Looking back at a big 2017 in football

TON UP: Strathfieldsaye's Lachlan Sharp shows his jubilation after kicking his 100th goal for the season in round 16. Picture: DARREN HOWE
TON UP: Strathfieldsaye's Lachlan Sharp shows his jubilation after kicking his 100th goal for the season in round 16. Picture: DARREN HOWE

LUKE WEST takes a look back at 10 football stories from 2017.

SHARP MAKES HIS MARK IN REMARKABLE COMEBACK

Strathfieldsaye forward Lachlan Sharp wasn’t supposed to return to the football field from his knee reconstruction early last season until May.

Yet his recovery was well ahead of schedule and after playing a couple of practice matches – including kicking 10 goals in the reserves against Rochester first-up – he was in the Storm’s side for round one against Sandhurst.

He kicked four goals in the Storm’s 13-point win over the Dragons… and the rest is history.

By the end of the season Sharp had won the Ron Best Medal – he finished with 142 goals – the Michelsen Medal, a premiership, the AFL Victoria Country grand final medal for his six-goal haul and the Strathfieldsaye best and fairest.

He’s one of just three players in the history of the BFNL – along with Rochester’s Ray Willett in 1962 and Eaglehawk’s Greg Kennedy in 1971 – to win the Michelsen-Ron Best double in the same season.

Sharp’s haul of 142 goals included five bags of at least 10 and a six-game block between rounds 13 and 18 where he kicked 60.

Not bad going for a bloke who 12 months earlier had – by his own admission – found the simple things like climbing stairs or jogging across the road to beat traffic tough going.

Lachlan Sharp’s game-by-game goal tallies – 4, 4, 10, 7, 14, 7, 2, 5, 5, 2, 2, 2, 8, 12, 12, 8, 9, 11, 1, 6, 5, 6.

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LEAGUE PRIDE ON SHOW IN QEO EPIC

The result didn’t go Bendigo’s way, but the May 13 clash against Ballarat at the QEO was a brilliant showcase of inter-league football.

The fiercest of goldfields rivals, 30 goals kicked, momentum ebbing and flowing and the game still up for grabs deep into time-on.

Bendigo gallantly fought its way back from 26 points down early in the third quarter to lead by 14 points during the final term.

But in a relentless game where tired players willed themselves from contest-to-contest late, it was Ballarat that prevailed as it kicked five of the last six goals to win by 11 points.

The name Nathan Pring will haunt the BFNL. With Bendigo clinging to a one-point lead entering time-on, Ballarat’s Pring kicked the final two goals of the game to snuff out the Blue and Gold.

RIVALS: Bendigo and Ballarat produced a cracking inter-league contest at the QEO in May. Unfortunately, Ballarat proved too strong for the third time in a row.

RIVALS: Bendigo and Ballarat produced a cracking inter-league contest at the QEO in May. Unfortunately, Ballarat proved too strong for the third time in a row.

The final score was Ballarat 16.9 (105) to 14.10 (94), with Bendigo’s better players led by the Sandhurst quartet of Derrick Filo medallist Andrew Collins (two goals), Codie Price, Tim Martin and Matt Thornton (four goals).

“The boys played with plenty of spirit, but now it’s a case of we have to go back to go forward again,” Bendigo coach Brett Fitzpatrick said.

And just to rub a bit of extra salt into Bendigo’s wounds, as a result of its win Ballarat now has a trip to the MCG to look forward to next year to play the Goulburn Valley as a curtain-raiser to the Essendon-Geelong AFL Country Game.

As for Bendigo, a 283km trip to Warrnambool is in store for 2018 to play Hampden in what will be the first full-scale inter-league match between the two since 1979.

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IS THAT RESULT AN APRIL FOOLS JOKE?

It was the scoreline that was the talk of the first day of the Loddon Valley league season that set the tone for an unpredictable 2017.

In a result that many at the time must have thought had been inputted into Sportingpulse around the wrong way – or was an April Fools joke given the game was played on April 1 – the opening round of the Loddon Valley season featured Bears Lagoon-Serpentine defeating Bridgewater 14.9 (93) to 10.12 (72).

SHOCK RESULT: The Loddon Valley league season started with a massive upset as Bears Lagoon-Serpentine beat Bridgewater by 21 points.

SHOCK RESULT: The Loddon Valley league season started with a massive upset as Bears Lagoon-Serpentine beat Bridgewater by 21 points.

It was a stunning result given Bridgewater was coming off an undefeated premiership season, while the Bears had endured a winless wooden-spoon 2016.

“For the club to not win a game of footy in any grade last year and to start the way we have today, with our thirds also having a win, it’s just fantastic,” Bears coach Greg Gadsden said.

