The Best Teams Never to Win a Flag

History is written by the winners. While Paul Chapman’s heroics in the 2009 Grand Final have entered footballing folklore, Brendon Goddard’s performance in the same game with a broken collarbone and broken nose has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

While it is only right to celebrate the teams that reach the pinnacle of footballing achievement, there have been some very good teams, which for a number of reasons, have fallen at the last hurdle and have never won a premiership.

So while premiership teams are often compared with each other, in the never achievable aim of deciding who was the best team in history, the bridesmaids often get overlooked, when one bounce of the ball may have made all the difference.

In that spirit, I’m counting down the best teams never to finish a season as premiers.

10. Fitzroy 1979-1986

The last great Fitzroy team included some incredible names: Quinlan, Conlan, Wilson, Osborne, Roos, Pert, Rendell and Mark Dwyer!

They kicked a record score in 1979 against Melbourne, looked headed for the flag in 1983, and beat reigning premiers Essendon and media darlings Sydney in consecutive finals in 1986.

But after a good start to that 1986 Preliminary Final against Hawthorn, they fell apart to get beaten by nine goals, and it was the beginning of the end for the Royboys. The next decade would be a slow death.

9. North Melbourne 1949-1958

Not many people realise that North Melbourne were the first of the teams admitted to the VFL in 1925 to make a Grand Final, which they did in 1950.

With a side that included Les Foote and Jock Spencer, the Shinboners ran into the Essendon juggernaut at the height of its powers and were soundly beaten in that Grand Final, but in an era dominated by some of the greatest teams of all time, they played finals four times over the period in question, finishing top of the ladder in 1949 and winning a final in 1958.

8. Melbourne 1987-1994

Barring a costly 15-metre penalty by future Brownlow Medallist and Melbourne legend Jim Stynes, things may have been different.

Under John Northey, an average looking side on paper, save for a declining Robert Flower, Stynes, Garry Lyon, Greg Healy and future All-Decade NFL punter Darren Bennett, developed a unerring habit of winning finals, going 8-5 under his tutelage.

However, their one appearance in the Grand Final was record breaking: Hawthorn won by 16 goals. The team was rejuvenated under Neil Balme in the mid 1990s, and with young centre half-forward David Schwarz causing a stir, Melbourne again climbed from the lower reaches of the finals to make a Prelim. Again, it wasn’t to be.

7. Western Bulldogs 2006-2010

Didn’t make it to a Grand Final, but were arguably the better team in consecutive losing Preliminary Finals. A much talented team that contained a Brownlow Medallist (two counting Aker), numerous All-Australians and a ground-breaking forward line, this team may have been the best never to make it to a Grand Final, if not for…

6. Footscray/Western Bulldogs 1992-2000

… this fellow group of Doggie bridesmaids. This team came the closest to that elusive Grand Final in 1997 when 20+ points ahead of Adelaide in the final quarter, before Adelaide came roaring back on their way to the premiership.

This Bulldog team had a incredible top end of talent: names like Grant, Johnson, Darcy, West & Smith drove a formidable outfit to positions of prominance on the ladder. They narrowly lost what perhaps was the greatest home and away game in the last round of 1998, and looked to be cruising to the Grand Final before being completely thrashed by Adelaide in the Prelim.

5. St Kilda 2003-2011

A team that started out as an offensive juggernaut that blended talented youth and big experience, and ended as a defensive stronghold built around that same talented youth now grown up.

St Kilda teased, finally matured, reeled off one of the greatest winning streaks in recent memory, then ran into one of the greatest teams of all time.

Returning for another crack in 2010, they fought through a major injury to Nick Riewoldt and a four-goal deficit in the Grand Final to come within one bounce of what may have been the most remarkable premiership ever.

A dry day in 2009, or a couple more favourable bounces in 2010, and these guys would have been back-to-back premiers. Take nothing away from the teams that beat them though – Geelong and Collingwood both had claims to be one of the best teams of the last 20 years.

4. Essendon 1953-1960

The late 1950s were dominated by two teams: Melbourne and Collingwood, who filled 10 of the 12 Grand Final spots between 1955 and 1960.

The only team to break into a Grand Final in this time was Essendon, who made the Grand Final in 1957 and 1959, both times losing to Norm Smith’s great Melbourne side.

Essendon’s side was filled with great names, such as Jack Clarke, Ken Fraser and the former head of the AFL Commission, Ron Evans, and in 1957, an ageing Bill Hutchinson. Merely managing to get into a Grand Final was certainly worthy of admiration in this era dominated by two great sides.

3. Collingwood 1977-1981

For such a short era, Tom Hafey’s Collingwood possessed an incredible ability to make the last Saturday in September, and an identically incredible ability to lose on that day, or at least not win. In five short years, Collingwood would make the Grand Final four times for zero premierships, their best effort being the 1977 draw against North Melbourne.

What this Collingwood side lacked in depth, they made up for in star power, with Brownlow Medal winning ruckmen in Len Thompson and Peter Moore, Ray Shaw, Ricky Barham, Billy Picken and the Shaw brothers. Unfortunately they could never get that elusive premiership, despite holding leads in three of those Grand Finals.

2. Geelong 1989-1997

A dynamic team built on low possession and high scoring, the Geelong team under Malcolm Blight and then Gary Ayres were one of the most entertaining teams to watch in memory.

With Gary Ablett providing many highlights in a forward-line that also boasted Billy Brownless and Barry Stoneham, Geelong could kick any score on any given day.

They possessed a highly-rated midfield, and took Hawthorn to within a goal in the 1989 Grand Final epic in which Ablett kicked nine unforgettable goals. In 1992 they would hold a significant lead against West Coast only for Peter Matera and Peter Sumich to take it away.

Two years later the Eagles would spank them, and Carlton did the same in 1995. Despite this, Geelong were always competitive and won many finals, but agonisingly lost four Grand Finals in seven seasons.

1. Collingwood 1964-1975

The team that came consistently closest to winning Grand Finals without winning them.

In 1964 they were in front in time-on thanks to Ray Gabelich’s memorable goal before back pocket Neil Crompton ran up the field to steal the flag for Melbourne.

Two years later Barry Breen’s wobbly point gave St Kilda their only premiership at Collingwood’s expense. Then in 1970, Collingwood would lead their hated rival Carlton by more than seven goals at half-time only to see a Barassi and Hopkins inspired comeback that robbed the Pies again.

Bob Rose was Collingwood’s coach for all these heartbreaking defeats, and despite continuing to make the finals after 1970, Collingwood wouldn’t get back to the Grand Final until Tom Hafey arrived, even being bundled out in straight sets after finishing top of the ladder in 1973.

With names like Tuddenham, McKenna, Thompson, Potter and John Greening, the Collingwood teams under Bob Rose will go down as the greatest team never to win a premiership.

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