Even as it was happening, the 2022 AFL season was being proclaimed one of the greatest in recent history.
A thrilling home and away season, with storylines up and down the ladder, didn’t exactly get the close Grand Final it deserved but it still left plenty to talk about – for better and for worse.
Foxfooty.com.au counts down the 22 biggest stories of the 2022 AFL season.
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Bombers star coming out of retirement! | 00:25
22. Crowds are back
We’ll always think of 2020 as ‘the year of Covid’ but of course the pandemic persisted into 2021, with crowd restrictions and the forced relocation of the Grand Final amongst the impacts on that year’s AFL campaign. But after two very difficult years 2022 saw the doors of stadiums across the country flung open, and things almost got back to normal at the footy. On average 30,871 fans attended each home and away game – the lowest non-Covid season figure since 1995, but getting into the ballpark of a season like 2016, which averaged 31,850 fans. The change was particularly visible in Melbourne, after the many lockdowns, with over 80,000 fans attending both Carlton-Collingwood games – including 88,287 lucky individuals who witnessed the Round 23, finals-deciding epic – plus 84,205 at Anzac Day, and 76,059 at the Queen’s Birthday. (Collingwood being good again certainly helped those figures.)
21. Bailey Smith’s drug ban
Breaking out as a genuine mainstream star in 2021, with a huge Instagram following and plenty of marketing opportunities, the Bulldogs midfielder didn’t have quite as successful a 2022 on the field. Off it things were even worse, with a video emerging on social media of Smith holding a bag of white powder. The public humiliation would’ve hurt as much as the two-match suspension and strike under the illicit drugs policy, Smith becoming the latest player to fall victim to the growing trend of videos leaked online causing trouble. Dustin Martin had his own controversy with a much older video which drew headlines heading into the finals series which really summed up the problem – with a complete lack of context it makes it much harder to judge whether players should be punished, and unfortunately there will always be those who want to weaponise any sort of issue against celebrities (which, in these days, AFL players are amongst).
20. Dissent rule a thing and then not a thing
There’s always a ‘new rule of the year’ heading into each AFL season and this time it was the dissent rule, following in the footsteps of Toby Greene’s finals ump bump and an attempt by the AFL to cut down on the disrespect of umpires at all levels of the game. With players penalised when they objected aggressively to a decision, the rule quickly came under fire, with the line of what was acceptable seemingly changing all the time. After all of the discussion around it the rule effectively disappeared, with players getting away with acts in August that would’ve seen them condemned to footy jail in April. There’s nothing wrong with trying to get umpires to be treated more respectfully in a broad sense – there is a genuine issue with a lack of them at the lower levels, and when many fans at games treat them like lower forms of life it’s not hard to understand why. But at the same time this rule always felt like too much and it never quite found the right balance because, as it turns out, adjudicating how angry a frustrated footy player can be in the heat of battle is almost impossible.
19. Eddie opens up on racism and the Adelaide camp
The deeply-reported 2018 Crows pre-season camp still had its doubters but most of those were silenced for good when Eddie Betts, a club favourite, spoke out about the infamous attempt to get over the 2017 Grand Final in his autobiography ‘The Boy from Boomerang Crescent’. Betts confirmed “completely disrespectful” elements of the camp, which led to a number of players and officials departing the club, and others including Josh Jenkins spoke out after him. Betts was again placed in the spotlight when the Hawthorn racism investigation was revealed, speaking with brutal honesty about the discrimination he still faces. A remarkable and brave figure, it is unfortunate Betts has to be the one to speak out any time race comes into the fore of the football world, but he always does it with such grace that is impossible not to respect him deeply.
18. Year of the comeback
It’s a toss of a coin for who claims the title of Comeback of the Year – with both Tyson Stengle and Paddy McCartin achieving incredible feats in 2022. Stengle was famously handed his second AFL lifeline by Geelong, after failing to cement his spot at Richmond before trouble found him at Adelaide. But under the influence of new Cats staffer Eddie Betts and his family, Stengle established himself as one of the best small forwards in the competition and got himself a premiership for his efforts. McCartin meantime was the shock Swans pick up in the pre-season who turned himself into one of the best defenders in the game. The big ex-No. 1 pick was forced out of the game due to repeat concussions, but after getting his health woes sorted, coach John Longmire took a chance on him and he formed a formidable partnerships with brother Tom for Sydney – and found himself in a grand final.
17. What goes up must come down for Melbourne
The reigning premiers simply picked up where they left off in 2021 to start this season, racing out to a 10-0 run. They’d won a remarkable 17-straight games, including the drought-breaking 2021 premiership in Perth, when they came face-to-face with finals contender Freo at the MCG. And with Steven May injured and the forward line failing to fire, suddenly Melbourne’s weakness was exposed. They went on a 6-6 run to see out the season. The Demons still managed to finish second, after a final round belting of Brisbane – but bowed out of the finals race in straight sets in shock scenes. Christian Petracca’s broken leg didn’t help their case as he opted to play on it in the semi final loss to the Lions.
