Ecstasy, agony, history: The AFL’s biggest stories in 2022

    It’s fair to say that 2022 was the year we had to have in footy after two years of Covid setbacks. And the season had it all – extraordinary controversies that emerged from nowhere, heartwarming comebacks and fairytale storylines, the return of Victorian crowds and a goal-kicking milestone we may never experience again. Glenn McFarlane looks at the moments that mattered in 2022.1. CAT EMPIRE RULESIt wasn’t just that Geelong fulfilled what some thought was its destiny by winning a fourth flag in 16 seasons – and its first in a decade – but it was the devastating manner in which Chris Scott’s team made it happen. They proved modern marvels, bucking every AFL equalisation measure, including age, list profile and first-round draft picks. On Grand Final day they selected the oldest team in history – at an average age of 28 years and a half years – and saluted with one of the most clinical premiership wins. Who says you need to rebuild? Regeneration on the run will do the Cats fine.2. HAWKS’ FIRST NATIONS REPORTHawthorn’s external review into its history with First Nations players was always going to make big news, but no one could have envisaged its seismic impact. Within 12 hours of an ABC report on the review, two AFL coaches – Alastair Clarkson and Chris Fagan – stood down pending an AFL independent probe but now back working. Both fiercely deny the explosive allegations of “bullying and intimidation”, while North Melbourne and Brisbane have stood behind their coaches. So much rides on the outcome of the independent investigation for so many people.3. BUDDY’S 1000TH GOALBuddy Franklin became the sixth player in history to push through the 1000-goal barrier in the Round 2 SCG clash with Geelong. It sparked a fan invasion as a sea of red and white charged onto the ground. It forced players to seek refuge wherever they could, with two Swans exiting onto Driver Avenue. Buddy revelled in the moment as the Foo Fighters’ ‘My Hero’ played across the speakers. There was a 20-minute delay before the game was restarted. The moment will go down in history as Franklin potentially became the last player to reach that magical figure.4. THE BROWNLOW BOMBSHELLPatrick Cripps always looked like a Brownlow medallist; now he has the medal to match. But his 2022 victory didn’t come without some controversy. The Carlton midfielder polled three votes in the round 23 loss to Collingwood to overtake Brisbane’s Lachie Neale by one vote. Six weeks earlier, he had been ineligible for a few days … after being suspended for two games for high contact on Lion Callum Ah Chee. A subsequent appeal – which lasted longer than the Brownlow count – cleared Cripps on a technicality, much to the AFL’s initial chagrin. But the real bombshell came post season when an AFL umpire, Michael Pell, was among a group of four men arrested over suspicious betting activity on this year’s medal count. It was alleged that Pell leaked information on who would receive votes in multiple games he officiated in. Victoria Police has widened its investigation into the scandal.5. GILL QUITS, BUT INKS RICHEST TV DEAL. NOW FOR TASSIE?The AFL chief executive made the big call in April, setting up one of the longest farewell tours in the game. Gill will remain in the role until round 5 next year, given the key issues he needs to finalise. He negotiated the biggest TV rights deal in Australian sporting history (worth $4.5 billion) and is now trying to close out a collective bargaining deal, a proposed new Tassie team and the probe into Hawthorn’s First Nations’ report before he leaves. He even got to dance with Delta Goodrem, and locked in Robbie Williams as grand final entertainment.6. YEAR OF THE COMEBACKHas there ever been a season with as many emotional comebacks? The off-field embrace between Carlton’s Sam Docherty and North Melbourne’s Ben Cunnington – who have both fought back from testicular cancer – in round 7 was one of the moments of the season. Docherty’s goal in the round 1 match against Richmond almost brought the house down, as did Cunnington’s first game in almost 400 days in round 22. Former No. 1 draft pick Paddy McCartin missed two seasons after eight separate concussions, but never gave up the fight as he transformed from Sydney rookie-listed selection to a grand final player. Essendon’s Michael Hurley was granted a farewell game having been to hell and back following a serious hip