The Heartbreak Kids litter the history of the AFL.
From those who went agonizingly close on one, or more occasions, to those whose bodies let them down at the crucial moment, there are many who stood so close to the precipice of greatness in this sport, only to fall short when it mattered most.
There are many fairy tale endings in the footy world. We’ve seen Shane Crawford celebrate the 2008 Grand Final win with his Hawks, after years in the wilderness. The saw the Western Bulldogs complete the fairytale in 2016, and the Tigers do the same in 2017, but even in moments of triumph, there are moments of heartbreak.
Let’s take a look at some of those players who were so close, yet so far from premiership glory.
The ultimate bridesmaid in the modern game, Buckley has been close as a player, and a coach, with the premiership remaining ever elusive.
After leaving Brisbane with an eye on flags with the Magpies, it would be the Lions thwarting him. He could have been playing alongside some of those Lions and tasting premiership glory. Instead, he was awarded the Norm Smith Medal, and watched as Michael Voss and Leigh Matthews raised the cup.
Twice, in both 2002 and 2003
Fast forward to the 2018 Grand Final and Buckley’s Magpies, with him as head coach this time, had led West Coast all day. In the dying moments it was McGovern to Vardy to Ryan to Dom Sheed, who slotted a cold-blooded goal from a tough angle to sink Collingwood yet again.
As the siren sounded, the cameras did not capture just the rapturous celebrations on the field, but the devastation in the Magpie coaching box as Buckley sat motionless, coming to terms with falling short yet again.
There was a time when some would have celebrated Buckley experiencing a loss like that. He was the FIGJAM, and he was far from the most popular player in the league, but as a coach, the mature Buckley has turned his image around, and over the past couple of years has become one of the best orators in the game. His work on SEN with Gerard Whateley is a weekly highlight of Melbourne talkback radio, and whenever he is interviewed he rarely fails to deliver.
Watching Buckley fail may have been a cause for celebration for some in the past. Some saw it as his just desserts after leaving Brisbane to win flags with the Pies, but after so many years toiling away, and after reinventing himself in recent years, I’m not sure there is anyone who deserves a premiership medallion more than Bucks
It was right there… twice!. It was one bounce away from premiership glory. One toe poke away from the elusive flag. Yet as the ball took a detour away from the waiting arms of Stephen Milne. Yet the ball bounced off the toe of Matthew Scarlett and into the hands of Gary Ablett.
And with those two actions, so went the chances of Nick Riewoldt winning a flag.
The big fella was the centrepiece of the St Kilda team that looked destined to win a premiership. He had outstanding players around him as well – Lenny Hayes, Leigh Montagna, Nick Dal Santo, Brendon Goddard; a team of champions.
But never a champion team.
In the space of just over a year, the Saints would compete in three Grand Finals, drawing one and losing one each to Geelong and Collingwood. It would be as close as they’d come to a premiership. Of their 2010/11 teams, only Ben McEvoy and Jamie Cripps would go on to taste premiership glory with the Hawks and Eagles, respectively, whilst Riewoldt played out his days in a St Kilda team struggling for relevance (yes, I know a couple already had flags before joining the Saints).
Riewoldt was a champion player – one of the best runners we’ve seen in the game, often making fourth, fifth and sixth efforts to find space and get on the end of a pass. How many times did you see him hunched over, gasping for breath after running his opponent into the ground to eventually take a mark? He changed the way centre half forwards play with his aerobic ability, but all that work fell just a few points, or even one point short of being rewarded with the ultimate prize.
A knee injury in a Preliminary Final is one of the cruellest blows a player can experience. After kicking 84 goals to that point of the season, Modra went down, clutching his knee in the first quarter of one of the most famous games in Adelaide history.
It was the game that saw them secure their first-ever Grand Final berth. It was the game that saw a rampant,enigmatic Darren Jarman take the contest over. And it was the game that Adelaide came from the clouds to roll over the Western Bulldogs and break the hearts of Doggies fans everywhere.
And it was the beginning of the end for Modra under Malcolm Blight.