16. The Grundy trade saga
It’s no secret Brodie Grundy wanted to remain a Pie for life. And after signing a seven-year, $7 million deal in 2020, the star ruckman had every right to think he would be. But injury struck early in 2022 and Collingwood’s salary cap started to close in. With Grundy unable to show his worth on the field, as teammates Mason Cox and Darcy Cameron stepped up in his absence, the Magpies made the brutal decision to offload Grundy – and part of his hefty salary – to rivals Melbourne in one of the biggest trade shocks. The whispers had been there for months, but it took until young Demon Luke Jackson made his move to Fremantle to open up the spot for Grundy.
15. Cripps wins Brownlow in thrilling count
Patrick Cripps claimed his first Brownlow Medal in 2022 in a thrilling count – but his brilliant season would have gone unrewarded if not for the club’s decision to appeal his two-game ban – twice. Cripps was slapped with the ban for his collision that left Lion Callum Ah Chee concussed. Despite the tribunal upholding the ban, the Blues then appealed that decision and won in stunning scenes. The country WA kid polled three votes in the final round to claim the AFL’s top honour by one vote from Lion Lachie Neale in one of the wildest counts in history.
14. Cameron gone from GWS
The Giants were expected to stay in the finals race in 2022 but they just never got going early in the season. Star defender Phil Davis lasted just two games before tearing his hamstring badly and missing months of footy, while the team just couldn’t get the wins on the board – with just one victory in the opening six rounds. It saw coach Leon Cameron fall on his sword, as he walked away from the club in Round 9. Mark McVeigh stepped in as caretaker coach, and turned to his ex-Bombers teammates James Hird and Dean Solomon to sit alongside him for the rest of the season. But he was ultimately beaten to the top job by Adam Kingsley, and departed the club post-season.
13. JHF trade bombshell just before period starts
The Jason Horne-Francis debacle remains murky, with North Melbourne’s cryptic parting shot suggesting there’s more to the story than meets the eye. Horne-Francis, the Roos’ first-ever number one draft pick, made headlines in his debut year as he clashed with teammates. He was then disciplined for heading home for Mother’s Day without adequate approval from the club, and then famously missed what would be his first game at home in front of family and friends, reportedly for refusing an ice bath at his coach’s orders. At season’s end, Horne-Francis requested a trade home to South Australia – which the Roos facilitated by packaging up this year’s number one pick too. The teen lasted just one year at Arden Street in bizarre scenes.
12. West Coast collapses – but Kennedy shines
There’s no doubt West Coast had a year to forget, with injury and then Covid creating absolute chaos for the club. The Eagles were so decimated early in the season, they had to turn to Covid top-up players from the WAFL just to field teams – with some players not even meeting coach Adam Simpson until game day. With their season shot to pieces, Simpson had to turn to the kids as the proud club sat anchored at the bottom of the AFL table with North Melbourne. But there was one shining light in the horror season, with veteran Josh Kennedy putting on an absolute show in his final AFL game. Announcing his immediate retirement, Kennedy kicked a whopping eight goals against Adelaide in Round 21 as he brought down the curtain on a brilliant career.
11. Gill standing down, but new TV deal comes first
After eight years in the AFL’s top job, Gillon McLachlan announced his decision to step down as CEO and spend more time with his family. McLachlan oversaw a tough period, including the Covid years, to establish a AFLW competition and ensure the signing of the most lucrative sports broadcast deals in Australian history. But before McLachlan would walk out the door, he pledged to see out a number of projects – including another TV rights deal. And the AFL boss simply went one better with the latest deal, a seven-year, $4.5 billion contract running through to 2031 between Foxtel and Seven. When exactly McLachlan will hand over the reins still remains unknown as he’s committed to completing the Hawks racism investigation.
10. How to solve a problem like De Goey
Jordan De Goey entered the 2022 season under a lot of scrutiny after his October arrest at a New York nightspot carried into this year as his court case was dealt with. After avoiding a jail stint for his bar antics, the Pies star was expected to keep a low profile for the season. But that all changed mid-year when De Goey headed to Bali during the bye and found himself at the centre of scandal once again. Vision of the star partying it up and appearing to grope a female companion ensured Collingwood ripped out up contract extension. De Goey had to fight his way back into the Magpies’ good graces after embarrassing the club. But in true De Goey fashion, he let his football do the talking and was one of his side’s best in the final rounds before playing a starring role in their finals run. De Goey eventually signed a new deal with the Pies, but the specific clauses inserted regarding his behaviour are unknown.
9. Carlton’s brutal collapse
The Blues were flying under new coach Michael Voss, with a top four finish in their sights after Round 17. But from there, Carlton managed just one more win for the season to drop out of the finals race in the most brutal fashion – in the dying seconds of the final match of the home and away season. The Blues suffered losses to Geelong, Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne before heading into their Round 23 clash with rivals Collingwood knowing they needed a win. Carlton even fought tooth and nail to have skipper Patrick Cripps free to play after he was initially banned for the final two matches for his bump that concussed Lion Callum Ah Chee. Despite losing his tribunal appeal, the Blues took the fight even further and managed to clear Cripps to play. But it counted for little as the one-point loss to Collingwood saw the Blues drop out of the top eight for the first time all year – and end their 2022 campaign.
