Last year, I wrote an article, A look at the most dominant eras in VFL/AFL history, which, as the title implies, looked at which VFL/AFL clubs have enjoyed the best eras spanning five to eight years.
Such dynasties are invariably built on the back of a club boasting an amazingly talented playing group, usually accompanied by a true master coach at the helm.
While it’s simply not possible for a club to maintain such a reign of dominance for decades on end, I’ve been wondering which club has been the most successful across its entire VFL/AFL history. The big question: How do you rank overall, long-term success?
I’m sure many people will say “That’s easy! Look at which club has won the most premierships!”
Well, it sounds like a good place to start:
*It’s a little known fact that there have been two VFL/AFL seasons in which no grand final was played. These were the inaugural season of 1897, and also the 1924 season. In both of those seasons, a round-robin finals series was contested with no grand final being played. Essendon was awarded the premiership on both occasions. So although Essendon has officially earned 16 premierships, they have actually won only 14 grand finals.
So Carlton and Essendon have won the most premierships with 16 each, followed by Collingwood with 15 and then Hawthorn with 13.
So does that mean they have been the most successful clubs in VFL/AFL history? Not so fast. You have to take into account that Hawthorn didn’t enter the competition until 1925, whereas Essendon, Carlton, and Collingwood have been there since 1897. Those foundation members have had 28 more years to win more premierships than Hawthorn.
So if we are looking at premierships as a gauge, we clearly need to look at premiership strike rate – flags won per year.
Premiership win rate
|Rank||Club||Entered||Comp Years||Prem||Prem%||Prem/10 Yrs|
Now we see a fairer picture, Hawthorn have actually won the most premierships per season with a 13.8 per cent strike rate – or 1.38 per ten years. Carlton and Essendon are ranked second and third respectively, and we see that West Coast has displaced Collingwood in the top four with its 12.5 per cent strike rate.
So does this mean Hawthorn are actually the most successful VFL/AFL club of all-time? Again, not so fast. As mentioned, bags of flags can be gathered on the back of two or three dominant dynasties. If we are going to look at how good a club has been at key times across its history, then we also need to look at how bad it’s been.
We can look at the opposite to winning a premiership – ‘winning’ the dreaded wooden spoon.
|Rank||Club||Comp Years||Wooden Spoons||WS/Season%|
All of a sudden, Hawthorn go from being ranked first to 16th due to finishing last 11 times in its 94-year history – 11.7per cent of the time.
At the top of this table, we learn that only two clubs have never finished last – the two South Australian clubs. We also see that, remarkably, Collingwood has finished last just twice in its 122-year history and is ranked third. In a way that’s more impressive than the younger Adelaide clubs’ clean-sheet but we can’t assume that one of them will get spooned anytime soon, so they certainly deserve their spots at the top of this table.
At the bottom, the defunct University won the wooden spoon more often than not during its short-lived existence, and GWS has received two in its seven completed seasons to date. But the most damning spoon record appears is St Kilda with a whopping 27 – finishing last about one in every five seasons.
So we’ve looked at premierships and wooden spoons, but there is another award for clubs (they do actually receive a small trophy) who finish on top of the ladder after the regular season. Many pundits don’t rate finishing as minor premier very highly since it’s an award dished out before any finals have even been contested. Still, it would be remiss of me to not include them as an official ranking factor.
|Rank||Club||Comp Years||Minor Premiers||Season%|
So Collingwood have been minor premiers the most times with 19, at a league-high 15.6 per cent clip. Carlton and Essendon are ranked second and third.
At the other end of the scale, we see that Footscray/Western Bulldogs have never been minor premiers in any of their 94 seasons. They, along with Brisbane, are the only two clubs to have won a grand final but never the minor premiership. Conversely, Fremantle is the only club to have been minor premier (once in 2015) but never the actual premier.
Average finishing position
Another measure is to rank clubs by their average finishing ladder position:
Collingwood come out on top quite clearly here with an average finishing ladder position of 4.8, followed by Carlton (5.4), Geelong (5.6), and Essendon (5.8). If we look to the bottom, we see that Gold Coast (15.6) is well and truly last.
Overall home win-rate
Perhaps an even better measure of overall success is winning percentage of all matches played in a club’s history. Let’s begin with the overall rate when playing as the designated home side:
|Rank||Club||H Games||H Wins||H Draws||H Losses||H Win%|
As can be seen, West Coast (69.9%) have performed better at home than any other club. Next best is Collingwood (68.1%), followed by Adelaide (67.2%), and Geelong (65.5%).
At the other end of the table we see that three clubs have actually recorded a negative overall win percentage at home – St Kilda, Gold Coast, and University. This is a tell-tale a sign of clubs whose histories consist mostly of gloomy times. North Melbourne barely scrape into positive territory and are also well below average by this measure.
