Throwing it back to March and everyone in the footy world was on edge. COVID-19 had well and truly seeped its way into Australian shores, putting a hold to life for the foreseeable future. That included the AFL. Though they tried to admirably play Round 1 behind closed doors, it wasn’t meant to be, as Gil McLachlan announced a suspension of the season following the round’s end, for what ended up being almost three months.
A lot has already been said about the financial stakes that were beset upon the AFL. There was a fear of bankruptcy, furloughing and clubs not being able to survive in the COVID era. Yet, somehow, some way, the AFL managed to resume its season from round 2, beginning back up in June, and didn’t let up.
It must be said that it was not easy at all. A week after resumption, Essendon’s Conor McKenna tested positive for COVID-19, following a breach in protocol, which postponed their match with Melbourne and jeopardised the season. Miraculously, no one else in the AFL tested positive for the virus, and the season was safe to continue. McKenna himself was able to return to play shortly after. Just like that, the AFL survived a major scare.
McKenna’s wasn’t the only case where COVID protocols were breached, nearly compromising the season that the AFL worked hard to create. Collingwood’s Steele Sidebottom and Daniel Wells were caught with their pants down (literally) whilst visiting the recently injured Jeremy Howe – which was a breach of protocol. Richmond’s Sydney Stack and Callum Coleman-Jones got into a mix-up at a Gold Coast kebab shop, where they were supposed to be isolating in the resort hub that had been set up by the AFL in order to prevent any transmission among the players and staff. Luckily, these mishaps were dealt with by the league and the clubs, and no cases of COVID-19 were found within the league in their hubs.
There were other cases of breaches of the protocols, particularly around the Queensland hub, and though it consistently left the AFL in precarious positions, they managed to ride it out and be able to complete the season, with no extended delays or suspensions.
The Shining Light in the Darkest Time
Melbourne and Victoria were expected to host AFL games as they always do, given that it is and forever will be the home of footy. For the first few rounds of the restart, exactly that happened, as the MCG, Marvel and Simmonds Stadium all saw the return of football, albeit behind closed doors. However, this all changed in July, following the second outbreak of COVID-19 in Melbourne, putting the city into an extended lockdown. It was a hard blow for the city to take, and for the AFL, who promptly left and set up shop in Queensland, where the players have remained since the lockdowns imposed on Victoria.
As Victorians were confined to their homes, in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, the AFL marched on in Queensland (who did an admirable job in hosting the league). The competition gave Victorians a sense of consistency in their chaotic lives, and something to look forward to each week. When times were at their toughest, they could count on being able to tune into the AFL to keep them busy and occupied, as well as provide them something to cheer on when everything else looked bleak. This rung true during the festival of footy, where every day there were games being played. Suddenly, lockdown didn’t seem so bad for Victorians. At least the AFL kept them company. It couldn’t have happened without a well-executed plan by the AFL to maintain the season and churn through the compressed the fixture, to which a lot is owed by Victorians for this happening.
A Memorable, Chaotic, and previously Unfathomable Grand Final
In any normal year, the grand final is played at 2:30pm AEST at the MCG. As has been made clear, this has been far from a normal year. The outbreak in Victoria forced the AFL to have to move the grand final elsewhere, in a rare and seemingly impossible occasion where the big dance was not played at the MCG. Every other stadium in Australia was a candidate, with Optus Stadium and the Gabba the most likely choices. The AFL opted in with the Gabba, presumably as a reward for Queensland’s accommodation of the league during the hub period, for the sake of continuity, and the chance for the AFL to tap into an NRL market and capitalise on its presence in the state.
The grand final was thus held at the Gabba in front of 30,000 cheering fans, as Richmond took on Geelong. It was a memorable game in any circumstance. Gary Ablett Jr unfortunately popped his shoulder in his last game, and still played on despite the obvious pain he was in. Shortly after, Nick Vlaustin was knocked out by a stray Patrick Dangerfield elbow. Geelong roared to a 22-point lead shortly before half time, where Dustin Martin took over and dragged Richmond back into the game, where they ran off to a 31-point victory. Oh, and did we mention there were streakers?
Gary Ablett Jr got the sending off that a legend deserves, Dustin Martin picked up his third Norm Smith medal and we got our first taste of a night-time grand final, complete with the best and worst features of the experiment.
It wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but we have to look back to that fateful day in March. COVID-19 was taking over, no one knew what was going on and the AFL was on the brink. Somehow, the league managed to jumpstart the season and get it to run from start to finish, even with challenges and adversity facing it all the way. If you’d have told us back in March that we’d manage to hold a grand final and seating 30,000 people, all while preventing a COVID outbreak, we’d have called you dreamers. This happened, and for that, we thank the AFL for its extraordinary efforts.