Across the AFL industry you will hear many pundits (and indeed, some of us here at the Mongrel Punt) write about their expectations for each club in the 2024 season. And with the season less than a month out, that makes sense, right? As a footy fanatic, you want to know who will be where, is he going to be the surprise packet? Who’s going to jump into the top 4? Top 8? Who is going to drop out? However, the question we should be asking is what are the expectations like within the four walls of AFL clubs? What are THEIR expectations, and what are they wanting to achieve?
All pre-season long, we will hear coaches say they are putting “no ceiling” on the performance in the upcoming season, in their obvious, and sometimes unrealistic pursuit of the premiership. But what do they actually think? Well don’t worry, because at the Mongrel we will give you the insider take with the Mongrel Expectation Meter.
Adelaide: Consistency for top 8
Plenty has been spoken about the Crows over the off-season, and Matthew Nicks knows that the pressure is on for a top 8 berth. As a punter living in Adelaide, I have had many a conversation about the Crows being robbed in that now-infamous goal post debacle in Round 23 against Sydney. Whilst I have lent a sympathetic ear to a lot of those opinions (because if it were the Tigers, I’d be furious), I couldn’t help but make the point that Crows, were indeed, 36 points down against the Swans at their Adelaide Oval fortress in that fateful match. Whilst the Crows rightly felt aggrieved, that Round 23 match was a showcase in the inconsistency that plagued the Crows all year; terrific at home (most of the time), and indifferent on the road.
The Crows finished the year 8-3 at Adelaide Oval, and 3-8 away from it. Matthew Nicks will know that the pressure is on, and that playing a high level of football consistently is key to achieving what he wants. It appears that they have all the tools to do that; there doesn’t seem to be any slowing down Jordan Dawson in his prime, and the fast paced, high-pressure game style that the Crows are employing is only going to make Taylor Walker look better than worse in what has been a late career resurgence few saw coming.
So, Matthew Nicks will know, and expect, to make the finals; and in his fifth season at the helm, and he will know that the pressure is on to perform.
Brisbane: One step better
Okay, so the Lions can only have one expectation for the 2024 season, right?
Chris Fagan’s side came so close last year, and if one advantage call had just gone their way in the last 90 seconds of the 2023 Grand Final, it could have been such a different story for the Lions. However, here we are.
So the expectation has to be obvious, right?
The Lions will be striving to go one better in 2024. That being said, a bit of a deeper dive on the 2024 Grand Final says that it was probably a bit closer than it should have been; the Magpies rebounding game plan yielded 30 scoring shots to 21, and there were stages in the game where it felt as though Collingwood were peppering the goal face and the banks were about to burst. This is not to diminish or take away from the Lions performance on Grand Final day; despite not getting the chocolates, their performance made for one of the great Grand Finals of this century. But this minuscule margin will probably be where Chris Fagan is focusing his thinking, because as the Lions found out, it’s these small margins that is the difference between wins and losses at the pointy end of the season.
The question for Fagan will be where is that improvement going to come from? It may very well be from having a fit and firing Will Ashcroft back in the midfield rotation. It’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that Ashcroft will be at 100% when he returns at the midway point of the 2024 season, but the thinking from Fagan would be that having him at the right end of the year will be the key ingredient to go a step further in 2024. Having that extra bit of midfield depth entering September could be the difference that fixes up that small margin.
Carlton: Match it with 2023
The Blues had a terrific 2023, finally giving the long-suffering ‘Baggers faithful something to celebrate for the first time since 2013. The Blues were an intriguing study throughout 2023, however. the one thing that stood out was for the first time in a long time, it all came together for the Blues at the right time of the year. Conversely to that, this Carlton that made it all the way to the Preliminary Final (and early looked like they would be playing in a Grand Final early in that final) lost eight of nine games in a horror stretch through the middle of the season.
The optimist in me says that if the Blues can get rid of the mid season slump, they could become a powerhouse that will be able to match it with the Pies at the pointy end of the ladder (and wouldn’t the AFL love that?!?). However, it also gets me asking; how much do we take from that stretch through the middle of the season where the Blues had the form of a bottom-six side? Michael Voss will no doubt have been trying to figure out the answer to that very question over this off-season.
Carlton more than proved that their style of footy holds up when push comes to shove, but I’m not sure the middle season stretch can be written off as an anomaly. My answer is that there is a bit of truth to be taken from both periods of the year; that if the Blues can get rid of complete and utter form dips in 2024, they should be in the running to secure a top 4 spot. This for the Blues is crucial, as it seemed as the Preliminary Final wore on, the Blues had left themselves just a little too much to do.
