A job well done: Joel Selwood with the 2011 premiership trophy, the Cats' third in the AFL era. Photo: Mal Fairclough
HISTORY starts here. It's what they probably should have said when the VFL officially became the AFL on New Year's Day, 1990.
That significant moment came and went with barely the bat of an eyelid, but its importance now can't be overstated as football continues to fight its own version of the history wars.
Who are the kings of football's castle? For Victorian fans, it remains Carlton and Essendon, with 16 premierships, Collingwood close behind on 15. But for the sizeable army of AFL clubs and supporters beyond this state's borders, those figures are largely irrelevant, with only five of those collective 47 flags won under the AFL banner.
A new era deserves a new measuring stick. And in an age of equalisation and concession, even that's not so simple. Come the 23rd season of AFL football, three clubs — Geelong, Brisbane Lions and West Coast — have each won three premierships, another five clubs boasting a double, and 11 in total having tasted the ultimate success.
How do you separate them? Grand final appearances. Finals played. Numbers of years in finals. And the all-important win-loss percentage.
Tally them up and the picture becomes clear. Geelong is the best team in AFL history. West Coast is not too far behind. Brisbane's three premierships, won consecutively, don't necessarily put the Lions at the top of the AFL tree.
Geelong's record has been phenomenal. In 22 completed seasons of AFL football, the Cats have contested seven grand finals, played in 14 finals series, 10 in which they've reached at least the preliminary final, and from 525 matches to the end of round five, boast a clearly superior winning rate of 61 per cent.
Geelong chief executive Brian Cook, who's occupied the position since 1999, concedes there's a quiet satisfaction about how the club has remained so consistently competitive. “We're aware of it,” he says of the Cats' beautiful set of numbers, “but we haven't used those stats in any public arena. We prefer other people to be blowing our trumpet.”
Things weren't going quite as well for the Cats when Cook arrived after the salad days of Gary Ablett snr, Barry Stoneham, Mark Bairstow, Paul Couch and co. under coach Malcolm Blight, then Gary Ayres. An ageing playing list was starting to slip down the ladder, captain Leigh Colbert headed to North Melbourne and, more alarmingly, the club was carrying a $10 million debt.
Cook credits Mark Thompson's appointment as coach in 2000, and that of Stephen Wells as national recruiting manager, as pivotal moments in Geelong's AFL history, the remarkably durable generation of Cats' on-field leaders, not to mention 106 victories from the past 125 games, as vindication.
“The recruiting philosophy has been about treating talent as no more important than character, and we still do that,” he says. “We haven't wandered from that formula. There were times in those first three or four years where we doubted it, but we've stuck to it.”
West Coast's effort over the past two decades deserves more credit than it has received. The Eagles have made finals 17 years out of 22, and played 40 of them — both figures the best in the competition. They sit behind Geelong only by virtue of two fewer grand finals, a poorer win-loss ratio, and having turned only seven of those 17 finals campaigns into a preliminary final spot or better.
Brisbane represents the curve ball in the debate about AFL heavyweights. Many argue the Lions' hat-trick of flags and four straight grand finals from 2001-04 gives them the crown. But as compelling as that record is, it's surrounded by as many seasons of failure.
In the first five years of the AFL, the Lions never finished higher than 12th, and only once since 2004 have they finished higher than 10th, with their win percentage of 45.9 ranking a lowly 13th.
If consistent performance is your yardstick, it's another non-Victorian team, Sydney, which scrubs up very well indeed. The Swans' 13 years of finals is behind only Geelong, West Coast and Essendon, and includes three grand final appearances. Sydney has a better win-loss record than Brisbane and has played in more finals.
In fact, take out those abject few years from the formation of the AFL, which included a 26-game losing streak over the 1992-93 seasons, and from 1995 on, the Swans have actually won more games of football than any team except Geelong.
Of those old traditional VFL powers, it's arguably Collingwood which has kept pace in the AFL era the most effectively.
The Magpies have won two AFL flags and played in five grand finals (six if you throw in the replay against St?Kilda in 2010), more premiership play-offs than anyone except the Cats, and more than arch-rivals Carlton and Essendon, who have been involved in three and four respectively.
And while it won't come as any great shock given the three decades it's now lingered in the wilderness, Richmond has struggled in the AFL era just as much as it did towards the end of the VFL.
The Tigers' two finals campaigns in the AFL have been bettered by Fremantle, which gave Richmond a five-year head start, and Port Adelaide, which started seven years later, and the Power also has a flag and two grand finals under its belt.
Richmond's winning percentage of 39 beats only Fitzroy, which was falling into disrepair and gone by 1996, and new boys Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney.
It's been an amazing fall from grace given the VFL powerhouse status the club enjoyed with four premierships and five grand final appearances in just eight seasons between 1967-74, and SEN broadcaster Kevin Bartlett has been intimately involved with both ends of the spectrum. The champion Richmond rover was part of all those VFL flags, then coach of the struggling and broke club which entered the AFL era.
Bartlett points out that in 1977, Richmond was the first VFL club to attract one million fans through the gates in a season. A far cry from the club teetering on the edge of financial ruin he coached, and which has laboured under the weight of debt for most of its existence since.
He's more optimistic about the future now, as are most Tiger fans, with a stable administration, an end to the in-fighting which had become synonymous with Richmond's struggles, and some real progress being made on the long-term playing front under the coaching of Damien Hardwick.
“I'll tell you one thing,” he says. “As soon as Richmond starts to move up the ladder and play finals on a regular basis, the Richmond support base will challenge Collingwood's, because it's a club with great history, enormously loyal supporters and a lot of well-known, iconic players. If they make the on-field stuff work, they can again become an unbelievable force.”
But in AFL terms, a new force. Football history effectively started again in 1990. There's new heavyweights, new measures of success. And to match teams such as Geelong, and the symbol of the national competition that West Coast has become, the Tigers, like a few champions of the VFL era, have a bit of catching up to do.