MELBOURNE ended a 57-year premiership drought, while the battle for the crown as the AFL's best player re-opened in a memorable 2021 season that ended spectacularly in Perth.

But as was the case in 2020, COVID-19 remained a constant and complex issue for the game to navigate, with vaccinations the latest layer to that ongoing story.

On the field there were moments of brilliance to remember and, before it was all over, some of the most dominant figures in the AFL's recent history left their clubs.  

In a six-part series, AFL.com.au will count down the biggest football stories of 2021 and the year's most memorable moments, starting with 50-41.

50. Resurgent Bruce's mixed bag

Key forward Josh Bruce could see where his team was heading in 2021 as early as round three when he booted 10 goals and declared the Western Bulldogs' time was now. That stunning Good Friday performance – the first 10-goal bag since Ben Brown in 2019 – was the best from a goalkicker in 2021, but Bruce's season was ended abruptly by an ACL injury in round 21. A crucial member of the forward line, Bruce was the heartbreak story of the Toyota AFL Grand Final, remaining in Melbourne and showing his character by assisting the club with merchandise orders in the lead-up to the decider.

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Best of 2021: Bruce bags 10 goals on Good Friday

Western Bulldogs forward Josh Bruce claims the biggest haul of the season

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49. Ageing Cats fall short again

Geelong's ability to put itself in the premiership mix year after year, playing in five of the past six preliminary finals, is extraordinary. But the Cats' relentless pursuit of another premiership fell short again in 2021, losing their preliminary final against eventual premier Melbourne by 83 points, the club's heaviest finals defeat in 52 years. Amid questions about whether the renovating Cats needed to enter a more traditional rebuild, captain Joel Selwood captured Geelong's approach best when he said he would rather be at a club that "fights tooth and nail right to the end". Get ready for the Cats to reload in 2022.

Dejected Geelong players including Patrick Dangerfield after the preliminary final loss to Melbourne on September 10, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

48. Lightning strikes at Optus Stadium

Trailing by 33 points with 15 minutes to play, West Coast welcomed the opportunity to re-set in a bizarre lightning break against Melbourne in round 21. Play was halted for 30 minutes after lightning struck near Optus Stadium on a wet Monday night, with players ushered from the ground and fans moved to undercover areas. With the Demons seemingly cruising to victory, West Coast coach Adam Simpson joked that the lightning had been "divine intervention", with his team kicking four unanswered goals after the break but falling nine points short of a remarkable win, with the final quarter ending in the 59th minute.

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Lightning halts play midway through fourth quarter

Lightning has stopped play during the final quarter as players had to vacate the field

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47. Rohan slots matchwinner after the siren

An epic round 14 tussle between top-four teams Geelong and the Western Bulldogs drew to its conclusion with one point separating the sides in a frantic final minute. After several key involvements from experienced Cats, the ball ended in Gary Rohan's hands deep in the left forward pocket. The siren sounded and the sharp-shooting Cat calmly converted from just inside 50m as emotions spilled over on the field and in the coach's box. It was the second time Rohan had kicked a match-winning goal after the siren, also achieving the feat with Sydney in 2017. This time, he handed the Cats premiership favouritism.

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Absolute scenes as Rohan wins it after siren

Watch the incredible moment Gary Rohan wins the game for Geelong after the siren

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46. Exposure sites claim Hind and Dunkley

A visit to a supermarket cost Essendon speedster Nick Hind a finals appearance, while for Josh Dunkley it was a local café that sent the Western Bulldogs midfielder into 14 days of isolation in July. The risks of visiting a COVID-19 exposure site during the season were very real for AFL players, with Hind the biggest scalp. The former Saint, who made a big impact in his first season with the Bombers, visited a supermarket that was later identified as a Tier 2 exposure site, meaning he could not travel to Tasmania for the Bombers' elimination final under the state's guidelines. He returned a negative COVID test at the time but will have to wait until at least 2022 to play in his first final. 

