THE 2021 season delivered against the odds, with the AFL overcoming the many challenges presented by COVID-19 to deliver a spectacular year that ended with a drought-breaking premiership. 

There were moments of brilliance on the field, and off it we watched as some of the most dominant figures in the AFL's recent history left their clubs in different and dramatic circumstances. 

In the final instalment of's list of the biggest football stories of 2021, we count down all 50 memorable moments and storylines from a season that ended in an Optus Stadium spectacular. 

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'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

40. RIP Russell Ebert

More than 4,000 people packed the stands at Alberton during a state funeral to pay tribute to the late, great Russell Ebert in November after the Australian football great lost his battle with leukaemia. A legend of Port Adelaide and the South Australian Sport Hall of Fame, Ebert played a club-record 392 games with the Port Adelaide Magpies and won three SANFL premierships. His incredible career was celebrated alongside his generosity, humility and compassion, with son Brett paying tribute to a man whose life was "devoted to others". Those who knew him were unanimous that his legacy would extend beyond football and would be enduring.

Port Adelaide legend Russell Ebert has passed away at the age of 72. Picture: Port Adelaide Football Club

39. Parish leads the young Bombers' resurgence

Essendon was one of the surprise movers in 2021, with coach Ben Rutten leading his young team back to finals after finishing 13th during a coaching handover in 2020. The improvement came on the back of a dynamic midfield group that included breakout star Darcy Parish, who won three separate best-on-ground awards, including the Anzac Medal, before earning his first Therabody AFL All-Australian selection and finishing equal fifth in the Brownlow Medal. While Parish starred, the early impact of draftees Nik Cox and Archie Perkins helped usher in a new era for the Bombers.

Darcy Parish with his Anzac Day Medal on April 25, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

38. Adelaide cops massive fine for breaching mask rules

The trade-off for continuing an AFL season and travelling regularly during a pandemic was strict adherence to all COVID-19 protocols, with failure to do so bringing hefty penalties. In June, Adelaide was fined $50,000 after players and staff were not wearing masks properly on a commercial flight from Sydney to Adelaide. An investigation found five players and three staff had not met the rules put in place by health authorities, with the Crows apologising for not living up to community standards. Underlining the extent of the penalty, the entire fine needed to be included in the club's football department soft cap, which had already been tightened significantly for 2020 and 2021.

37. Famous names return as clubs welcome next crop of stars

The 2021 NAB AFL Draft saw two father-son players land at their clubs as top-four picks, with Sam Darcy and Nick Daicos joining the Western Bulldogs and Collingwood respectively. Their journeys to the AFL were tracked well in advance of 2021, given their promise as junior players and their fathers' brilliant careers. The draft was also significant given three players with African origins – Mac Andrew (Gold Coast), Neil Erasmus (Fremantle) and Leek Aleer (Greater Western Sydney) – were drafted in the first round. North Melbourne refused trade offers for its No.1 pick and chose not to bid on any father-son prospects to ensure Jason Horne-Francis was the first player selected.

Sam and Luke Darcy, and Nick and Peter Daicos at the MCG on November 22, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

36. Concussion incident leads to AFL boxing ban

Hawthorn forward Mitch Lewis suffered an accidental concussion in June when he was hit on the head by teammate Jacob Koschitzke during a boxing session. With Lewis sidelined under the AFL's concussion protocols, the incident was investigated by WorkSafe, which took no action against the club. The AFL, however, moved to ensure the incident was not repeated at any club, banning all combat boxing and sparring between players and officials. Only specific boxing training with qualified personnel would be allowed under special conditions. The incident was described by Alastair Clarkson as a "genuine accident", with the ban seen as a "severe reaction" by the four-time premiership coach.

AFL players boxing without protective head gear. Picture: AFL Photos

35. Scott fined after Lions confrontation

Geelong coach Chris Scott found himself in enemy territory in round two when he approached the Brisbane huddle at quarter-time and entered a heated exchange with several players. Angry after Gary Rohan had struck him off the ball, Brownlow medallist Lachie Neale engaged with the coach before several teammates followed. Scott, who walked towards the Lions players, was ultimately ushered away by Cam Guthrie and Joel Selwood. While the premiership coach and Lions counterpart Chris Fagan cleared the air after the match, the AFL took a dim view of Scott's actions and issued a suspended $10,000 fine and a warning that similar incidents would be met with consequences.

