WAS IT the biggest on-field moment of the season that deserved to be recognised as the top story of 2023, or the year's off-field bombshell that very few saw coming?
The evenness of a thrilling season was a story in itself, while one club had its finals hopes dashed in devastating circumstances as we count down the five biggest stories of 2023.
In a six-part series, AFL.com.au is counting down the biggest football stories and most memorable on-field moments from 2023, concluding with 5-1.
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
5. Disallowed goal costs devastated Crows
The implications of Ben Keays' disallowed goal in round 23 against Sydney could hardly have been bigger in a home and away match, with the umpiring error effectively costing Adelaide a finals spot and allowing the Swans to qualify once the season finished. Keays was shocked by the decision to award a behind based on the ball hitting the post, and replays showed the call was a mistake, with Adelaide losing by one point after being denied a match-winning goal. There were issues with the EDGE review technology after a collision with the post and Crows CEO Tim Silver called it the biggest match-day error he has seen. It was hard to disagree as a heartbroken Adelaide, that had played some thrilling football and would have benefited immensely from finals experience, turned to 2024.
4. Greatest season ever
While not an isolated story within 2023, it is possible many will look back on the year as a whole and remember the greatest season they have witnessed. The AFL's desire to equalise the competition resulted in stunning upsets, constant thrillers, and a sense from most fans that their team was almost always a chance. With a deep pool of contenders, 12 teams remained alive in the finals race in the final fortnight, and it was tight at the very top end as well, as teams jockeyed and swapped as lead contenders. Greater Western Sydney, Sydney and Carlton provided significant spice with their late runs in the second half of the season, while contenders like Port Adelaide and Melbourne hit trouble. It was unpredictable, the football was exhilarating at times, and the premiers provided endless storylines of their own, with the year capped off by a classic Grand Final. Bring on 2024.
3. Coaching great steps aside
The decision by Alastair Clarkson to step away from his role at North Melbourne to focus on his mental and physical wellbeing came as a shock in May as the impact of historic racism allegations at Hawthorn continued to ripple. The decision was commended and North Melbourne offered its full support, with Brett Ratten answering the call to take over as senior coach from round 10. Given whatever time he needed by the club, the timeline for Clarkson's return became a constant source of interest. The four-time premiership coach eventually returned for round 21, breaking the Kangaroos' long losing run in the final round of the season in a significant result that cost the club access to pick No.1 but provided the Roos with a much-needed shot of energy going into the off-season.
2. Triple-premiership coach's mid-season bombshell
The bombshell story of the season was undoubtedly the resignation of Damien Hardwick, who left Richmond in May in a late-breaking story that stunned the industry. Hardwick, who was contracted to the end of 2024, left after 14 years in the job and three premierships, in 2017, 2019 and 2020. A one-point loss to Essendon was his final match and there was no farewell for the coach, who had been questioning whether he was the right man for the job and realised he was no longer able to give 100 per cent to the position. What followed was just as intriguing as Hardwick holidayed in Europe to decompress, was headhunted by Gold Coast after Stuart Dew's sacking, and emerged as the Suns' new coach for 2024. While "it was just time" at Richmond, the 51-year-old signed a six-year deal with the Suns and was excited about working with a "set of brand new toys".
1. Collingwood wins flag with a difference
From coach Craig McRae's Grand Final Day baby to Beau McCreery's mum revving up the players on Mother's Day, Collingwood's 2023 premiership and the path it took had twists and turns we had never seen before. There were great stories everywhere, with talented star Jordan De Goey undergoing an off-field transformation to become a gamechanger on the biggest stage, and second-year sensation Nick Daicos recovering rapidly from a serious knee injury to play his crucial part. Small forward Bobby Hill was a long shot Norm Smith medallist, Jeremy Howe overcame a horrific arm injury and then played out the decider with broken ribs, and Scott Pendlebury and Steele Sidebottom were premiership teammates again, a record 13 years after their first flag together. The 2023 premiership was won with a difference and it will be fascinating to see how rival clubs change their approach to compete with the Magpies in 2024.