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Greatest AFL players never to win a premiership

Roar Guru
7th August, 2014
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3174 Reads

As Lenny Hayes prepares to play his final home game for St Kilda against the Western Bulldogs this weekend, let’s take a look at some of the other great players in the AFL who never got to taste the ultimate team success – a premiership.

Since being drafted to St Kilda in 1999 from Pennant Hills in Sydney’s northern suburbs, Hayes has enjoyed a decorated career, which includes winning the club’s best and fairest award three times, including as recently as 2012.

That was the year in which he returned from a serious knee injury which wiped him out for all but two matches of the 2011 season, which in turn followed him winning his second best-and-fairest award (seven years after his first) and the Norm Smith Medal for his performance in the drawn grand final against Collingwood.

Try as Hayes might, but that drawn grand final would sadly be the closest St Kilda would get to winning their first premiership since 1966 , only their second ever.

Had the bounce of the ball not heartbreakingly eluded Stephen Milne late in the first grand final, then Hayes and the rest of the St Kilda side then coached by Ross Lyon could so easily have been premiership players.

Instead, Hayes will retire at the end of this season not only without a premiership medallion that many players play for in their careers, but also just short of the 300-game milestone.

His retirement comes as the Saints face a long and painful rebuilding period under first-year coach Alan Richardson, and are starring down the barrel of winning its first wooden spoon since 2000.

This leads us to name some of the other players who experienced great AFL careers but who never got to feature in a premiership side.

Gary Ablett Sr
First off we start with Gary Ablett Sr, who many consider to be the greatest player in modern AFL history.

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After playing six games for Hawthorn in 1982, Ablett moved to Geelong ahead of the 1984 season and it was there where he would make his mark on the game.

Over twelve seasons, he would win one club best-and-fairest (his first season with the Cats), win the Coleman Medal for being the competition’s highest goal-kicker three years in a row, and captain his side.

But it was his performance against the Hawks in the 1989 grand final for which he will forever be remembered.

Ablett’s nine goals was the most for any player in a grand final for over 60 years, but despite that, and a near-comeback by the Cats after they trailed by six goals at the final change, they would fall just six points short of what would have been their first premiership since 1963.

Still, Ablett’s individual performance was enough to see him named the Norm Smith Medallist for being the best on ground. It marked just the second time since the award’s inception in 1979 that the Medal went to someone from the losing side.

His son, Gary Ablett Jr, would later become just as great in his own right – featuring in two premierships with the Cats and winning two Brownlow Medals, both honours that eluded his father.

The “son of God” only needs to captain his current side, the Gold Coast Suns, to a premiership, and win the Norm Smith Medal, to officially become the greatest player of our generation.

Robert Harvey
Next in the list of players who never won a premiership is arguably one of the greatest players in the history of the St Kilda Football Club, Robert Harvey.

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Making his debut as a 16-year-old (and short of his 17th birthday) in 1988, Harvey went on to achieve a lot in the AFL, including winning two Brownlow Medals.

It was also that year in which Harvey would feature for St Kilda in their unsuccessful grand final campaign against the Adelaide Crows. The Saints entered the match as heavy favourites, having finished first at the end of the regular season and with the Crows’ champion full-forward Tony Modra missing due to a knee injury.

Despite leading by 13 points at half-time, the Saints lost by 31 points as the Crows, in their maiden grand final appearance, won the first of their two consecutive flags.

Harvey would back up that season by successfully retaining the Brownlow Medal in 1998. As of 2014, he remains the last man to win back-to-back Brownlow Medals.

As well as those, he also featured in the All-Australian team eight times, including six years in a row between 1994 and 1999 and as recently as 2003. He also had the honour of captaining the Saints during their rebuilding period in 2001 and 2002.

He was also named St Kilda’s best and fairest four times, including both years in which he won the Brownlow Medal. Additionally, he also featured in all three of the Saints’ pre-season premiership sides (1996, 2004 and 2008).

