were crucial. Still, there was a sweet irony that it went instead to rival skipper Nathan Buckley, who had quit Brisbane nine years earlier to win premierships at Collingwood.
And this time Voss remembered his promise to Lynch. The pair joined the coach to lift the premiership cup and close out a dream season in which Voss had been named All-Australian captain and shared the Leigh Matthews Trophy with the Western Bulldogs’ Luke Darcy as the AFL Players’ Association Player of the Year.
- THREE IN A ROW
If the over-riding emotion of 2001 was exhilaration and 2002 was relief then 2003 was dis-belief. With the odds stacked impossibly against them they not only triumphed in another grand final against Collingwood but did it easily. The margin finished at 50 points after six Lions goals on the trot but five minutes from the end it was 69 as Craig McRae ran amok at half forward, saying to teammates “how good is Mad Monday going to be!”
With Simon Black picking up the Norm Smith Medal after an astonishing 39 possessions – a grand final record – it set up another Collingwood irony that would take 19 years to emerge. It came when McRae was appointed Collingwood coach in 2022, with long-time Lions teammate Justin Leppitsch his chief lieutenant as they look to turn around a troubled 2021 after coach Buckley quit mid-season.
But the cakewalk 20-14 (134) to 12-12 (84) win didn’t look remotely possible in the lead-up to the grand final. Not when the Lions lost the qualifying final to Collingwood by 15 points and captain Michael Voss suffered a nasty knee problem.
He returned to Brisbane on crutches and was given little chance of playing again in 2002. That the medical staff got him going six days later was a miracle, and his 22 possessions in the semi-final win over Adelaide after he started the game on an exercise bike on the bike was inspiration plus. No surprise when he was voted AFLPA ‘Best Captain’ for the third of what 12 months later would be four years in a arow.
But the medical team’s job was not done. Not by a long shot. Their efforts to get Nigel Lappin through the grand final with broken ribs and a punctured lung, and deal with a string of other less public injuries, were extraordinary.
Voss screamed his trademark ‘you little beauty’ after raising the premiership cup for the third time as Brisbane matched the efforts of Carlton (1906-07-08), Collingwood (1927-28-29-30), Melbourne (1939-40-41) and Melbourne (1955-56-57), and more recently Hawthorn (2011-12-13).
It had been a massive three years for the then 28-year-old 223-gamer. He was one of only three players in the competition to win All-Australian selection in each year of the Lions hat-trick, sharing this honor with teammate Nigel Lappin and Port Adelaide’s Warren Tredrea, and polled 55 Brownlow votes over the same period - equal most in the League with West Coast’s Ben Cousins and Hawthorn’s Shane Crawford.
Having shared the Merrett/Murray Medal with Simon Black in 2001 and finishing second to Black in 2002 he won the club’s No.1 award outright in 2003. A career total of five after he won the equivalent award in 1995-96.
He also completed back-to-back wins in the Leigh Matthews Trophy in 2003. Without question, the triple premiership captain was the No.1 player in the game.
- A CAREER-BEST
Michael Voss was never one for individual statistics despite the fact that few have ever had better. With him it was all about quality not quantity. But in Round 2 2004, as the Lions began their quest for a fourth flag without injured full forward Alastair Lynch, he found himself in an unfamiliar role as the prime target in the goal square. What a day!
In his 225th game against Adelaide at Football Park a 28-year-old Voss kicked a career-best seven goals, including the 200th of his then 225-game career. By the time he would retire he would be the only Brisbane player to amass 6000 possessions and kicked 200 goals.
Oddly, his highest single-game possession count was 38 all the way back in his 95th game in Round 16 1997. It was also against Adelaide but at the Gabba.
- A CHAMPION RETIRES
Those close to Voss knew that Round 22 2006 against St.Kilda at the Gabba would probably be the end. Simply, his body had had enough. It was done. It had nothing left to give. But, in typical team-first Voss fashion, he said nothing about it. He didn’t want a fuss.
On Saturday night 2 September he ran out onto the Gabba for his 289th and last game and played as he had for 15 years. Uncompromising as ever, he barked instructions to a young side that included just 10 premiership teammates, leading his club for the 210th time.
And he put on a clinic. One last time he dominated in a 51-point loss, collecting a team-high 34 possessions and two Brownlow Medal votes in his farewell. It was the 24th time he had had 30+ possessions – a significant feat in an era when 30 was more like 40 today.
It would be easy to say the fans must have known, such was the magnitude of the standing ovation, but in truth it was just the end of another season. And even if they had known they could barely have given the champion a bigger send-off as he led his team on a slow walk around the ground.
Five weeks later, on 6 October, Voss announced his retirement. Having told coach Leigh Matthews the night before he broke the news to his adoring teammates at noon before fronting the media.
Matthews later revealed that after the Round 19 loss Voss, unable to walk, had to be carried to the team bus. The writing was on the wall but he wanted to take the time to make absolutely sure.
“I’ll wonder about it a 100 times more … when the pre-season games start … but it’s the right decision. I pushed the boundaries as hard as I possibly could and got everything out of myself,” he said, noting that the game’s growth during his career would always bring him great pride.
“When I started in 1992 at Carrara we were getting 800 people to games. It’s been an unbelievable journey and I’ve been privileged to play with a lot of great people and for what is now a great club.”
Matthews said his enduring image of Voss would be of him as “a missile attacking the ball”. Like always, he could not have put it any better.