Squat, short legged and barrel-chested, Matthews earned the iconic nickname "Lethal Leigh" due to his physical as well as skilful style of play. He is officially recognised as the "best player of the 20th century", according to the AFL, is a Legend in the AFL Hall of Fame, is on the Hawthorn and AFL Teams of the Centuries and is one of the most successful AFL coaches of all time. In 2008, Matthews was named second, behind Wayne Carey, as part of Mike Sheahan's list of the top 50 players of all time, published in the book 'The Australian Game of Football', which was released by the AFL to celebrate 150 years of Australian rules football. He is now an AFL commentator on television with the Seven Network and on Radio with 3AW Football.
Matthews played his junior football at the Chelsea Football Club, and joined Hawthorn at the age of sixteen, having already played senior suburban football. Part of a footballing family, Matthews' brother Kelvin had played 155 games at Hawthorn and Geelong. Matthews made his senior debut for the Hawks in round 16 of the 1969 against Melbourne, as a forward pocket, crumbing around the feet of Hawthorn’s champion full forward, Peter Hudson. Matthews kicked a goal with his first kick and went on to kick at least one goal in each of his five games that year, winning the club's Best First Year Player award. By mid-way through 1970, Matthews had earned a regular place in the team, as a rover rotating forward, and was immediately impressive, kicking 20 goals from 16 games for the season.
Though still a teenager, Matthews became one of the most important players in a dominant Hawthorn team in 1971. He developed an uncanny ability to win contests, especially near the goals. He kicked 43 goals at an average of 1.9 in 1971 and earned his first of fourteen Victorian guernseys, his first of eight Hawthorn Best and Fairest awards, and his first of four playing premiership medallions.
On 17 July 1971, Matthews notoriously felled one of the game's fairest and best rovers, Barry Cable, with an elbow to the head. This was the first in a series of occasional violent lapses that punctuated, and ultimately soiled, Matthews' stellar career, culminating in his conviction for criminal assault arising out of an on-field incident in 1985 described below.
In round two of 1972, Matthews destroyed North Melbourne, for the first of what would end up being many times. He kicked 8 goals in the absence of Hudson (who suffered a season ending knee injury the previous week). Matthews kicked another six goals against South Melbourne in round 18 and finished the season with 45 goals at 2.1 per game. He won his second club best and fairest – before his 21st birthday. Matthews made his presence felt early again in 1973 with an amazing 11 goal haul against Essendon in round 3, also amassing 42 possessions in the same game. The rest of his season was comparatively quiet, however his total of 51 goals from 19 games was an impressive figure given the increased time he spent in the midfield. By 1974, Matthews had become one of the toughest and most damaging players in the game. Strong, quick and almost impossible to tackle, Matthews regularly turned matches with brilliant solo efforts. Against Collingwood in a semi final Matthews proved the difference with 7 goals from 24 disposals. He went on to win his third best and fairest, averaging 21.8 disposals and kicking 52 goals for the season.
After six seasons in the VFL, Matthews established himself as a superstar of the competition in 1975, winning the Coleman Medal as the League's leading goal kicker, with 67 goals (68 including finals), while averaging 22.9 disposals per game. While 67 goals was an unusually low tally, it was a rare result for a non-full forward to lead the competition. He started the season brilliantly with 47 goals in the first 12 games, including five bags of 5 or more. His 6 goals from 28 kicks in round 9 against Footscray was a highlight. He was unable to maintain this pace in the second half of the season and could manage only 21 goals in his last 11 appearances. Hawthorn made the Grand Final, however they fell to North Melbourne, with Matthews going goalless on the day.
Another brilliant season in 1976 confirmed Matthews as one of the best players in the game. He kicked more goals than most Full Forwards, while also being one of the most effective ball winners in the game. For the season Matthews kicked 71 goals at 3.2 per game and averaged 22.5 disposals, winning his fourth Best and Fairest. His best game for the year came in a Qualifying Final against North Melbourne, when he had 31 kicks and kicked 7 goals from 13 scoring shots. It was an immense performance in a hard fought win. Hawthorn again played North in the Grand Final, and although Matthews was not amongst the best this time, his second premiership medal was just reward for a brilliant season.
In 1977 Leigh Matthews went from being from one of best players in league to one of best of all time, with what was among the greatest individual seasons by any player in history. Matthews posted career highs in kicks, marks, handballs and goals, averaging 27.1 disposals per game and kicking 91 goals at 3.8 per game. He had 41 disposals in round 10 against Melbourne, but the peak of Matthews’ form came during the last eight games of the home and away season, during which he averaged 29.8 disposals and 5.1 goals. He kicked 7 goals and had 30-plus disposals three times in seven weeks and finished the season with another 30 disposals and 6 goals against Essendon in round 22. He won Hawthorn’s best and fairest for the fifth time. Matthews 91 goals that year was a record for goals kicked by a non-full forward, until it was broken in 1990 by Collingwood's Peter Daicos (where Matthews was then coaching).
Matthews performances in 1978 further confirmed his status as the game's number one player, as he added another 71 goals to his career tally and averaged 25.5 disposals and a career high 6.4 marks, in a year that saw him win his sixth best and fairest and his third premiership medallion. The Hawks again played North Melbourne in the Grand Final, but this time, a best afield display of 28 disposals and 4 goals by Matthews ensured the win for Hawthorn.
Matthews was on track for another stellar season in 1979 before injury forced him out of all but two of the last 10 games of the year. A 7-goal performance against Richmond in round 5 was a highlight in a season that saw him spend less time in front of goals and more in the midfield.
In 1980, Matthews became the captain of Hawthorn, a position he held until his retirement in 1985. He was also selected as the captain of the Victorian State of Origin team for the only time in his career, and he won his seventh club Best and Fairest. Matthews spent less time in the forward line and while it was the first time since 1971 that he averaged less than two goals per game, his 26.9 disposals per game was second highest in the league.