Modra was one of the biggest sporting heroes in the state after becoming the only Crow to ever boot one hundred goals in a season in 1993. He was mixing it with the likes of Dunstall, Lockett and Ablett at the top of the Coleman Medal table, and taking screamers every week. He was the talk of the town – the golden-haired boy in Crows colours, and then his knee went ‘pop’, he watched his teammates win the flag without him, and he embarked on the long road back.
Only as the Crows successfully defended their premiership in 1998, Modra was nowhere to be found. This time it was not injury that kept him out of the side, but rather a selection decision by Adelaide coach, Malcolm Blight. After a less than potent six disposals in the Qualifying Final against Melbourne, Blight opted to play the rest of the finals without Adelaide’s beloved spearhead.
The fact that it worked probably eases any pain the decision may have caused for Adelaide fans, but for Modra, it spelt the end of an era in South Australia.
His career would continue at Fremantle, but despite being the best forward option the Crows have ever had (facts, people!), at a time he should have been at his peak, an injury and a no-nonsense coaching approach saw him miss the only two flags in the club’s history.
GARY ABLETT SENIOR
I’m cheating a bit here, as I didn’t want to delve into the pre-AFL era too much, but when you’re talking about Ablett, how can you leave his 1989 performance out of the mix? As a matter of fact, how can you leave out any of the three consecutive finals games he tore to shreds in 1989? He was as driven, as blindingly brilliant as any player has ever been over a three-week tour de force.
Seven goals against Melbourne in the Semi-Final. Eight goals against the Bombers in the Prelim, and finally, a record-equalling nine goals to go ever so close to carrying his team to a premiership in one of the greatest games ever played.
But for Ablett, a repeat performance of his amazing 89 exploits were not on the cards as the Cats fell again in 1992 and 1994 to the West Coast Eagles, and then to Carlton in 1995, leaving Ablett 0-4 in Grand Finals. Perhaps the most brilliant player the game has ever seen was left with a Norm Smith Medal, but never a premiership medallion.
He was right there in 2013, and after a very shaky start, it looked as though the Dockers had enough in them to run over the Hawks and win their first-ever flag. Drawing within three points in the third quarter, Fremantle started to show signs of the frenetic pressure game that had served them so well to that point.
Three points became 15 by the time the final siren sounded and despite remaining contenders, Fremantle would not have another chance in the biggest game of the year. Pav’s one chance had slipped away.
History tells us it was not meant to be, and the Hawks put away the first of three flags in a row, and though I am a Hawks supporter, I actually feel for Pav. He resisted the big money offers elsewhere to stick it out with the Dockers and become their best and most consistent player of all time in the process (although he may now be second to Nat Fyfe).
Well, he was kind of involved… sort of, wasn’t he? The cup was raised, he was on the podium… he had a Doggies guernsey on underneath his clothes. That counts for something, doesn’t it?
Bob Murphy was a huge part of the 2016 Western Bulldogs triumph in every way except the one that truly mattered. There were 22 players who took the field on the last day in September; Murphy was not one of them. He describes win over the Swans as both the best day of his life and the worst day of his life. How could he not be overjoyed for the long-awaited success of his beloved club? How could he not be disappointed that he was not a part of it.
312 games. Club captain, All Australian and even All-Australian captain, yet the tears Bob Murphy shed as the Dogs’ celebrated were a mixture of relief, exhilaration, and frustration. One can only imagine how he felt watching his dreams play out in front of him, without him in them.
The Western Bulldogs have been magnanimous in insisting that Murphy was a huge part of that win. He may have been, but he wasn’t on the field contributing, and when you hear Murphy speak about it, the pain in his voice reflects it vividly.
The fact that it took 25 years speak with Kevin Sheedy about his omission is an indication of just how hurt Derek Kickett was at being dropped from the 1993 Grand Final team that went on to win the flag against Carlton.
To that point, Kickett had not missed a single game in 1993, and he would not play another in the red and black.
Kickett moved immediately to Sydney to finish his career and refused to accept any olive branch offered by his former coach, stating that he “hates his guts” when asked about his former coach. He was angry, felt betrayed, and saw his best chance at being remembered as a premiership player torn away from him at the selection table.
