Premiership Window Clock about to tick out of sync
Western Bulldogs fan favourite Luke Dalhaus (Slattery Images)
The equalisation policies operating in the AFL over the past 25 years have intentionally worked to create an environment whereby the majority of clubs can experience a relatively equal number of ups and downs over a period of time.
This has given rise to the expression ‘the premiership window’.
The term serves to describe the period of around three to six seasons during which a club has the best chance at challenging for the premiership.
Before this, most clubs will experience a period of bottoming out and rebuilding to become a challenger in the future.
After some 25 years of such policies, we can discern a bit of a pattern about how this phenomenon plays out, also noting that there are many variables and exceptions to the general rule.
I have seen pundits liken the premiership window to a clock face, with each five-minute interval representing a season. This gives us a complete cycle, lasting 12 years.
We can imagine midnight representing the bottoming out of a club.
At five and ten past, the club is in the process of rebuilding, collecting those early draft picks that could produce future champions.
At quarter past, a club may be in a position to knock on the door of the top eight. They might just miss out, but show potential for a further rise up the ladder.
At twenty past, a club will enter the top 8 and play finals for the first time in a few years. They may even win a final, but will not quite be ready to challenge the top four.
At twenty-five past, the club enters the premiership window in earnest. They break into the top four, make the preliminary final and give themselves a chance to win it.
At half past the hour, with three consecutive years in finals, the club will start the season as one of the premiership favourites.
The team will be at the peak of its powers, will have the perfect blend of maturity and young stars. Most importantly, they will have that hardened finals experience.
At 35 and 40 past the hour, the premiership window remains open. The teams that can overcome mounting injury lists and the mental pressures of staying up will push for a final hurrah.
At quarter-to, the hand is starting to swing upwards; there are signs of an ageing list and things don’t fall into place on the field like they once did in the previous five seasons.
Yet there is still enough talent to stay in the mix for a finals spot – only just.
At ten to and five to, it’s the slippery slope downwards.
Champions have retired, mid-range draft picks haven’t come on and there are changes in coaching staff.
It becomes a case of keeping your head above water until you can get those low draft picks coming through again.
So there we have it – a cycle that lasts some 12 seasons. Some clubs might be able to stay up for eight seasons; many will be lucky to do it for four seasons.
Some clubs are able to reduce the length of their cycle to nine or so seasons, with bottoming out meaning nothing more than failing to reach the final eight.
Other clubs get it very wrong and stretch out the cycle to 15 or so seasons, like Richmond making two finals appearances in 30 years.
To test the concept, I thought I would look through two real life examples. Let us start with Port Adelaide.
1997 (Midnight): First season of the club. Actually does a bit better than expected. Finishes ninth.
1998 (12:05): Finishes 10th with nine wins.
1999 (12:10): Finishes seventh with 12 wins.
2000 (12:15): Finishes 14th, with seven wins. Their first finals appearance the previous year probably came sooner than expected.
2001 (12:20): Jump into top four. Finishes third with 16 wins.
2002 (12:25): Well and truly in the premiership window now. Finishes top with 18 wins, but fails to make Grand Final.
2003 (12:30): Finishes top again with 18 wins, but fails to make Grand Final again.
2004 (12:35): Third consecutive year on top with 17 wins. This time they break through for their first premiership.
2005 (12:40): Scrapes into top eight. Finishes eighth with 11 wins and a draw.
2006 (12:45): Stumbles to 12th with eight wins.
2007 (12:50): Finishes second with 15 wins. Fluke a last hurrah, but get thrashed in Grand Final by Geelong.
2008 (12:55): Slides to 13th with 7 wins. This is a permanent slide. The rebuilding phase starts in earnest. Within a couple of seasons, only a handful of players are left from the 2004 premiership.
Another example of a premiership window clock, albeit one where they failed to make it count, is the Western Bulldogs.
2003 (Midnight): Finishes last with three wins and a draw. Bottom out. Draft Adam Cooney, Farren Ray and Jade Rawlings. Matthew Boyd is a rookie elevation.
2004 (12:05): Finishes 14th with five wins. Rebuilding has started. Draft Ryan Griffen and Tom Williams.
2005 (12:10): Finishes ninth with 11 wins. Draft Shaun Higgins and Dylan Addison.
2006 (12:15): Finishes eighth with 13 wins. Win a final. Trade for Jason Akermanis and draft Jarrod Harbrow.
2007 (12:20): Temporary drop to 13th with nine wins and draw. Trade for Ben Hudson and Tim Callan. Draft Jarrad Grant, Callan Ward, Easton Wood and Scott Welsh.
2008 (12:25): Finishes third with 15 wins and draw. Makes preliminary final.
2009 (12:30): Finishes third with 15 wins. Makes preliminary final. Now in the middle of premiership window.
2010 (12:35): Finishes fourth with 14 wins. Makes preliminary final for third consecutive occasion, but misses out on Grand Final again.
2011 (12:40): Finishes 10th with nine wins. Loses a few from retirement and players move to new teams. Slow slide down the ladder starts.
2012 (12:45): Likely to finish lower than 10th. The same is expected for next season.
In both case studies, and with other examples as well, it is an identifiable pattern which doesn’t necessarily stick to a smooth rise-and-fall pattern.
As always, you will find anomalies, bolters, temporary steep drops before the trend continues as expected, or final hurrahs before the inevitable bottoming out.
The entry of the two new teams confuses matters somewhat with the monopolising of the best young talent in the country and the existence of temporary trade rules to assist the rapid development of squads.
On top of that, the introduction of a limited form of free agnecy, plus the increasing gap between the haves and have nots that assist some clubs in maintaining very high levels of football department expenditure, means the clock model might change in the ensuing years.
Geelong has managed to stay relatively up now for some 25 years, while Collingwood has seemingly managed to reduce the length of the down periods. West Coast has done this even more successfully.
Incidentally, those latter two are the AFL’s two wealthiest clubs.
It’s possible that in this new era of 18 teams, limited free agency and football department expenditure disparities, the premiership window model might become vaguer and less discernible.