For every team whose supporters get to celebrate a footy premiership, there are 17 others who taste disappointment every year.
While the cyclical nature of football means many sides cycle around to challenge every 10 or 20 years and others seem almost permanent fixtures in finals, there are some clubs whose players, coaches and fans have to wait generations — even lifetimes — for premiership success.
This weekend, the Western Bulldogs will face Melbourne in the 2021 grand final — one side having recently broken a long drought, the other still desperate to end the wait for a flag.
So where does the Demons’ drought sit in the scheme of things?
South Melbourne / Sydney: 72 years (1933-2005)
The South Melbourne Bloods are the gold standard when it comes to premiership droughts.
The Bloods, later known as the Swans, had a solid early history with three VFL flags by 1933. But a hat-trick of grand final losses in 1934–1936 followed.
After the “Bloodbath” grand final loss against Carlton in 1945 — where a whopping nine players were reported, six from South Melbourne and three from the Blues — South Melbourne would not make the finals for another 25 years.
By the time they got back to the grand final in 1996 they had long since disappeared up the Hume Highway and were known as the Sydney Swans. A Swans side featuring star forward Tony Lockett came up against North Melbourne, but the Kangaroos ended their dreams with a 43-point win.
Nine years later, the Swans came up against the West Coast Eagles in a tight, low-scoring grand final. The omens were not good when Luke Ablett’s errant kick across goals was picked off by Ben Cousins in the goal square early in the final term — he goaled to put West Coast in front.
The Swans hit back to hold a five-point lead deep in time on — first a speculative West Coast ball to the hot spot went over the back and was rushed through to make it four points. Then a last desperate Eagles attack saw the ball hoisted inside 50, only for “Leaping” Leo Barry to pluck it from a pack right before the siren.
Tears flowed in the stands as Bloods/Swans supporters finally had something to cheer about after 72 long years.
St Kilda: 68 years (1897-1966)
St Kilda supporters have had a fair bit to deal with in grand finals in the last couple of decades.
In 1997 they went in as favourites against Adelaide, only to be turned over by the Crows’ forward combination of Darren Jarman (expected) and Shane Ellen (definitely not).
Then there was Matthew Scarlett’s toe poke that found Gary Ablett to set up the attack for Paul Chapman’s go-ahead goal in 2009 and the dodgy bounce in the goal square that defied Stephen Milne’s clutches to score the tying point against Collingwood that sent the 2010 decider to a replay rather than a goal to win it all.
It’s now been 55 years since the Saints came marching in — but sorry to say for St Kilda fans, it’s not even the longest drought in the team’s history.
From their inception in 1897, there was only one grand final in the first six decades — a 13-point loss to Fitzroy in 1913 where the Saints managed only one goal to three-quarter time. They lost again in 1965 to Essendon, before making it back to the big one the following year.
The Saints were up against Collingwood in a game that was tight all day, with St Kilda hanging on to a four-point lead at the final break. Scores were level in the dying minutes — as the exhausted players looked for the winning score.
Barry Breen took advantage of an errant handball from the Pies and the Saints player kicked the slowest, ugliest point you’ll ever see — but it finally bounced through for the winning behind. It gave St Kilda their first and only flag — and may well have used up all the Saints’ good luck for the years since.
Footscray/Western Bulldogs: 62 years (1954-2016)
When Ted Whitten’s side team won the VFL flag in 1954, things looked good for the sons of the ‘Scray — but by 1959 they were back down the bottom of the ladder with the wooden spoon.
Footscray rebounded to make the 1961 grand final but lost to Hawthorn — and that would pretty much be that for the next 55 years.
There was one glorious moment of opportunity — in 1997, the club, rejuvenated after near-bankruptcy and a rejected merger with Fitzroy, now rebadged as the Western Bulldogs, made the prelim final under Terry Wallace.
