A SOCIAL media sensation and a historic first for a major individual award feature in the next instalment of AFL.com.au's 50 biggest stories from 2021.
A sacked youngster grabbing his second chance and the trades that didn't happen are also on the list from 30-21, while the AFL farewells one of its most popular champions.
30. West Coast's mid-year horror show
Rated among the premiership contenders at the start of the year, West Coast came unstuck in round six in a performance against Geelong that coach Adam Simpson labelled embarrassing. "Physically, we looked weak," Simpson said after the 97-point loss, the club's heaviest since 2009, telling reporters they were right to question his team's effort. It was stinging public criticism from a coach, and the Eagles regrouped somewhat before a three-game losing run between rounds 15-17, falling to the Western Bulldogs (55 points), Sydney (92) and last-placed North Melbourne (10) at home. The fall of a powerhouse became one of the stories of the season, but with significant talent still on the list, don't rule out a 2022 fightback.
29. Bailey and Bont drive Bulldogs to the edge of glory
It was Bailey Smith's goal that put the Western Bulldogs in a position to win their semi-final against Brisbane, but his celebration stole the headlines. On his left foot and off two steps, Smith converted from the boundary 30 minutes into the final term to put his team six points clear. He turned to the crowd at the Gabba and pointed to the veins in his flexed left arm in a celebration borrowed from NBA star D'Angelo Russell, signifying he had "ice in his veins". One of the players of the finals, Smith booted three goals in that thrilling game and then starred in the preliminary final against Port Adelaide. His captain, Marcus Bontempelli, was the Bulldogs' star throughout 2021.
28. AFLW expansion plans announced
The AFLW's growth from an eight-team competition in 2017 to now include all 18 clubs will be complete from the start of the 2022-23 season. After submissions from Essendon, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide and Sydney, AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan announced the news in August on a "defining day in the history of Australian football". McLachlan said the League had become convinced there was enough talent and depth coming through to introduce four new elite teams in one season, allowing the AFLW to maintain its significant momentum. As a result, participation will grow to 540 women playing at the elite level from season seven as the grassroots game continues to grow rapidly.
27. Carlton's Cerra on top in quiet Trade Period
Twelve months after a blockbuster Trade Period that saw stars Jeremy Cameron, Adam Treloar and Joe Daniher switch clubs, the movement dried up. Fremantle midfielder Adam Cerra became the biggest fish, joining Carlton early on before several failed deals, rather than meaningful trades, made headlines. Brownlow medallist Lachie Neale considered a return to the Dockers before re-stating his commitment to Brisbane, while Rory Lobb and Bobby Hill tried to get in and out of GWS respectively but couldn't. Jordan Dawson (Adelaide), Jordan Clark (Fremantle) and Peter Ladhams (Sydney) were players to move clubs in significant deals, with tight salary caps and reduced list sizes playing a role in the quiet exchange period.
26. Much-loved champion Eddie Betts retires
Eddie Betts announced via social media on August 16 that he would be retiring after the coming weekend's game against Greater Western Sydney. One of the game's great small forwards, the Carlton favourite and former Adelaide star bowed out after his 350th match, becoming just the 19th man and third Indigenous player to reach the milestone. He left the game having made a significant impact on the field as a great entertainer, and off it as a strong anti-racism advocate. A four-time winner of Goal of the Year, he finished his brilliant career with 640 goals. "I hope at some point in my career I was able to put a smile on your face," he wrote when announcing his retirement. "If I did, I’m happy and my work is done here."
25. Bolton flies to win Mark of the Year
Geelong defender Mark Blicavs was a sitting duck as he turned into Shai Bolton's path inside the Tigers' attacking goalsquare in round eight. Bolton proceeded to soar above Blicavs, ride on his shoulders and then scissor kick at his highest point for dramatic effect, completing a thrilling grab at the MCG. Awarded the Four'N Twenty Mark of the Year, the classy Richmond midfielder beat teammate Jack Riewoldt, who combined skill and supreme courage running with the flight of the ball against Adelaide, with Tim O'Brien also taking a high-flying grab crashing in from the side that would have been a worthy winner, depending on your taste.
24. Carlton spearhead rises to win Coleman Medal
Harry McKay's career-best return in a season was 26 goals coming into 2021. He raced out of the blocks to pass that mark by round eight this year and finished the season with 58, winning the Coleman Medal and becoming the seventh player in Carlton's history to lead the VFL/AFL goalkicking for a season. It was a rapid rise for the 23-year-old, who played his 50th game in round two and booted a career-best seven goals the following week. Come June, the star forward had signed a two-year contract extension, turning his back on significant offers from rival Victorian clubs.
23. Bowers and Davey share top AFLW honours
In a historic first for the AFLW, Fremantle superstar Kiara Bowers and Collingwood co-captain Brianna Davey were named joint winners of the 2021 AFLW best and fairest after a tied count in April. Vice-captain and captain of the All-Australian team respectively, the pair each polled 15 votes in a thrilling count that had five players in the running coming into the final round. Davey made her mark in a stunning mid-season run, polling five straight best-on-ground games, while Bowers spread her top performances through the season. The Docker polled one vote in the final round to force the tie.
22. Swans and Giants flourish on the road
COVID-19 forced Sydney and Greater Western Sydney onto the road for their last 10 and 11 games of the season respectively, but both clubs embraced the challenge and went on winning runs that secured finals spots. They met each other in round 18 on the Gold Coast in one of the most chaotic clashes of the season, with three Swans and two Giants – including stars Callum Mills and Toby Greene – forced to withdraw in the frantic hours before the match after attending a Tier 2 exposure site. With late replacements rushed in an hour before the match, Sydney overran the Giants to win by 26 points, with emotions spilling over after the game as John Longmire embraced his players.
21. Stengle gets second chance after SANFL relegation
Elusive small forward Tyson Stengle was sacked by Adelaide in March after a string of off-field incidents at his second club and an AFL suspension for being caught by police with an illicit substance. The 22-year-old joined SANFL club Woodville-West Torrens and was quickly back in the sights of AFL clubs as a mid-season recruit after an impressive start to his time there. He was forced to wait, but Geelong eventually pounced in November, signing Stengle as a free agent. After 44 goals in 19 games in the SANFL, including several big finals for the eventual premiers, he shapes as a bargain pick-up for the Cats, reuniting with assistant coach and mentor Eddie Betts.