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Players pull angry Scott away after opposition stoush

Cats coach Chris Scott is captured having words with multiple Lions players in a fiery quarter-time break

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34. Hocking takes a stand before returning to Geelong

After nearly four years as the AFL's football operations boss, Steve Hocking left in July having transformed the game significantly in that time. Given a mandate to "review anything" and lead the AFL into the new era, the former Geelong defender set about easing congestion in the game and brought conviction to the role. He left some of his most controversial changes to last, introducing a medical substitute on the eve of the 2021 season as well as the 'stand' rule, which was hailed as an early success before scoring regressed. Having played 199 games with Geelong, Hocking could not turn down the opportunity to return to the club and replace departing chief executive Brian Cook.

33. Rioli finally learns anti-doping fate

West Coast premiership forward Willie Rioli endured 18 months of uncertainty before his penalty was handed down in March for twice tampering with a urine sample. Sidelined since the 2019 finals series, the talented Eagle was eventually banned for two years, with the backdated penalty making him available late in 2021. While the drawn-out process frustrated West Coast, the club ultimately describe the penalty as a "fair compromise". Rioli's return to the club was compromised, however, when he was caught with cannabis at Darwin Airport in April, pleading guilty and avoiding conviction. It left the 26-year-old needing to win back the trust of his teammates, which he appears to have done ahead of a 2022 return.

Willie Rioli during a West Coast training session in 2018. Picture: AFL Photos

32. Gameday decision locks out WA fans

Just hours before West Coast met Fremantle in a highly anticipated Western Derby, premier Mark McGowan announced fans would be locked out. The decision was made due to a community COVID-19 case, leading to the first Western Derby ever played without a crowd. West Coast made a last-ditch bid to move the game until a crowd could attend but was unable to, with the decision expected to cost the club "well north" of $2 million. In very similar circumstances, fans were again locked out of Optus Stadium for the Eagles' round 15 clash against the Western Bulldogs, with Western Australia's hard-line COVID-19 stance causing gameday chaos as it kept the pandemic under control in the state.

Optus Stadium was closed to fans in round 15 for the West Coast-Western Bulldogs clash. Picture: AFL Photos

31. Fixtures on the run cause mid-air change

As far as fixture changes went, they didn't get any more bizarre than a mid-air change to Melbourne's round 20 clash against Gold Coast, which was originally scheduled for Metricon Stadium on a Saturday afternoon. After leaving on a charter flight on gameday, the match was called off while the team was in the air due to a COVID-19 outbreak in Queensland. Redirected to Brisbane where they would refuel, the Demons touched down and spent almost three hours on the tarmac before they were sent back to Melbourne to eventually play their match on the Sunday. Their eight-hour trip achieved little but highlighted the agility the League had to have to keep the season going, with the Demons then sent into a week of quarantine so they could play the Eagles in Perth.

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.

West Coast players leave GMHBA Stadium after their huge loss to Sydney in round 16, 2021. Picture: Getty Images

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.

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Smith's sensational clutch shot may just clinch it

Bailey Smith lands an outrageous goal in the dying moments to give the Dogs the lead

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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.

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Expansion gets green light as AFLW takes 'important step'

AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan and head of women's football Nicole Livingstone reveal the AFLW expansion plans

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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.

Carlton recruit Adam Cerra at training on December 13, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

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."

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The best goals of Eddie Betts' remarkable career

The Carlton and Adelaide small forward provides arguably the most exciting highlights reel going around

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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.

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'I guess it was a good mark': Bolton wins Mark of the Year

Premiership Tiger Shai Bolton wins the 2021 Rebel Mark of the Year

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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.

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Top five goals: McKay's biggest and best in 2021

Carlton forward Harry McKay wins the Coleman medal with 58 goals from 19 games

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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.

Magpie Brianna Davey (left) and Docker Kiara Bowers after winning the 2021 AFLW best and fairest. Picture: AFL Media

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.