Overall away win-rate
Now let’s look at how clubs have performed while playing away:
|Rank||Club||A Games||A Wins||A Draws||A Losses||A Win%|
Collingwood (52.7%) easily takes the cake here – it is also the only club to have recorded a positive win percentage when playing away. A remarkable effort and certainly helped a great deal by the support the club receives from its army of fans not just all around Melbourne and Victoria, but all around the nation.
In second place, another club with a prodigious supporter-base, Carlton (49.8%), have come very close to having a 50/50 away record, as have Essendon (48.7%). Rounding out the Melbourne-based powerhouse clubs in fourth place, Richmond (44.0%) has a relatively poor away record compared to its ‘big four’ peers.
At the bottom of the table we see that, in a damning sign, Gold Coast’s away record (15.9%) after 82 matches is even worse than University’s (19.0%).
Making the finals
Another pretty obvious measure springs to mind: finals. Making the finals (or not) is clearly a good indicator of a club’s success.
|Rank||Club||Made Finals||Made Finals%|
This time West Coast clearly tops the table having made the finals 23 times in 32 years – at a very impressive 71.88 per cent. Next best is Collingwood at 81/122 (66.39%).
There is a quite a bit of daylight between the Pies and third-ranked Sydney with 22/37 (59.46%). Only six clubs have made the finals more often than not – West Coast, Collingwood, Sydney, Carlton, Adelaide, and Essendon.
At the other end of the table we see that the defunct University never played finals in its brief seven-year history, nor has Gold Coast in what, as mentioned earlier, has been a very disappointing start to its existence.
Now, making the finals is one thing, but winning them is more important.
|Rank||Club||Finals Matches||Finals W%|
Brisbane are the clear chart-toppers in this one, winning 68 per cent of their 25 finals. They’re followed by Hawthorn (61.63%), Melbourne (58.62%), and Richmond (58.14%). We see that Fitzroy (57.63%), at fifth, also had a very good record in finals.
The big fall from grace by this ranking system is Collingwood. We saw earlier the Magpies have qualified for the finals almost seven times per ten seasons in their history, but we see here they’ve won only 43.09 per cent of their 181 post-season matches.
Reaching the grand final
Let’s look at how often clubs manage to contest the grand final (draws not counted):
|Rank||Club||Comp Years||Made GF||GF/10 Yrs|
We see that Collingwood has made the grand final an extraordinary 42 times at a rate of 3.4 times per ten seasons. Next best is Carlton with 29 grand finals (2.4 per ten seasons).
At the bottom of the table we see that the defunct University never qualified for the grand final, nor have the Giants and Suns.
Grand final win-rate
Making the grand final is a good achievement, but let’s examine how clubs have actually performed on the big stage when it matters most:
|Rank||Club||Made GF||Prem||RunnerUp||GF Win%|
Topping the table is Brisbane, but thanks solely to its 2001-2004 dynasty in which it contested four consecutive grand finals, winning the first three. Perhaps more impressive is Melbourne which also boasts an impressive win rate on the big stage, going 12/17 (71%), and Hawthorn are not far behind with 13/19 (68%).
It must be noted that Collingwood, despite a great effort to qualify for the grand final on 42 occasions, has an absolutely horrendous big stage record winning only 15/42 (36%). Yes, bewilderingly, the Magpies have finished 27 seasons as runner-up. I’d be surprised if any other top-tier sports league from around the world has seen a team lose the ultimate clash at such a rate.
In each of the ten tables above, clubs have been assigned a ranking position from one to 21. Hence, I have assigned 21 points for a first position, 20 points for a second position, 19 points for a third position and so on.
The grand table below shows the clubs ranked by their total points:
|Rank||Club||Av. Rank||Total Points|
The winner is Carlton! Now, this may come as a surprise to some, due to the Blues’ recent lack of on-field success, brought on primarily by the salary-cap scandal of the late 1990s and early 2000s for which it was severely penalised and forced to forfeit player picks across three drafts. A huge set-back that it is only just beginning to recover from.
As a result, it may be easy to forget what a truly successful powerhouse club the Old Navy Blues have been over the journey – the stats don’t lie.
In second place, Collingwood is left to ponder what may have been. If not for such a poor record in finals, especially grand finals, it would almost certainly sit on top of the table.
Ranked third is Essendon which has obviously always been a very strong club. Like Carlton, the Bombers have been set back by scandals of their own in recent seasons.
West Coast round out the top four and show what a high-achieving club it has been since joining the competition in 1987. Looking at the final table, we can see there is a significant gap between West Coast and fifth-placed Hawthorn.
Towards the less desirable end the table we see that GWS has already surpassed the lowly St Kilda across the key indicators during its brief existence. However, the same can’t be said for fellow expansion club Gold Coast. The Suns and the defunct University really are two poorly performed outliers at the bottom of the table.
So there you have it. Congratulations to Carlton