When we talk about the history of Australian football we know that the game has been around since at least 1857. The Premiership race is younger, having being contested since 1897, and it remains the yardstick, by which success is measured.
Even then the game was like a bower bird, collecting bits and pieces from other games, like rugby, soccer (football) and other forms of ‘football’, including the fore-runners to Gaelic football, and even an Aboriginal form of a ‘ball’ game.
The early administrators were constantly searching for a better spectacle. The match ball itself has been through many different iterations, but probably began life as a round ball, replaced by differing sizes of a rugby ball until 1880, when the oval ball was designed by Thomas Sherrin. As those who love the game will agree, the administrators will never rest in their quest for that better spectacle.
When searching for the best team, or even the best season we need to turn to the statistical record, because many of the most successful eras have passed from living memory. From Collingwood’s four in a row in the 1920s, to Melbourne’s dominance in the 1950s, even to Hawthorn’s dominance of the 1980s, we are no longer able to rely only on eye-witnesses.
So there is much to be compared, over the years. Carlton did not win its first premiership until 1906, but followed up with wins in ’07 and ’08. They also made the Grand Final in 1909 and 1910, but lost both games. So Carlton played in five Grand Finals in a row, and won three flags, in a row. This was the first such achievement by a VFL club. By 1916 Carlton had won six premierships. The side of 1908 lost just one game for the year, in a competition where there were 10 sides.
They were ‘managed’ from 1902-1909 by Jack Worrall, although his role was more like that of the current head coach. He had been an Australian test cricketer, and an outstanding footballer for Fitzroy. He left Carlton after eight years, due to a player revolt about player payments, and his strict discipline. Worrall was also staunchly opposed to alcohol consumption, which did not help his relationship with his players.
Many older followers of the game still talk of Collingwood’s team in the late 1920s and 1930s as the greatest team ever. Between 1927 and 1930 they won four successive premierships, with a winning percentage of 86% of their games over the period, and an average winning margin of around five goals.
The team became known as “The Machine”, mainly for their ruthless efficiency. They were coached by Jock McHale, and the team boasted the likes of Sid and Gordon Coventry, and Albert and Harry Collier. Sid Coventry and both the Collier brothers won Brownlow medals while accruing their-four-in-a-row flags. Their 1929 team also managed to win every game for the season, a feat no other team has equalled.
Melbourne won three successive flags, from 1939-1941. Coached by Checker Hughes, Norm Smith was at full-forward; Percy Beames in the forward pocket. Fred Fanning was added to the 1940 team, which gave it awesome fire-power. They then quickly dropped down the ladder, and stayed there until their next great era.
That period of dominance was when they played in seven consecutive grand finals, from 1954 to 1960, winning five premierships, including three in a row from 1955 to 1957. If Collingwood hadn’t stopped them in 1958, they would have won six in a row, but football is an unforgiving game. There are no second prizes.
The 1980s belonged to the Hawks. Hawthorn won flags in 1983, 1986, 1988 & 1989, and 1991. They appeared on the last day of September seven times straight, from 1983-1989, winning four, with 1991 the fifth of the period.
Players like Leigh Matthews, Dermot Brereton, Chris Langford, Gary Ayres and Michael Tuck racked up premierships like there was no tomorrow. Essendon won two in a row in the mid eighties, but Hawthorn’s dominance re-asserted itself at the end of the decade.
The 1990s was not dominated by any one team, although Adelaide’s first two flags, won in 1997 & 1998, were surprising. They showed us how good players like Darren Jarman and Andrew McLeod were, although many fans had not seen much of them, before the big games. Adelaide’s premierships were sandwiched between two North Melbourne premierships, in 1996 & ’99. North Melbourne boasted the presence of Wayne Carey, judged by many to be, if not the best player ever, then thereabouts.
Essendon had been the outstanding team for 1999, leading the ladder for the last seven rounds. They were beaten by a freakish tackle in the dying seconds of the Preliminary Final, which saw them crash out of the finals. Their 2000 season is considered by many to be the most outstanding season ever played, but on looking at their record, the ‘best ever’ team only managed one flag, from three years of dominance. Not really comparable with the teams already mentioned, so no cigar for the Bombers.
The Brisbane Lions beat Essendon in the 2001 Grand Final. They then followed up, making it a hat-trick. Their seasons were not particularly impressive, but they managed to be there on Grand Final day, and they managed to beat all comers. Their fall from contention was quick and ongoing. While the Lions at their best were the equal of any teams we might have seen, they lasted at the top for four years, achieved three flags, and dropped off the radar for fifteen years.
Their team was coached by Leigh Matthews, and it had Alastair Lynch, Jonathan Brown, Michael Voss and Simon Black in their ranks. While they were a truly formidable team on their day, it is still surprising that they fell away so suddenly, and for so long.
Geelong won in 2007, 2009 & 2011. They were the form team of the era, and never really went through a rebuild, but Geelong did not dominate the competition. They did inspire it.
Hawthorn did become a genuine force, and they did dominate the competition. Under Coach Alastair Clarkson the Hawks took all before them, winning the 2008 premiership and gradually building to the “three-peat” of 2013-2015.
Clarkson is seen as a master coach, and his teams over the years has included Luke Hodge, Sam Mitchell, Lance Franklin, Cyril Rioli and Jarryd Roughead. The Hawks have since fallen out of contention, but he has taken them from the depths to four Premierships in 15 years.
The Richmond team of the past five years has managed to transform how the game is played, with the term ‘chaos football’ a popular descriptor of their style. The Tigers have dominated the finals in those years, winning three flags along the way. At the moment, Richmond are not convincing anybody. They look to be ‘done’ for this year, and so a reign of three or four years does not a dynasty make.
Although it grieves me to say it, and with only the statistics to support them, the Collingwood team of the 1920s has probably edged the Melbourne team of the 1950s. They lasted longer, at or near the top, than the other teams. And they won four in a row. No other team achieved that. Ever. And no team has gone through a season undefeated, except for Collingwood, in 1929. They must have been a fairly handy team.