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Opinion

A look back at a decade of AFL football

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Roar Guru
18th December, 2019
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With the AFL season concluding nearly three months ago with Richmond winning its 12th premiership, its second in three years, the curtain also closed on what was an eventful decade for the sport.

We saw the inclusion of two new clubs, one of which reached its first AFL grand final in September, the defection of star players Gary Ablett Jr and Lance Franklin to other clubs, and a major scandal that would bring one of the Victorian powerhouses to its knees.

The introduction of a new women’s competition, as well as a golden period of dominance for Hawthorn and the emergence of the GWS Giants, Western Bulldogs and Richmond, were also highlights.

Gary Ablett Jr started the decade as the best AFL player on the planet, but it was Dustin Martin who would end it as the most decorated player after winning a Norm Smith Medal in each of Richmond’s 2017 and 2019 flags and the 2017 Brownlow Medal.

This decade started with the Geelong as the reigning premiers and the team to beat by a mile, but it ended with the renaissance of the Richmond Football Club under Damien Hardwick.

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The Cats entered the 2010 season as the reigning premiers and flag favourites, but it would be Collingwood that would kick off the decade with its 15th and most recent premiership.

After the first grand final this decade initially ended in a draw, the Pies and St Kilda went to war again the following week, with Mick Malthouse’s side winning the replay by a landslide 56 points to end a two-decade premiership drought.

It marked the third time that a premiership decider had been drawn, and following a change to the rules regarding drawn grand final matches, it will go down as the last grand final stalemate, with future deciders now settled on the day by way of extra time.

For the Saints, it was the second straight year in which they fell short in the final match of the year, having lost to the Cats by just two goals in the previous year’s decider.

Throughout that season, as the Gold Coast Suns’ entry into the AFL loomed, speculation grew that Gary Ablett Jr, who had won the Brownlow Medal in 2009 and was to come out of contract at the end of 2010, would become the face of the new club.

After the Cats failed to qualify for the grand final for the first time since 2006, their fans’ worst fears were confirmed when the then 26-year-old departed the club to take what was arguably the biggest risk of his life, leading the Suns through their infant years.

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Another large domino fell at Kardinia Park when Mark Thompson stepped down as coach after 11 years at the helm, citing burnout. He had led the Cats to premiership success in 2007 and 2009, on either side of a shock grand final loss to Hawthorn in 2008.

Another premiership-winning coach, Paul Roos, also bowed out of AFL coaching after handing the reins of the Sydney Swans over to John Longmire in a well-planned handover at the conclusion of the 2010 season.

Former Brisbane Lions premiership defender Chris Scott was unveiled as the Cats’ new coach, his appointment coming 12 months after his twin brother Brad took the reins from Dean Laidley at North Melbourne.

And after a month of denial, club champion James Hird was installed as coach of Essendon for what would prove to be a very controversial tenure, as we were about to find out.

A new television rights deal was brokered in 2011, which saw the Seven Network become the sole free-to-air broadcaster of the sport for the five year period between 2012 and 2016.

Under the arrangement Friday and Saturday night matches would be televised live into Sydney and Brisbane, where rugby league is the more dominant sport, and a new Saturday twilight timeslot was introduced with the entry of the GWS Giants into the competition.

Despite the loss of Thompson and Ablett, the Cats would win their first 13 matches of the 2011 season en route to claiming its third flag in five years.

It was late that season in which they handed Melbourne a near-record 186-point thrashing, a result which would cost then-Dees coach Dean Bailey his job after nearly four years at the helm.

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The Dees would later become part of the first-ever AFL match to be played at the Adelaide Oval, losing to Port Adelaide by eight points in a high-scoring contest in front of 29,340 fans.

Meanwhile, the Gold Coast Suns would struggle through their inaugural season, with the club’s debut match resulting in a 119-point loss to Carlton, whose captain, Chris Judd, brought up his 200th AFL match at the Gabba that night.

The side would manage three wins during the season – against Port Adelaide at AAMI Stadium, the Brisbane Lions at the Gabba and Richmond in Cairns.

The 2011 season saw a large turnover in the coaching department, of which the biggest shock was Ross Lyon abandoning St Kilda to take up the coaching role at Fremantle, which had sacked Mark Harvey in rather controversial circumstances.