Sydney's Isaac Heeney celebrates his side's win over GWS at Metricon Stadium in round 18, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

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.

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Eddie's hope for 'younger brother' Stengle, new life as a Cat

New Geelong development coach Eddie Betts on Tyson Stengle's hopes of an AFL lifeline and his own role at the Cats

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20. List management loophole backfires on Suns

Gold Coast thought its ducks were in a row when it delisted Hugh Greenwood in early November with a commitment to redraft him later that month. What they didn't count on but should have anticipated was a rival club smelling an opportunity. Alerted to the Suns' surprise move by his wife, North Melbourne coach David Noble jumped into action and the Kangaroos made an enticing pitch to lure the 29-year-old to Arden Street as a delisted free agent. Ultimately, the opportunity to extend his career and set his family up proved too good to turn down. Having insisted publicly that he would still be at the Suns after the initial delisting, Greenwood captured the whirlwind process on Twitter when he wrote "24 hours can be a long time in footy".

Hugh Greenwood at North Melbourne training on December 8, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

19. Patton retires after AFL-Hawks investigation into behaviour

Key forward Jon Patton was stood down by Hawthorn in January after the AFL took over the club's investigation into inappropriate sexual conduct on social media from the former No.1 draft pick. Accused by multiple women of lewd behaviour, the investigation and public scrutiny ultimately led to Patton's retirement in April after an admission to hospital and management of his mental wellbeing. He apologised for his behaviour towards women, saying his actions were "completely unacceptable" and he was committed to learning from his mistakes. He joined fellow No.1 pick, former Demon, Giant and Hawthorn teammate Tom Scully in retirement after the wingman made the shock decision in February. One of the AFL's best wingmen at his peak but later plagued by a horror ankle injury, Scully retired due to personal issues away from the game.

Hawthorn's Jonathan Patton during the club's team photo shoot ahead of the 2020 season. Picture: AFL Photos

18. Pies forced into tough stance on De Goey

Collingwood had little option but to stand down star forward Jordan De Goey in late October when his training camp in the United States took a nasty turn. In California on a sponsored trip to train with renowned fitness coach Johnny Louch, De Goey had ventured east to New York City and was partying on Halloween weekend when he was arrested and charged with assault and harassment. Charges of "forcibly touching" were later dropped, but the Magpies maintained their stance and rejected a request from De Goey and his manager to allow him to train with the team when he returned to Australia. With one year remaining on his contract, the 25-year-old's case has been adjourned until January 18 and he is training with local Geelong club Leopold under Garry Hocking.

Jordan De Goey training in the off-season. Picture: Instagram

17. Emerging Brisbane star experiences 'footy karma'

Zac Bailey should have kicked the match-winning goal in round two when he caught Geelong defender Mark Blicavs in front of goal with a perfect tackle in the dying seconds. The tackle went unrewarded, however, and the Cats won by one point. Fortunately for Brisbane, Bailey has a habit of being in the right place at the right time, and one week later he drilled the match-winner after the siren against Collingwood to deliver the Lions' first win of the season. "A bit unlucky last week with the finish, but to get a finish like that today was amazing … that's footy karma for you," he told broadcaster Channel Seven after the match.

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The final moments of a Pies-Lions nail-biter

The clash between Collingwood and Brisbane went down to the last second in Thursday night's round three opener

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16. Demon duo produce greatness when it matters

Max Gawn was simply on a different level in the third quarter of Melbourne's preliminary final win against Geelong. The captain booted four of his career-best five goals in the critical quarter, converting on the run from outside 50m, slotting set shots and then snapping a magnificent goal out of the ruck. He kicked his fifth after taking a contested mark in a pack of five, capping a rare performance. It was Christian Petracca's turn in the following match, equalling Simon Black's Grand Final record of 39 disposals to win the Norm Smith Medal. Like Gawn, he lifted in the third quarter, with a brilliant dribbling goal from the pocket a highlight. His contested possessions (24), score involvements (15) and inside 50s (11) were all match-highs, saving the best performance of his career for the Grand Final.

