Essendon’s Devon Smith will have his AFL career largely remembered in two ways: the brilliant peak, and the slow and painful end.
Announcing his retirement on Friday, Smith was never quite the same player again after a persistent knee injury in 2019. He would only play 51 games in his last four seasons.
But at his very best, the 29-year-old was All-Australian calibre. He became known for his manic tackling pressure, scoreboard presence, and ability to rotate through the middle and add a fierceness to any contest.
Smith exploded into the spotlight in 2014 for GWS, kicking 26 goals in 21 games and averaging 21 disposals. Though he had his battles with injury, he looked to be a player with elite potential.
As he reached his peak in 2017, he sought a trade to Essendon, in an off-season which saw the club gain big recruits in himself, Jake Stringer, and Adam Saad. He was joined in the following season by Giants teammate Dylan Shiel.
In a tumultuous period for the club, fresh out of the banning of players and the supplements saga, his impact was immediately felt. He brought a toughness and sense of leadership desperately needed at Tullamarine.
The Inner Sanctum spoke to former Essendon forwards coach Paul Corrigan, who spent two seasons working closely with Smith.
“I think [Devon’s leadership] was really good,” Corrigan said.
“He’d had his time at GWS, and the type of character he was, we brought him to the club. He added to our experience and our leadership around the group at that time.
“It was a different voice to what we’d had previously throughout that time. A lot of his leadership was about the way he went about it on field.
“He really led from the front in the way he played, his aggression, from a pressure point of view through the forward line and the midfield.”
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Enjoying a career-best season when he joined the Bombers, Smith was named in the 2018 All-Australian squad.
He smashed the record for most tackles in a season with a monstrous 186, averaging 8.45 a game. His pressure was unmatched across the competition.
While Smith ultimately wasn’t named All-Australian, he did receive recognition for his stellar season by taking out the Crichton Medal, Essendon’s best and fairest.
Not only was his influence felt on game day, but off field as well.
“I think the year that he had where he won the best and fairest summed up what he was able to bring to our club,” Corrigan said.
“He really helped some of those younger kids develop in that time.
“From a selfish point of view as a forwards coach, I probably wanted him there a higher percentage. We knew he was valuable through the midfield and forward throughout those years.
“[The pressure], it’s definitely not [underappreciated] by coaches. Inner sanctum and behind closed doors, we value that type of play that those players possess, especially forward of the ball.
“Their ability to put pressure on opposition backs and lock that ball in, we regarded it really highly.”
Smith became known throughout his career for being vocal on and off-field, especially losing no love with the umpires.
Corrigan believes what he added to the culture of the Bombers was a very overlooked part of his move.
“He obviously was very forward in his opinions, which I really liked. He set the example for others coming through, the accountability piece, what that should look like from players too,” Corrigan said.
“The side at that time was coming out of a pretty dull era, and we needed some guys to provide some voice, and he provided that.
“It helped us come out of that saga and get us back on our feet again.”
Devon Smith retires from the AFL having played 182 games and kicked 146 goals. He won the Crichton Medal in 2018, was named in the 22under22 team in 2015, and earned a Rising Star nomination in 2012.
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