A-League decade in review: The teams, players and goals that shaped Australian football in the 2010s
It’s been quite a decade for the Australian Football League.
There was that whole Essendon thing! A drawn grand final! Richmond got good! The AFLW came like a bat out of hell! Which reminds me, Meatloaf!
And in between there was a whole lot of excellent footy, despite what some punters and the game’s lawmakers would have you believe (honestly, go back and actually watch some games from the ’90s and early 2000s and tell me it was a more attractive sport back then).
As the 10s come to a close, we’re taking the time to reflect and recognise greatness, both in the form of the best one-season team and the best player we saw over the past 10 years, with some quick shout outs for the greatest goals, marks and matches too. Unfortunately, the lack of sample size means we can’t include any AFLW contenders this time around, but you can be sure that won’t be the case in 10 years’ time.
Of course, it’s all subjective so you can disagree if you like. You won’t want to, though. These are air-tight arguments.
Team of the decade
A couple of things to note before we begin this one — the idea here is not to select 22 individual players into some sort of extended All-Australian side or recognise the most successful club over the course of the 10 years, it’s to pick one team from one season as the best of the bunch.
It took them two bites at the cherry, so can the 2010 Magpies be the team of the decade? (David Crosling: AAP)
To do so, we will use these arbitrary criteria that we came up with and you are not allowed to question (because that’s against the rules, which we also created): the team’s overall record, its entertainment value and watchability, the star power it contained and the truly special moments it created.
Game of the decade
There were three great grand finals this decade — 2010 (the first one), 2012 and 2018 — but not one is taking home this honour.
It was a great decade for preliminary finals though, and Pies vs Hawks 2011, Hawks vs Cats 2013 and Hawks vs Port 2014 should all rank among the contenders. An elimination final went to extra time too, but Port Adelaide vs West Coast 2017 lacked the actual footballing quality of some of the others.
Of non-finals, the Miracle on Grass is the obvious pick of the bunch. Few will forget where they were when Brisbane came back from 117 points down at three-quarter time against Geelong, only for Ash McGrath to kick a torp from 75 metres out after the siren to win by a point and somehow simultaneously cure world hunger.
But the winner here was that outrageous 2016 preliminary final between GWS and the Western Bulldogs, a game that was played at warp speed from the first second to the last and fluctuated so haphazardly it was almost impossible to keep up. All we knew was this game meant everything to all involved, and we were having the time of our lives watching it.
So, let’s start with the records. Of the 10 premiership teams this decade, only two of them also finished on top of the ladder that year — the 2010 Magpies and the 2013 Hawks. In 2010, Collingwood went 17-1-4 with a percentage of 141.7, while three years later Hawthorn went 17-5 with a percentage of 154.6 — basically even records if you argue Hawthorn’s extra percentage cancels out turning one loss into a draw.
Interestingly, those aren’t the two best home and away records of the decade — 2011 Collingwood and 2018 Richmond take those honours — but given they failed to win premierships that year (and in the Tigers’ case failed to even make the grand final), they will not be considered.
Measuring a team’s entertainment value is trickier, and this is where pure personal preference begins to rear its ugly head.
You can use a team’s overall points for some indication. Geelong in 2011 was the highest-scoring home-and-away premier of the decade, followed by 2013 Hawthorn. It’s worth pointing out that all three of Hawthorn’s premiership teams were higher scoring than the 2010 Pies, and the 2012 grand final-losing Hawks were the highest-scoring team of all.
But the game has changed since 2010, and scoring has steadily trended down, so that’s an imperfect method of judgement. So with Opinion Mode activated, I would say the teams that brought me the most neutral joy to watch were the 2013 Hawks (the last with Buddy and the full cast), the 2016 Bulldogs (especially once they really got up and running in the finals) and the 2017 Tigers.
Once they were up and running, the 2016 Bulldogs were insanely fun to watch. (AAP Image: Julian Smith)
It’s also fair to say none of these teams was short on star power. Collingwood had four players in the 2010 All-Australian team, which is the most of any premiership side this decade, but that didn’t include Dayne Beams, Travis Cloke, Steele Sidebottom, Luke Ball or Nick Maxwell.
Goal of the decade
What are we actually looking for here?
If it’s a combined feat of strength, endurance, skill and flair you’re after, then take your pick of either of Lance Franklin’s goals against Essendon in 2010.
Eddie Betts offered up his share of contenders in terms of mind-warping audacity and skill, with the 2016 goal of the year against GWS his nadir.
But, in what some may consider a cop-out, we’re opting for a combination of most of the above, with the added benefit of literally winning a team a premiership.
For Dom Sheed to execute the way he did — given the situation, given the stakes, given the fatigue, given everything that had happened to lead him to that point in 2018 — was nothing short of remarkable. No goal meant more this decade, and it will be some time before we see another kick of its significance.