Collingwood: Back-to-back Flagpies
The Collingwood faithful will tell you only one thing over the summer; that back-to-back Magpie flags are almost a guarantee. And it’s often true, right? The defending premier is more often than not around the mark the next season. The thing working in the Magpies’ favour is that they have Craig McRae at the helm, who has been in the middle of a number of premierships in recent AFL seasons (he was the bench coach during all 3 of Richmond’s recent premierships), and has been the central figure in the Magpies recent success. That being said, anyone involved in the AFL industry will tell you that winning the premiership is one thing; going back to back is a completely different, and somewhat underestimated story.
It is really hard to go back-to-back. But this won’t stop many of the AFL’s media experts, more often than not based in Melbourne, instilling the Pies as the ones to beat for the 2024 flag. Only three sides have managed the feat this century; both the great Brisbane and Hawthorn teams of the early 2000’s and mid 2010’s were able to threepeat, whilst Richmond were able to complete this in the COVID affected years of 2019-20. This would leave Craig McRae asking one question; how do we defend the crown, and what needs to improve to do that?
The game style the Pies employ was well known around the league; be stingy defensively, rebound and attack aggressively through the corridor. Whilst most of the league knew this, they clearly found it a harder task to stop it. The loss of Taylor Adams to the Swans is an interesting one to me; Adams appeared to be a heart and soul player, gritty, and did the hard stuff really well, even if he did lack for pace around the ball sometimes. That being said, McRae will almost definitely back his game plan, and will be expecting a premiership; whether he goes tried and true with the game plan, or tweaks it a little bit is the big question.
Essendon: Break the drought
You know where I’m going with this one Bomber fans, and I absolutely understand that you’ll be sick of hearing about it, but it will have been 20 years this season since Essendon has won a match in the post-season. So the objective out at Tullamarine will be pretty simple; win a final.
The AFL media industry and fans alike, are pretty fickle when it comes to this kind of stuff. At the start of each season, you will hear every pundit talk about how difficult it is to perform well in the AFL. But the same media personalities tend to be pretty keen to jump on clubs when they aren’t able to perform to that high level of the competition. That being said, the aim at Essendon should be pretty obvious, win a final, or at the very least make finals and give themselves the opportunity.
It feels as though over the last five or six years, Essendon have been perennial movers and shakers in the trade space; and none of the moves have yielded the results the Bombers would have been after. Think the Dylan Shiel, Devon Smith combination coming in from the Giants a few off-seasons ago. However, it does seem that the Bombers are still willing to pick up players in the off season that goes against the grain of the complete and utter rebuild. The acquisition of North Melbourne duo Ben McKay and Todd Goldstein is another intriguing example of this. I am particularly intrigued by the adding of Goldstein; he is very much a player a club would target if they believed they were in the “win now” category. This is not the kind of vibe I am picking up from the Bombers at the moment. That being said, maybe the Bombers aren’t as far off as we all think they are; this is a team that after five rounds last year found themselves 4-1, and sitting second on the ladder.
So, we do know that the Bombers are CAPABLE of playing good footy, but the key will be consistency. And Brad Scott will be hoping he finds the key to that consistency in 2024, which might finally yield that long awaited finals win.
Fremantle: Return to the 8 (with added flair)
Fremantle were a strange study in 2023. After a break out 2022 campaign, Justin Longmuir no doubt would have had lofty expectations of jumping into the top 4 in 2023. Instead, the opposite happened. Fremantle went backwards, finishing the year 14th with a 10-13 record after a fifth placed, Semi-Final finish the year prior.
What appeared to be the main cause was that the Dockers’ staunch defence was not so staunch in 2023. In 2022, Fremantle had the second-best defence in the game, only being bettered by Melbourne during the regular season. Fast forward to 2023, and that same touted defense was over 400 points worse off. So the question begs, which season was a flash in the pan? 2022 or 2023?
Unfortunately for Justin Longmuir, I do worry that if 2024 follows the same path as 2023, he could very well in the firing line of the media very quickly. Longmuir will expect to be rebounding back into the top 8; his job will almost rely on it. The big question with Fremantle is how exactly they go about doing that.
Longmuir has been lauded for a number of years for his tactical nouse on the defensive side of the game, having done his apprenticeship under Nathan Buckley, who was very much defence-first when he was at the Magpies. Longmuir’s team, even when going well, has the same issue as Buckley’s did; for how good they are defensively, they struggle to put big totals on the board. Fremantle should be expecting to return to the 8 this year, however, it will need to be with a little bit of attacking flair added into the Longmuir game plan.
