Three recruiting staff have walked out of North Melbourne a week before the mid-season draft in a new crisis for the struggling AFL club.…
This year has been something else. Thank goodness for footy.
There have been many ups and downs and, without a shadow of a doubt, plenty of much-appreciated discussion.
My AFL season started in February with a piece proclaiming that the Melbourne Demons were premiership contenders. Jackie Chiles would’ve labelled it “outrageous, egregious, preposterous”, as did many a reader.
The preseason seems a lifetime ago, and with what has happened in the world, you could almost justifiably feel as though it was.
It felt like normality was restored when Richmond beat Carlton for the 400th time in a row in the first game of the season, particularly when the discussion of whether that fixture should be locked in yearly rolled around the next day.
Sydney quickly emerged as this season’s surprise packet, knocking off Brisbane and Richmond away from home within the first three rounds. Even the absolute diehard Sydney supporter would’ve been on cloud nine rather than truly believing in the club’s genuine premiership chances that early.
Remember the Good Friday game when the Bulldogs won by over 21 goals? North just needed a little bit of support at that stage.
The Crows were in the top eight after five rounds! That was a wild ride.
We had some genuine classic games, with 15 games in the first eight rounds decided by ten points or less. That eighth round also happened to be the final time the top six teams changed on the ladder. They fought among themselves for those final placings.
Plenty happened in the month of May. Richmond became the speccy capital of the competition, with Shai Bolton taking what would eventually be awarded mark of the year against Geelong, with teammate Jack Riewoldt most unlucky for his courageous effort in Round 11 against Adelaide.
North Melbourne won their first game of the season against the Hawks in Tasmania, huzzah! It felt like the first time we saw David Noble smile. Turns out it’s pretty contagious.
The Demons had taken a stranglehold on the competition, winning their first nine games of the season and answering all their critics. They had the most efficient defensive unit, Jake Lever was a record-breaker with his intercepting and the duo of Clayton Oliver and Christian Petracca were fighting for a Brownlow Medal and mauling opponents.
Then they lost to an Adelaide team that had dropped off considerably after their hot start. Funny how that happens.
A clear gap had opened up between the top two teams and the rest of the competition, as the Bulldogs met every challenge with the grace and dignity of a contender.
We began to acknowledge how important Tom Liberatore was, and Josh Bruce was finally getting his just reward in recognition, stringing together some consistency that overcame his character assassination of 2020.
As we ticked into June, the competition left Victoria again. We still had our bye rounds, a nightmare for those who were relying on footy to get them through their weekends or who hadn’t adequately prepared their fantasy teams.
It was a blessing for the AFL though, who could rearrange a couple of games to maintain the integrity of the competition as best as they could. We don’t give them enough credit for that.
Nathan Buckley quit his job as coach of Collingwood, although a lot of us probably read a little more into that.
As is always the case in the situations, the Magpies then sent off their departing coach with a win over the all-conquering ladder leaders, Melbourne.
That saved Buckley the need to channel his inner ornithologist on the way out.
If we had questions about the reigning premiers, Round 15 only acted as further evidence that the almighty Tigers were a shadow of their former selves, being held to just two goals by a struggling St Kilda team.
What followed that match was six of the next seven games decided by three goals or less, including Sydney and Essendon proving their credentials in narrow losses to top-four teams as well as Hawthorn separating themselves from an improving North Melbourne.
To kick off July, Gold Coast beat the Tigers, GWS beat the Demons and the Bulldogs moved to the top of the table. Marcus Bontempelli was a world-beater, Alex Keath was the defensive saviour and Luke Beveridge with his strange Bevo-ball selections was pure genius.
We can’t forget Round 17, when Sydney beat the Bulldogs to move within a game of the top four, St Kilda moved to percentage outside the top eight with an upset over Brisbane, and North Melbourne beat West Coast in what was the beginning of the end for the Eagles.
Of course the dominant memory of that month was the quick turnaround from Hawthorn that ultimately led to the agreed departure of legendary coach Alastair Clarkson at season’s end.
