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Essendon casts a shadow over AFL's year

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In other years, AFL boss Andrew Demetriou laughing uncontrollably on national television at news of a player setting fire to a dwarf’s clothes might have been considered the clear season low point.

Unfortunately for the AFL, this was not one of those years.

A grinding, low-scoring grand final, which delivered long-time favourites Hawthorn a well-deserved flag and Fremantle and former St Kilda coach Ross Lyon another near-miss, wasn’t that memorable.

The season will be long remembered, but for the wrong reason, for being the first year a club has been disqualified from the finals.

Essendon earned that dishonour for the disturbing nature of their 2012 supplements program, which left the Bombers unable to determine whether players had been administered prohibited substances.

For now at least, none of their players have been banned, although the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) hasn’t closed the case. Coach James Hird must sit out next season, among a long list of AFL-imposed penalties. He wasn’t the only favourite son to have a tough year.

Brisbane’s Michael Voss, like Hird a premiership captain of his club, was sacked late in the season. The apparent motivation was that the Lions wanted to snare Paul Roos as coach and avoid a player exodus, but they managed neither.

John Worsfold quit at the end of a disappointing season with West Coast, the club he captained to two premierships and coached to another.

Three other coaches also departed – in widely varying styles. Greater Western Sydney’s Kevin Sheedy handed over the reins to Leon Cameron, after what was, statistically at least, the worst season of his long and distinguished career.

St Kilda’s Scott Watters was, strangely, sacked two months after the season.

Melbourne took the other extreme, punting Mark Neeld halfway through a season in which their president and chief executive also fell.

It’s not all bad for the Demons. They did snare Roos and were handed a special $1.45 million grant from the AFL, less than a year after being fined $500,000 by the league over a tanking investigation.

The woes of the Bombers and Demons – and St Kilda’s Mad Monday dwarf-burning incident – kept much of the focus off-field pre-finals.

Immediately afterwards, the spotlight turned to Hawthorn superstar Lance Franklin’s departure, which surprised no one. The shock was that it was Sydney, rather than Greater Western Sydney, which found the salary cap room for him.

That should spell the end of their cost of living allowance. But it has the Swans well placed to challenge the Hawks next year.

ADELAIDE

They couldn’t handle the loss of Kurt Tippett to the Swans and a knee injury to fellow key forward Taylor Walker this season, but if Walker can make a successful return, supported by forward recruits James Podsiadly and Eddie Betts, the Crows could climb again.

BRISBANE LIONS

Despite sacking Voss, the Lions came within a whisker of sneaking into the finals at Essendon’s expense. They’ve appointed another triple-premiership hero, Justin Leppitsch, as coach, but he’s dealing with the loss of five young players to rival clubs in the off-season.

CARLTON

The Blues replaced Essendon in the finals and capitalised on their fortune with a comeback win over Richmond, but they still look a long way from being premiership challengers. They’ve picked up Dale Thomas but lost Betts and could still badly use a classy key forward.

COLLINGWOOD

After taking over a side coming off a premiership and another grand final appearance, coach Nathan Buckley has led the Magpies to a preliminary final exit then elimination final defeat. He faces a challenging season, particularly after parting with a host of premiership experience, including Thomas, Heath Shaw, Alan Didak and Darren Jolly.

ESSENDON

The Bombers have the ideal Hird replacement in two-time Geelong premiership coach and former Essendon playing great Mark Thompson. But it’s hard to predict how players will react to an emotionally draining year, in which they were under constant scrutiny and ended up losing their finals spot. And the possibility of individual sanctions is not yet completely off the table.

FREMANTLE

As he did at St Kilda, coach Ross Lyon has honed a disciplined, defensive unit and taken them to the grand final. Some nervous errors in the decider will haunt them. The Dockers still rely heavily on ruckman Aaron Sandilands, who dominated in September after an injury-hampered year.