Geelong: Is this it? Is it finally happening?
Could this be….it? Is it going to finally happen? It feels like, pretty much since the Cats were knocked out in the Preliminary Final in 2013 by a solitary kick to Hawthorn, many of us have been waiting for a prolonged dip that finally took the Cats towards bottom end of the table. Was last year finally the Geelong consistency coming to a hault?
Ironically, it was when all us punters were least expecting it – coming off a 2022 Premiership win that was as convincing as any in recent memory, not many would have subsequently picked the Cats to miss the finals for only the second time since 2006. That speaks to the unbelievable consistency of the Geelong Football Club over the majority of the last two decades – whilst it is spoken about a bit in the media, the fact that the Cats have been involved at the pointy end in all but two seasons, tells you a bit about their ability to re-generate through some shrewd list management decisions.
With all that happening, the opposite to a slide down the ladder will be on Chris Scott’s mind. There is no doubt he will be thinking that there is another go left in this group of players, and he is well informed to think so – it was only 16 months ago that the Cats were the toast of the town, employing a manic game plan that systemically took the Swans apart on the big day in 2022. However, they will be without Norm Smith medallist, Isaac Smith following his retirement, and plenty has been made about how much of the drop last year can be attributed to missing spiritual leader, and former Captain Joel Selwood through the midfield.
So, with Chris Scott’s expectations high, it will depend an awful lot on how much he is willing to tweak the game plan to suit the list that he has. Scott is a man who has been reluctant to change game style too much; but it did pay major dividend in 2022 when he favoured quicker ball movement over the possession style of game that had kept the Cats around the mark for so long. Expectations will be high at the Cattery; and anything other than a finals berth will be considered a failure.
Gold Coast: Finals, finally?
It feels as though, for the first time in a very long time, that all the talk around the Suns has been relatively positive; the arrival of Damien Hardwick has sent the football media into a vortex of praise for the Suns developing list, which has been a rare thing in recent years. As Hardwick said himself, he was looking forward to the “new toys” he had at his disposal.
The sceptical approach would be, naturally, to say that we have seen this all before with the Suns; young, promising list, experienced coach at the wheel (think the Rocket Eade years), but ultimately yielded not a hell of a lot. The Suns’ success in 2024 heavily relies on how quickly the players adapt to Damien Hardwick’s game plan; we know what he will bring too. On the surface, Hardwick will want pressure around the ball, and will cherry pick some hard running defensive midfielders to create a spare behind the ball; a tactic he applied so successfully at the Tigers with defensive midfielders such as Kane Lambert. I think we will see signs of this early doors; particularly in the intriguing Opening Round match up against Hardwick’s former side. But ultimately, Hardwick took the job because he thinks the list is ready; and he would be expecting to play finals football, something that the Suns have never done.
With all this considered, the task is certainly ahead of him.
GWS Giants: Time to put it all together
The AFL’s youngest club, many argue, has led a charmed life of draft concessions and AFL assistance. And, I can see where that argument could be built; they have most certainly been the more successful of the two expansion clubs, becoming a bit of a finals mainstay since their first appearance in September in 2016. However, for all the drafting assistance and AFL funding, the Giants have not become the powerhouse that many Melbourne based football bosses feared when they first entered the league.
The Giants have taken quite a different path instead; despite other clubs’ complaints, what the Giants have become is a bit of an “apprenticeship” club for a lot of players from the traditional football states. Players are drafted to the Giants, stay for 3-4 years and learn their craft, and return to their home state on a big money contract. Think Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper two trade periods ago. Despite this, one could mount an argument that across the back half of the year in 2023, the Giants were playing the best footy of any team in the competition.
Following a narrow Round 12 loss to Richmond, the Giants only dropped two games across the back end of the year (consecutively in Rd 21 & 22, to the Swans and Power). What this morphed into was probably the most surprising performance of the finals series, making light work of the Saints and Power in away Elimination and Semi Finals, before going as close as possible to upsetting a packed-to-the-rafters MCG against the Pies in the Preliminary Final.
Adam Kingsley seemed to have found the formula in the back end of the year, and he credited much of it to a move that took him from the coaches box to the bench, something Craig McRae and Simon Goodwin have employed so successfully. So, expectations at the Giants should be to carry this form onwards into 2024; and Adam Kingsley would and should be thinking that he has found the game plan that clicks with this playing group.
Maybe, just maybe, the Giants could become that feared football powerhouse that so many traditional football administrators feared they may become in the first place. Adam Kingsley would be silly to put a ceiling on what this group could achieve. So, over to you, Giants.