Expansion Teams: Finals Success and Failure

Lisa Albergo's picture

by Lisa Albergo reporting for AFANA from Chicago

Up until 1986, there were only 12 teams in the then VFL (the name changed in 1990), comprising the original teams from 1896 as well as Hawthorn, Richmond, Footscray (now Western Bulldogs) and North Melbourne being admitted later (see our Footy FAQ for more history). West Coast v Sydney, Grand Final 2005, photo copyright AFANA.All these teams were based in Victoria, seven in Melbourne and the Cats in Geelong (just an hour's drive west of Melbourne). In 1987, the league decided to expand their horizons in an effort to spread the game.

Enter the West Coast Eagles and Brisbane Bears (now Brisbane Lions) in 1987. Following on from that, the Adelaide Crows were born in 1991, the Fremantle Dockers in 1995, Port Adelaide in 1997, Gold Coast in 2011 and Greater Western Sydney in 2012. All but Gold Coast, savaged by injuries to key players this year, have made finals in their time but their success and failure has varied. Here is a look at how they have all fared.

BRISBANE
The club was cobbled together with the only players of any note being Roger Merrett who came from Essendon, Brad Hardie from Footscray, Gilbert McAdam from St Kilda, Mark Mickan from South Australia (returned to Adelaide to be inaugural captain of the Crows) and Cameron O'Brien from Collingwood (later emigrated to the USA and played with the San Diego Lions in the early 2000's).

In their early years, the Bears were less than competitive despite the recruitment of star forward Warwick Capper from Sydney in 1987. In 1995, former Carlton star Robert Walls was appointed senior coach after stints with Fitzroy and Carlton. By that time, Brisbane had picked up future champions Jason Akermanis, Michael Voss, Chris Scott, Nigel Lappin, and Alistair Lynch (who crossed from Fitzroy). The team was building and were finally heading for success. It came down to the final round of 1995 with the Bears defeating Melbourne to be in ninth position before the rest of the results came in. It was a nervous two days for the club with the 12th placed Swans needing to defeat the 10th placed Collingwood for Brisbane to slip into the finals for the first time. The entire team, wherever they were, were glued to TVs to watch that game. It did not look good for them with Collingwood leading by four goals at half time. In the second half, the Swans sprung to life, kicking 13 goals to five, giving Brisbane their first finals action. At the time, it was reported that some of the Brisbane players were in tears of joy at the prospect. The joy was short-lived as they had to face the rampaging Carlton Blues who had steamrolled the competition with just two losses for the year. However, the Bears were ready for them and threw a huge scare into the eventual premiers by grabbing a 14 point lead at one stage during the Qualifying Final. The Blues hit back to dump the Lions out of contention. Although they were regulars in September from that tine on, they could not go that one step better until 2001, under the guidance of coach Leigh Matthews, they stormed the competition to win the next three premierships. They were on a roll in 2004 until Grand Final day when it all fell apart, starting with Alistair Lynch and Port defender Daryl Wakelin throwing "haymaker" punches at each other before the first bounce. The Lions lost that Grand Final. They have had next to no success since then with only one top eight finish since in 2006.

WEST COAST
Although West Coast had recruiting restrictions placed on them, in that they could not recruit more than one player from other clubs, they still had the WAFL from which to recruit. From there, they snared John Worsfold, Chris Mainwaring, Chris Lewis, Dean Laidley (later player and coach with North Melbourne), and Wally Matera (brother Peter joined in 1990). They also picked up future star Fraser Gehrig. They made their first finals appearance the following year only to bow out in the first week. Enter Mick Malthouse as coach, and they did not miss the finals over the next decade with premierships in 1992 and 1994. Malthouse departed at the end of 1999 and the club fell away badly under former player Ken Judge. He was axed after just two seasons and replaced by former player John Worsfold who took them to successive Grand Finals in 2005 and 2006 with one defeat and one win over the Sydney Swans. They have had one Grand Final appearance since in 2015 - a loss to Hawthorn.