8. Lyon returns to the Saints after Ratten’s shock post-trade
With Leon Cameron, Ben Rutten and David Noble all departing as head coaches, the damage appeared over before St Kilda shocked the footy world by sacking their coach Brett Ratten in October. It was a particularly brutal blindside on Ratten, given he’d just signed a new deal three months prior. The sensational backflip was instigated by the club’s review into their football operations that found a change of leadership was needed. After ruling himself out of the other coaching opportunities, former Saints coach Ross Lyon jumped at the chance to return. He was announced as Ratten’s replacement just nine days later – promising to bring a lighter approach to the club.
7. Clarko picks North after Noble departs
North Melbourne made secret they wanted Alastair Clarkson at the helm after parting ways with coach David Noble in July. Noble had endured a tough 2022 up until that point, with just one victory coming over an injury and Covid decimated West Coast. Add in the revelation he’d had to apologise to players after a particularly brutal post-match spray and Noble was on shaky ground at the club. Roos’ president Sonja Hood made it her mission to convince Clarkson to become the club’s fourth full time senior coach in five seasons. And after a few months of meetings and contract talks, Clarkson was announced as the new coach in a massive coup for the struggling Kangaroos.
6. Magpies’ miracle season
No one expected Collingwood to make finals, let alone contend for the premiership, but under new coach Craig McRae the Magpies rode glorious highs in 2022. The club got on a stunning 11-match winning streak – with eight of those 11 wins coming by less than two goals. Jamie Elliott’s match-winner against Essendon in Round 19 was a highlight in that remarkable run of victories, while the emergence of Nick Daicos just added to Collingwood’s brilliance. Daicos was the runaway Rising Star winner and even emerged as an All Australian contender in his debut season, defying all expectations on the teen. Collingwood’s miraculous run ended at the hands of Sydney in another absolute thriller, losing by a single point in the preliminary final.
5. The Hawthorn racism investigation
Grand final week was sadly overshadowed by shocking allegations of racism at Hawthorn under coach Alastair Clarkson’s time at the club. The report was instigated by comments made by premiership star Cyril Rioli and from there, disturbing allegations of mistreatment of First Nations players rocked the AFL. Clarkson, newly appointed as North Melbourne coach, and then assistant, now Lions head coach Chris Fagan, stepped away from their clubs as the allegations continued to emerge. Both have strenuously denied all allegations. The AFL has committed to an independent investigation, with some of the families only recently confirming they’ll take part.
4. Essendon’s internal disaster
The Bombers were off to a horror start in season 2022 and it didn’t get much better by the final round where coach Ben Rutten was hanging onto his job by a fingernail. The axe brutally fell in the days after the season ended, but not before the spectacularly unsuccessful bid to lure Alastair Clarkson to the club – while Rutten was still at the helm. And when that last-minute approach to Clarkson fell flat, Rutten was still given his marching orders – and with him went CEO Xavier Campbell and a host of board members. The Bombers still weren’t done with their misery in 2022, with newly appointed CEO Andrew Thorburn lasting just 24 hours in the role before his controversial church views emerged. Thorburn is now reportedly seeking legal advice in regards to his short-lived Essendon contract.
3. Doc’s inspirational return
Former Blues skipper Sam Docherty had fans on their feet as he made an emotional return to the game for Round 1, just months after battling testicular cancer for the second time. Docherty himself admits it was a tough battle with chemotherapy and the associated treatment, but he never lost sight of his dream to back in time for the MCG clash against Richmond. And that hard work and determination paid off for the Blues backman – who then went on to play an incredible 22 games for the season.
2. Buddy’s 1000th goal
The SCG scenes will never be forgotten from the moment Lance Franklin became just the sixth player in VFL/AFL history to reach the 1000-goal milestone. Tens of thousands of fans rushed onto the ground to surround a jubilant Franklin after he kicked the goal against Geelong. And despite the chaotic scenes that saw two Swans teammates outside of the ground, Dean Rampe eating a pie on the ground and players ushered into the rooms for a 20-minute delay, Franklin lapped up the attention. Vision of the SCG celebration made its way around the world.
1. Geelong’s flag, and Selwood’s fitting finish
The Cats were the dominant team of 2022, finishing two wins clear as minor premiers after losing just four games all year. And instead of falling into their finals fade out like previous seasons, Geelong ditched the prelim hoodoo and marched to a dominant grand final victory. (How odd that the two biggest storylines in this ranking come from separate Cats-Swans games.) But what came after the full time siren only brought the Cats more fans. Club great Joel Selwood announced his retirement days after the victory in emotional scenes, bowing out as one of the most respected players in the game.