Greg Williams was a polarising figure throughout his career.
Photo: Getty Images
When Greg 'Diesel' Williams was chaired off the MCG in 1997, after his 250th and final VFL/AFL game, there was no sense debating his legacy. Few players in the modern era have had such a polarising effect on the footy public, and at that moment, as Stephen Kernahan and Luke O'Sullivan held him aloft, Williams' balancing act on the fault line of public opinion was well-established. It was quite simple, really – you either loved him or you hated him.
Funnily enough, it was always supposed to be that way, because from the time he was young there were two sides to Greg Williams.
If you felt like being uncharitable, you could sum up the young Williams as a short, stocky plodder with a weight problem. As a child he had worn braces on both legs to correct a condition that left him knock-kneed, and his teenage growth spurt tapped out at an unkind 175 centimetres. He appeared to carry the stigma of these early psychological injuries throughout his career.
Speed would never be his ally, so Williams set about moulding the rest of his game to cover his achilles heel. In Bendigo, on Golden Square's newly built Wade Street oval, Williams developed elite kicking skills on both sides of his body, lightning-fast disposal by hand and, above all, the will of a madman in the centre.
In 1982, before his 18th birthday, he tasted rejection for the first time. Carlton had invited him to pre-season training that year but saw nothing of value in the homesick, pudgy youngster. So they turfed him back to Bendigo, where he responded by winning the Bendigo League best and fairest.
The Blues flirted with him again the following year, inviting him to training then sending him home broken-hearted. If he wasn't already, Williams was now carrying a chip on his shoulder. Back at Golden Square he sewed up his second league best and fairest and was best on ground in a losing grand final. He was promptly taken in by Geelong.
His first VFL game, a round one tussle with Fitzroy at Kardinia Park, was a microcosm of Williams' entire career. He amassed 38 possessions in a best afield performance, burrowed into packs like a tick and was reported for striking. It was the first of his numerous visits to the tribunal.
Two years into his career and it was clear to most that 'Diesel', as he was then being called, was a future champion. It was especially clear to sacked Geelong coach Tom Hafey, who was handed a blank cheque to turn the fledging Sydney Swans into a powerhouse in 1986. He went straight after Williams.
The Sydney misadventure ranks as the lowest point in Diesel's career. There's plenty of competition, too – a nine-week suspension for pushing an umpire that ended up in the courts, his sourpuss antics after missing out on the 1993 Brownlow by one vote, a racial vilification case brought against him by a changed-culture AFL. But it was there, in footy-godless New South Wales, that Williams was made a salary-cap cheat.
A $25,000 fine and an 11-week suspension for under-the-table payments followed in 1992 ("The biggest scapegoat since Lee Harvey Oswald," cried his manager). By this time, Carlton had finally come around to Williams' unique talents and snagged him in a three-way trade with Fitzroy. All it took to convince the Blues was the 1986 Brownlow Medal, a 53-disposal game against the Tigers and two All Australian guernseys.
Though he played just two fewer games for the Swans than the Blues, Diesel and Carlton remain indelibly linked in the collective footy consciousness. It was here, at Princes Park, in the old world charm of the Italian precinct, that Williams' ugly brilliance seemed where it belonged.
It was also the scene of his greatest successes. In 1995, Williams added a premiership medallion – and a Norm Smith, just for good measure – to a haul that included two Brownlows, two club best and fairests, four All Australian guernseys and a handful of state of origin appearances. He kicked five goals on that last Saturday in September. It was also the occasion of his 32nd birthday.
There was some vinegar to go with the honey. His spat with the AFL after the 1993 Brownlow count permanently tarnished Williams' image in the minds of many supporters. Bombers fans were especially put out given the slight Diesel levelled at the winner, a young Gavin Wanganeen, and the Blues star was made aware of this in no uncertain terms in the '93 grand final and from then on.
After winning the grand final, Diesel got two more seasons out of his failing knees before calling it quits in 1997. In his final match, against the hated Dons, he amassed 28 disposals as the Blues meted out a 78-point hiding. Fittingly, some might say, he served out a suspension to end his career.
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