The Bears proved the round one upset was no fluke, going on to play finals.

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A LAST QUARTER FOR THE AGES

Just like Essendon against Hawthorn in 1984, Strathfieldsaye’s last quarter in the 2017 BFNL grand final against Eaglehawk will go down in folklore.

The Storm had kicked just five goals to three quarter-time and trailed the Hawks by 20 points at the final change on a sweltering and windy September day that topped 31.8 degrees.

Admittedly, the Storm had the breeze at their backs to the city end in the final term, but the Hawks with the supposed fresher legs given they had only played one lead-up finals compared to Strathfieldsaye’s three.

What unfolded in the final term was a Storm avalanche of goals as they piled on 9.1 to 0.3 to turn the 20-point deficit into a 32-point win – 13.10 (88) to 7.14 (56) – in a perfect swansong for outgoing coach Darryl Wilson.

Storm star Lachlan Sharp had been held to just one goal in the first three quarters by Lachlan Atherton, but exploded in the final term, booting five to cap one of the greatest individual seasons in league history.

Strathfieldsaye's premiership team.

Strathfieldsaye's premiership team.

“At three quarter-time I honestly felt we we had the legs to over-run them in the final quarter,” Sharp said after game.

“We have a lot of big-game players in this team and I was always confident we could get the job done.”

Advertiser records going back to 1950 show Strathfieldsaye’s win was the biggest grand final comeback from a three quarter-time deficit through that period.

As well as Sharp’s five goals, Trent Donnan, Josh Formosa, Nalder medallist Kallen Geary and Jack Neylon also booted Strathfieldsaye majors in the final term onslaught.

The Storm also won the reserves and under-18 premierships earlier in the day, joining only Gisborne (2002), South Bendigo (1990), Golden Square (1964) and Eaglehawk (1953) to have achieved such a feat.

“It’s not something we spoke about during the week, it was just a case of taking each game as it comes. When we got the under-18s it was off to a good start, then the reserves had a great result and obviously for the seniors to finish the way they did was fantastic.” Storm president Mick Farrell said.

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DUSTY’S SEASON TO SAVOUR

Brownlow Medal with record votes, Norm Smith Medal in  a drought-breaking flag, best and fairest in a premiership season and just about every other award there was to be won.

And a new seven-year deal reported to be worth more than $8 million to stay at Punt Road elevated Richmond’s Dustin Martin – the former Campbells Creek, Castlemaine and Bendigo Pioneer player – to the biggest name in the AFL.

Martin wasted no time making his mark on 2017, racking up 33 disposals, kicking four goals and earning three Brownlow Medals in the Tigers’ 43-point win in the AFL season-opener.

MOMENT TO SAVOUR: Dustin Martin's nan Lois Knight and aunty Ange Denahy celebrate his Brownlow Medal win. Picture: LUKE WEST

MOMENT TO SAVOUR: Dustin Martin's nan Lois Knight and aunty Ange Denahy celebrate his Brownlow Medal win. Picture: LUKE WEST

By the end of the season he was the raging hot Brownlow Medal favourite and duly saluted with 36 votes in what the legendary Leigh Matthews rates as good an individual season as any player has produced in the history of the game.

Every vote was greeted with a cheer at the Castlemaine social rooms, where members of his family had gathered to watch the count, as well as at the Five Flags Hotel in Campbells Creek.

But the Brownlow Medal was just the entree to what would follow five days later when Martin won the Norm Smith Medal in Richmond’s grand final victory over Adelaide – the Tigers’ first flag since 1980.

Martin became the first player in the history of the game to complete the trifecta of a premiership, Brownlow Medal and Norm Smith Medal in the one season.

“It was the best day of my life, apart from giving birth to my three sons. It was great to have my boys there with me and there’s just no words to describe how we’re feeling,” Martin’s mum, Kathy, told the Bendigo Advertiser the day after the grand final.

Added Dustin’s nan, Lois: “He’s got the lot… we couldn’t be more prouder of him and he was just so happy on Saturday night.”

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AFTER 47 GAMES, MAGPIES FINALLY BREAK DROUGHT

To say Maryborough’s round 10 victory over Castlemaine in the BFNL was well overdue is a massive understatement.

Outside of grand final day, the most tears shed after a BFNL game this year were those in the Maryborough changerooms after the Magpies finally broke through for their first win in 47 games and 1049 days.

The drought broke on June 24 against Castlemaine with a 17.12 (114) to 8.8 (56) victory – Maryborough’s first win since beating South Bendigo by one point on August 10, 2014.

