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What it means to be clutch in the AFL’s biggest moments

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Expert
7th September, 2021
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Legends are made in finals football. It’s where games are played with high stakes, littered with high-octane runs and pressurised match conditions.

Some players thrive. Some, sink into themselves.

Being clutch – kicking a game-winning goal or making a game-winning stop – is rare. It’s a skill that not many footballers have because of the weight of the moment. That weight can drown even the best.

Professional footballers dream about being clutch. In fact, we’ve all had that dream. Cast your own minds back to your own childhood and I bet you find yourself with ball in hand with 30 seconds to go in the grand final, lining up for a set shot in the backyard.

The imaginary commentary runs through your head “there’s never been a bigger kick in football.” A slight wind drifts from left to right. The kick is launched. It’s perfect. It’s a goal.

But even in everyday life we turn normal tasks into championship clutch moments: the rolled up socks from laundry become footballs that are aimed at the top open draw; and screwed up paper receipts from your wallet turn into buzzer beaters that are launched at rubbish bins for an NBA title.

We’ve all, at some point, lived these moments. For the majority of us schlubs though, the athletic pursuit and dream of being clutch lives and dies at home in the backyard. But for AFL players, this is what they’re built for.

Ask any high-profiled footballer and they will tell you about the pressure, emotion, and how hard it is to be the best in a competitive AFL landscape. Then throw on top of that the media scrutiny, discussions with agents, and the anxiety of how you’re perceived by fans on social media.

All of it is enormous. The stakes are high. There’s a lot riding on those clutch moments that happen during the year and throughout the finals series where everything minute details plays out under a microscope.

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On the weekend we saw Bulldogs midfielder, 20-year-old Bailey Smith step up when it mattered most. With their skipper off for large periods of the final quarter when the game hung in the balance, Bailey performed a series of clutch moments that won the game.

He kicked two last-quarter goals – one on his left boot from the left pocket – and kicked the ball off the ground toward Laitham Vandermeer who dribbled the ball along the ground for the winning point.

Even Taylor Duryea’s last-minute stop on Charlie Cameron inside Brisbane’s forward 50, a dangerous situation that could have lost the Bulldogs the game, was clutch in its own right. Some could argue that was just as clutch as Bailey Smith’s one-percenter assist to Vandermeer moments earlier.

These moments are insanely good to watch. They come from young kids, star players, and sometimes defensively-minded players. Some are grubby moments. Others are born from slick and classy movement. Remember Dustin Martin’s snap goal before halftime against the Cats in last year’s grand final?

That was a kick under duress at a point where the Tigers needed it: they were 21 points down. It was generated from nothing really, but Martin owned the situation and delivered. Fans erupted. Tigers went on to win the 2020 Premiership from that moment.

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Dustin Martin of the Tigers celebrates kicking a goal

Dustin Martin. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

We’ve seen these clutch moments unfold all through this year – not just in finals. There was the Max Gawn after-the-siren goal against Geelong that sealed the minor premiership in the final round. Also that round we saw Port Adelaide’s Robbie Gray kick a set shot from 35-metres out to put the Power ahead by three points in the late stages of the match.

They won by two. And we still talk about Dom Sheed’s boundary line set shot in front of heckling Collingwood fans to seal the 2018 Premiership.

It feels like these moments are easy, but they don’t always happen. Think back to the Swans-Giants elimination final where Sydney peppered the goals with 2.7 in the last quarter. Lance Franklin took the last set shot that would have put the Swans in front. The kick faded to the right.

And as much as we pick apart every second and contest of every final, some players failed to be clutch through entire games: Joe Daniher comes to mind with one goal, six touches and not much impact against the Bulldogs. Geelong’s Gary Rohan has also faded into the abyss during the finals.

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As fans, you want players to deliver in the clutch moments. Yes, they’re human. There’s a lot of emotion in sport for the fans, there’s high stakes for players, which means the heartbreak is real when they don’t deliver the match-winner. But that’s all part of why we watch football.

That’s what makes it enthralling. The decisions made in real-time is what we want and that’s what makes those clutch moments the greatest things we’ll ever see on the football field.

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