The big four’s transition to the AFL era

The big four are powerhouses of the AFL – this is at least the fairytale that permeates the AFL landscape here in Victoria. But how have each of the big four adapted to the reality that is the modern AFL?


The unfortunate reality that permeates Carlton at the moment is the airs and graces that the club and supporters put on. It only took 10 weeks of the 2022 season for the average fan to want nothing but the demise of the club, not the players. Besides the Cripps fiasco at the end of the season no one wanted the players to suffer.

But we’d be lying if we said we looked at the prospect of letting Carlton fans be satisfied with a finals berth and didn’t have a negative reaction.

The club has failed to adapt to the modern world of the AFL. No better example of this can be found than my own experience of this club.

I am a Collingwood fan. I don’t understand the rivalry between Collingwood and Carlton even after round 23 of this year. They’ve just been terrible. In my lifetime Carlton has not won a premiership – the last one came three years before I was born.

The fans still want excellence and feel an ownership of the AFL world that they have no right to claim.

The world has moved beyond the team that has the most money winning the flag every season. But Carlton expects excellence whilst still operating as an overwhelming force that they just can’t back up at this point.

Patrick Cripps of the Blues looks dejected after a loss.

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

In terms of teams in the modern competition they should feel like Fremantle fans: proud and wanting better but the arrogance that they show is beyond belief. The Carlton football club will not achieve success until they deal with the overly exaggerated internal expectations built on VFL history.

And that will take some time and pain at least at the club level.


Biased opinion here is obvious, feel free to tell me I’m wrong but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I felt Collingwood has handled the transition to the AFL was better than any of the big four. Yes, Richmond has won more flags. Yes, we’re still suffering from the collywobbles.

But we have made the grand final six times and been competitive more years than not since the VFL became the AFL. We’re a shambles off the field for some years, yes we do need to “do better” but also the team has been amazing in years.

The biggest problem that Collingwood has ever had in the AFL was financial and we’ve not been in debt for years.

The only problem that potentially arising is too high an expectation.

We should only expect a premiership once every 18 years but Collingwood fans that I’ve seen have been riding high on 1990 and 2010 and will happily wait another eight years before they are bothered, in part due to the team’s lack of premiership success in the lead-up to the AFL forming.

We’re happy to be competitive every few years and that’s a secret to success in the modern era. Not everyone can be a dynasty.

Especially in the wake of the season we’ve just had we want the team to do better next year but we’re very proud of our progress in one season.


Can I just say Carlton, but more so? Abandoning all reason, participating in a supplement cheating regimen? Where to start? Essendon fans are browbeaten at this point.

The least often talked about worst deal in football was the 25-year deal with Dockland – a better deal to isolate the fan base could not have been made. Docklands is just a bad stadium with the lights in the fans’ eyes being the main problem.

But they’re either the third or fourth-largest team in Melbourne playing seven home games in the smaller stadium in the city and the one that has the worst fan experience. The club has 78,000-odd members, their members cannot physically attend those home games. It was downright short-sighted to sign a 25-year deal, and they’ve been paying for it ever since.

However, this does not explain the treatment of head coaches in recent years. The expectation of success that permeates the club with no reason to back it up has seriously hampered any development that the team could have hoped for, especially after the supplements saga.

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Ben Rutten’s sacking is the best example there is. But it was the treatment of John Worsfold two years before that set them up for this disaster. They had a coach who was committed to the playing group and despite problems had shown promise developing talented players and building a strong core.

Instead of sacking him due to his failure on the field they just brought in his replacement whilst he was still in the building and then they tried to do the same thing this year with Rutten. This is not how a football club in a professional environment should operate.


I have at least to say about this team because, well, they figured it out eventually, didn’t they? They are the best-run big four team currently.

The Tigers have to weather the transition away from their premiership core to a new era before we know if they’ve made sustainable changes in the clubhouse but they are the prime example of how to run a club for the time being.

It was a long 27 years before they did it in the AFL era but they now seem to have an excellent structure and a board that can manage the pressure of the 100,000 members every season.

If they can maintain this success not winning a flag every year but not experiencing long periods out of contention and settle into a West Coast, Sydney style in contention most years and never being completely dysfunctional for more than a year then bouncing back, they could easily unseat Collingwood as the team best adapted to the AFL era of these four.

All these clubs suffer from a weight of expectation that comes from being as big as they are but I see all clubs adjusting to these new time eventually because the people who remember the good old days will eventually stop getting a say and there will be room for new growth and ideas in all areas.

But for now I am going to enjoy the dysfunction.

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