Connolly: Hawthorn in the eighties was best AFL team of all time

Hawthorn players celebrate the Hawks' 1989 premiership victory after beating Geelong in the AFL Grand Final match at the MCG. Photo: Getty Images

Hawthorn players celebrate the Hawks' 1989 premiership victory after beating Geelong in the AFL Grand Final match at the MCG. Photo: Getty Images

Nothing makes modern media tick over like a good list. And that was the case well before COVID-19 had effectively reduced the amount of actual news going on in the world.

The greatest this. The best of that. Top 10 whatevers. Twenty-seven reasons you should something-or-rather. You know the drill. "Listicles" as they are known in the trade, are easy enough to compile, easy to digest, and inevitably drive plenty of online "traffic".

I don't say that critically, either. I'm currently into the second such series of videos on my Twitter account, this week's offering my top 10 grand finals of the AFL era, which followed (being a bit of a music nut) my top 20 albums.

But if you're an AFL fan doing it tough at the moment and not particularly thrilled by these all-purpose comparative exercises, you have my sympathy. Because there's no games yet on the horizon and you're going to be seeing a lot more of the latter before the long wait is over.

I'm starting to lose count of the numbers of lists or rankings of players, teams, games, coaches currently appearing in the football media.

In a bizarre way, I've also found it somewhat reassuring, almost an affirmation that as much as many footy media types these days like to see AFL football as an industry with many different sectors, at a fundamental level a lot are pretty meaningless without an actual competition happening.

It's also underlined just how difficult it is comparing apples to oranges. Particularly when it comes to one of the favourite subjects of these exercises, the greatest team of all time.

Firstly, what is the criteria? Does that tag sit more rightfully upon a side which has completed the greatest single season of football we've seen? Or a club which produced a sustained run of success, bearing in mind that the actual 22 (or 20 in many cases) may look substantially different from season to season?

Are premierships won in the period concerned the clincher? Or could a side which won a couple of flags in a short space of time with a near-miss in-between arguably still have performed overall to a higher level than another which did finish with a premiership each time?

Then there's the circumstances in which the greatness occurred. Collingwood, for example, won four consecutive premierships from 1927-30 in a 12-team state-based VFL. Is that necessarily better than the effort of Hawthorn winning three flags in a row from 2013-15 in an 18-team national competition?

You might argue not. But then, how might the Magpies' stars of the late 1920s have performed given the advantages of full-time professionalism and improved preparation that the Hawks of a few years back enjoyed?

All that said, it doesn't mean it's not fun to have a crack at the task anyway. For me, longevity trumps one-offs, which removes even the remarkable Essendon outfit of 2000 (which won 24 games of 25 and lost the other by a kick) from the equation.

And yes, flags and grand finals are an indispensable part of the assessment. In my mind, that leaves three contenders.

There's Collingwood of the 1920s, which had finished runner-up for two years before those four straight flags from 1927-30. Melbourne of the 1950s, the Demons playing in seven straight grand finals for five flags. And Hawthorn of the 1980s, which also played in seven straight grand finals, eight in nine years, and of those eight won five.

Perhaps I'm swayed by having, unlike the first two contenders, actually witnessed that last example with my own eyes. But I've been thinking about those old Hawks a bit lately (for professional reasons) and their feats in hindsight somehow seem even greater.

That nine-year span (1983-1991) began in a 12-team Victorian competition but finished with the national competition well and truly taking shape, the admission of West Coast, Brisbane, then Adelaide having increased teams to 15.

Hawthorn had incredible resilience, also. After being beaten in 1984 and 1985 by Essendon, then beaten (and beaten up) by Carlton in 1987, they'd lost three grand finals of four, shattering enough to finish even a good side off once and for all.

Instead, the Hawks rebounded with back-to-back premierships in 1988-89, and another for good measure in 1991 when they'd been famously written off as "too old, too slow". Over the 1988-89 seasons, Hawthorn won 42 of a possible 48 games.

Their 1988 grand final win over Melbourne came by a then-record 96-point margin. It was a line-up which featured a roll call of the biggest names football has seen, Dunstall, Platten, Brereton, Ayres, Tuck, DiPierdomenico, Langford, Buckenara.

So accomplished was that group of Hawks that a 300-game veteran on-baller in Russell Greene, as good as he was, probably wasn't even in the best dozen players in the side. Nor an outstanding centre half-back in Chris Mew, and some youngsters who soon would be, like Andy Collins and Darrin Pritchard.

Younger Hawthorn supporters would note that this group never won a premiership hat-trick like the 2013-15 version of the Hawks. But if the two eras of brown-and-gold were to play off, I'd be taking those guys from the '80s even over the likes of Hodge, Mitchell, Lewis, Franklin etc. every day of the week.

And, if it came to the crunch, yes, even against Collingwood of the 1920s and Melbourne in the 1950s. They are, for what it's worth, my contribution to the greatest team of all time debate.

And my next "listicle"? Perhaps a series on the Top 10 lists compiled during this interminable layoff from the game we love so much. Stand by.

This story Who boasted the best AFL team of all time? first appeared on The Canberra Times.