“We were 0-47 and now we’re 1-0,” an  elated Maryborough coach Shane Skontra said after the game.

MONKEY OFF THE BACK: Maryborough players leave the field after ending their 47-game losing streak against Castlemaine on June 24. Picture: ADAM BOURKE

MONKEY OFF THE BACK: Maryborough players leave the field after ending their 47-game losing streak against Castlemaine on June 24. Picture: ADAM BOURKE

“I think the whole club probably feels as though we’ve got the monkey off our back.”

The Magpies – who had Coby Perry claim the three Michelsen Medal votes – had to wait a bit longer than they would have hoped to finally belt out their club song.

The game was delayed about 30 minutes in the second half as ambulance officers attended to Maryborough’s Ash Noonan, who was knocked out in a sling tackle.

The Magpies weren’t able to reproduce their winning form of that day against Castlemaine, losing their last eight games of the season by an average of 82 points.

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THIRD TIME LUCKY AS BOMBERS SOAR TO FLAG

At the start of the Heathcote District league season all the talk was how far North Bendigo given it had topped up an already imposing list that had won the previous two premierships.

There was nothing to quell that talk when the Bulldogs came out and smashed Heathcote (187 points) and Huntly (149) in their first two games.

And there certainly seemed no stopping them when they crushed their biggest challenger – Leitchville-Gunbower – by 68 points in round seven.

Yet that would be the only time the Bulldogs beat Leitchville-Gunbower as the Bombers won their next three encounters, including the grand final at Huntly by 26 points that had followed a fiery second semi-final a fortnight earlier.

Leitchville-Gunbower's premiership team.

Leitchville-Gunbower's premiership team.

It was the third grand final meeting in a row between the two clubs, with the Bulldogs having won the previous two.

But with a third opportunity the Bombers wouldn’t be denied and finally broke through for their first premiership since 1995 in what was sweet revenge in the latest installment of what has become the league’s No.1 rivalry.

Leitchville-Gunbower’s Tim Lincoln won the AFL Victoria Country Medal, while star forward Matt Perri bagged six goals to end the season with 124.

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DEMONS PUT AN END TO BRIDGEWATER STREAK

It was bound to happen at some stage and it came at the hands of Calivil United.

After a Loddon Valley league record seven flags in a row Bridgewater had been stripped of some of its aura of recent years given it lost five home and away games, but had still fought its way through to another grand final, this time against the Demons.

And eight minutes into the third quarter the Mean Machine looked in an ominous position to add another chapter to its dynasty of success when it led by 17 points.

Calivil United's premiership team.

Calivil United's premiership team.

However, the Demons clicked into gear and produced the brand of footy that had propelled them to the top of the ladder, booting 10 unanswered goals to kick away and win by 34 points.

The grand final victory was the Demons’ first since the last of their six flags in a row in 2008 and it was fitting they were the club to end Bridgewater’s streak given the first of the Mean Machine’s seven flags in a row had been against Calivil United by 115 points in 2010.

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A RIPPER OF A BFNL FINALS SERIES

Fans were treated to one of the most compelling finals series in BFNL history that featured four of the six senior games decided by single-figure margins.

That had never happened before previously in the top-five history of the BFNL, which dates back to 1983.

Strathfieldsaye’s 32-point win in the grand final was the “blowout” result of the finals series – albeit after the Storm had been 20 points down at three quarter-time – with the other five games decided by a combined 37 points.

Golden Square and Strathfieldsaye battle in the preliminary final.

Golden Square and Strathfieldsaye battle in the preliminary final.

BFNL finals results:

Elimination final – Sandhurst 12.18 (90) d Kyneton 13.7 (85)

Qualifying final – Strathfieldsaye 9.19 (73) d Golden Square 10.4 (64)

1st semi-final – Golden Square 7.13 (55) d Sandhurst 6.15 (51)

2nd semi-final – Eaglehawk 14.13 (97) d Strathfieldsaye 14.10 (94)

Preliminary final – Strathfieldsaye 10.17 (77) d Golden Square 9.7 (61)

Grand final – Strathfieldsaye 13.10 (88) d Eaglehawk 7.14 (56)

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THUNDER QUARTET’S PLACE IN HISTORY

Football broke new ground on Friday, February 3, when the first AFL Women’s match between Carlton and Collingwood was played in front of a lockout crowd of more than 24,000 at Ikon Park.

And the history-making game featured a strong Bendigo link, with four draftees from the Bendigo Thunder – Emma Grant (Collingwood), Jess Kennedy, Bella Ayre and Sarah Last (Carlton) all part of the match that was shown live in primetime on Channel Seven.

For the record the Blues won 7.4 (46) to 1.5 (11).