Football’s Greatest Teams – The VFL Era (1896-1989)

As a decade concludes there is always a new candidate for the greatest football team of all time.

As always is the case the latest team or latest trend is always the forerunner for the title of being the best.

But while we recall the achievements of the latest team, we forget the accomplishments of the teams from yesterday.

In the AFL there is always the argument of who is the best team of all time.

But after 120 years of VFL/AFL football how can we possibly have a clear winner in the discussion of the greatest team in history?

Maybe a better discussion would be teams of the decade but with some teams having success in intertwining decades it is difficult to categorise teams into a decade.

An easier way to determine footballs greatest teams is by splitting the VFL and AFL era’s.

This two part series will look at the teams that dominated the VFL era (1896-1989) and then the AFL era (1990–present). There will be numerous options of best side and you the reader will be able to decide who is the greatest team of the VFL and AFL era’s.

THE VFL ERA 1896 – 1989

Collingwood 1927 – 1930

1929 Collingwood premiership team

No other team from the early 20th century receive as much attention in modern times as the Collingwood team from the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. ‘The Machine’ as the football public referred them won four consecutive premierships (1927–30), albeit with the help of the Argus system.

The Argus system allowed the team who finished minor premiers at the end of the home and away season the right to challenge a result in the finals.

In 1929 Collingwood finished the home and away season undefeated but were thrashed by Richmond by 62 points in the second semi-final. But under the Argus rules, Collingwood had the opportunity to challenge the winner of Richmond vs Carlton in the Grand Final.

As fate would have it, Collingwood met Richmond in the Grand Final and avenged the semi-final defeat, with a 29 point victory.

The Magpies would do the same in 1930, losing to Geelong in the preliminary final, but given the opportunity for redemption in the Grand final, which they duly won.

Though the Magpies were aided by a ludicrous system, the facts are that the Machine will still go down as one of the best sides ever assembled.

Of the 82 games played between 1927–1930, the Magpies won 70. Five players from ‘The Machine’ team are in the Collingwood Team of the Century.

One of these players was Gordon Coventry, who became the first player to reach 300 games and kicked 1299 goals, a record amount which stood until Tony Lockett kicked his 1300 goal in 1999.

Essendon 1946-1951

When a team plays in six consecutive Grand Finals, has two players who have accumulated five Brownlow medals and a player who has the goal-kicking award named after him, it’s safe to say the team is in fairly good shape.

Coached by club legend Dick Reynold’s the Bombers were the superior team in the competition for six seasons, winning 79% of their home and away matches.

The Bombers won premierships in 1946, 49 and 50 but came up short in 1947, 48 and 51.

The Bombers however, will be most remembered for the grace of John Coleman, who lit up the competition in a way never seen prior.

In his first match Coleman kicked 12 goals and from then on was a footballing sensation. Coleman kicked 537 goals in only 98 matches in a career that was cruelly cut short by a serious knee injury. Ill-fate would be a constant occurrence in Coleman’s life as he was unjustly suspended for the 1951 Grand final, a decision that most people believe cost the Bombers the flag.

Coleman coached the Bombers from 1961 to 1967 and guided the club to premierships in 1962 and 1965.

In April 1973, aged just 44, Coleman died suddenly from coronary atheroma, ending the life of footballs first real superstar.

Melbourne 1955-1960

No team has ever been as dominant as the Melbourne team from the mid fifties to the early sixties. The Demons had everything required to be a great team. A super coach in Norm Smith, a superstar in Ron Barassi and playing home games at the biggest and best stadium in Victoria meant the Demons were the envy of every other team.

When Melbourne appointed club great and Fitzroy coach, Norm Smith as their coach in 1952, they knew they were getting someone with the skill to be successful. But never did the club foretell the success that would come.

The Demons went on to win the premiership in 1955-57 and 1959-60. The Demons made the 1958 Grand Final and would have equalled Collingwood record of four consecutive premierships if they won the match. But as fate would have it, Collingwood ended the Demons premiership run by winning the 1958 Grand final.

Melbourne won another premiership in 1964 but by 1965 the domination of the Demons was over. Ron Barassi departed the club to take up a role as captain-coach of Carlton, while Norm Smith was sensationally sacked and then reappointed as coach in mid 1965. The magic of the Demons was over and since 1964, Melbourne have not won another premiership, making their success in the 50’s and 60’s even more special.

Ron Barassi

North Melbourne 1974-1978

For over 40 years North Melbourne were considered an irrelevant team in the VFL. Awarded a VFL licence after 29 years of applying, the Kangaroos entered the VFL along with Hawthorn and Footscray in 1925. While Footscray and Hawthorn won their first premierships in 1954 and 1961, North had to wait 50 years to taste success.

The turnaround at North Melbourne began when Allen Aylett was appointed president in 1971. A forward thinker Aylett set his sights on making North the best team in the competiton.

To do this Aylett got together numerous powerbrokers to attain the litter of money to entice the best players in the VFL to the Kangaroos.

The VFL had just established the 10-year rule, which allowed players who had served 10 years at a club the chance to move to any club of their choice.

North took advantage of this rule and recruited Essendon captain, Barry Davis, Geelong superstar Doug Wade, John Rantall (South Melbourne) and Barry Cable (Perth).

The biggest acquisition however was the appointed of Ron Barassi as coach. After a year away from the game, Aylett was able to entice Barassi to return to the coaching arena for the 1973 season.

With the likes of Malcolm Blight, David Dench and duel Brownlow medallist Keith Gregg playing alongside the new recruits, North’s fortunes began to turn and the club made the Grand final in Barassi’s second season in charge.

But North were no match for a strong Richmond side and were never in the hunt for the 1974 premiership.

North would only have to wait a year to taste success as the club as they beat rival, Hawthorn by 55 points.

Hawthorn would have revenge a year later, but the Kangaroos would again taste premiership success in 1977 against Collingwood.

After the first Grand Final ended in a draw, a easy week of training gave North players enough rest to run away with victory in the replay.

North would again make the Grand Final in 1978 but were no match for Hawthorn.

In all, North played in six Grand finals over five years and as Aylett set out at the beginning of the decade, achieved the ultimate success and became relevant.

1977 Grand Final

Hawthorn 1983-1989

The Hawks defined the 80’s. Off the field, Hawthorn players were partygoers, with a great sense of fashion. On field the Hawks played with exuberant style and flair that guided them to seven consecutive Grand Finals, in the decade that shaped the course of Australian football history.

The 1983 premiership was one for the older generation in the Hawthorn side. Leigh Matthews and Peter Knights were ever present and added to their premiership medallions, which already included the 1971, 76 and 78 triumphs.

After falling short to Essendon in 1984 and 85 the transition to the new generation began. The likes of Dermot Brereton, Garry Ayres, John Plattern and Jason Dunstall were now the stars in the Hawthorn side.

Hawthorn would go on to win premierships in 1986, 88 and 89, while Robert DiPierdomenico and John Plattern would win Brownlow medals and Jason Dunstall kicked 134 and 138 goals in consecutive years to be crowned the Coleman medallist.

During the seven-year stretch, the Hawks won 120 of a possible 154 home and away games. The Hawks also won three night series in a decade where the pre-season competition held relevance. Allan Jeans was coach for most of the decade, but illness prevented him from coaching in 1988 and responsibilities fell to Alan Joyce.

Many people who lived through the decade describe the 1980’s Hawthorn side as the best team they have ever seen, even better than the Brisbane side of the early 21st century and the present Hawthorn team.

The clear indication of how prolific the Hawks were in the 80’s can be seen in the state of the club in modern times. In the past the Hawks struggled for members and in 1996, the year the club was about to merge with Melbourne, the Hawks only had 12,923 members.

But with the children who grew up in the 80’s now adults, the club has over 70,000 members and is expected to overtake Collingwood for most members in 2017.

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