Every club, player, coach and fan has a moment, game, trade or draft pick they replay in their minds constantly and rue more than anything else in the world. I’m sure we all have something in our lives similar – a missed opportunity, a chance at love we let slip past, the job we should have taken… something that eats away at you and drives you mad. It leaves you feeling trapped in a prison with no escape and all that’s left for you to do is reminisce on what could have been.
Seeing as the entire globe seems to be trapped at the moment, what could be more appropriate than a trip down memory lane? Sure it might be painful for some, but it’ll only serve to make the eventual return of footy sweeter.
Just a quick disclaimer, these ‘biggest what ifs’ have all been hand-selected by me and selfishly, are the questions I want answered most. So yes, you might disagree with some and think I’ve missed something huge that should be in its place and that’s fine. You might even drop a ‘how could you not say (blank) is the biggest ‘what if’ for that club? It basically changed the course of its entire history’ in the comments. But as I said, I’ve been selfish here and gone for the ones that most interest me and hopefully, they’ll interest you too. With that in mind, let’s dive into every AFL clubs biggest ‘what if’ of the last 20 years or so – Part Three.
Having been pretty mediocre for quite some time, you forget what a powerhouse the Power were in the 2000s. Top four in 2001, ‘02, ‘03, ‘04 and ‘07, minor premiers in 2002, ‘03 and ‘04, and premiers in 2004. However, considering their many strong home and away seasons, should the Power have more than one flag? Let’s take a trip down memory lane.
The Power suffered a straight-sets exit from third in 2001, a 56-point belting from the Lions in 2002’s preliminary final and then a 44-point loss to Collingwood in 2003’s preliminary final. Both preliminary final losses came after winning the minor premiership. Port then went on to finally win a flag in 2004 and ended Brisbane’s hopes of a four-peat along the way.
Now you might be saying, ‘two preliminary finals and a grand final win aren’t bad for three seasons,’ which it isn’t; it’s extremely good. Furthermore, its minor premierships came at a time when perhaps the greatest team of the modern era (Brisbane) was in full flight, and they were eventually able to overcome that team to claim their own premiership.
This brings me to my main point; I’m not saying Port was bad in the finals, just ‘what if’ they had been better? What if in 2007 they didn’t lose the grand final by 119-points? What if it won those preliminary finals? The club was three or four wins away from having one of the most dominant half-decades in AFL history and yet, nobody seems to remember how good they were.
More recently, the club had a three-point preliminary final loss in 2014 and a devastating overtime loss to West Coast in 2017’s elimination final, with a smattering of 10th place finishes on either side of each finals appearance. Overall, Port Adelaide has had some good finals results over the past 20 years, but on multiple occasions, haven’t been able to get over the line and achieve GREAT finals results. The entire club has become one of the biggest ‘what ifs’ of the modern era. ‘Almost but not quite’ has been the tale of the tape for the Power. Maybe a fairer question is, ‘what if Port Adelaide got its timing right’?
What if the Tigers sacked Hardwick?
As many of you would remember, things weren’t always so breezy for Hardwick and the Tigers. It’s easy to forget that his side was once knocked out of the finals courtesy of four goals from Carlton’s Nick Duigan in 2013 – about as low as any team could get. Three years later and things had only deteriorated; the club finished a putrid 13th and hadn’t been anywhere near September since its elimination final loss to ninth. However, dissimilar to many professional sporting clubs across all forms of sport, in these dark times Richmond stuck with its coach, and it has been rewarded.
At the end of 2016, things were falling apart at Punt Road and Hardwick has openly admitted to closing himself off from his players throughout that time. Many clubs would have laid the blame for its struggles at the coach’s door and perhaps, at the time, many Richmond fans were wishing the club would. But the Tigers saw something in Hardwick; something worth waiting for.
This waiting game paid off in 2017 – the following season – when Richmond jumped from 13th all the way to premiers. Since the 2017 premiership, many have speculated as to just how much Richmond’s rise was to do with Hardwick and personally, I say almost all of it.
Back in 2017, Richmond was the sum of its parts, each player had a role to fulfil and was required to operate within the team’s system – Hardwick’s system. It was a system that made the Tigers near unstoppable. Beyond tactics, Hardwick instilled a winning culture in a club that hadn’t won anything in decades. The impact of this was epitomised in 2019, when the club bounced back from an embarrassing preliminary final exit the year prior, only to prove the doubters wrong and take home the chocolates for the second time in three years.
So, how would the Tigers have fared these last few seasons had they let Hardwick go back in 2016? Well, we don’t know for certain, but I’d guess nowhere near as well as they have with him.
What if the ball had of bounced any other way in 2010?
Throughout this three-part series, we’ve had some painful ‘what ifs’ but I’d say none could possibly hurt as much as this one. It’s the obvious decision for the Saints and frankly, I didn’t consider any other ‘what if’ for even a moment.
Let’s set the scene; it’s 2010, the dying minutes of an extraordinary grand final. St Kilda trails Collingwood by one-point as it gains possession on the wing and sends the Sherrin forward. The Saints win a contest on their half-forward flank and the ball is spanked inside fifty with Steven Milne one-out on Ben Johnson. Johnson takes front position but the ball is sailing over the back of the contest, he slips and Milne turns him beautifully. Milne’s now running into an open goal unimpeded and just needs to collect the bouncing ball in front of him. Then suddenly, as if on purpose, the ball takes an awkward bounce and darts off at a right angle through for a minor score, and we all know what happened next.
