Senior player: 1991–2004
Guernsey number: 16
Height: 191 cm
Playing weight: 94 kg
Senior games: 186
Finals: 9 (1994 qualifying final and semi-final, 1997 qualifying final and preliminary final, 1998 qualifying final and preliminary final, 1999 qualifying final and semi-final, 2000 elimination final)
Night games: 15
Night goals: 5
Recruited from: Mildura Imperials
Born in 1973 at Morkalla in country Victoria, on a 12 000 acre wheat farm that had been in his family since the late 1920s/early 1930s, Matthew Croft grew up on the farm and began playing Under-13 football with Mildura Imperials. For this to happen, he and his father travelled 100 kilometres from Morkalla to Mildura.
Matt’s coach in the Under-13s was Bill Antonie, who had played football with his Dad. Matt’s Dad, John, had also played football with Mildura Imperials, as well as some games with Karween-Karawinna and Renmark Rovers. John had been approached by VFL teams, including Carlton – where he once played in a practice match against John Nicholls. John also captain/coached Renmark Rovers to a premiership when he was only 19 or 20 years old.
Bill Antonie’s training with the Mildura juniors was skills based, so the Under-13 Matt learned to baulk and do blind turns under Bill’s tutelage. In his second year in the Under-13s, Matt won the league’s best and fairest award and, in the next year, as a 14 year old playing in the Under-15s, he won the league’s best and fairest again – being the first player ever to achieve this double. It was some years later before another player was to repeat the feat (and that was Mark Alvey, who also became a Western Bulldogs’ player).
Matt started playing senior football with the Mildura Imperials as a skinny 16 year old with a bit of height and pace. He played on the wing in the senior side for two years. In underage games, he had played in the ruck but had been picked at full-back in the Under-17s and the Teal Cup sides.
After his first year of senior football with Mildura Imperials, in 1989, Matt was drafted to the Bulldogs, but was allowed to stay at home in 1990 to complete his VCE. He played in a premiership side with one of his two brothers, Bruce, during that time and won the John Groves Medal for the best afield in the Grand Final.
Matt trained with the senior Footscray squad for all of the 1990–91 summer but, the week before the 1991 team photos were taken, he was disappointed to be dropped to the Under-19s. After playing just two Under-19 games, he was called up to the reserve side and played most of the season there.
Six rounds from the end of the 1991 season, Matt played his first senior game, against Fitzroy, coming off the bench to play on the wing. The next week, in his second senior game, Matt was to gain 25 possessions and kick an early goal against Hawthorn, the team he had supported growing up and with whom he had trained before being drafted by Footscray. Unhappily, at training on the following Tuesday, he pulled a hamstring which caused him to miss the next game, but he did play the last three senior games of the season. What a rollercoaster year 1991 had been – as an 18 year old, Matt had played for the Under-19s, the reserves and the seniors, all in one year.
In 1992, Matt played just one senior game but, playing every game but two in the reserves, he won the reserves best and fairest. On the down side, he also suffered what has come to be known as osteitis pubis, which required surgery and three months rest at the end of the season.
Throughout his 14-year, 186-game, senior career, Matt also suffered injuries to the medial ligaments in both knees, having one knee operation when he was 23 and another when he was about 30. He also had more than his share of soft tissue injuries – hamstrings, calves and quads – and a foot injury called plantar fascia tendonitis. He recalls a journalist pointing out to him before his milestone 50th game that he had played 50 senior games, 50 reserve games and had missed 50 games through injury. Ironically, in 2004, his last season, when he was 31 and was playing mainly for the Bulldogs’ VFL affiliated side, Werribee, Matt did not miss a game through injury. He also won the best and fairest at Werribee that year.
Bulldog supporters fondly remember Matt’s farewell game for the Western Bulldogs, against North Melbourne – a game that was also Simon Garlick’s farewell game. Matt played at full forward and kicked five goals – one by half-time and the rest in the third quarter. He and Simon Garlick completed an emotional lap of honour following the memorable 30-point win.
In his regular role as a key defender in the senior Bulldog side, Matt had played on some of the game’s greatest forwards, including Tony Lockett [St Kilda and Sydney], Jason Dunstall [Hawthorn], Wayne Carey [North Melbourne and Adelaide], David Schwarz [Melbourne], David Neitz [Melbourne], Stewart Loewe [St Kilda], Barry Hall [St Kilda and Sydney], Alastair Lynch [Fitzroy and Brisbane], Gary Ablett Snr [Geelong], Matthew Lloyd [Essendon], Matthew Richardson [Richmond] and Saverio Rocca [Collingwood and North Melbourne]. His record shows that, on most occasions, he was able to keep them all below par.
When he had first come to the club, the Bulldogs had assisted Matt in enrolling in a surveying course at Melbourne University and he had qualified with a degree in surveying, then a master’s degree in geomatic science. He remains very grateful to the club for the assistance given him to achieve these degrees and to forge a career in surveying.
Matt’s wife Elisa always enjoyed the football and was there to watch nearly all of her husband’s games. Football had been a family commitment but, after football, came some time for life away from football. Nowadays Matt does a bit of running and really enjoys taking his children, Tayla, Jordan and Mitchell, fishing and skiing. The whole Croft family also enjoys going back home to Morkalla and the farm, now run by Matt’s brother Bruce, to ride motor bikes and surround themselves with farm animals and country air.
Similar stories of past Footscray/Western Bulldogs players appear in The Bulldog Heritage and The Bulldog Heritage: Volume 2 (published by the Western Bulldogs Forever Foundation) both available from the Bulldogs Shop at Whitten Oval for $69.95.