Elsewhere, Brenton Sanderson, Mark Neeld and Scott Watters were unveiled as the new coaches of the Adelaide Crows, Melbourne and St Kilda respectively, with neither man lasting any more than three years.

At the other end of the spectrum, former Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy would be brought out of his coaching retirement to lead the fledgling Greater Western Sydney Giants for the first few years of their existence.

Just before the start of the 2012 season, the AFL world would be rocked by the sad news that Jim Stynes had lost his battle with cancer at the age of just 45.

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A minute’s silence would be observed prior to the season opener, a standalone match between the Giants and the Sydney Swans which also doubled as GWS’s debut match in the AFL.

Despite predictions of a landslide win for the Swans, the Giants would do well to keep the losing margin to 63 points.

It would end up being a tough year for the club, which would win only two matches as they, like the Suns in 2011, as they struggled their way to an expected wooden spoon.

Their cross-town rivals, the Swans, went on to win its second premiership in eight years after edging out Hawthorn by ten points in a classic grand final for the ages.

Just weeks before the start of the 2013 season, the competition would be rocked by the self-admission by Essendon that they had injected illegal supplements into their players prior to and during the 2012 AFL season.

The ramifications were massive – 34 past and present players would be found guilty of using a banned substance, including original 2012 Brownlow Medallist Jobe Watson, who continued to captain the side during the drama before stepping down ahead of the 2017 season.

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On the field, Hawthorn would emulate the Brisbane Lions’ 2001-03 feat of capturing a hat-trick of flags, defeating Fremantle, the Sydney Swans and West Coast Eagles to win the 2013, 2014 and 2015 flags respectively.

Captain Luke Hodge would write his name into the history books by becoming a two-time Norm Smith Medallist, joining the likes of Gary Ayres, Andrew McLeod and, later, Dustin Martin.

But the Hawks’ period of success wasn’t without its drama, as coach Alastair Clarkson stepped aside from coaching for five weeks after being diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome midway through the 2014 season.

In his absence, Brendon Bolton would carry the clipboard, winning all five of his matches in charge. This proved to be the forerunner to him capturing the top job at Carlton, which sacked coach Mick Malthouse a third of the way through the 2015 season.

And in the days following the 2013 premiership flag, Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin would stun the AFL world by departing the Hawks and moving to the Sydney Swans, emulating similar high-profile moves made by Tony Lockett and Barry Hall, both from St Kilda, in 1995 and 2002 respectively.

Paul Roos would come out of the coaching wilderness to rescue the floundering Melbourne Demons, mapping out a plan for the club to become relevant again after they had crashed and burned under Mark Neeld.

A handover at the top office occurred in 2014, with long-time CEO Andrew Demetriou handing over the reins of the country’s largest sporting organisation to his deputy, Gillon McLachlan.

Also that year, the Adelaide Crows and Port Adelaide moved out of AAMI Stadium, relocating to the redeveloped Adelaide Oval.

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Halfway through the season the Gold Coast Suns were well on track to qualify for their first finals series before it all unraveled on a disastrous night at Metricon Stadium, where captain Gary Ablett Jr dislocated his shoulder against Collingwood, ruling him out for the rest of the season.

The Suns, then coached by Guy McKenna, crashed from being as high as third on the ladder to 12th by season’s end. This would prove to be their highest finish in nine completed seasons since entering the competition in 2011.

Tragedy continued to plague the AFL in the middle part of this decade, with Dean Bailey succumbing to lung cancer in March 2014 and Phil Walsh suffering a violent death at the hands of his own son in July 2015.

Walsh’s death sent the Australian sporting community into mourning, and the AFL made the call to cancel the Adelaide Crows’ Round 14 contest against the Geelong Cats, which was to have been played at the Adelaide Oval.

The Hawks’ golden period would come to an end in 2016. Despite finishing third on the ladder, the club would bow out of September in straight sets, with the Western Bulldogs coming out of the clouds to capture a long-awaited second premiership.

Under second-year coach Luke Beveridge, the Dogs defeated the Sydney Swans by 22 points in the grand final to win its first flag in over 60 years, with Jason Johannisen winning the Norm Smith Medal and Tom Boyd kicking the matchwinning goal with five minutes left.

That season also saw the emergence of the GWS Giants, who under third-year coach Leon Cameron qualified for the finals for the first time in their fifth season.

