PROVING AGAIN that you don’t have to be born into footy to be good at it, the American Magpie might have come of age as a AFL star, writes RON REED:
IF MASON COX had been wearing the other guernsey at the MCG on Monday, Melbourne fans of a certain vintage would have been forgiven for succumbing to an attack of nostalgia. Was that the ghost of the late, great Jim Stynes roaming his old stamping ground with more skill and impact than you would expect from some blow-in who grew up knowing nothing about Aussie footy?
No, Cox, 27, is not a replica of the great Demons ruckman, who played 264 games and won a Brownlow medal in the latter part of the last century, going on to become president of the game’s oldest club as well as a noted humanitarian before his untimely death six years ago. But while we wait for another Big Jim to come along, he’ll do.
There are plenty of points of difference – and enough similarities for the comparisons to be valid. Cox is American, not Irish as Stynes was. He grew up playing basketball, not gaelic football as Stynes did. And while Stynes was a big man at 199cm, Cox is a lot bigger, 211, or almost 7ft in the old. Only Fremantle veteran Aaron Sandliands looks him in the eye. Stynes was a running ruckman, Cox is being groomed as a go-to goalkicker. And of course he is playing for Collingwood, traditionally an arch enemy of the Demons, and has so far managed just 31 games since his debut two years ago. This was clearly the best of them, a coming of age perhaps and confirmation that he has the tools to become a genuine x-factor player, as Stynes was.
Cox was not the best player afield – that was team-mate Jordan de Goey, narrowly ahead of midfield team-mates Steele Sidebottom and Adam Treloar – but he was certainly a massive contributor to the Magpies’ best win of the season, smashing the recently rampant Demons by seven goals and putting themselves firmly into the premiership conversation. Playing most as a key forward while taking turns in the ruck, he kicked a career best, game-high five goals from 16 disposals, eight marks, eight score involvements and nine hit-outs. It should have been six goals, with one relatively easy set shot missed in the second quarter. He was also unluckily denied another gettable shot when a mark was ruled out of bounds on the full as he juggled it for a third time. If he ever has a day when everything goes, right the result could be spectacular.
It was enough to earn him the best-player medal named after Neale Daniher, the former Melbourne coach who is so courageously spearheading the fight to find a cure for motor neurone disease, which has now become synonymous with this annual Queens’ Birthday clash which this time drew a crowd of 83,518, a record for the fixture and the fifth biggest for any Melbourne Football Club game, ever.
Cox was influential from start to finish, kicking two of the first three goals as the Magpies sprinted to a 20 point lead, two more in an arm-wrestle of a third quarter, another beauty from almost 50m out in the last, and almost took the speccy of the day in the dying minutes only to be given a free kick for interference. His footy IQ is developing rapidly, as was the case with Stynes. For all that Big Jim achieved, he never quite lived down the naïve blunder that cost the Demons a sport in the grand final in his first year, 1987, when he gave away a 15m penalty to Hawthorn sharpshooter Gary Buckenara which turned into the winning goal. But he was a fast learner, and so is Cox.
He was a fringe player last year, playing just nine games for a total of 30, but has already exceeded that this year and would appear in no danger of losing his hard-won place again. The good judges are just about convinced. “To be a legitimate key forward in a great team – and Collingwood are a great team – is remarkable,” retired St Kilda champion Nick Riewoldt said on TV after the game.
Cox said he was gaining in confidence and knowledge. “Every game you play, you pick things up,” he said. “There have been some good performances from everyone, today it was my turn. Anything is possible at this point. We’ve just got to keep the momentum going and add to it.”
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.