It was a question I saw posted on social media during the week and it got me thinking – how do you define it, and how far do you go back to prove it?
You can hear the commentators at the end of any given Grand Final state “this great club…” when describing the winning team, and rightfully so. They’re caught up in the moment, as are you and I. They are waxing lyrical about the achievement of winning a flag and perhaps where the team has come from, but what truly makes a great club?
The obvious answer would come in the form of premierships, so you could look at a team like Hawthorn, who have won premierships in each of the past six decades and achieved three in a row as recently as seven years ago – has it been that long, already?
But wait! I am sure people would point to recent allegations about the club and the staff and say that you cannot have a truly successful club with things like that going on, right?
Myself, I’d rather wait until the investigations are complete and all the dust is settled before making an informed assessment, but I understand that others may wish to jump the gun and label the club as whatever they feel like at this moment. To me, the Hawks actually have a larger asterisk next to their name when it comes to being hailed as a great club – they almost went under in the 1990s, even after – at that stage – four decades of flags and a golden era through the 1980s. How can you possibly classify them as a great club when they were managed so poorly that even playing in seven-straight Grand Finals was not enough to set them up for ongoing financial success?
That, amongst other questions, got me wondering how you would truly assess a great club if you were to look outside premiership success?
It turns out that when you add in a few more criteria, things change pretty quickly.
Firstly, for the sake of keeping this within a range of events that I actually know about, I limited the scope of this topic to the last 50 years? Still a small amount beyond my reach – I am not that old yet – but material is easy enough to source from this period. It should give us the chance to examine things.
So, what are the criteria?
Flags – teams must have won at least two premierships in the last 50 years. That’s only one every two and a half decades. What’s the problem?
No major scandals – Uh oh… a couple of teams may be in trouble here.
No threat of extinction – If you were on the verge of falling off the AFL cliff, you cannot be considered.
We can immediately rule out teams like Gold Coast, Fremantle, St Kilda, GWS, and the Western Bulldogs. Sorry, but no multiple premiership success means that your team has mostly sucked for the majority of the last fifty years, and in terms of Freo, GWS, and Gold Coast, since you started in the competition.
You know who is also rules out?
Melbourne – one flag in the last 50 years just isn’t good enough. Plus, there was the whole tanking situation that probably would have ruled them out.
Let’s move on to the next criteria
Aaaaand, we start with those brown-paper-bag-loving Blues. Carlton were hammered by the AFL for salary cap breaches and is yet to fully recover, with its premiership drought now the longest in its history, spanning 27 years. They had draft picks taken from them and it set them back years. Since then, it has been a long line of pretty ordinary teams from the Blues and as we head toward 2023, we are only now seeing a Carlton team looking like it has the nucleus to become a threat again.
Of course, they have to do more than threaten – they’ve been doing that for a while, now. Their fans must be sick to death of it.
Essendon… come out to play-ay.
Well, at least they’ve won a flag this century, I suppose….
But the Supplement Saga, whether you’re convinced it was all true or an AFL witch hunt, wounded this club deeply. They are a pretty proud mob, the Bombers, but that ordeal tore the heart out of both the team and supporters (hell, there were a few neutrals – myself included – that hated everything about it). It’s enough to exclude them from the running.
I covered the Dees above, but they get the double-whammy of having little on-field success coupled with being whacked for their part in a scandal – the tanking saga. And far out, all they got out of it was Tom Scully and Jack Trengove. Ripped off!
North Melbourne – You can thank Wayne Carey and his wandering penis for your exclusion. I wrote about the Essendon stuff tearing the heart out of the club, but I have never seen a group of supporters as deflated as the Kangaroos supporters in the days after the Carey-Kelli Stevens affair broke. It shattered them.
West Coast – They may have managed to fight back from a very dark period in their history to once again reign as premiers in 2018, but there was a time when certain players were able to run their own race and go largely unpunished. At least one premiership cannot be mentioned without bringing up drug use by those involved at the cub at the time. Ben Cousins’ exploits have been well-documented, but others from that era had their share of headlines for the wrong resons, as well. Chad Fletcher’s Las Vegas flatline, and the death of Chris Mainwaring are incidents that hang, like a dark cloud, over the club.
The Adelaide Crows are still living in the shadows of the infamous camp following their loss to Richmond in the Grand Final in 2017. The divisive and controversial camp saw several players speak out against what occurred and soured them on the club as a whole. The Crows have not played finals since.
And then we have Collingwood.
You know, I was close to having them make it all the way to the end.
WTF, HB? Don’t you remember the racism stuff from just a couple of years ago, and the Heretier Lumumba stuff? Eddie McGuire quitting and all that?
Well, yeah… of course I do. But at the same time, I genuinely believe that as more clubs do reviews of this nature, we are going to see quite a few go through something similar.
Still, their stuff is out in the open and the club has come out the other side and it consititutes a scandal, cost people their jobs, and caused a lot of hurt. They’re out, too.
So, before we hit the final category, we have 12 clubs out of the running. How many will be left after this one.
BEING ON THE VERGE OF EXTINCTION
Do we label Richmond a great club?
Great in terms of numbers and flags, yes.
Now, they’re a powerhouse.
But I am old enough to remember them tin rattling to “save our skins” in 1990 – ten years after raising the flag and eight years after playing off for the ultimate prize. A three-peat kind of makes you forget these things…
Yes, they turned it around in a big way, but to be a great club within these criteria, you can’t be begging for coins.
Hawthorn, as mentioned in the opening to this column, have had a huge amount of on-field success, but after seven-straight Grand Finals to finish the 80s and another flag in 1991, the wheels almost completely fell off, culminating in a town hall meeting where Don Scott tore a velcro Hawk off a Melbourne jumper. I really should have gone to that meeting
Sure, they rallied and went on another premiership blitz, but I’m sorry boys… you almost went out of business, and there is nothing great about that.