By the time he retired in 2008, he would end up playing the most games without winning a premiership, his 383rd and final AFL game resulting in a 54-point loss to eventual premiers Hawthorn in the preliminary final.

In recognition of the career he embarked on, Harvey was then chaired off the ground and given a guard of honour by both the St Kilda and Hawthorn teams.

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Nathan Buckley
He may have never won a premiership as a player, but Nathan Buckley will always go down as being one of the greatest players in the history of the Collingwood Football Club.

Originally drafted by the Brisbane Bears from the SANFL, Buckley moved to the Magpies at the end of the 1993 season, in which he won the inaugural AFL Rising Star Award.

His career would flourish after moving to Collingwood. He represented the black and white in over 250 games across fourteen seasons, and captained the side from 1999 until his retirement at the end of the 2007 season.

Among his other individual honours included tying with Mark Ricciuto and Adam Goodes for the Brownlow Medal in 2003 and winning the Norm Smith Medal for being best on ground despite the Pies being defeated by the Brisbane Lions in the 2002 grand final.

Clearly distraught of his failure to lead his beloved side to the flag, the enduring image that perfectly illustrates his career is him removing the Norm Smith Medal from his neck after accepting it during the post-match ceremony.

He also featured in seven out of eight All-Australian teams between 1996 and 2003.

Another image that illustrates his career is how it ended, as he was seen sitting on the bench as the siren sounded following his club’s heartbreaking five-point loss to the Geelong Cats in the 2007 preliminary final.

Today, he is now the head coach of the Pies after spending a few years in the media and as an assistant coach of the side. While it remains to be seen whether he can achieve it, doing what he couldn’t do as a captain and coaching this side to a premiership remains a possibility.

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Tony Lockett
Many AFL fans will remember Tony Lockett as being one of the greatest full-forwards in the modern history of AFL football.

He is the only full-forward to ever win the Brownlow Medal, is the leading goalkicker in AFL history with 1,360 majors and is honoured with the northern end of Etihad Stadium being named after him.

He may have started his career at St Kilda in 1982 but it was his move to the Sydney Swans for which he would become very famous. Lured to the struggling club ahead of the 1995 season, he instantly became a huge drawcard at Swans matches, as the fortunes of the club and crowds at the SCG soared.

There are two moments in AFL history for which he will be remembered – his after-the-siren behind in the 1996 preliminary final against Essendon to get the Swans into their first grand final since 1945, and his record-breaking 1300th goal against Collingwood which sparked a quarter-time pitch invasion in 1999.

Hampered by a groin injury in the only grand final of his career, Lockett kicked six goals for the Swans as they were defeated by North Melbourne by 43 points after they led by as much as 24 points early in the second quarter.

After retiring in 1999, he made a brief comeback in 2002, but he could only manage three more games and as many goals before retiring into the wilderness for good.

The success Lockett enjoyed since moving to Sydney in 1995 later prompted Barry Hall to follow suit in 2002, and more recently Lance Franklin in 2014. In the case of the latter, however, he had arrived at the Swans already a two-time Hawthorn premiership player and two-time Coleman Medallist.

Hall achieved the ultimate success when he captained the Swans to the drought-breaking flag in 2005, while the lure of more premiership success was the main reason behind Buddy’s decision to move to the Swans rather than the GWS Giants, who had been the hot favourites to land his signature throughout the 2013 season.

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No one will ever forget the legacy that Tony Lockett has created for Australian rules football in Sydney, single-handedly putting the sport on the map in the rugby league-dominated market.

Those are just some of the big names who enjoyed illustrious careers without achieving the ultimate success.

There are many others out there, from the present to the past, ranging from Nick Riewoldt to Nathan Burke and even to current-day coaches such as Brenton Sanderson and Paul Roos (though the latter did coach the Swans to the aforementioned 2005 premiership).