ADELAIDE
South Australia has always had a very strong local competition with the SANFL. As such, it had always been a fertile recruiting ground for the VFL/AFL. This caused serious dislike and mistrust on the part of SA when it came to the major league. In 1990, the massively successful Port Adelaide Magpies wanted to join the AFL but the move was blocked by the SANFL. The AFL decided it would be a good idea to have a South Australian team in the competition. Instead of going with an already established team, the AFL opted for a new entity, the Adelaide Crows. Among the players in that inaugural squad were Mark Bickley, Darel Hart, Rod Jameson, Andrew Jarman, Matthew Liptak, Chris McDermott (captain), Mark Mickan, Shaun Rehn, and Nigel Smart. In just their third season, they finished in third place and won an Elimination Final. They tbowed out in straight sets against Carlton and Essendon. That would their last appearance until their back to back premiership victories in 1997-98. In the years since, they have been in only four campaigns with little success, their most recent defeat coming at the hands of Sydney in an 2016 Semi-Final.

FREMANTLE
West Australia, like SA, has had a very strong competition. The Dockers were not part of the WAFL. They were another team which was cobbled together. The original squad included Ben Allen, Daniel Bandy, Peter Bell, Matthew "Spider" Burton (then the tallest player ever at almost 7'), and Dale Kickett. For years, they were the easy beats of the league. It wasn't until 2003 that they finally got to see September action. However like others before and after them. they could not go the distance and lost to Essendon. Their other appearances including reaching a 2006 Preliminary Final (loss to Sydney), elimination in 2010 with a Semi-Final loss to Geelong, and a 2012 Semi-Final loss to Geelong. The Dockers finally made to the Grand Final in 2013. They had to face the rampant Hawthorn who had lost just three games that year. They put up good fight but went down by 15 points. In 2014, they lost a Qualifying Final to Sydney and a Semi-Final to Port Adelaide. In 2015, the finished first in the regular season and won the Qualifying Final but lost the Preliminary Final to eventual premier Hawthorn.

PORT ADELAIDE
Finally, Port Adelaide was admitted to the AFL in 1997. Everyone was sure they would be no match for the AFL "big boys" but the proved the doubters wrong, winning 10 games and losing 11 with one tied game against Brisbane to finish ninth. They missed out on a top eight berth on percentage only. They finally got there in 1999, finishing seventh but had to play eventual premier North Melbourne in a Qualifying Final and lost. Their next appearance came in 2001 with a third place finish but bowed out in straight sets against Brisbane and Hawthorn. In 2002 and 2003, they finished in first place but could not progress past the Preliminary Finals. The media gave them the less than flattering nickname "finals chokers". In 2004, they again finished in first ahead of the triple premiership winners Brisbane whom they met in the Grand Final. Port defeated the reigning champions by five goals. They reached the Grand Final again in 2007, but the Geelong Cats thrashed them by a record winning margin of 119 points. They were in the post-season again in 2013 and 2014, but failed to get to the Grand Final and have since been out of contention.

GREATER WESTERN SYDNEY GIANTS
The newest club to enter the competition was not expected to do well in their first few seasons, and that is the way it happened. They endured numerous heavy ;losses and won just three games in their first two years and finished dead last both seasons. They managed six wins in 2014, but the wins came against struggling teams such as Carlton, Melbourne and Brisbane. However, it was enough to get them off the bottom. Eleven wins in 2015, including upsets over eventual finalists Hawthorn and Adelaide, propelled them to a credible 11th place finish. In early 2016, they demolished reigning premier Hawthorn to announce themselves as serious contenders. They went on to win 16 games for the year. They met cross-town rival Sydney in a Qualifying Final and defeated the Swans. But the win was soured with Steven Johnson being suspended for a high hit on Sydney's Josh Kennedy. The one week suspension meant he would miss the Preliminary Final against the Western Bulldogs. In a tense and pulsating game, and the Bulldogs got over the line by a solitary goal. Experts said afterward that had Johnson not been suspended, it could well have been GWS facing the Swans in the Grand Final. There is always next year and if any team took them lightly previously, they won't in 2017.

Source: AFL Record Season Guides, Encyclopedia of League Footballers, ABC Grandstand Footy Book 1996, author notes

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