Melbourne has the inauspicious “honour” of featuring in every category. It should not be lost that their members actually voted in favour of the merger with Hawthorn.
And North Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs have both picked up their second category here, as both have gone cap-in-hand on occasion, as well.
So, where does that leave us? 14 of the 18 clubs cannot be considered great under these criteria. Maybe I am being too harsh?
Too late now.
Here are the remaining contenders.
Hmmmm, could I have added Sydney to one of the teams that almost went out of business due to their relocation?
Maybe, but I opted not to. They moved to a great situation.
Shunted away from South Melbourne in 1980, it took the Swans 25 years to finally bring home their first premiership as a true Sydney team, but they did it, and backed it up with a 2012 triumph, as well.
Despite being in a rugby league stronghold, the Swans have carved out a beautiful little niche in the Australian sporting landscape, and have consistently found a way to attract some of the biggest names in the game.
They were one game away from making it flags in each of the last three decades and with a young list full of potential, may yet achieve that accolade.
With premierships in the 2000s, 2010s, and not the 2020s, the Geelong Cats have cemented themselves as one of the greatest teams of the modern era.
Located away from Melbourne, they are in the unique position of being able to cultivate homegrown players via the Geelong Falcons and their own VFL side, as well as being close enough to the big city to attract players from all over the country.
A parade of champions has led to sustained success at the Cats, with the 2022 premiership the icing on the cake for the careers of players such as Joel Selwood, Patrick Dangerfield, and Tom Hawkins.
After merging,… or taking over the Fitzroy Football Club following the 1996 season, it did not take the Lions long to craft a premiership, or three. With Leigh Matthews at the helm, the Lions swept aside the highly-fancied Essendon team in 2001 and went on to win the next two flags as well, with a gathering of football talent that could arguably be the best ever assembled.
The time after the three-peat, however, has not been as kind to the Lions, with a long period spent languishing at the tail end of the ladder preceding the period from 2019 until the present where they have emerged as contenders again under Chris Fagan.
Oh, I can hear Adelaide fans fuming at their inclusion, and that’s okay, because I have decided to include Port’s SANFL Flags, as well.
Well, it is pretty hard to win flags in the AFL when you’re not part of it. That’d make 14 flags in the last 50 years, no serious scandals, and… only a bit of an AFL leg-up when it comes to finances. Cue more Crows anger.
Sure, just the one AFL Flag works heavily against them, and I am taking this into consideration when I get to the club that will be hailed as “great” at the end of this column, but to ignore Port’s dominance in the SANFL and their ability to transition to the AFL and win a flag within ten years would be foolish. It is a monumental achievement.
SO, WHAT IS THE DECISION? WHICH TEAM COULD BE LABELLED THE “GREAT CLUB” AT THE MOMENT?
God damn it… it’s Geelong.
This is not just recency bias, although winning the flag in 2022 certainly didn’t hurt at all.
Geelong have been a finals mainstay for years on end. They were strong in the late eighties, all the way through the early to mid-90s, won flags in the 2000s, again in 2011, and here they are back at the top of the heap in 2022 after making finals for 15 of the last 16 years.
They have built a team, and culture that draws players to it, and when players are at Geelong, they get the best out of them.
As I have mentioned in just every article about the Cats since September… damn them, those glorious bastards.
BUT WHAT ABOUT…
Yeah, I know… you have some questions. I knew you would – allow me to try to answer some before you ask.
HB, you spoke so highly of the number of Port Adelaide flags. What happened?
Dude, I may have counted them, but they still won them in the SANFL while a better competition was being played all over the country. Seven of those flags came after the VFL became the AFL, so by that stage, if not before, Port winning SANFL Flags was like a team winning the reserves flag. Sure, you could only beat whoever was in front of you, but there were a lot better teams out there, in a better competition. At the end of the day, the team has only one AFL Flag, so were lucky not to be out of the running based on that.
But Geelong have had their share of controversies. Gary Ablett Senior, for instance. What about that?
An absolute tragedy, and yes, a huge scandal, but it occurred four years after Ablett left the club. He was a grown man making poor decisions – Geelong are not his baby sitters.
You’re not giving Brisbane’s three-peat enough credit
Maybe, but what I am doing is giving their other years just as much focus as the three-peat years, and they’re not pretty, either as the Brisbane Lions, Fitzroy or the Bears. Their flame burnt so brightly, but really, so briefly. A win in 2020, when the deck was stacked in their favour, may have changed things.
Would the 2022 flag have made a difference if the result was reversed?
Maybe, although Geelong’s sustained position as contender for the last 16 years is bloody impressive.
Had the Swans got up, it would have made them the team with flags in each of the last three decades – not the Cats.
How can you downplay the flags of Hawthorn over the last 50 years? Premierships in the 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, and 10s.
Yeah, by sticking to the criteria I set out. Despite those flags in the 70s, 80s and 90s, they almost went belly up by 96 – five years after winning a flag. That’d be like the Western Bulldogs being close to merging with Gold Coast last year. You’d consider that a monumental failure on the part of their management, right? A monumental failure by the club?
It was bloody close to happening to the Hawks.
At the end of the day, you may have your own opinion as to what constitutes a great club, and that’s cool. Personally, I don’t really care too much about scandals – we don’t cover them at The Mongrel Punt because they’re New Idea/Herald Sun crap. I care about success, so I found myself arguing against my own sensibilities with this article at points. The Cats get up under the criteria, but to me the Hawks are the most successful in the only category that matters – flags.