They faced Malcolm Blight’s Crows and looked set for victory with a 31-point half-time lead and a 22-point break with a quarter to go. But Darren Jarman turned destroyer for Adelaide in the final term, the Bulldogs went goalless, and it was the Crows who advanced to the grand final. Another prelim loss to St Kilda followed in 2009.
Finally, in 2016, the fairytale happened. Luke Beveridge took a new group of Bulldogs to the finals in seventh spot. No one had ever won the flag from that position.
But wins over West Coast, Hawthorn and GWS put them in the decider against Sydney — and against the odds, they outplayed the Swans when it counted to win by 22 points.
Melbourne: 57 years (1964-?)
The Demons go into this Saturday’s grand final with the longest active premiership drought in the AFL. Twelve flags up to 1964 marked them as one of the most successful teams in the league.
But the sacking of club legend Norm Smith (three premierships as a player, six as a coach) in mid-1965 — even though he was reinstated a week later — may have led to a curse on the Demons.
The club did not make the finals again for more than 20 years and has not won a flag since. In 1987, John Northey’s Dees made the prelim and were close to making the grand final, leading Hawthorn by nine points with a minute left and by three with 30 seconds left.
In the dying seconds, the Hawks went the length of the field and a long desperation ball to Gary Buckenara led to a free against Jim Stynes on 50 as the siren went. As the Irishman stood the mark, a 15-metre penalty was paid, and Buckenara slotted the kick to grab a dramatic win.
The Demons lost the 2000 grand final to Essendon and then in 2018 they made the prelim against West Coast in Perth, only to be outscored by 10 goals to none in the first half on the way to a 66-point thumping.
Now the Demons are back, and favourites for the grand final. The Bulldogs are the only ones standing between Melbourne and the end of the drought — not to mention the curse.
Fitzroy: 52 years (1944-1996)
Fitzroy was one of the original founding VFL clubs, and eight premierships in just under half a century was a more than reasonable return.
Their eighth flag came in 1944, with a 15-point win over Richmond at Junction Oval.
The team, originally known as the Maroons and later as the Gorillas, changed again in 1957 to the Lions. On the field, however, there would be no change for the foreseeable future.
Fitzroy racked up a series of wooden spoons and poor seasons over the next 20 years — the Lions failed to win a single game in 1964.
One last prelim finals appearance came in 1986 but, by the time of back-to-back wooden spoons in 1995 and 1996, the writing was on the wall.
The merger with the Brisbane Bears to create the new Brisbane Lions drew a line in the sand.
North Melbourne: 51 years (1925-1975)
North Melbourne did not have a glorious start to life in the VFL.
North entered the league with Hawthorn and Footscray in 1925, but it took 25 years to make a grand final — a 48-point loss to Essendon.
Aside from a couple of night premierships in the mid-1960s, success remained elusive, until the team began to build in the late 1960s and early 1970s — particularly the arrival of Ron Barassi as coach in 1973.
North was on the move. With a string of top players including dual Brownlow medallist Keith Greig, Malcolm Blight and Barry Cable, the team became dominant under Barassi, making five straight grand finals from 1974.
A loss to Richmond in 1974 was followed by the breaking of the drought with a 55-point win over Hawthorn the following year. Another flag would follow in 1977.
Geelong: 44 years (1963-2007)
Geelong won the 1963 flag under coach Bob Davis but after a loss to Richmond in 1967’s grand final, it would be more than 20 years before they had another shot.
Under Malcolm Blight, the Cats played a glorious brand of football and made the grand final four times in seven years.
Unfortunately for them, they lost one of the greatest grand finals ever to the Hawks in 1989, then ran into a clinical West Coast lineup in 1992 and 1994, before a dominant Carlton side ended Gary Ablett Senior’s last chance of a flag with a 61-point triumph the following year.
When the drought broke, however, it was definitive. Not even the wildest dreams of Cats fans would have predicted the one-sided affair that played out at the MCG in 2007.