45. Suns' stunner leaves flag defence in tatters

It was arguably the best win in Gold Coast's short history, stunning Richmond at Marvel Stadium in round 16 in one of the upsets of the season. Led by the magnificent Touk Miller (36 disposals and nine clearances), the Suns beat the Tigers by 10 points on a Thursday night, inflicting more pain on the reigning premiers, who slipped to 7-8 and lost their fourth consecutive match the following week. It was a rare glimpse into the best of the Suns, who got excellent performances from their young stars, including Ben King (four goals). Miller was the star in a career-best season that ended with a richly deserved selection in the Therabody AFL All-Australian team.

Ben King and Brandon Ellis celebrate as the Suns stun the Tigers during the round 16 clash at Marvel Stadium on July 1, 2021. Picture: Getty Images

44. Tayla's messy exit from Blues

There was a point during Tayla Harris' contract negotiation in May when the AFLW star looked like she could be lost to the competition after five seasons. A disappointing campaign that netted just four goals from eight games had made the Carlton star's financial demands hard to meet, and rivals were not lining up to sign the gifted 24-year-old under her terms, which were reported to be $150,000 a season. The three-time All-Australian, who started her career with Brisbane in 2017, ultimately found a home with Melbourne during the Trade Period, moving as part of a five-way trade involving seven players. The Queenslander, who is also a professional boxer, said she was ready for the challenge of performing at her third AFLW club.

Melbourne recruit Tayla Harris poses for a photo on November 13, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

43. Even Siri can't clear Danger after head clash

Patrick Dangerfield's rough conduct charge for a clash with Adelaide defender Jake Kelly in round one was among the highest-profile Tribunal cases of 2021. Sent directly to the Tribunal after choosing to bump and clashing heads with Kelly, Dangerfield launched a pre-emptive defence on the Monday morning before his case was heard, telling reporters he was trying to protect himself in the collision, which left Kelly with a broken nose. He challenged the 'severe' grading at the Tribunal, with his lawyer even calling on virtual assistant Siri to define the word for the jury. The superstar Cat was ultimately unsuccessful, however, and was banned for three matches, putting the future of the bump back on the agenda.

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Is Paddy in MRO Danger after this bump?

Patrick Dangerfield clashes heads with Jake Kelly who's sent off the field

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42. Senior Hawks refuse to leave in botched Trade Period

Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett sparked intrigue when he warned that members should be prepared for "surprise moves" during October's Continental Tyres AFL Trade Period. As Sam Mitchell prepared to enter his first season as coach in 2022, the Hawks needed to address their "future needs", Kennett said, and senior players Tom Mitchell, Jaeger O'Meara, Chad Wingard and Jack Gunston became available to rival clubs for the right price. When the Trade Period closed, however, only ruckman Jon Ceglar had moved clubs, meaning the Hawks had not met their objective of improving their draft hand. The refusal of players like Wingard and Luke Breust to move means the Hawks will be more competitive in Mitchell's first season, but those future needs were not addressed to the extent the club would have wished.

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Horrendous Hawks: Barrett slams Hawthorn's trade strategy

AFL.com.au's chief football writer Damian Barrett explains to Trade Radio how the Hawks have misread the state of play

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41. Anzac Day to remember as stands come to life

After a 2020 season without crowds at the MCG, the return of fans early this year was an occasion to savour, peaking on Anzac Day in round six. The crowd of 78,113 was the largest of any AFL match played since the 2019 Toyota AFL Grand Final, with the venue open to 85 per cent capacity as fans returned to every bay on every level. After losing eight of the previous 10 Anzac Day clashes, Essendon lifted to win, with Anzac medallist Darcy Parish outstanding. Overall, there were 30 games played at the MCG with crowds, but it came to an end in July when fans were locked out once more because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fans pack the MCG for the Anzac Day clash between Essendon and Collingwood in R6, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos