An AFL grand final fit for a fairytale

GRAND FINAL BOUND: Melbourne's Max Gawn celebrates after the Demons defeated the Cats in last weekend's preliminary final. Photo: Paul Kane/Getty Images
GRAND FINAL BOUND: Melbourne's Max Gawn celebrates after the Demons defeated the Cats in last weekend's preliminary final. Photo: Paul Kane/Getty Images

AFL football has seen more than its share of fairytale stories written over the past couple of decades. And next week's grand final serves up a double.

In one corner Melbourne, holder of the longest active premiership drought in the game, 57 years having elapsed since the Demons' last flag in 1964.

In the other, the Western Bulldogs, who in 96 years in league ranks, have won just two.

The Bulldogs' famous 2016 premiership, their first for 62 years, produced remarkable moments of raw emotion.

Another one five years on won't be as sharp an assault on the senses, but it will be another reminder of just how dramatically AFL football's status quo has been shaken up in the modern era.

Just think of how many droughts and ducks have been broken already this century.

Brisbane, incorporating the remnants of the old and much-loved Fitzroy, broke through for not just a first premiership in 2001, but three in succession.

Sydney, formerly South Melbourne but always even since the shift north proudly the Swans, won a famous victory in 2005, which ended a 72-year flagless run.

Only a couple of years later, in 2007, Geelong brought to a halt a run of 44 years without a premiership, one which included five losing grand final appearances, four of them in a seven-season period between 1989-95.

Like Brisbane, the Cats then got the taste for it, too, going on to win more flags in 2009 and 2011.

The Bulldogs' 2016 breakthrough was special not only because of the length of their barren run, but by the manner in which it was broken, the Dogs coming from an unprecedented seventh on the ladder after the home and away season to go all the way, winning four finals in a row.

Then it was Richmond's turn.

After plunging from a perennial power of the late 1960s and 1970s to the abyss and the edge of extinction by the late '80s, the Tigers had become something of a standing joke, known more for ritual in-fighting and turmoil than success on the field.

Their remarkable 2017 premiership not only broke a 37-year drought, but kick-started one of the best eras the game has seen, three flags in four years the result.

And only a fool would believe that after a difficult 2021, that record still can't be improved upon yet.

Melbourne's latest chapter in the book of football fairytales is particularly poignant.

The "curse of Norm Smith" has assumed the status of some of US sport's most famous jinxes, predicated upon the Demons' ill-timed mid-season sacking of the greatest coach in 1965, just half-a-season after Smith had led the club to a sixth premiership in an incredible 10-year period.

Smith's sacking was a decision hastily rescinded, but the damage to the fabric of the club had already been done.

The Demons had won three flags in a row between 1955-57, and five out of six from 1955-60.

But they wouldn't even reach the finals again for another 23 years, and even then, the gods refused to smile upon them, the late Jim Stynes running across Hawk Gary Buckenara's mark after the final siren in the 1987 preliminary final, and Buckenara's resultant goal costing Melbourne a grand final spot.

Melbourne would make the grand final the following year.

But this time, it ran up against arguably one of the best couple of football teams the game has seen in Hawthorn, the Hawks racking up a then-record 96-point win.

The other of those great teams?

Well, that was the Essendon outfit Melbourne was pitted against in 2000, its most recent grand final appearance.

The Bombers had won 20 games straight that year, won 24 of 25 across the season, and in the big one, smacked the Demons by 60 points.

It goes without saying that however impressive the Bulldogs have been of late, next week is by some margin Melbourne's best opportunity since 1964.

There's a lot of romance around the football world these days.

But the other side of the coin, and one which would give supporters of all these traditionally downtrodden clubs not a little bit of perverse pleasure, is how at the same time, a few so-called "heavyweights" have been doing it tough.

Carlton and Essendon may lead the premiership ladder with 16 flags each, but both are in the midst of the longest premiership droughts in their histories, the Blues without a grand final win since 1995, 26 years ago, and the Bombers having gone without since that win over Melbourne in 2000.

Both the Blues and Bombers have had all manner of strife in the same period, too, crushing salary cap breach penalties for Carlton, and the infamous Essendon drugs scandal.

And Collingwood, the other member of that one-time feared troika of clubs, has tasted a premiership more recently, in 2010, but even then only after a nail-biting draw and replay.

And that was indeed only the Pies' second premiership in a period now spanning 63 years.

Any reputation these three clubs still maintain as powers is based purely on the legacy of history forged long ago.

AFL football in the 21st century is a far different story, one of new, emerging empires, and one in which seemingly every once downtrodden club is capable of writing their own heroic tale.

And next Saturday may well provide us with the most gripping instalment yet.