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In their finals debut they would upset the highly-fancied Sydney Swans in their qualifying final before falling short against the Bulldogs by just six points in a heartstopping preliminary final at Giants Stadium.

New ground was broken in 2017 with the launch of the AFL Women’s competition, with eight clubs competing in the inaugural season.

The Brisbane Lions impressed by winning six of their seven matches, drawing with Carlton in their final match, but would fall short in the grand final, going down to the Adelaide Crows by six points, with Erin Phillips winning just about every accolade possible.

On the men’s side of things, the Adelaide Crows compiled easily its most dominant season, winning 15 (and drawing one) of its 22 matches to claim the minor premiership.

However, after starting hot favourites to land its third flag, they would be exposed as wanting more than willing as Richmond, who had finished 13th and lost its final match by 113 points the previous season, smashed a 37-year premiership hoodoo.

Dustin Martin produced the most dominant season mankind has ever seen, becoming the first man to win the Brownlow Medal, a premiership medallion and the Norm Smith Medal in the same year.

The Tigers entered the 2018 season as favourites to retain its flag, but they would have their premiership defence ended in humiliation when they lost to Collingwood in the preliminary final by 39 points.

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After being written off by many at the start of the year, it would be the West Coast Eagles who saluted, defeating the Pies by five points in the grand final with Dom Sheed showing nerves of steel to break black and white hearts with a goal from a tight angle with less than two minutes left.

It was the perfect ending to the season for Adam Simpson’s men, who along with Fremantle moved out of the outdated Subiaco Oval into the new state-of-the-art Perth Stadium, which is much closer to the CBD.

The new stadium was designed so its dimensions could closely match that of the MCG, where the Eagles had previously struggled to win – prior to the 2018 season its most recent win at the ground had been in Round 12, 2015, against Richmond.

The 2018 season also saw the return to the finals of the Melbourne Football Club, which had been through hell and back in the preceding 12 years.

After taking over from Paul Roos at the end of the 2016 season, Simon Goodwin took the Dees to within a whisker of September action in 2017 before breaking the finals drought with a win over the Eagles in Perth in the penultimate round of the 2018 season.

They would then defeat the Geelong Cats and Hawthorn in consecutive sudden-death finals before bowing out to the Eagles in the preliminary final, losing by 11 goals after failing to kick a single major in the first half.

The Eagles’ premiership defence would come to an end in the semi-final this year, beaten by the Geelong Cats in Melbourne.

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And after the disappointment of last year, the Tigers would reclaim their place on the premiership dais in the most devastating way possible, putting the cleaners through the GWS Giants with an 89-point annihilation on grand final day.

While Dustin Martin claimed his second Norm Smith Medal, the big story to come out of the Tigers’ 12th premiership win was the debut of Marlion Pickett, marking the first time a player had debuted in the biggest match of the season since Keith Batchelor in 1952.

It marked coach Damien Hardwick’s second premiership win as a coach and saw him complete a decade-long mission to make the club great again after he was appointed during the club’s lowest ebb.

This was not how the Giants’ first grand final was meant to end, but just to get there considering all the adversities they faced in 2019 should be considered an achievement in itself.

Leon Cameron’s side had finished in the top four in 2016 and 2017, but the playing list that had shown so much potential this year began to be decimated with the departures of key players such as Taylor Adams, Adam Treloar, Devon Smith and Dylan Shiel.

Many experts thought that with the thinning out of the playing list that was necessary to ensure they operated on a level playing field with the rest of the league the club’s premiership window would quickly shut.

Their resurgence to the top came as an era of success came to an end for the Sydney Swans, which missed finals for the first time in a decade and for just the fourth time in the past quarter of a century.

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The Swans had proven to be one of the most consistent clubs this decade, winning the third-most matches (behind the Geelong Cats and Hawthorn) and second-most finals matches (behind the Hawks) in this period, during which they won the 2012 premiership.

While their 15th-place finish was their lowest since 1994, there were still strong signs of competitiveness and potential from John Longmire’s side, which won their final two matches of the season by sizeable margins to give the side some confidence going into 2020.

One major milestone to watch in the new season will be the 1000th AFL goal kicked by Lance Franklin, who is currently 56 goals in arrears of the mark. The Round 23 home game against his old club, Hawthorn, is likely to be the match in which this occurs.

Those were just some of the highlights and most memorable moments from the decade just passed. I’m sure there were plenty more; please leave some of yours below.