In 2013, only Jarryd Roughead and Sam Mitchell were All Australian for Hawthorn, but the best 22 is just overflowing with superstars in their absolute pomp. In fact, skimming through that team, it’s hard to imagine how it ever lost a game all season.
The 2019 Tigers and, to a lesser extent, the 2012 Swans inspire a similar amount of “my word, those are some stacked teams” reactions, while the 2011 Cats were loaded but slightly past their peak. The 16 Dogs and 18 Eagles may look even better in hindsight depending on how the clubs’ next few years go.
And then there are your magic moments — the one thing you remember about these teams. The 2010 Collingwood team probably suffers from its most memorable moment being a game it didn’t actually win. 2013 Hawthorn had the Burgoyne goal in the preliminary win over Geelong. I think of Tom Hawkins when I think of 2011 Geelong, and basically the year of Dusty with 2017 Richmond.
You could make strong cases for the 2018 Eagles or 2016 Bulldogs in this category too, especially considering the adversity these teams faced mid-season and how many remarkable results they pulled out of the bag both in the finals and the home and away.
But with all that in mind, the winner still seems fairly clear. Hawthorn of 2013 was dominant from March to September, played pure and offensive football, contained at least as many but probably more all-time champions than any side this decade and the Kennett Curse-busting prelim win remains iconic.
Put that team on the park today, and it would more than likely still wipe the floor with the league.
Player of the decade
Similar criteria can apply when trying to determine the one transcendent player of the decade, although one key factor that we will take into account is the player’s overall impact on the game and the way it is played.
Nat Fyfe won two Brownlows in the 2010s, and perhaps would have won more if not for injury. (AAP: Julian Smith)
Accolades-wise, immediately catching the eye are Nat Fyfe’s two Brownlows, Lance Franklin and Jack Riewoldt’s three Coleman Medals, Patrick Dangerfield and Franklin’s seven All Australian selections and Scott Pendlebury’s six, Dustin Martin’s pair of Norm Smith Medals and the two MVPs each won by Fyfe and Gary Ablett.
Mark of the decade
In retrospect, this was a somewhat meagre decade in terms of all-time classic marks, but there were a few standouts.
Jeremy Howe was the most consistent of the flyers, but picking his best is difficult. The OG was the 2012 “Howe did he do that?” grab against Sydney, but was that better than the 2017 Queen’s Birthday effort that somehow didn’t win mark of the year?
Another contender is Andrew Walker’s 2011 ride (again, egregiously robbed of MOTY), and then there’s a whole lot of very-good-but-not-quite-historic marks by the likes of Nic Naitanui, Liam Ryan and Liam Jurrah.
And so it is with a slight tinge of regret that this award goes to Brendon Goddard, for his efforts in the final throngs of the 2010 grand final.
Why regret? Because if St Kilda went on to win that game, as it probably should have, that mark would have become a top three of all timer. Instead, thanks to its excellence both in and out of the context of the game, it has to settle for mark of this decade.
Nobody kicked more goals than Buddy. Nobody earned more Brownlow votes than Dangerfield and nobody at a better per-game average than Fyfe. Pendlebury found the footy more than anybody else, and Sydney’s Josh Kennedy owned the contested ball and clearance stats.
Something missing? Defenders, probably, of which Alex Rance and Jeremy McGovern (five and four All Australians respectively) were the most decorated and influential. Sadly for them this, like most in the AFL, is probably a midfielder or forward’s award.
So let’s say that’s our field, though we’ll also lob in the likes of Sam Mitchell, Joel Selwood and Luke Hodge, whose peaks straddled the decades but who remained powerhouses for most of the past 10 years.
With that in mind, watchability points probably go to Buddy.
It’s splitting hairs in a way, because the brutality and brawn of Dangerfield, Fyfe and Martin or the grace of Pendlebury and Ablett may be just as engaging to you, but did anyone combine the two more often and more spectacularly than Franklin? No, they didn’t.
Most of Buddy’s signature moments came pre-2010, but this was still the decade of “THIRTEEN”, the goals against Essendon and a premiership. Of the contenders, only Martin can boast of having more influence on overall team success, and Dusty’s big-game presence must make him a serious contender.
The question of impact is interesting though. It’s hard to say Franklin inspired massive change to the game because he’s such a unique player, impossible to replicate. Off the field is another story though, and his free-agency move to Sydney changed the landscape entirely.
Few can take over and dominate a game single handedly like Patrick Dangerfield. (AAP: David Crosling)
On the other hand, players like Fyfe and Dangerfield changed what is expected of an elite midfielder, moving away from an era that sees the likes of Jack Trengove and Chris Masten as top-three draft picks and into one where the frankly massive Patrick Cripps can be a mid with nobody blinking an eye.
But across the board, Franklin cannot be ignored. He may never have an individual year better than 2008, but his body of work for two clubs over 10 years is undeniable. No player kicked more goals or struck more fear into opponents than Big Bud, and his best games are the stuff of legend.
A Swans premiership would have ended the argument completely, but even so, we’re giving the decade to Lance Franklin.