AFL in the 2010s – snapshot moments that created a decade of greatness and stories

A smother, as quiet and sneaky as can be on the loudest stage. An errant snap, thrown onto the left boot in desperation and hope, the ball unaware of just how perfectly it will land for Sydney-siders. There’s the two instances of meaty, strong hands snatching the Sherrin out of the air – one is Brian Lake extinguishing all hope of a maiden Premiership for Fremantle, the other Jeremy McGovern giving his team their last shot at glory that they would infamously take. A smile, tears in the eye, and the ruffle of hair as master Beveridge gives his faithful captain Murphy the medal he dearly deserved, but hadn’t been awarded. And, of course, there’s the brutal mastery of the brown and gold (all directed by that grinning Clarkson) and the deafening roar of that force from Punt Road.

The 2010s gave us a decade of AFL football that was as spellbinding as could be. In 10 years, two new teams came into the men’s league, while the introduction of the AFLW gave us plenty of sides and a buffet of undiscovered talent that was swiftly pounced upon. There were hard luck stories, thrilling finishes and a couple of fairy tale stories that beggar belief. Don’t forget the dynasties that were established, and the rivalries that were borne out of this period of frenzy football.

On the eve of the 2020 season, we stand as a sporting code that is rich, successful and as popular as ever. The game is steadily increasing its international appeal, while AFL continues to provide its faithful devotees the cruelty and warmth that they dip their hands in for. To understand how the game has gotten to this point, it’s best to recap the past 10 years that were.

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Delegates of the 18 members of the AFL before the 2019 season (WWOS Nine)

New beginnings

The start of the decade saw hope and optimism at an all-time high.

Geelong’s reign of superiority appeared to have detonated when Collingwood humbled them on an awe-inspiring Friday night Preliminary Final in 2010, before romping on to win the flag in a one-sided replay after a draw that stirred controversy and tempted hearts to leave the safety of one’s mouth.

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Heath Shaw rushes to Collingwood’s Ben Johnson after a dazzling running goal against the Cats in the 2010 Preliminary Final (Collingwood FC)

With this change of the guard came more introductions. We saw the Gold Coast Suns enter the league; the newest expansion team since Fremantle joined the competition in 1995. In a new dawn for the league, they would be led by the best player currently roaming the 17-team competition in Gary Ablett Jr. Alongside the novelty experiment of ex-rugby player Karmichael Hunt on the list of the surfers up north, AFL entered 2011 in a heightened state of mystery and excitement.

That was, until Gold Coast flopped under its lofty expectations and Geelong, under new coach Chris Scott, restored order with a third Premiership in five years. This win would be the pinnacle of their decade, but this undersells the constant success the club has held up throughout the years.

What we didn’t know was that 2012 would begin the new order. And, despite an 18th team being added into the league from Western Sydney, the leading regime stripping the Cats of their glory would be from the eastern suburbs of Melbourne.

A shattering loss that stirred a thunderous dynasty

There appeared to be little match for Alastair Clarkson’s Hawks when they jumped out of the box and made a mockery of the 2012 home and away season. They stripped GWS and Gold Coast of their fanfare, instead repping a measured brand of football that played off smart recruiting for precision kicks and wise heads. Partner this with the exhilarating X-factor of Cyril Rioli and Lance Franklin, and the Hawks appeared destined to lift a second cup after their 2008 upset over those mighty Cats. Instead, the Hawthorn thoroughbred was about to be pipped at the post by a better Horse.

Hawthorn, after looking invincible all year (except for when they played Geelong under the guise of that Kennett Curse), stumbled to a heart-stopping Preliminary Final win against Adelaide. Fast-forward a week, and an underrated Sydney outfit looked to have worked out a way to defeat Hawthorn halfway through the Grand Final. However, Franklin became unstoppable and the Hawks clicked into gear right when they needed to. Enter Sydney’s hardened brigade of midfielders. Then, stir in Nick Malceski and one of the greatest Grand Final goals we will see. Who can forget that optimistic throw of the left leg through the Sherrin, which hoisted up on the swirly MCG wind and flew through for the Premiership-clinching major? John Longmire will never forget.

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The moment – Nick Malceski throws the ball on his boot to sink Hawthorn hearts and lift the Swans to a famous flag in 2012 (Sydney Swans FC)

If this heartbreak signalled Hawthorn’s crushing, desolate fans had to wait only a season. Following Brian Lake’s clutch defensive effort in the tense Grand Final victory over a nervy Fremantle, they then heaped on the pain with two teaspoons of Grand Final day destruction. The key ingredients? A wince-inducing display by Messrs Hodge, Lewis and Mitchell. Then, throw in a pinch of Rioli magic to destroy West Coast in a single quarter. The result? Three Premierships in a row – the perfect remedy for that 2012 loss.

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Jarryd Roughead, Luke Hodge and Jordan Lewis all hold one of three Cups they won in a row as Hawks (AFL Media)

By the 2016 season, the competing teams (with Gold Coast and GWS now solidifying into competitive outfits, at least for the meanwhile) knew they had to scheme something special to oust the rampant Hawks. Little did they know, the defeat of this AFL empire would take nothing mental, only pure emotion and a wave of momentum so large it brought the ‘G crashing down with one goal borne off instinct.

A one in a million run at the Cup

Hawthorn, surprise surprise, sat in that sweet spot once again. That powerful part of the ladder, where they were perched in the top four with a double chance yet weren’t in the top two and bridled by expectation. Not that any of it mattered – they had come off three consecutive flags. Expectation was paramount – they were a modern machine. Then, Isaac Smith dragged his shot to the right, and Hawthorn’s plan for four in a row took a sharp turn.