Now many have speculated that Steven Milne, for reasons known only to himself, didn’t try to take possession and actually allowed it bounce through. I find this hard to believe and therefore give him the benefit of the doubt – he thought it was bouncing one way, then suddenly it bounced another and went through for a behind just out of his reach.
Now, back to the question; what if it bounced another way?
We can speculate, but the most likely outcome would be Milne wanders into an open goal and gives the Saints a five-point lead with a minute and a half remaining. Leading into this moment, after a slow start, the Saints had been the better team for the entire second half and a goal here would’ve sunk the Pies for good. Essentially, what I’m saying is, the bounce of the ball cost St Kilda its second premiership…stiff.
Maybe next time Saints.
What if the Hawks kicked straight in 2012?
Nope, not ‘what if Leo Barry didn’t take mark of the decade?’ Not even ‘what if the Swans went back-to-back in ‘04’-‘05?’ Instead, I’ve gone with something less obvious that interests me far more. Selfish yes, but at this point, you should all be used to it.
In the 2012 grand final, Sydney led by one-point at the final change. In the fourth term, it kicked four goals and two behinds, while Hawthorn kicked two goals and five behinds. Six scoring shots to seven. For the match, Hawthorn had 26 scoring shots to Sydney’s 21, yet the Bloods were ten point victors.
The final score was Hawthorn 11.15 (81) defeated by Sydney 14.7 (91) in an absolute classic. Not to take away from a great achievement by a great Sydney side, but the next three seasons went on to prove that perhaps Hawthorn was the stronger team in this one. In fact, we probably hadn’t seen a grand final where the weaker side won since 2008, when the plucky young Hawks defeated an all-time great Geelong. But that’s the way footy goes, the side that takes its chances on the day wins.
So what if Sydney’s fortunes were different in 2012 and Hawthorn didn’t drop its bundle in-front of goal? Mathematically, they would have lost. Yes, this is oversimplifying things in every way and in the end, Sydney outplayed Hawthorn in the key moments, but hey, why not speculate? The Hawks inaccuracy definitely didn’t hurt the Swans chances.
This one is controversial to say the least. Again, there’s a few obvious ‘what if’s’ I’m ignoring here, such as, ‘what if Sheed missed’, ‘what if Rioli was called for a hold’ and ‘what if Sheed was told, ‘play on’’? But I think I’ve covered those enough in previous parts of this series, so I’m going down a different road.
Andrew Gaff smashed young Andrew Brayshaw’s jaw to bits and as a result, missed the entire 2018 finals series in which his side went on to win the flag – a tough pill to swallow. However, in hindsight, did Gaff’s suspension ultimately help the Eagles go on and win?
Just look at how the side improved in his absence. Yeo, Sheed and Shuey all came into their own and started playing the best football of their careers. Grand Final day in particular – the three became a brilliant combination and in the big dance, they finished with multiple clutch goals, a Norm Smith Medal and a premiership between them.
Gaff returned in 2019 to essentially the same squad, with the addition of Nic Nat in place of Scott Lycett to play alongside Nathan Vardy (Vardy and Lycett both get an honourable mention here for dominating Grundy in the granny) and yet somehow, the Eagles got worse.
Shuey, Yeo and in particular Sheed, never found their finals form in 2019, at least not consistently, and ultimately regressed compared to 2018. Perhaps it is harsh and unfair to place this regression at Gaff’s door, who is a very good player and has played very well since coming back; but is the best version of the Eagles, one where his 30-odd touches are instead shared among West Coast’s premiership-winning midfield trio?
What if the Doggies didn’t trade for Tom Boyd?
Tom Boyd is currently 24 years old, the former number one pick should be about to enjoy the prime of his career. Instead, he’s left the league behind in order to most benefit his mental health. Now, Boyd opting for a premature retirement was clearly the best thing for him and is to be respected. However, no matter how you look at it, it’s not exactly what a club wants to see from a former number one draft pick so early in his career.
So, if given the opportunity to go back in time, knowing everything we do now, should the Bulldogs trade for Boyd again? The answer is – absolutely (Perhaps not for $7 million across seven years but you get my point).
Not only did the Bulldogs win a flag, but Tom Boyd played a SIGNIFICANT role in winning them that flag. He was my pick for the Norm Smith, kicking three goals and taking eight marks en route to dominating the Swans.
Any way you spin it, the trade paid dividends.
Securing Boyd helped the Dogs accomplish the one thing every AFL club sets out to do each season. You can talk about how he was a dud before and after that Grand Final all you like. You can say he was way too expensive or someone else might’ve won them two by now and you could even say you’d rather have someone who stuck around into his thirties – that’s fine. What can’t be disputed, is the 2016 silverware currently residing in Footscray’s cabinet; silverware that might not be there if not for Tom Boyd.
In 2016, he proved his doubters wrong and justified the Bulldogs’ faith in him. One coming-of-age game at the right time was all they needed from him.
That’s a wrap on part three of every club’s biggest ‘what if’ of the last 20 years.