BIG STORY COUNTDOWN, 50-41 (L-R): Taylor Walker, Callum Mills, Harry Sheezel, Jack Ginnivan. Pictures: AFL Photos

COLLINGWOOD produced a 2023 full of storylines that punctuated one of the greatest AFL seasons, while the game was left stunned by a premiership coach's departure and a controversy that resulted in another taking leave. 

There were significant personnel changes in the highest levels at AFL House, a new themed round that captured the imagination, and an exciting generation of young stars that asserted themselves on the game as champions departed.

In's annual six-part series, we count down the biggest football stories of 2023 and the season's most memorable on-field moments, starting with 50-41. 

PART ONE 50-41 Biggest stories of 2023
PART TWO 40-31 Biggest stories of 2023
PART THREE 30-21 Biggest stories of 2023
PART FOUR 20-11 Biggest stories of 2023
PART FIVE 10-6 Biggest stories of 2023
PART SIX 5-1 Biggest stories of 2023

50. Mills drops the ball in summer setback

With his left arm in a sling and a shattered look on his face, Sydney co-captain Callum Mills declared in early October that he was "gutted" after suffering a shoulder injury at the Swans' 'Mad Monday' celebrations. The important midfielder had reportedly been wrestling with a teammate when the injury occurred, and his availability for the start of 2024 was no longer guaranteed after requiring surgery. At a time when mental rest and physical preparation can lay the foundations for the following year, it was a nightmare outcome for the Swans and coach John Longmire, who held an "extremely hard" conversation with the 26-year-old, who took full responsibility for the incident and fronted media to "put my hand up and own it".   

Callum Mills ahead of a media conference on October 4, 2023. Picture: Phil Hillyard

49. Bench bungle costs North in thriller

North Melbourne was on the cusp of winning its third game for the season in round 10 when it led Sydney by three points with 50 seconds to play. A chaotic double interchange, however, saw the Kangaroos exceed their limit of 75 rotations when midfielder Tom Powell replaced Will Phillips. The dramatic administrative blunder led to a free kick for Swans tall Hayden McLean on the goal line, gifting the Swans a three-point lead that they protected at Marvel Stadium. There was intrigue and confusion in the fall out as a 77th rotation was discovered but ultimately explained by the AFL as correcting the original breach. It was a cruel blow for the Roos under stand-in coach Brett Ratten, who would not come so close to a win again, with the Roos finally breaking through for their third win for the season in round 24 against Gold Coast with Alastair Clarkson in charge. 


48. Dons hit the market after late-season collapse

Sitting as high as fifth after a round 17 win against Adelaide, Essendon was expected to play finals in its first season under new coach Brad Scott. A 2-5 run from that point on, however, saw the team slide to 11th and end yet another season without finals success. It was a horror finish that included three losses by 70 points or more and a 126-point thumping against Greater Western Sydney. The Bombers needed to improve their list and got aggressive, targeting and securing free agents Ben McKay and Todd Goldstein, as well as trade acquisitions Xavier Duursma and Jade Gresham. The real improvement, however, will come from the increased standards Scott is set to demand to avoid letting the club "just keep rolling along" having been "nowhere near" where they need to be. 

Ben McKay in his new Essendon colours. Picture: Supplied

47. Walker rises again in career-best year

It was a triumphant season for Adelaide key forward Taylor Walker, who refused to slow down in his 16th season and instead produced career-best football. Walker's highlights included a career-best bag of 10 goals against West Coast in round 13, and another nine against the Eagles in the final round of the season as he chased the Coleman Medal and finished with 76 goals for the year. The 33-year-old ultimately finished second to Charlie Curnow (78 goals) but the former captain's recognition came with his first selection as an All-Australian. It capped a terrific two years on the field for Walker, who signed a one-year contract extension for 2024 and became the Crows' all-time leading goalkicker. If Adelaide is to break through and play finals for the first time under Matthew Nicks, it is likely Walker will need to again be a driving on-field force.