infection. Coleman Medallist Charlie Curnow silenced those who wondered if his knees would allow him to reach his best again. And Tyson Stengle capped off his own remarkable redemption story with a premiership medal.7. ESSENDON’S IMPLOSION Just over six months ago Mick Malthouse tipped Essendon to win the 2022 premiership. That seems an eternity ago, given the Bombers’ annus horribilis in their 150th year. They won two games in the first half of the season – and seven overall – before the president, chief executive and coach ended up departing. New president David Barham made an unsuccessful bid for Alastair Clarkson. The fact that Rutten was forced to coach out the final game knowing he would most likely be sacked the next day was a cruel end to another poor season. They’ve bounced back quickly signing Brad Scott as coach and the well-respected Craig Vozzo as CEO.8. THE RACE FOR CLARKOOne of the biggest news stories of the season centred on which club would win the race for Alastair Clarkson. Greater Western Sydney were the first to publicly speak with him after the Giants parted company with Leon Cameron. North Melbourne entered the fray after sacking David Noble as coach. Then at the eleventh hour Essendon made an approach. Clarkson chose his former club, the Kangaroos, over the Bombers. 9. PERFECT SEL It’s hard to think of a more apt conclusion to an AFL career than Joel Selwood’s grand final day exit. The Geelong skipper knew it would be his 355th – and final – game and he made the most of it. He carried out Levi Ablett – the son of his former teammate Gary – before the game, he dragged much loved footy department assistant Sam Moorfoot onto the ground to celebrate and he presented a pair of boots to the Auskicker in the Year. Oh yes, and he was also one of the Cats’ best in the grand final, securing his fourth premiership. Some of the other big name 2022 farewells included Eagle Josh Kennedy (who signed off with eight goals), Swan Josh Kennedy, Docker David Mundy, Tigers Shane Edwards and Kane Lambert, Saint Jarryn Geary, Paddy Ryder and Dan Hannebery, Hawks Ben McEvoy and Liam Shiels, and Bombers Michael Hurley and Devon Smith, to name a few.10. YEAR OF THE PIES’ COMEBACKSCraig McRae and his Collingwood side did something many thought was impossible. The way they played the game, and fought back from seemingly impossible positions had rival fans acknowledging the black and white ride. McRae would help lift the Magpies from 17th to footy’s penultimate weekend, winning Coach of the Year honours. Collingwood created history by becoming the first team in VFL-AFL history to win 11 matches by two goals or less, culminating in the Round 23 fightback to sink Carlton. And a kid called Nick Daicos announced himself as a star.11. DEMONS DUST-UP Melbourne’s 2022 premiership defence looked impregnable after 10 rounds. Then along came the Entrecote restaurant mid-year get-together which resulted in a Demons’ dust-up between Steven May and Jake Melksham. May upset those in attendance with his behaviour and a few choice words. Melksham ended up having hand surgery as a result of his altercation. It would be incorrect to suggest this moment was the downfall of the Demons in 2022, but it created a news yarn Simon Goodwin and the Demons could have done without. It wasn’t just that. The Herald Sun revelations about Melbourne, its board angst and the coach in the aftermath of the 2020 season came to light, providing an awkward backdrop to their flag defence.12. THE DE GOEY SAGAWas there a footballer who made as many headlines as Jordan De Goey this season? The year started with a probe into a drunken incident in a New York nightclub late last year which resulted in a court appearance via Zoom and a $10,000 donation to charity. There was his mid-season trip to Bali, with social media footage of him creating a controversy the Magpies didn’t need, as well as a $25,000 suspended fine from the club. Collingwood took a contract offer off the table for a time, then he produced a stunning second half of the season to help the Magpies go deep into the finals. A bigger, longer contract was then on offer (with some conditions) as well as strong interest from St Kilda. But he ultimately chose to stay with the Magpies.13. BAILEY’S BLUNDERWhat happens when photos and a video emerge of one of the AFL’s most marketable young footballers appearing to use an illicit substance? Simple. Bailey Smith got on the front foot and owned his mistake. He