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MAX IMPACT: Gawn transforms to new heights in five-star demolition

Max Gawn elevates to a frightening level in this outrageous five-goal performance

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03:18 Mins
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Petracca writes history in the most powerful performance

Christian Petracca equals the record for most touches ever in an AFL Grand Final to deservedly claim the Norm Smith Medal

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15. Final round chaos as Dees lock up top spot

The top eight options appeared endless going into the final round of the season, with not a single spot locked in. A series of thrillers endued, with Port Adelaide locking away a top-two spot on the Friday night when they beat the Western Bulldogs by two points. Brisbane then grabbed the Bulldogs' spot in the top four the following night, securing the percentage boost they needed in the dying seconds against West Coast. The highlight, however, was Melbourne's fightback against Geelong, with Max Gawn kicking a goal after the siren to secure the club's first minor premiership in 57 years and avoid a qualifying final trip to Adelaide. Around all of that, Richmond and Hawthorn drew, and Essendon and Greater Western Sydney locked away finals spots.

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Last two mins: Max the hero after insane finish

The thrilling final moments between the Cats and Demons at GMHBA Stadium

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14. Carlton review claims yet another coach

Carlton announced in June that it would be appointing an external panel to conduct a whole of football department review, reporting to incoming president Luke Sayers. Coach David Teague was immediately put in a difficult position and ultimately lost his job in August after 50 games, becoming the sixth Carlton coach axed by the club in two decades. Chief executive Cain Liddle followed Teague out the door the following month in a messy period for the club, which also replaced half its board, was linked to Ross Lyon but never appointed him, and discarded assistant coaches. The appointment of former Geelong and West Coast chief executive Brian Cook was hailed as a brilliant appointment and shapes as a turning point for the club.

David Teague leaves the ground after the round 23 loss to GWS on August 21, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

13. Perth delivers a Dreamtime to remember

Perth's ability to put on a breathtaking Dreamtime game in June was essentially what secured Optus Stadium the right to host the 2021 Grand Final. Perth fans embraced the marquee match between Richmond and Essendon and packed their stadium with more than 55,000 fans, blowing the target of 40,000 out of the water. As a celebration of the extraordinary contribution Indigenous Australians have made to the game, Dreamtime in Perth also included the iconic Long Walk and showed what was possible at short notice if major AFL events needed to be relocated due to COVID-19. The finals-like atmosphere under lights in what was an engrossing game made the event one of the highlights of the season.

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Moving pre-match ceremony kicks off Dreamtime

Watch the moving pre-match ceremony before the Bombers and Tigers go to battle

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12. Dusty goes down as Tiger rule ends

Bumped by Brisbane wingman Mitch Robinson, Richmond superstar Dustin Martin limped from the Gabba in round 18 and was taken to hospital. It was revealed he had suffered a lacerated kidney that ultimately ended his season and caused him to shed around 15kg. At the time of Martin's injury, Richmond's reign was ending, winning only two of their last 10 games to slip from eighth to 12th. A powerhouse for four years, they missed the finals for the first time since 2016 and farewelled triple-premiership heroes Bachar Houli and David Astbury. 'Slim Dusty' is rebuilding his body and aiming to return to his best. It is to be seen if the Tigers can do the same, or if 2021 was more than just an aberration.

01:04 Mins
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Dusty grimaces in agony after crunching hit

Dustin Martin goes down after colliding into Mitch Robinson in this massive blow

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11. Vaccination policy leads to defender's shock retirement

Carlton defender Liam Jones cited "personal reasons" when he retired in November, shortly after the AFL revealed its vaccination policy in preparation for the 2022 season. Contracted for 2022, the important defender had been in constant dialogue with his club in order to make an informed decision about his future and opted to end his 161-game career, which started with the Western Bulldogs and saw him reinvented as a key defender. Dual AFLW premiership player Deni Varnhagen, meanwhile, was moved onto Adelaide's inactive list after choosing not to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. St Kilda gun Georgia Patrikios then took a leave of absence from the Saints' AFLW program to consider her vaccination options, rather than moving straight to the inactive list.