Geelong led Mark Williams’s Port Adelaide side by 23 points at the first break — and only good luck to the Power and poor accuracy from the Cats stopped it being a lot worse. It was over as a contest early in the second term — by three-quarter-time it was a 90-point margin.
Forty-three scoring shots to 14, 24 goals to six, a record VFL/AFL grand final margin of 119 points — it was a very sweet end to the drought for Geelong.
Hawthorn: 37 years (1925-1961)
The Hawks entered the VFL in 1925 and their early days gave no hint of the football powerhouse that they would much later become.
It took three decades of trying before they got to finals for the first time, and that 1957 campaign ended in the prelim.
The arrival of John Kennedy Senior as coach in 1960 was the key moment for the club. In his second year, a Hawks outfit that was harder and fitter than previous years made the grand final against Footscray.
The training regime paid off — after trailing for the first half, Hawthorn ran the legs off the Bulldogs after the main break, kicking 10 goals to two to win by 43 points. Kennedy Sr would go on to coach three flags with Hawthorn with many more coming since. Their “drought” is now just six years.
Richmond: 37 years (1980-2017)
The Tigers started off the 1980s with a thumping 81-point win over Collingwood for the club’s 10th flag.
Richmond fans may have expected more success but, after a loss to Carlton in the 1982 decider, there followed a long time in the wilderness.
Debt-ridden through the late 1980s and early 1990s, the club rebounded to make prelims in 1995 and 2001, but could go no further. Richmond bounced around and had a series of early finals exits in 2013, 2014 and 2015 before missing September in 2016.
2017, however, would prove different. After a series of off-season moves to bring in Dion Prestia from the Suns, Josh Caddy from Geelong and ruck Toby Nankervis from the Swans, the Tigers had a strong season, finishing third on the ladder.
Big wins over Geelong and GWS put them back in the grand final against Adelaide. The nerves were there as the Crows led early, but after quarter-time the Tigers roared, with winners across the ground, including the unstoppable Dustin Martin, spearhead Jack Riewoldt, star defender Alex Rance and the run of Bachar Houli.
Collingwood: 32 years (1958-1990)
For years the infamous “Colliwobbles” were enough to strike fear in the hearts of long-suffering Collingwood supporters, who saw their side lose eight grand finals between 1960 and 1981.
The tough days for the Black and White Army included a lost replay against North Melbourne after a drawn decider in 1977 — and we won’t mention Wayne Harmes’s punch of the ball from deep in the pocket two years later that set up the winner for Carlton.
But the losses made that win all the sweeter when Leigh Matthews’s men downed Essendon in 1990 to take the club’s 14th VFL/AFL flag.
After a nervous opening term, the Magpies kicked six goals to one to blow the game open by half-time.
To quote a certain song, the second half was pretty much a premiership cakewalk, as Collingwood ran out the winners by 48 points.
Of the others, we have three categories: the very new, the very successful and the very recent winners.
Carlton’s wait has reached 26 years, which is not huge in the scheme of things — but when you have won 16 flags, you get used to success.
The Crows won two in a hurry, going back-to-back in 1997 and 1998 — since then, however, their only grand final was a wipe-out against the Tigers in 2017.
Essendon’s wait has now been 21 years, since the grand final win of 2000.
The Lions have gone close in recent years under Chris Fagan, but their drought extends to 18 years, since the end of their brilliant three-in-a-row under Leigh Matthews.
Port Adelaide has not made the grand final since the nightmare loss to Geelong in 2007, and their one and only flag came against Brisbane in 2004.
Then you have West Coast, who have been so successful (four flags in 34 years in the league) that the Eagles’ longest time between premierships has been just 12 years.
Then, of course, there are the four teams for whom the drought has never broken, including one for whom it never will.
University lasted just seven short years in the early years of the 20th century. Fremantle and GWS have each had one crack at the grand final in their 26 and 10-year histories, respectively. Unfortunately for them, they ran into peak Hawthorn and Richmond
And for the Suns, there have been no finals, let alone a grand final, in their 11 years in the league.