What happened seven days later tore up their script. No one expected the Bulldogs, limping to Perth full of injuries and doubts, to blitz West Coast on their notorious home deck. But what they did to Hawthorn on that Friday night at the ‘G changed the landscape of football. Bontempelli beat Hodge. Picken wreaked havoc. Stringer was bursting with X-factor. Despite a strong start, the Bulldogs leapt back into it and then streaked away with the match, causing a ruckus at the home of footy that eventually spread to the lowly lands of Blacktown. There, a settled start brought a tight game between one team dripping with talent and another full of dogged spirit. In finals footy, the latter gritted their teeth and Jack Macrae’s late goal sent the crazed Doggies into a Grand Final.

Once again underdogs, the might of Franklin, Kennedy, McVeigh, Parker and Jack appeared to be too strong for the plucky team from Victoria’s Western suburbs when the Sydney-siders pulled away not long before half-time. However, Picken continued to be a joker in the pack, while Tom Boyd earnt every single cent of his mind-blowing contract on that fateful afternoon at the MCG. When he capitalised on Dale Morris’ gutsy run down of Buddy and sent the ball through the big sticks, it was over. In a scintillating month, the AFL had seen the greatest Premiership ever won, from the most inconspicuous of positions. It’s hard to top a moment in time where footy was as popular and adored.

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Tom Boyd throws his hands up in elation after slotting that Grand Final goal against the Swans in 2016 (Getty Images)

Enter the strong and bold, with one almighty upset along the way

Fast forward a summer, and the hype around the Bulldogs had grown.

We had witnessed that emotional victory, against all odds. We’d seen Luke Beveridge drape that Jock McHale Medal over Robert Murphy’s slender neck and embrace in pure understanding. Now, that month of football had us all thinking the Bulldogs were going to create something even more special.

Give it a season, and we all soon came to realise why that September of 2016 was so special; the Bulldogs put everything they had into that. Many players wouldn’t be the same again, some wouldn’t even take the field again. They had defeated the Hawthorn regime, but had left the canvas open, begging some new outfit to take the reigns and seize control of the competition. And that’s what Damien Hardwick did.

There was plenty of turnover in 2017. The AFLW started, its first season turning into numerous more that now pushes women to the forefront of the AFL’s new age. We gained a whole new bunch of heroes, through the likes of Harris, Vescio, Phillips and Brennan. For the ardent fans at Punt Road, the likes of Dustin Martin and Trent Cotchin were about to headline the latest batch of eternal Richmond heroes inductees.

Coming out of nowhere, the lamenting Tigers had a point to prove. Hardwick was lucky to remain in the job. Brendan Gale and his board survived bloodshed. Yet, after a victorious opening month to the 2017 season, the faithful had their tails up. By September, they had barred setbacks and began purring. Pouncing on Geelong on a Friday night Qualifying Final, the Tigers suddenly had a clear road to the cup, unobstructed by Victorian hands. Suddenly Hardwick and Gale were geniuses who had done no wrong.

Overcoming GWS, they faced the ominous Crows. Full of players who could reach great heights or blow up terribly, Richmond faced the latter after heaping on an abundance of pressure. With their star player strutting around, tattoos ablaze on an overcast Saturday arvo and an imprint of his recent Brownlow Medal still etched onto his neck, the Tigers didn’t look back.

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It’s all about Dusty: the man himself collects one of many touches on his way to the 2017 Norm Smith Medal and Premiership (WWOS Nine)

Nor did they when 2018 came and went, sweeping through the league and appearing as unbeatable as Phar Lap. Then, the unthinkable happened.

A breeze stirred in the air. Collingwood and Richmond met, clashing like cymbals in a Friday night MCG Preliminary Final. Creating a cacophony of noise, it was a Texan and an outspoken young star who shone brightest for the Pies. Richmond went from being a roaring bunch of Tigers to meowing kittens within one Mason Cox-dominated quarter, and the Pies brought Richmond’s rampant season to an early close. Jordan De Goey put his off-season antics to the back of everyone’s mind when he slotted four majors on Alex Rance; the premier defender of the decade. However, in true Collingwood fashion, they didn’t finish the job. If it wasn’t for Jeremy McGovern and his broken ribs, they may have won that elusive flag for Nathan Buckley. Instead, Dom Sheed struck that Sherrin sweetly and the Eagles became the toast of the town.

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Mason Cox in the midst of destroying the dominant Tigers in the 2018 Preliminary Final (Michael Dodge/ AFL Media/ Getty Images)

If 2018 was an anomaly, Richmond produced a similar effort to 2017 to claim redemption. They started off 2019 decently, cruised through the season and hit form come September. It’s remarkable to think a Premiership favourite at the end of the home and away season sat in third position, and having to travel interstate to play their first final. What we learnt was that Richmond are remarkable, right down to the innate twists of Marlion Pickett and the pulsing forearms of a Dustin Martin fend-off. There was grace and power combined as the Giants, who made their first Grand Final, were crushed in true 2017-Adelaidean spirit. Behind all of this stood the glistening surfer-boy of Nat Fyfe, completing his trail back from injury to claim a second Brownlow Medal and cement his position as a one-man machine for the hapless Dockers.

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Marlion Pickett twisting, turning and snapping his way to hero status in just one game (Herald Sun)

Now, we look to a new decade and wonder how long this Richmond era will continue, and eagerly await what teams ascend to glory or cause almighty upsets. If the 2010s were anything to go by, it’ll be wild, unpredictable and exhilarating.

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