Liam Jones during Carlton's official team photo shoot at Ikon Park on February 26, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

10. Lions win first AFLW flag

It was third time lucky for Brisbane, winning its first AFLW premiership after three Grand Final appearances in five years. A dominant 7-2 season was capped at Adelaide Oval, beating the Crows by 18 points in front of an opposition crowd of 22,934. Led by their outstanding backline, the Lions held up against a barrage of inside 50s (44-24), with defender Kate Lutkins crowned best on ground after playing through a painful torn plantar fascia for several weeks. Coach Craig Starcevich's achievement to steer his team to glory was magnificent after losing 16 players to rival teams during the League's formative and expansion years.

Sound The Alarm: Inside the AFLW Grand Final


9. Champion Hawk joins the 400 club

Shaun Burgoyne became just the fifth player in VFL/AFL history to reach 400 games, reaching the incredible milestone in round 16 against his former club Port Adelaide. The three-time premiership Hawk, who crossed to Waverley at the end of 2009, spoke in the build-up to the game with fellow 400-gamers Brent Harvey, Michael Tuck, Kevin Bartlett and Dustin Fletcher and said that being surrounded by good people and great medical advice had helped him achieve the incredible feat. The 38-year-old, who also won a premiership with Port Adelaide in 2004, called time on his illustrious career at the end of the season, bowing out a champion of the game whose finals appearances (35) ranked second only to Tuck (39).

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Silk 400: The best of Burgoyne's superb career

Shaun Burgoyne becomes the fifth player in VFL/AFL history to notch the 400-game milestone

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8. Fine Wines equals Dusty's record

Port Adelaide coach Ken Hinkley warned pre-season that midfield bull Ollie Wines was ready to take the competition by storm, and with a series of injuries behind him and a narrowed focus on playing to his strengths, Wines delivered. The 27-year-old produced a complete season that saw him average career-high disposals (32.4) and contested possessions (14.75), pipping Western Bulldogs captain Marcus Bontempelli to win the Power's first Brownlow Medal. The star onballer polled an equal-record 36 votes, matching Dustin Martin's 2017 record and polling in a record 16 games, including 11 of the last 12 rounds. A thrilling count came down to the final round and a head-to-head clash between the Power and Bulldogs, with Wines sealing the win with two votes to Bontempelli's nil.

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The hugs, the kisses, the speech: Wines takes 'Charlie' home

Port Adelaide star Ollie Wines is crowned the 2021 Brownlow medallist

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7. Disgraced Walker banned for racial slur

Racism reared its ugly head in August when it emerged the AFL was investigating former Adelaide captain Taylor Walker over a racial slur at a SANFL match. Walker was later banned for six matches and fined $20,000 for making a racist comment about North Adelaide player Robbie Young to one of his teammates, which was overheard by a Crows official and reported. "Deeply ashamed" by his actions, Walker pledged to educate himself and become an active participant in addressing racism. Past and present Indigenous players, like Gilbert McAdam, spoke about the old wounds Walker's actions had opened. The key forward, whose brilliant start to the 2021 season was long forgotten, took time away from the game, returning to training in early December and admitting his mistake would never leave him.

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Taylor Walker sits with Robbie Young in video apology

Adelaide veteran Taylor Walker says sorry for his racist comment to Robbie Young

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6. AFL intervenes after Greene bumps ump

GWS superstar Toby Greene was walking towards the three-quarter time huddle in the elimination final against Sydney and protesting a decision umpire Matt Stevic had earlier made when he effectively bumped the whistleblower. It prompted the biggest Tribunal case of the year, with Greene pleading not guilty to intentional umpire contact, while admitting his actions were "not a great look for the game". The 28-year-old was handed a three-match ban before the AFL challenged the verdict and advocated for a six-game penalty. Representing the AFL, Jeff Gleeson QC described the case as a "serious moment in the governance of the game" that could change the way umpires are treated if Greene's actions were tolerated. They weren't, with a six-match ban handed down by the AFL Appeals Board that will rule Greene out for the first five rounds of 2022.