Hawthorn opened the 1981 season against Melbourne in round 1 and Matthews, under a slight injury cloud, lined up at full forward to great effect. He took 10 marks and kicked 11 goals. Matthews missed five games between rounds 3 and 8, before returning to his customary role, alternating between the forward line and midfield, for the rest of the season. He maintained impressive form for most of the year, averaging 23.5 disposals and 3.0 goals in his 16 games. Matthews finished the season as Hawthorn's leading goal kicker for the first four consecutive years.
After three seasons interrupted by injury and inconsistent form, Matthews returned to his best in 1982, winning the inaugural Players’ Association Most Valuable Player award (which was later renamed, in Matthews’ honour, to the Leigh Matthews Trophy). He kicked 7 goals in round 16 against North Melbourne and, two weeks later against Collingwood kicked 8 more and had 25 disposals. Matthews averaged 22.5 disposals and 3.4 goals per game for the year and won his eighth Hawthorn best and fairest award.
Matthews' earned the nickname "Lethal" for his reputation for giving (and taking) very hard bumps, and in 1982 this reputation was enhanced to the point of legend when he famously collided with a behind post at Windy Hill and breaking it. A piece of the post (measuring about one metre) broke off, hitting the boundary umpire, after Leigh ran into its base. It is believed that, to comply with a VFL directive, groundsmen at Windy Hill had glued an extension to the top of the post, which broke loose after Matthews collided with it. At the time, the TV commentator called him a "He-Man", citing the fictional character He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, due to his large size and strength.
Going into his fifteenth season in the VFL, Matthews showed no signs of slowing down in 1983. He averaged 22.3 disposals and 2.9 goals in his first twelve games, before, in round 15, he made the move to full forward and remained there for the rest of the season. He went on to kick at least three goals in each of the last 10 games of the year, including the Grand Final, in which he kicked 6 goals, 5 behinds in his fourth premiership win. For the season he averaged 20.1 disposals and 3.6 goals per game.
The two best Hawthorn players I've ever coached? There are two, and I wouldn't separate them. They were Graham Arthur and Leigh Matthews.
The 1985 season was Matthews' last as a player. During the season Matthews struck Geelong player Neville Bruns in an off-the-ball incident, breaking Bruns' jaw. No report was laid because video review facilities were then unavailable. However, after much public outcry, the VFL launched an investigation and subsequently deregistered Matthews for four weeks. He was also charged by the police and fined $1000, later changed to a 12-month good behavior bond on an assault charge— – this was a major factor in his retirement. Matthews 332nd and final game was the 1985 Grand Final loss to Essendon.
Upon retirement, Matthews had scored 915 goals, which remains the highest tally by a non-full forward. At the time of his retirement, it was the fourth-highest tally by any player; he is now seventh all-time. Matthews also accrued 202 Brownlow Medal votes in his career, currently the sixth-most of all time. Until 2015, when he was overtaken by Sam Mitchell, Matthews' tally was the most by a player who has not won the award.
Following his retirement, Matthews turned to coaching, becoming assistant coach at the Collingwood Football Club before taking over as head coach from Bob Rose after 3 rounds in 1986. He coached 224 games in ten seasons with the Magpies. Under his guidance, Collingwood won one premiership, in 1990, Matthews' fifth premiership medallion, and for which he would later be retrospectively awarded one of his four Jock McHale Medals. In that Grand Final, Collingwood beat Essendon, ending the 32-year premiership drought generally referred to as "the Colliwobbles." Matthews was sacked as Collingwood coach after the 1995 season following an unsuccessful season finishing 10th.
After three years, Matthews was coaxed out of retirement by the struggling Brisbane Lions, who had won the 1998 wooden spoon. Matthews' impact at the Lions was immediate, lifting the team from to fourth in 1999, before making the finals again in 2000.
In 2001, Matthews famously used the "Predator" quote "If it bleeds, we can kill it," to inspire his team for its Round 10 game against Essendon, who sat atop the ladder, was the defending premier, and had lost only two of its previous thirty-four games; Brisbane finished as 28-point victors. Throughout the remainder of the season, the Lions were undefeated, eventually meeting and once again defeating Essendon in the Grand Final for their sixteenth consecutive win, and the first AFL premiership in club history. The winning streak would eventually end at twenty games when they were defeated by the West Coast Eagles in early 2002.
Matthews guided the Lions to four consecutive grand finals for three premierships, including triumphs over Collingwood in 2002 and 2003, and losing to Port Adelaide in 2004. These wins gave Matthews a total of eight premiership medallions. In 2007, he coached his 200th game with the club, making him the first person to play or coach 200 games with three different clubs.
Matthews' coaching style at the Lions was reportedly incredibly strict, although obviously successful. Despite his four premierships as a coach, Matthews never coached a team to the minor premiership.
Matthews resigned from his position as Brisbane coach on 1 September 2008 stating that he "felt the time was right".
Matthews was named "Player of the Century," inducted as an inaugural official Legend of the Australian Football Hall of Fame, the highest individual honour that can be bestowed upon a football personality. He was also named in both the AFL and Hawthorn Teams of the Century, in the forward pocket for the AFL and as rover for Hawthorn. In 2002, the AFLPA MVP award, of which Matthews was the inaugural recipient, was renamed the Leigh Matthews Trophy.
Before coaching the Brisbane Lions, Leigh Matthews made several media appearances as guest commentator. He has now returned to do special commentary of AFL matches on Seven Network. He commentated the 2008 Finals as well as the 2008 Grand Final. He is also a commentator of the game for 3AW and a feature writer and commentator for the Herald Sun.