NOT many pundits rated Southport's chances highly entering its first season in the new-look VFL.
Despite winning the 2018 NEAFL premiership and losing the Grand Final in 2019, the Sharks, like most of the former NSW-ACT-Queensland State league teams, were not considered a serious threat due to the perceived difference in standard.
But it didn't take long for those pundits to have egg on their faces after a heartstopping one-point victory over Carlton in a round one classic at Ikon Park.
Southport went on to win nine of its 10 matches to finish second, and a slightly deeper look at the Sharks' squad showed it was no fluke.
They had the oldest (24.3) and most experienced (38.8 games) list in the competition, with 21 of their 41 players having been on an AFL list and three more being graduates of the Gold Coast Academy.
But while everything seemed to go to plan, coach Steve Daniel said there was a sense of unfinished business and not really knowing just how good they were.
"We were looking forward to the new adventure of playing in the VFL and to play Carlton in round one after a build-up that wasn't ideal due to COVID in Queensland, we really only played one practice match, and get over the line by a point was a great start to the year," he said.
"We knew a lot of people didn't rate us, but that was because they didn't know us and you really aren't going to rate something you don't know anything about – and we liked that.
"We wanted to make our own bit of history this year in our first year in the VFL and that's another reason why it's disappointing the way it ended, because we set ourselves a few goals and we didn’t quite get to achieve (the main one), which was to see how far we could take this VFL venture.
"But we're in a 22-team competition and we only played eight teams for the year and we still don't quite know exactly where we are at, so it would have been good to play finals.
"(There were) a lot of little things during the year that as a football club we were really up for. We were ready for the challenge and it got knocked on the head, so all we could do was go back and get ready to go again."
Daniel's question mark over the 9-1 record comes from those eight teams the Sharks faced – Carlton (finished 12th), Aspley (22nd), GWS (8th, lost), North Melbourne (15th), Gold Coast (14th), Sydney (19th), Brisbane Lions (17th) and Essendon (20th).
But the coach, who extended his contract until 2024 earlier this month, said the club had two key mantras – ruthlessness and resilience – and both were on show with four 100-point plus victories (Lions twice, Kangaroos, Hornets), plus two epic last-quarter comebacks (Blues, Swans).
"We talk about being brutal, that's just a word we use up here. The football industry as we know on and off the field can be brutal at times, so when we put ourselves in a position to win games we wanted to be brutal about the result – it’s head down, arses up and we've got to get the job done," Daniel said.
"Our culture and resilience within the group is absolutely terrific. That Carlton game on the back of our preparation where we had training restrictions and we couldn't play anyone – we had one practice match against the Brisbane Lions – so to come out and win that one just showed so much resilience and character from our group.
"Then the Sydney game when we were expecting to play at home and we were told on the Thursday night that we were going to Sydney, so to go there and win that game was terrific as well."
It is in results like those two comebacks where Southport's experience really came to the fore, led by star midfielder Jacob Dawson, who joined the club from Gold Coast's AFL list, leading goalkicker Billy Gowers, fresh off the Western Bulldogs' list, and co-captains Seb Tape and the retiring Andrew Boston.
Daniel said the three recruits from the Bulldogs (plus former Footscray VFL player Jamison Shea) had brought spirit to Fankhauser Reserve, with strong leadership also being provided by a big group who played under him at the Suns.
They've helped the younger players making their way at State league level, including two of the four debutants.
"They were great, Lukas Webb, Billy Gowers and Brad Lynch, they're just great characters and they knew a few of the boys up here already, so everyone got on really well," Daniel said.
"We just sat down on our camp at the start of the year and mapped out what our goals were for the year and what we wanted to achieve, and they certainly added a lot to that group and our goal setting as well, which was great.
"They added a little bit of Bulldogs spirit to the group with the way they saw things, so they've been more than great.
"Jacob Dawson and Brayden Crossley have showed enormous leadership coming from the Gold Coast Suns, they were fantastic all year, while Billy Gowers and Lukas Webb leading on the field were also terrific.
"Jesse Joyce and Mackenzie Willis, two more Suns boys, our leadership group tries to lead by example but we want everyone to be a leader at our football club, and we drive that a fair bit.
"Young Kwabe Boakye had an outstanding year, there were a few AFL clubs looking at him at the halfway mark, while Matt Gahan and Rhys King also had terrific years.
"This is not being hard on the kid – I probably didn't see Rhys breaking into our side much this year but he ended up playing maybe eight of the 10 games, which is a credit to him."
Daniel said the Sharks would need to improve next year to maintain their lofty status, given they will no longer have the element of surprise – and he easily identified one key area.
"The GWS game (8.16) and the Aspley (14.25) game the week before, even though we won, we had an issue with our goalkicking, so we maybe could have done a bit more damage, and there was another one where we kicked 16 behinds (12.16 v Sydney)," he said.
"After that GWS loss the boys were pretty upset with themselves because we kicked badly and deserved to lose that, but you cop what you cop and move on to next week.
"That was North Melbourne up here and the boys wanted to make a bit of a statement and they did in winning by 100 points, then we had Aspley again and the boys were up for that as well, and then we beat the Suns by 83.
"I suppose a lot of people stood up then and took a bit of notice at what we had done, which is great for our football club, but next year will be a little bit tougher because I think everybody will probably respect Southport a little bit more and what we've done, so we will have a lot of teams that are going to be gunning for us."
9-1 win-loss, 2nd
What went right: Pretty much everything. The comeback from five goals down in the last quarter to beat Carlton by a point in round one announced the Sharks as a team to watch and it continued all year. Four wins by more than 100 points showed a ruthless streak, while they were also resilient, with two victories coming after falling to significant deficits. Mitch Johnson kicked 10 goals in the round five win over Aspley, the first VFL player to do so in eight years.
What went wrong: Not being able to see out the season to find out just how far they could go hurts, while Jacob Dawson just might have won the Liston Medal after a dominant year. Poor goalkicking cost them an undefeated season and is something they will need to fix in 2022, when they won’t be able to sneak under anybody's guard.
Best and fairest prediction: Dawson should dominate this count. An outstanding season from the former Sun, averaging 34.7 disposals and 6.6 tackles as an inside midfielder. Big man Brayden Crossley is a clear pick for runner-up, while Michael Manteit, Lukas Webb, Jesse Joyce, Billy Gowers and Mackenzie Willis could all finish third.
Best young players: Dawson is still only 21 and could win another AFL chance, while Kwabe Boakye had a fine year at half-back to draw AFL recruiters' attention. Another ex-Sun in Connor Nutting kicked 23 goals, while Matt Gahan and Rhys King impressed deep in defence.
Coach status: 2018 Premiership coach Steve Daniel had his contract extended until the end of 2024 earlier this month and is in for the long haul. "I had another year on my contract (for 2022) and for them to come to me and say we want to put another two on, I was pretty stoked," he said.
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