Does the legend of Cameron Ilett, a footballer in the Northern Territory who has achieved more than any other, have a tinge of tragedy?
In the same breath that he is praised as one of the Territory’s footballing greats, there is also an exhale of lament when contemplating Ilett’s career of nearly 400 matches — zero of which have come in the Australian Football League (AFL).
“Put it this way: there’s plenty of blokes that have played AFL that Cameron is a significantly better player than,” says his old teammate and coach Ricky Nolan.
“They’ve made a big, big mistake not picking him up,” reckons Northern Territory football icon Darryl Window.
Grey Morris, the veteran football writer at the NT News, has long viewed Ilett as a human-shaped blind spot to many a short-sighted AFL recruiter.
“I continue to scratch my head on why an AFL club never picked him up a dozen years ago,” he says.
“The most composed footballer I have seen in almost 30 years of writing on the Top End game.”
The Territory’s Russell Jeffrey, whose career playing at St Kilda and Brisbane in the AFL qualifies him to speak about a hypothetical career at the elite level for Ilett, is sure he would have been up to the standard.
“It’s something that every AFL club should actually regret,” he says.
“He’s just gotten better and better over the years, so in the AFL system who knows how much better he might have been?”
But ask spectators of NT football if there’s anything tragic about Ilett’s career, and they’ll tell you they are just grateful for having watched more than 20 years of him up close at local footy ovals.
“Because he was located in the Territory, because he was stuck in the NT — and I mean that in a good way — he’s going to be remembered as one of the all-time greats even though he hasn’t played a game of AFL football,” Window says.
The fortune in all this for the local football watcher was well described by Rex Nixon, a historian for the St Mary’s Football Club, when he said:
“If ever the AFL recruiting scouts have got it wrong it is that Cameron has never been drafted. But their bad luck is the football people of Darwin’s good luck.”
‘Put up his statue’
But was it possibly Ilett’s good luck too?
“Stuck” in the Northern Territory, after 22 seasons and 10 premierships, he now makes a claim for the greatest footballer to ever play in the Northern Territory.
On Saturday he will play in his 12th Northern Territory Football League decider against his old club St Mary’s, in the second year in a row the league’s most successful club will meet its most decorated individual in the grand final.
A premiership would be Ilett’s eighth in the NTFL and would be his third in a row at Nightcliff after he joined the club for the 2017/18 season.
Before he joined, Nightcliff had not won a premiership in 53 years — the longest drought in NTFL history.
If Nightcliff is victorious, it will be Ilett’s second premiership three-peat following his premierships at St Mary’s under Ricky Nolan from 2013-2016.
Since his senior career began as a 15-year-old in the 2001/02 season, Ilett has won two Nichols Medals for the NTFL’s best and fairest player — a number that could possibly have been higher if not for his NT Thunder commitments, which severely limited the number of NTFL games he could play.
At the NT Thunder, playing with a representative side of the Territory’s best footballers in the North East Australian Football League (NEAFL), Ilett was club champion four times, the NEAFL best and fairest once, a two-time premier, was voted best on ground in the 2011 NEAFL grand final, made the NEAFL team of the year six times (four of which he was captain), and was named captain of the NT Thunder’s team of the decade.
ABC grandstand football commentator Charlie King says it’s a resume that surpasses all others.
“I’ve been watching footy in Darwin and the Territory since 1966. So I’ve seen the best,” says King, who mentions John “Bubba” Tye, Ted Liddy, Ninny Briston, Barney Quall, Michael Graham and Joe Daby as some of the other greats to consider.
“He’s a better player than any of those … he’s the best, for mine.”
Phillip Wills, Ilett’s teammate at NT Thunder and Nightcliff and past opponent when Wills played for the Darwin Buffaloes, says Ilett is unanimously thought of around the league as one of, if not the, greatest ever.
“There’s no question about it and you see that from a lot of opposition players and supporters — when it’s pretty consistent around whoever has watched him play, you know there’s something special about him,” he says.
Window, who watched Ilett play football since he was a junior and has witnessed all of his NTFL grand finals, says his career is peerless.
“I don’t think you’ll find a better local Northern Territory player,” he says.
“Russell Jeffrey and these [AFL] guys were sensational, but I reckon Cam rates with the very, very best of them.
“One day I’m just hoping in the near future that somebody puts up a statue or two of our great stars … and I’d love to see one of Cam Ilett up there because I think he really deserves it.”
A game without flaws
The greatness of Cameron Ilett might exist at the intersection of three old sayings.
The first being that football is a simple game, the second being that perfection is lots of little things done well, and the third, which is perhaps the oldest of all footy’s chestnuts, is that you play as you train.
Before coaching Ilett during the 2010’s, Ricky Nolan was in the twilight of his playing career at St Mary’s when Ilett was starting out his own.
Now, Nolan holds up Ilett as an example when he coaches young players or talks to footy observers down south who might never have heard his name.
“I always say that the best player that I’ve ever coached is Cameron Ilett hands down, but the hardest trainer I’ve ever coached is also Cameron Ilett,” Nolan says.
Phillip Wills says he has been inspired by Ilett’s work ethic throughout his own career and believes Ilett’s greatness is down to his preparation and consistency.
“He’s probably not the fastest or the fittest, but he’s up there with everything he does,” he says.
“He’s probably the best I’ve played with and seen play, as well as how he prepares for matches and handles himself off the field.”
The one final thing that might be missing on Ilett’s resume for the greatest-Territory-footballer-of-all-time is a valorous and nostalgic story of a club hero being too injured to play, but playing on anyway.
But he does have one of them — in a thrilling grand final in which his team was narrowly victorious, no less.
“We won a grand final we never should have won at St Mary’s and it’s pretty famous, because Shannon Rioli kicked the ball off the ground in the dying stages of the game,” Nolan recalls of the 2015/16 NTFL grand final.
“Before that grand final Cameron had a syndesmosis [lower ankle ligament] injury and we went and saw a doctor and the doctor said, ‘look, there’s no way known that you could play in this grand final with this injury,’ and he ruled him out of the match.”
You can probably guess that Ilett, who went on to search Australia for syndesmosis experts, played in that grand final.
“He was in a lot of pain … no one has ever known to this day that he played that grand final after doing that injury,” Nolan says.
“He doesn’t let anyone know.”
Nor do any football watchers know exactly when the weight of Ilett’s achievement vaulted him into the conversation to be the Northern Territory’s greatest-ever players.
But win or lose in tonight’s grand final, those achievements leave only one question to be answered.
There might one day better footballers in the Northern Territory, but will there ever be a better career?
Story – Steve Vivian, ABC.
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