46. Lyon gets under the hood in Saints' year of discovery

Perhaps the most memorable comments Ross Lyon made this year were after the team's round 18 loss to Gold Coast. After four losses in five matches, having squandered a 5-1 start to the season to sit 9-8, the coach described the latest performance as a "fumbling, stumbling mess" and said his team didn't deserve to play finals in its current shape. Addressing the available talent, the coach also said frankly that there was not enough depth on the list to ease the burden on the Saints' top-flight players. A strong run home saw the Saints recover to play finals, but a lack of depth – particularly in the midfield – saw them eliminated in week one against GWS. Having identified where it needs to get better, the club will hope trade additions Paddy Dow and Liam Henry can be improved players at their second clubs and bring the midfield class that is lacking in Lyon's second St Kilda stint.


45. Houston's long bomb sinks Dons

Port Adelaide's stunning winning streak looked set to end on 11 in round 16 when Essendon powered home to overturn a 17-point lead late in the game. With his team trailing by two points, however, Dan Houston marked the ball just inside 50 with 18 seconds left and knew what he had to do. In a thrilling contest at a rainy MCG, the classy defender put the finishing touch on brilliant individual match, launching from 55m and, after a score review, becoming the fourth Power player to kick a match-winning goal after the siren. Port's winning run would last one more match, outplaying Gold Coast before a 50-point loss to Carlton in round 18 that sparked a poor month.


44. Record-breaking Sheezel makes a splash

Draft watchers knew there was something special about Harry Sheezel before he was an AFL player, and the rest of the industry knew soon enough when he burst onto the scene with 34 disposals on debut against West Coast. With an average of 31.6 possessions across his first five games, he was an instant favourite with Kangaroos fans and AFL Fantasy coaches alike, going on to play 23 games as a half-back distributor with class, temperament and skill. He polled maximum votes with 10 of the 11 Rising Star judges to edge out Brisbane midfielder Will Ashcroft, St Kilda forward Mitchito Owens, and Fremantle goalkicker Jye Amiss for the Ron Evans Medal. 


43. The fall and rise of the Swans

The 81-point loss to Geelong in last year's Grand Final looked to have damaged the Swans in the first half of this season, with the expected contenders struggling to 5-8 after 14 rounds. Their year turned around, however, with an incredible 171-point win against West Coast that sparked a 7-1-1 run that lifted them into an elimination final against Carlton. While the Blues prevailed in a thriller, the Swans' ability to turn their season around through young stars like Errol Gulden and Nick Blakey suggests 2023 was a step back to take a leap forward in 2024.  


42. Drug ban to medal man: Ginni's year

The year could hardly have started worse for young Magpie Jack Ginnivan when he was banned for the first two rounds of the season after admitting to illicit drug use. After 40 goals in 23 games last season, the young forward didn't re-emerge at AFL level until round five, kicking 12 goals from 14 games, including five as the sub. He was one of the selection stories of the Grand Final after earning promotion to the 22 and becoming a premiership player, but the rollercoaster didn't stop there. When the Magpies landed Freo small forward Lachie Schultz, it was clear that opportunities would be hard won for Ginnivan in 2024, sparking a final day trade to Hawthorn. It's likely the fan favourite will remain one of the game's most talked about players as a Hawk, where the 20-year-old will hope to regain his form of 2022.


41. Mitchell's Hawks land massive upset win

The most stunning of Hawthorn's seven wins in 2023 came on a Saturday night in August when the rebuilding team knocked over the eventual premiers by 32 points in one of the shock results of the season. The Hawks kicked the first five goals of the match to stun the ladder leaders and were never headed as Finn Maginness tagged Nick Daicos out of the game before the Brownlow Medal fancy finished on the bench nursing a knee injury. It was a win that further illustrated the talent emerging on-field at a rebuilding Hawthorn, but also the talent of their young coach. A three-point win the following week against the Western Bulldogs further emphasised the path the Hawks are on as Will Day and Jai Newcombe took charge of the midfield.