The 20 biggest moments from the 2021 AFL season

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The AFL football community is sure to look back on the last couple of years as arguably the most challenging the game has faced.

Simply getting through the season in 2020 seemed enough of an achievement in itself. But the bar was raised even on that score this year, the pandemic-inspired disruptions greater, the chaos seemingly more widespread, more flexibility in terms of scheduling required than ever.

And yet as a quality year of football, who could argue that 2021 didn't deliver? Not only did we get through a full season of full-length matches this time, the standard and the storylines were better, too.

Who pre-season considered Melbourne any sort of premiership chance? And the Demons' fairytale flag win after a 57-year drought was far from the only unexpected turn of events. From a wide field, here are the 20 moments we think mattered most in AFL 2021.

20. This kid is a 'cert'

There's been plenty of No.1 draft picks who have strode straight on to the big stage and performed accordingly, but few have looked as more likely to do so than strongly-built 18-year-old South Adelaide star Jason Horne-Francis, North Melbourne's prized draft pick up as the Roos continue the rebuilding process. Horne-Francis, who starred during the Panthers' SANFL finals run, is tough, physical and good overhead. He is going to be a gun. Look out.

19. What a difference a week makes

Talk about karma! Zac Bailey and his Brisbane teammates were cruelly denied a win at Geelong in Round 2 when his perfect tackle on the Cats' Mark Blicavs right in front of goal in the last seconds wasn't rewarded, a non-decision the AFL deemed an error. But just six days later, Bailey got his just deserts, marking 45 metres out against Collingwood with the Lions trailing by five points. Bailey's shot, as the final siren rang, never looked like missing.

18. Seemed like a good idea at the time

Gold Coast aren't the first club to delist a player they still wanted simply to satisfy list requirements, but the Suns were the first to get torched for it, when experienced midfielder Hugh Greenwood, whom Gold Coast fully intended to redraft, was snapped up by North Melbourne as a delisted free agent, Greenwood having had a good relationship at former club Adelaide with then Crows football manager now Roos coach David Noble. Suns chief executive Mark Evans said, in something of an understatement: "Our preference would be that Hugh played with us in 2022. It's a slight deviation from that."

17. Frequent flyer Bulldogs

The Dogs might not have got the ultimate prize on Grand Final day. And perhaps their gruelling travel schedule played a part in their being overrun in the second half of the big one. But getting even that far given the logistics of the Dogs' finals campaign was an achievement in itself. From the final home and away game until the Grand Final, the Dogs went from Victoria to Tasmania to Queensland to Western Australia to South Australia and back again to Western Australia. No side has done it tougher when it mattered more than that.

16. A gala year for great grabs

Has there ever been a better season for Mark of the Year contenders? Can't think of one. It was a stellar year for the big grab. Richmond's Shai Bolton won the title for an enormous goal square leap against Geelong, but the gong could easily have gone to his teammate Jack Riewoldt for an amazing and courageous leap for a "speccie" running with the flight of the ball. Hawthorn's Tim O'Brien had claims, too, with another huge leap right near where Bolton delivered his highlight.

15. Like a fine Wines

After some earlier struggles with fitness and form, Wines had enjoyed a solid 2020. His 2021, though, was something else, the powerfully-built midfielder going to another level and ultimately overcoming even Bulldog superstar Marcus Bontempelli to deliver Port Adelaide's first Brownlow Medal with 36 votes, the equal-highest tally recorded. Wines, who averaged 32 disposals, polled in 16 games -- a record -- including eight in which he received the maximum three votes.

14. Bombers bounce back unexpectedly

Essendon was supposed to be a mess in 2021 after the unwanted departures of Joe Daniher, Adam Saad and Orazio Fantasia. Instead, the Bombers looked a far more exciting and reliable proposition under the coaching of Ben Rutten, youthful excitement providing a spark via the likes of Harry Jones, Nik Cox and Archie Perkins, not to mention the enormous improvement of midfielder Darcy Parish. The Bombers, against all expectations, reached finals, and their immediate future looks as bright as it has for some time.

13. Sydney kids breathe new life into Swans

The more observant might have noticed something up with Sydney towards the end of 2020. But it was this year that the Swans' clutch of exciting kids really delivered, helping transform a traditionally gritty, defensive team into a free-running, entertaining and high-scoring outfit, which to the surprise of nearly everyone, reached finals. Names like McInerney, Gulden, Warner, Wicks, Stephens, McDonald and others are set to be key parts of what looks like another exciting period for Sydney.

12. Toby Greene finals suspension

Greater Western Sydney's elimination final win over the Swans was dramatic. But the consequences of what newly-appointed co-captain Toby Greene had done 30 minutes previously were even more so, the small forward barging into field umpire Matt Stevic with barely controlled aggression. His three-game penalty cost the Giants any chance of winning their semifinal against Geelong. And the AFL unusually appealed the suspension, which was bumped up to six games, meaning Greene will miss one-quarter of the 2022 home and away season.