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Toby in trouble? Superstar Giant makes contact with ump

Toby Greene makes contact with umpire Matt Stevic during the three-quarter time break

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5. Buckley's classy exit after Magpies finale

Nathan Buckley sensed there was an appetite for change halfway through a poor 2021 campaign, and after conversations with the Collingwood hierarchy he departed mutually in June. The Collingwood icon received a fitting farewell under those circumstances when the team lifted for his final game and beat eventual premier Melbourne in the Queen's Birthday game. A champion player and Grand Final coach who played and coached a combined 478 games for the club, he left the game for now without the premiership he has chased and will move into a media role in 2022. "Everything has its time, and the club and I have reached ours," Buckley said when announcing his departure. "I'll miss being a part of that but will always feel like a part of me is left with them."

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Inside Bucks' final game: Emotional scenes from a special day

Watch this amazing footage from as Nathan Buckley leaves the Magpies a winner

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4. Report leads to McGuire exit and board battle

Eddie McGuire's 23-year tenure as Collingwood president ended in February in the aftermath of the club's "Do Better" report, which found systemic racism at the club. McGuire's final misstep was to start a press conference addressing that report by declaring it was a "proud and historic day" for the club. Pressure immediately mounted on him to stand down and he conceded he had become "too much of a lightning rod" to stay in the role and implement the report's recommendations. McGuire stepped away from the public eye for a period before returning to his media roles, while the Magpies experienced a year of turmoil and power battles at board level. Jeff Browne was finally elected president in December after Mark Korda and Peter Murphy shared the role temporarily and then Korda held it for a period in his own right.

Eddie McGuire announces his resignation as Collingwood president on February 9, 2021. Picture: Getty Images

3. Perth hosts historic first Grand Final

Twelve months after hosting its first ever Grand Final outside Victoria, the AFL was again forced to send its biggest day on the road due to COVID-19. While the majority of the eastern seaboard was in lockdown, ruling out the MCG as a venue, Western Australia enjoyed a life with few restrictions albeit under a hard border to combat the outbreak. It meant Optus Stadium could be filled to its 60,000 capacity, with WA putting on a show to remember and doing it in its own way. The roar of the crowd matched that of the MCG and the twilight timeslot worked, with the teams delivering a match that swung wildly before Melbourne's dominant second half under lights. Left empty on the big day, the MCG secured an extra year on its contract to host the Grand Final, which now stretches to 2059, while additional home and away matches will be scheduled at the venue through to 2026. 

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DRONE VISION: Take a bird's-eye tour of the jewel in WA's crown

Dennis Cometti explains why this beautiful Perth stadium is ready to do the Grand Final proud

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2. Legendary coach leaves Hawks as succession plan aborted

Collingwood's approach to Sam Mitchell set in motion a formal coaching succession plan at Hawthorn that lasted all of three weeks. It was announced on July 6 that four-time premiership coach Alastair Clarkson would see out his contract in 2022 before handing the reins to Mitchell. On July 30, the plan was aborted, and Clarkson announced he would step aside at the end of the season and give Mitchell full control. It ended a long period of speculation around the legendary coach's future with the Hawks but sparked immediate intrigue about whether he would be at a new club in 2022. Ultimately, Clarkson decided to take a break from the demanding role and was soon off to the United States for a study trip. His early exit came at a financial cost of close to $1 million for the Hawks.

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Farewell Clarko: Football and life lessons from the master coach

Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson reflects on his coaching journey and philosophies in the Art of Coaching series

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1. Fearsome Demons break 57-year drought

Burdened by the longest drought in the game and recent history of pain and disappointment, Melbourne delivered the magical premiership its fans craved in 2021. The Demons put together a near-perfect season and their performance against the Western Bulldogs in the second half on Grand Final day was ruthless, kicking seven unanswered goals in the third quarter to turn a 19-point deficit into a four-goal lead at the final break and maintaining that momentum to win by 74 points. It was a remarkable achievement for coach Simon Goodwin, who had entered the season under pressure but held his nerve to become a Melbourne hero. He steered a supremely talented team built largely through the NAB AFL Draft and had the faith to hand young players key roles. Celebrated captain Max Gawn, however, was the face of the flag and he spoke to Demon supporters on the dais when he proudly shouted: "after 57 years of pain, it’s coming home".

Melbourne players celebrate the 2021 Grand Final victory over Western Bulldogs. Picture: AFL Photos