The AFL pre-season used to be fun… until Carlton wrecked it


I miss what the AFL pre-season used to be.

I understand the counter arguments, which all boil down to “it’s just pre-season”. Everything I argue here is not in opposition to the idea that pre-season games are ultimately meaningless. Yes, they’re meaningless, I don’t disagree.

But the pre-season used to be fun, and now it isn’t.

It might be a stretch to call the AFL pre-seasons of the late 90s and early 2000s the ‘halcyon days’. But let’s do it anyway. I remember back to the halcyon days of the 1999 pre-season grand final when Hawthorn annihilated Port Adelaide. It was the last year of Waverley Park, the Hawks sported their greatest jumper ever – the Big Hawk – a fact for which I will accept no dispute, and Donald Dickie was sporting a mohawk almost as wide as the thick lighting bolt down the middle of Port’s glorious pre-season jumper. This bolt also bore a striking resemblance to Dean Brogan. It was called the Ansett Australia Cup back then. What a time to be alive.

Carlton’s Anthony Koutoufides and coach Denis Pagan raise the esteemed 2005 Wizard Cup pre-season trophy. (Photo by Mark Dadswell/Getty Images)

The Hawks won by 47 points, but had led 10.6 to 0.2 during the third quarter; a fact that was almost too much for my seven-year-old brain to comprehend at the time. Almost 50 thousand people were in attendance and Bruce McAvaney excitedly declared the Hawks were going to be a “good side this year”. They finished 9th.

Some years later, I think it was Carlton who wrecked the pre-season. In 2005, when supergoals were ensconced in the pre-season experience, they took down West Coast in the grand final by 27 points. By this time it was called the Wizard Home Loans Cup, but the cool cats would’ve said Carlton won the Wizard Cup, at the Dome. The nostalgia is almost too much.

43,391 people were there. Carlton were about to come off their now years-long malaise. They finished bottom.

Then over the coming years, the whole thing was devalued. Carlton’s ‘success’ had provided undeniable fuel to the “it’s only pre-season” fire, but I always felt we gave up on the formalised competition too easily.

Part of the very attraction for me was that weird and wonderful things could happen in the pre-season. Yes, we can get carried away and admittedly the winners going on to also claim the wooden spoon is hardly an advertisement for the legitimacy of the competition.

But that’s the entire point. It never was a legitimate competition. This isn’t what made it fun.

The Hawks brought back their 1999 preseason guernsey as a ‘retro’ look in 2023. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Was I, at that point a suffering Geelong supporter, wrong to be ecstatic the next year when my side went over to Adelaide and won the Cup? Probably. But it was far more enjoyable than watching us run around in t-shirts over a decade later. The year before Carlton’s monumental 2005 achievement, my severe disappointment at my team giving up a lead in the Wizard Cup grand final against St Kilda was probably a bit over the top. But hey, it felt important at the time.

Why? Was it the sense that my side might be good this year? Did the game matter on its own merit? I still don’t know.

I guess I miss that sense that footy is sort of back. Not entirely back – but it’s on TV, it’s played at familiar grounds and has a sense of being a teaser for the real thing. Call me old-fashioned, but games starting at 11am on a Thursday, that might go 6 quarters (yes yes, you can’t have six quarters, ha ha) just doesn’t get me in the mood for real footy. It’s so fake I avoid it all together, like most other people. You don’t see too many crowds of above 40 thousand at such games.

Anyway, I understand the horse has bolted. Endless bashing of the concept has long since seen to that. Just look at any social media post that simply shows the final score of a pre-season game this year. You’ll get a litany of comments reminding you that it’s only pre-season, as if anyone said otherwise.

Thanks, Carlton.

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