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The best clubs of the AFL era, redux

The Hawks have featured in plenty of grand final classics going back to the beginning of the AFL era. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)
Roar Guru
10th May, 2018
7

First of all, a shout-out to Brayden Rise for a thoroughly researched, well-examined and well-explained article earlier this week evaluating the best clubs of the last 28 years

Again, the most defensible period of time and collection of seasons he could have chosen, a far-less-than-arbitrary marker, long enough time period to be worth discussing, but short enough to include at least eight-ninths of the current clubs in the conversation.

But I completely misinterpreted the lead.

When I think of the ‘best club’, I was drawn to thinking of the best team – not the franchise as a whole, which at this stage of free agency and carousel front offices means rooting for your hometown stadium and color-changing guernseys – but the best collection of players and coaches over a short, maybe three to five year span.

You know: the group of individuals at or near their athletic peak that represented a certain franchise for a cohesive period of time. I presumed that was going to be the thrust of the argument.

So, to fill that void, here’s a list of the teams in the AFL era with consecutive seasons of significant success, as determined by the committee of people who wear my clothing on a regular basis.

You’ll notice that, while they don’t have to have won a string of championships, it is necessary that they got to the top of the mountain at least once to be considered a ‘best’ candidate.

Years Team Finals/Years Grand Finals Premierships Minor Premiers Average wins/season
1990-93 Hawthorn 4 1 1 0 14.25
1990-94 West Coast 5 3 2 2 15.5
1994-96 Carlton 3 3 1 1 16.2
1996-99 North Melbourne 4 3 2 2 15.25
1997-98 Adelaide 2 2 2 0 13
1999-2001 Essendon 3 2 1 3 18.67
2001-04 Brisbane 4 4 3 0 16.1
2001-04 Port Adelaide 4 1 1 3 17.25
2005-07 West Coast 3 2 1 1 16.33
2007-11 Geelong 5 4 3 2 18.6
2009-12 Collingwood 4 2 1 2 17.1
2011-16 Hawthorn 6 4 3 2 17.33
2012-16 Sydney 5 3 1 2 16.3

All right, so I’ve left off a couple of titlists, teams that it would be hard to call dynasties at all at the moment. From the back forward, this list doesn’t include the 1990 Magpies, 1993 Bombers, 2008 Hawks, or the 2016 Bulldogs.

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I won’t lose sleep on any of those. I’ve also left off the 2005 Swans, and that one was tough, but those teams didn’t even finish top two during any season. Neither did the back-to-back Adelaide champions, mind you, but I’ve just mentioned the hyphens that make the difference there.

Obviously, it’s completely conceivable that when we re-visit this topic in a few years, the 2017-2020-or-so Richmond Tigers will be near the top of the list, but they’re not quite there yet.

Next, let’s agree on a few eliminations right off the top if we’re talking ‘best team’ under anybody’s definitions. Honest men and women can agree to disagree on relative importance of criteria, and I’ve arbitrarily limited our discussion to spans of time when teams (a) at least made finals every year and (b) won at least one premiership.

However, looking at our thirteen contenders, there are some resumes that are distinctively inferior to others.

With (or without) your permission, Adelaide’s back-to-back flags from down in the pack seem the ripest for removal. If we’re being strict about the 1990 start date, then Hawthorn’s first entry has been included for courtesy purposes only; if we’re letting them stretch back four years into the VFL era, that’s a horse of a different colour.

Let’s keep it black and white, Hawks fans. Besides, you’ve got another strong candidate in more recent memory.

And, while it was an inarguably excellent team, Port making only one grand final in that span sticks out, so I’m going to stick them out.

That leaves a top ten. Let’s do some objective evaluation first.

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Years Team Finals/Years Grand Finals Premierships Minor Premiers Average wins/season
1990-94 West Coast 5 3 2 2 15.5
1994-96 Carlton 3 2 1 1 16.2
1996-99 North Melbourne 4 3 2 1 15.25
1999-2001 Essendon 3 2 1 3 18.67
2001-04 Brisbane 4 4 3 0 16.1
2005-07 West Coast 3 2 1 1 16.33
2007-11 Geelong 5 4 3 2 18.6
2009-12 Collingwood 4 2 1 2 17.1
2011-16 Hawthorn 6 4 3 2 17.33
2012-16 Sydney 5 3 1 2 16.3

Five teams claimed multiple flags, in West Coast (‘92. ‘94), North Melbourne (‘96, ‘99), Brisbane (‘01, ‘02, ‘03), Geelong (‘07, ‘09, ‘11) and Hawthorn (‘13, ‘14, ‘15).

Those same five teams also appeared in three or more grand finals.

Six took out the minor premiership multiple times, in West Coast (‘91, ‘94), Essendon (‘99, ‘00, ‘01), Geelong (‘07, ‘08), Collingwood (‘10, ‘11), Hawthorn (‘12, ‘13) and Sydney (‘14, ‘16).

There are also some spectacular individual seasons worth mentioning.

Carlton’s 1995 season saw them go 23-2, and win both the preliminary and grand finals by more than 60 points. Essendon had a five-game margin for the minor premiership in 2000, going 24-1 and winning their three finals by a combined 230 points.

Geelong’s 2007 season saw them go 21-4, winning three finals by 230 points, before in 2008 they went 23-2, losing to Hawthorn in the grand final despite outshooting them 34-25.

Collingwood went 22-3 in 2011, enjoying a 20-2 regular season, but losing the grand final to Geelong, while Hawthorn’s 2013 saw them go 22-3, with their dominant grand final win the first of three in a row.

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As far as highest average wins per season go, there are two outstanding candidates here, and two other strong possibilities.

Essendon (1999-2001, 18.67 wins/season, 56 wins, plus 6 during finals), Geelong (2007-11, 18.60 wins/season, 93 wins, plus 12 during finals), Collingwood (2009-12, 17.13 wins/season – including 37 wins across 2010-2011) and Hawthorn (2011-2016, 17.5 wins/season, 104 wins, plus 12 wins during finals) are the standouts – none of the other candidates can muster anything comparable to these four.

I hope you’ll contribute your responses in the comments section, but let’s see if we can’t put some sort of objective hierarchy to all this data. There are two teams that show up in every single category.

Geelong 2007-2011 and Hawthorn 2011-16.

Geelong Cats fans AFL 2017

Cats fans have had a lot to celebrate lately. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

These two teams, spanning five and six years, respectively, check all the boxes. Three premierships each, four grand finals each, two minor premierships each, at least one spectacularly successful season each, and more than one hundred wins in that time period.

If you want to mount an argument for West Coast 1991-94, North Melbourne 1996-99, Essendon 1999-2001, Brisbane 2001-04, and Collingwood 2009-2012, you won’t get a fight from me.

For me, the 2000 Bombers were the best one-year team I ever saw, and the three-peat Brisbane Lions were the team that really got me hooked on footy from halfway around the world.

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But I’m not knowledgeable enough about those nineties Eagles or Kangaroos teams to argue against either of them, and those Magpie teams of 2010 and 2011 were solid all across the board.

If you feel compelled to campaign for any of the other candidates – the mid-90s Blues, the mid-00s Eagles, or the mid-10s Swans – or for that matter for any other 3-5 year span of existence for your particular squad, throw your reasons into the comments below. Just be civil, all right?

Thanks!