11. Silky milestone for Burgoyne

The Port Adelaide premiership player had arrived at the Hawks for the 2010 season having limped to the 150-game mark with a chronic knee injury and much scepticism about his on-going value. That Burgoyne finished up with 407 games (only the fifth player to pass 400) at the age of 38 says it all, really, without even a mention of how classy a performer he was for both clubs, no small factor in another three Hawthorn premierships with his cool-headed versatility in the biggest moments.

10. Few did it better than Betts

He wasn't the only big name to retire in 2021, but Betts was certainly the most-loved, the twice-Blue and Crow turning the art of freakish ground-level goalkicking into at-times an almost weekly occurrence. Arguably the greatest small forward in the history of the game finished with 640 goals from his 350 games across a remarkable 17 seasons. Betts also became a leading figure in the game's fight against the continued scourge of racism.

9. Taylor Walker's six-game suspension

Maybe the Crow veteran thought that as a spectator at a SANFL game, he could say what he liked and get away with it. Fortunately, an Adelaide staffer overheard his racist sledge of opposition player Robbie Young, and reported the comments. The response was disgust and bewilderment, none the least from Walker's former teammate Eddie Betts, and coach Matthew Nicks. Walker was suspended for six weeks, forced to donate $20,000 to a welfare program, and in 2022 faces a huge task simply to regain respect from the football world.

8. Richmond's ride screeches to a halt

The Tigers had already done it the hard way, none the least in 2020, but another catalogue of injury to key players, off-field incident, and being the AFL's "most hunted" this time simply took too great a toll. The warning signs were coming early, Richmond dismantled by Sydney at the MCG in Round 3. The Tigers rallied briefly mid-season but fell in a heap at the end, losing Dustin Martin with a serious kidney injury and winning just two of their last 10 games to finish 12th.

7. Carlton chaos sees cull at the top

Carlton had won just four of its first 12 games when it announced a review into its football department led by incoming president Luke Sayers. And so began an irreversible tide of change which by the end of the year had accounted for coach David Teague, most of his support staff, and Blues' chief executive Cain Liddle. Sayers, new CEO Brian Cook and new coach Michael Voss now have the task of returning Carlton to a place it hasn't been for more than two decades.

6. McGuire departure launches Collingwood capers

The leaking of the club's "Do Better" report into racism was the catalyst for a tumultuous year which saw president Eddie McGuire step down in February, but the fall-out continued until Jeff Browne assumed the presidency at the 16 December annual general meeting. It didn't help the Pies on the field, either, coach Nathan Buckley resigning mid-season and the club eventually recording its lowest-ever finish of 17th.

5. Epic climax to home-and-away season

Those old enough to remember still talk about the final, dramatic round of 1987. But it might have been matched in 2021 with a succession of dramatic finishes impacting on the composition of the finals. The Western Bulldogs forfeited their double chance by losing to Port Adelaide by just two points, then watching on horrified the following evening as Brisbane snuck into the four at their expense with just 20 seconds to spare against West Coast. Then, on the Saturday evening, Melbourne skipper Max Gawn's post-siren winner at Geelong gave the Demons top spot.

4. Gawn's massive goal channels another premiership skipper

Indeed, the parallels between that final round of 1987 and this year were startling, right down to a goal after the siren to put a side into top spot on the ladder and give it a critical finals advantage. Back then, it was Carlton skipper Stephen Kernahan goalling after the bell against North Melbourne, giving the Blues a crucial first-week rest. This time, Gawn gave the Demons top spot and a neutral final against Brisbane rather than third and an away final against Port Adelaide. Gawn's conversion may well have been THE kick which gave Melbourne a flag.

3. Hawks' Clarkson era comes to conclusion

The departure of any coaching legend is never going to be easy (see Kevin Sheedy and Essendon). And so it proved for the Hawks and their four-time premiership coach after 17 seasons at the helm. Questions about Clarkson's future had simmered away until the fuse was lit by Collingwood's pursuit of Hawk legend Sam Mitchell, long groomed as Clarkson's successor. An awkwardly-concocted official succession deal was troubled from the moment it was announced, Clarkson eventually choosing to walk away from the last year of his contract.

2. Another Grand Final goes on the road

After the extraordinary events of 2020, this was supposed to be the year things got back to normal. But 2021 would present the AFL with even greater logistical hurdles, fixture changes at a moment's notice, border closures, empty stadiums etc, etc. Sydney's two teams spent months on the road, the Lions and Suns couldn't play in Queensland for a time, and eventually all finals were played outside the country's two most populous states. Perth's Optus Stadium became the second non-Victorian venue to host a Grand Final. It did a brilliant job, too.

1. Demons' bad times banished in blink of an eye

Melbourne had already engineered a remarkable turnaround in the third quarter of the Grand Final against the Western Bulldogs to turn a 19-point deficit into a narrow lead. But as the clock ticked into the 30th minute, the stage set for an epic finale, the Demons turned remarkable to extraordinary. Three goals in just 40 seconds of playing time (two minutes 29 seconds of elapsed time) -- to Christian Petracca, then from the resultant bounces to Tom Sparrow and Clayton Oliver -- gave Melbourne a match-winning 24-point lead, the Demons' 57-year premiership drought as good as over.

*You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at FOOTYOLOGY.