What seemed amicable enough on face value between Clarkson and Sam Mitchell at first had turned into a vintage mismanagement performance from the club’s board. They headed into the final month of the season equal last with North Melbourne, who looked a decent chance of avoiding the wooden spoon.
That had a particular Roar writer excited.
Clarkson’s farewell to the Hawks? Three wins and a draw in the final month that took the club out of the top two picks and left their draft hand considerably worse off.
The fight for the minor premiership was truly excellent, even if there were no crowds in Victoria to watch it happen.
Melbourne found themselves outside the top two with only five rounds left in the season, having lost to Adelaide, Collingwood and GWS and drawn with Hawthorn. That grand final preview in Round 19 was the final straw.
The mighty Tigers had fallen; the Dockers, Giants and Bombers were rising quickly; and the Brisbane Lions were reeling after a loss to Clarkson’s resurgent Hawks.
We’ll not forget GWS’s triumphant win at GMHBA Stadium over Geelong, having been heavily depleted. It eventually led to a finals spot and cost the Cats a top-two appearance.
Yet the last round still carried a heap of weight and suggested the rolling fixture would be here permanently.
There were finals implications all over the place, with more clock shenanigans ultimately costing the Bulldogs a spot in the top four, although their last three weeks of the season had more to do with it. The Demons provided an extraordinary comeback against the Cats to pinch the minor premiership, and Essendon and the Giants proved to be worthy finalists.
Without a bye week before finals it felt as though Christmas came early, although most of what has followed feels as though the Grinch wrote the script.
Other than GWS’s triumph over Sydney in the first week and the Bulldogs’ brilliant victory over Brisbane in the semi-final, both decided by a single point, every final has been decided by at least 33 points.
Sure, some performances have been incredible, namely those on the preliminary final weekend, but for the most part interest has been lost in games by halftime.
What has dragged us through is narrative. The Bulldogs’ travel schedule and never-say-die attitude have been a shining light, as has the Demons’ rise to legitimacy.
Carlton took some of the limelight with their coaching debacle, although it was nice to have some navy blue in September.
This is all part of our journey.
We’ve had highlights that’ll hold the test of time, results that have been tighter than any of the past six seasons and new individual award winners in almost every possible category.
We’ve also had plenty of negative press around suspensions and at times a lack thereof. We’ve had disgraceful behaviour from a former Adelaide captain that caused great pain across both the league and society as a whole, and we’ve had social media warriors take too many headlines with horrible online behaviour.
We keep everyone who has experienced pain in our minds and hearts in 2021 on top of all the other sacrifices these and many others have made for our entertainment and the sake of the competition.
It leads us to this week’s grand final.
Clearly it’s been a great ride for these two teams.
It’s the best possible match-up for the neutral observer, and in terms of how the teams actually line up against each other, it’s the most even contest imaginable.
The weather looks to be perfect, and Optus Stadium has proven to be an incredible venue to host such a prestigious event.
And that’s really all we want as the 2021 season enters its final moments.
Usually this would be the time to go with the pure analysis of a traditional grand final preview, but honestly, you’ll have read countless versions already.
It’s pretty simple in the end. All we want is a hotly contested game that’s close all the way through, and there’s a good chance we’ll end up getting that.
Seeing a full crowd at Optus Stadium will be a wonderful way to conclude the season, and we know that all participants on the day will put on as good a show as possible.
This has been another tough year, 2021, particularly for those on the eastern side of Australia. All of us have had to deal with a fair bit, but the footy has been a welcomed distraction.
So hopefully we can look back at the season itself and can come away with a smile.
To me, it doesn’t matter which team wins, regardless of previous predictions and discussion throughout the season. I’ve loved talking footy with all of you and have the sense that many readers will share similar views on the actual result of the game itself.
We love our footy, and 2021 has given us a glimpse of normalcy among the chaos of the world.
Let’s enjoy the grand final and look forward to the post-season.