In 2018, the pair finally met at the home of Xavier Campbell. Kickett was able to air all the years of frustration. Sheedy listened and in the end, they were able to bury the hatchet…
… and luckily for Sheedy it wasn’t buried between his eyes.
The sight of Brett Deledio hugging his former coach, Damien Hardwick after the 2019 Grand Final is an enduring image. After years of fortunes that fluctuated between poor and average at Tigerland, Deledio took what he thought was his only chance to win a flag – he joined the GWS Giants.
He was not to know what was to eventuate. A wave of yellow and black flooded into the MCG in the 2017 Preliminary Final. A cacophony of roaring Tigers drowned out the chances of the Giants and sent the Richmond Football Club to the Grand Final, where they won their first flag in 37 years. And they won another two years later.
Meanwhile, Deledio watched on. Injured again late in 2019, his season and career were over when his Giants faced what used to be his Tigers. It was a case of flipping a coin and irrespective of how it landed, Deledio couldn’t win.
He left the Tigers in search of glory, only for it to arrive in his wake once he was gone. Too soon?
AND THOSE WHO MISSED OUT VIA THEIR OWN STUPIDITY
Delving into the history books, Coleman’s indiscretion in the final game of the 1951 home and away season, where he whacked Carlton’s Harry Caspar earned him a four week suspension.
Coleman, the best forward in the caper at that time (and some say ever) missed the Grand Final, and the Bombers fell to the Cats by 11 points.
For the record, Coleman was averaging the lazy 4.69 goals per game that season. I reckon the Bombers may have been a bit more a chance had he been playing.
Luckily for Coleman, there were other flags.
Just one point would have done it for the Magpies in 1977. Just one straight or even one slightly inaccurate kick would have sent Collingwood home as premiers.
Playing without the man who was arguably the most talented player in the league at that point, the Pies fought to a draw against North Melbourne. However, they were unable to match the Kangaroos’ intensity the following week in the Grand Final Replay.
Carman was averaging two goals per game in 1977 after coming off a mercurial 1976 season where he ran second in the Brownlow Medal, despite only playing 16 games for the year. He kicked four in the semi-final before deciding to whack Hawthorn’s Michael Tuck.
It cost him two weeks, and many believe it cost the Pies the flag.
Carman’s actions drove a wedge between him and legendary Collingwood coach, Tom Hafey, and by the end of the 1978 season, Carman was no longer a Magpie, never again gaining the chance to rectify one of the biggest mistakes of his football life.
And there were quite a few.
Rocca sat out the 2003 Grand Final after being suspended in the Preliminary Final for striking Brendon Lade. Collingwood appealed the decision, but the penalty remained and Rocca would go onto miss the Pies being belted by the Lions to the tune of 50 points.
Could Rocca have made a difference? Look, probably not, but you know where you make no difference at all? Sitting in the grandstand lamenting your stupid actions the week before.
AND ONE MORE, JUST FOR THE SAKE OF IT
I loved watching Rene Kink as a child. He scared the living shit out of me, and at one point playing seniors when I was still in Under 17s I found myself isolated on him in the Western District Football League… that was an experience.
Personal stories aside, Kink was incredibly unlucky, going 0-4 and one draw in Grand Finals with Collingwood, and finishing his career without tasting premiership glory, capping it with a loss in the 1983 Grand Final with Essendon.
Kink was a monster; a man-mountain with a burst of speed and power that left others in his wake, but when it came to rand Finals, Kink would be remembered as someone who ultimately didn’t deliver on the biggest stage. He had plenty of mates in black and white, but for such a dominant figure, ending with stats of 0 wins, five losses and a draw, Kink is the yardstick for Grand Final heartbreak.
And there we go. Any heartbreakers I missed? Robert Flower? Rob Harvey? Plugger? Anyone who cost your team a flag via either injury or a momentary lapse of control? You know what to do – hit us up in the comments or on our socials, and if you want more Mongrel, you’ll notice some posts are now Members Only. This is replacing our patreon service and it’s all in-house. Support us by joining by clicking the image below, and stay Mongrel.