Long live the legends

A player of the year trophy, a grand final-winning performance, or even just a quick piece of brilliance during a match, are each signs of a special type of football player.

A player of the year trophy, a grand final-winning performance, or even just a quick piece of brilliance during a match, are each signs of a special type of football player.

But I think the true mark of a legend is longevity.

To be selected in a starting XI of a national league team week-in week-out over a number of years is a pretty reliable indicator that there-s something remarkable about that individual – something that really puts them a cut above the rest.

This week, Melbourne Heart goalkeeper Clint Bolton reaches a massive milestone of 450 Australian national league appearances.

A national league career that has seen Bolton play for Brisbane Strikers (1993 to 2000), Sydney Olympic (2000 to 2003), Parramatta Power (2003 to 2004), Sydney FC (2005 to 2010) and Melbourne Heart (since 2010) has included Championship success four times, two other grand final appearances and several more finals series games.

Over the past few weeks, Bundaberg-born Bolton has become well entrenched in the top five Australian national league appearance table, and is rapidly honing in on being the country-s second-highest leading appearance maker of all time, behind only Alex Tobin.

Leading into week 13 of the 2011/12 Hyundai A-League season, the all-time top five appearances in Australian national league matches are: 522 Alex Tobin (1984-2004), 452 Paul Trimboli (1987-2004), 449 Clint Bolton (1993-), 447 Damian Mori (1989-2007) and 445 Sergio Melta (1977-1995).

In terms of goalkeeper appearances in Australia, Bolton stands well clear of any other shot-stopper in Australian national league history: 449 Clint Bolton (1993-), 345 Bob Catlin (1984-2002), 332 Jason Petkovic (1994-2009), 300 Jeff Olver (1980-1992) and 296 Gary Meier (1977-1993).

Bolton-s tally could have been much higher by now if there was a 2004/05 national league season in Australia (the old NSL closed down in April 2004, the A-League started in August 2005), if there were more league games per year in Australia (the first few A-League seasons had just 21 home-and-away games per season, compared to, say, the English Championship where there are currently 46 league games per season) – or if he had tried his luck abroad.

Some Aussies who have made the grade overseas have built up enormous tallies of league matches.

It-s hard to think anyone will top Mark Schwarzer in terms of matches played at national league level in any country – whatever his final number ends up being – although his current tally of 565 league appearances has stalled due to a back injury picked up while playing for his English Premier League side Fulham recently.

In terms of national league matches played in any country, the top ten Aussies are currently: 565 Mark Schwarzer (1990-), 530 Kevin Muscat (1990-2011), 522 Alex Tobin (1984-2004), 492 Aurelio Vidmar (1985-2004), 482 Carl Veart (1989-2007), 479 Milan Ivanovic (1982-1999), 478 Lucas Neill (1996-), 465 Tony Vidmar (1989-2008), 459 Graham Arnold (1984-2001) and 458 Robbie Slater (1982-2001).

This top ten includes two prominent Australians still in active service, 39-year-old Schwarzer and 33-year-old Neill.

Despite only playing in the relatively short seasons of Australia-s national leagues, 449-gamer Bolton (barring injury or form slump) should knock Fox Sports commentator Robbie Slater out of the top ten in February 2012; while Sydney FC-s Brett Emerton, currently on 443 national league appearances, shouldn-t be too far behind in replacing Graham Arnold, now coach at the Mariners, in this elite group of ten.

And with no sign of either Bolton or Emerton slowing down, the big questions are: how many national league games will these guys end up playing by the end of their careers? And who will play more?

At just 32 years old, Emerton has plenty of seasons left in him. And although Emerton is a few years younger than Bolton (36), goalkeepers often play at the top level until later in life – as Schwarzer, who turns 40 in 2012, can attest.

And so while we can be pretty sure Bolton and Emerton will continue their extensive careers in the Hyundai A-League for a while longer, wouldn-t it be great to see two of the most eminent overseas-based Qantas Socceroos Schwarzer (the most capped player of all time) and Neill (Captain Socceroo) return home in the next year or two to finish off their marathon domestic careers in the Hyundai A-League?

How about it, Mark and Lucas?

Follow Andrew Howe-s Aussie football stats updates on Twitter @AndyHowe_statto