copped a two-game ban from the AFL for ‘conduct becoming’ – served alongside his two-week suspension for headbutting Zach Tuohy. Explaining his own mental health battle after last year’s grand final, he admitted he “spiralled out of control” for a short period of time late last year before football helped him get back on track again.14. BLUES IN ALL SEASON … THEN OUTIt still seems bizarre that Michael Voss’ Blues sat inside the top eight at the conclusion of every round, except one … the one that mattered. Carlton won eight of its first 10 matches and looked certain finalists for all but the last month of the season when their inability to close out games hurt big time. They lost five of their last six games including two heartbreaking losses in the final two rounds against Melbourne and Collingwood, giving up late red-time goals.15. DISSENT OVER DISSENT RULE The AFL went into the season with a near-zero tolerance for umpire dissent in an effort to improve the treatment of the whistleblowers at all levels of the game. But as admirable as the motive was, the execution left much to be desired. The strict interpretation ended up being counter-productive. After weeks of controversy, the AFL was forced to dial it back, given the way it was impacting games where body language was used as a means for 50m penalties. It came in a season in which the Herald Sun revealed a secret 62-page AFL report on the abuse of female umpires at all levels that stunned the footy public.16. CLUTCH GOALSIn a season of spectacular comebacks and clutch goals across the competition, Jamie Elliott, Noah Anderson and Jordan Dawson deserve special mention. All three won games for their respective clubs Collingwood, Gold Coast and Adelaide after the final siren. Elliott’s mark in between two Essendon players in the last 30 seconds of the Round 19 clash followed one of the most spectacular coast to coast passages of play from Collingwood. With nerves of steel, he nailed the goal from 50m on the boundary line. Anderson did the same thing for the Suns in sinking Richmond with pinpoint accuracy. Dawson’s kick in the Showdown clash looked more awkward but bent back when it mattered to secure the win.17. BEVO’S BLOW-UPThey call it the fifth quarter and Luke Beveridge’s round 1 press conference after the loss to Melbourne was like few others in recent times. The Bulldogs coach launched a verbal outburst at Fox Footy’s Tom Morris over selection news he had revealed earlier in the week that Lachie Hunter would not be selected in the starting side. In a compelling presser that went live to air, Beveridge accused Morris of “preying on the Bulldogs … causing turmoil within our football club” and of barracking for the Demons. The coach would later apologise and Morris would depart Fox Footy a few days later on an unrelated matter.18. EDDIE’S EMOTION Eddie Betts’ book – ‘The Boy from Boomerang Crescent’ – lifted the lid on the Crows’ now-infamous 2018 pre-season camp and detailed how it had affected him as a footballer and as a person. An emotional Betts revealed how he was left traumatised and disrespected by the cultural sensitivities he and others had to endure on the camp. It shocked the footy world and finally brought an apology from the Crows to Betts.19. GINNIVAN RULES Jack Ginnivan started 2022 as a five-game Magpie who was almost unknown. He ended it as one of the most recognisable players in the game. Part of that was due to his strong form this season (40 goals) and his Anzac Medal win, but it also came back to the head-high debate that divided the footy world. Was Ginnivan being denied head-high free kicks because of a perception he had played for them earlier in the season? Leigh Matthews said he was “disturbed” in the manner that Ginnivan was being adjudicated, saying an incident with Mason Redman “showed the fabric of the game was under attack.”20. FOOTY’S THE WINNERHow good was footy in 2022? When even the great Leigh Matthews suggests it is the best season he can remember, it says something. The standard of football was outstanding, with extra attacking layers; the personal and team stories were next level; the crowds returned in Melbourne after two years of pandemic restrictions; and after a slow start with attendances, we ended up with 6.1 million fans attending the home and away footy before the crowds went through the roof in the finals. This was a season to absolutely savour.

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