GEELONG

The Cats refuse to fade and while only a shrinking remnant of the group that delivered premierships in 2007, 2009 and 2011 remains, they’ve seamlessly filtered in talented young players. A big season from Tom Hawkins, badly hampered by back problems this year, would help keep them in contention.

GOLD COAST

While GWS missed out on landing the superstar they wanted, the Suns still have the AFL’s best, Gary Ablett, who won his second Brownlow Medal this year. He also got a bit more help from his young teammates and the Suns will want to at least contend for finals in 2014. Veteran hard man Campbell Brown won’t be missed after being sacked for punching a teammate on an overseas club trip.

GREATER WESTERN SYDNEY

Wooden spooners in their first season, the Giants were even worse this year. Having missed out on Franklin, it’s hard to envision them rising rapidly in either crowd numbers or wins. The addition of some experienced players, particularly ex-Sydney ruckman Shane Mumford, should help, though.

HAWTHORN

Franklin is obviously a loss, but the reigning premiers remain well stocked in attack. Recruiting Brian Lake last year proved a masterstroke and the Hawks will hope for similar success with ex-Saints ruckman Ben McEvoy. The core of Hawthorn’s team is ageing, but still strong enough to make them flag favourites again.

MELBOURNE

Amid the Demons’ euphoria over securing much-wanted Sydney 2005 premiership coach Roos, it’s worth remembering he’s taken over a club at the lowest of ebbs. They were a basket case this year on and off-field and even with a new coach and four experienced midfield recruits, face a long haul.

NORTH MELBOURNE

They’ve made significant additions to their off-field staff and added a touch of on-field class, in ex-Saint Nick Dal Santo. North’s ability to frequently lose from winning positions and a very tough draw meant their final standing this year was well below their potential. It points to a big rise next season, if they can show a touch more mental strength.

PORT ADELAIDE

Plenty of struggling teams are using Port’s 2013 as an example of how quickly things can turn. Inspired by new coach Ken Hinkley, emotionally-charged by the off-season death of teammate John McCarthy, and lifted by some very talented youngsters, they climbed from 14th to a semi-final. The challenge now is not sinking like SA rivals Adelaide did this year, after a similar rise in 2012.

RICHMOND

For a club that played its first final in 12 years this season – and lost it to Carlton, who would have been ninth if not for Essendon’s disqualification – the Tigers are bullish about their future. They’ve improved steadily in Damien Hardwick’s four seasons, but winning a final would be the minimum requirement in 2014.

ST KILDA

Sacking Watters two months after the season was odd. The way the Saints hired their new coach, Alan Richardson, was even stranger. They seemed intent on Mark Williams, before negotiations broke down and they instead plumped for Richardson, who had days earlier declined even to be interviewed. He has the toughest of jobs. Already on the decline, the Saints have lost Dal Santo and McEvoy, Stephen Milne has retired and they’ve cut another small forward, Ahmed Saad, after he was suspended for an anti-doping breach.

SYDNEY

There’s a huge query over whether Franklin will play out the tail end of his bumper nine-year contract. But the immediate prospect of Franklin lining up next to the likes of Kurt Tippett and Adam Goodes in Sydney’s attack next year is scary for opposition sides. With the Swans having been badly hurt by injuries to key players late this year – notably Goodes, Lewis Jetta and Rhyce Shaw – they loom as a serious premiership threat.

WEST COAST

It’s a new era for West Coast, after Worsfold’s 11-year reign – longer than any other coach had been at their current club. Adam Simpson inherits a list which was injury-hampered this year but has huge potential. The Eagles ended the year a dispirited team, so a new voice could make a vast difference.

WESTERN BULLDOGS

Former Geelong assistant coach Brendan McCartney keeps increasing the Cats flavour at Whitten Oval, with Geelong triple-premiership star Joel Corey joining Matthew Scarlett, Cameron Mooney, Steven King and Ben Graham on his off-field team. On-field, they’ve added former Essendon forward Stewart Crameri and with a group of talented young midfielders, the gradual climb should continue.

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