Inspector Gadget is finally beyond repair and the AFL’s longest playing career is over.
Dustin Fletcher has confirmed his retirement, with the Essendon defender unable to recover in time from injury for a farewell game this Sunday against Collingwood.
Fletcher made his AFL debut in 1993 as a 17-year-old schoolboy and at 23 years, no one has played at senior level for longer.
The 40-year-old ends with 400 games, fourth on the all-time list behind fellow legends Michael Tuck (Hawthorn, 426), Brent Harvey (North Melbourne, 405 and counting) and Kevin Bartlett (Richmond, 403).
Bombers fans christened their much-loved defender Inspector Gadget – after the cartoon character – for an uncanny ability to spoil opposition forwards’ marking attempts with his long arms.
The tall, gangly red head was an unlikely-looking AFL player, especially when matched up against key forward brutes such as Tony Lockett.
But Fletcher was one of the game’s toughest players and rarely lost a one-on-one duel.
Essendon fans also loved Fletcher for his quirkiness – a quiet character, he was notorious for not being a prolific trainer.
He would delight them with his occasional booming shots on goal from outside 50m.
Kevin Sheedy, who coached Fletcher for most of his career, rightly led the praise and described him as one of the greatest players to play the game.
“He’d regularly beat the toughest and strongest forwards to have played the game,” he said.
“His shut down speed, ability to read the game and competitiveness was something he never lost.”
Sheedy also referred to how humble Fletcher is and the circumstances of the retirement are typical.
The club announced his departure and coach Matthew Egan was unsure whether Fletcher will even have a send-off at Sunday’s season-ending game against Collingwood.
“I think we respect Fletch and leave that up to him,” Egan said.
Fletcher reached the 400 milestone in round nine, where he also suffered the groin injury that has kept him out of action since.
It is a testament to Fletcher’s durability that this is the first season in his career where he has not played at least 13 games.
He was a member of Essendon’s 1993 and 2000 premiership teams, also won the club best-and-fairest award in 2000 and is a two-time All-Australian.
Fletcher has made the goalkeeper role in the Australian international rules team his own and he hopes to do it one last time later this year on the Ireland tour.
Fletcher’s father Ken also played 264 games for Essendon and they have the record for the most AFL games by a father and his son.
“I can walk away knowing I gave everything I could for this club,” Fletcher said.
“Its been a huge honour to play at the same club as my dad and the team I supported as a kid, and to pull on the jumper for more than twenty years is something that I’m very proud of.
“I’ve loved every minute of playing for Essendon, I’ve been fortunate to win a couple of premierships and shared some great memories with my teammates and good friends.”