The 20 biggest moments from the 2020 AFL season

So we got there in the end. It's extremely doubtful AFL football will see another season played under as difficult circumstances as was 2020. The fact it was completed at all is something to be celebrated.

And so is its legitimacy. This week's autopsies have been about where a newly-crowned premier sits in the pecking order of greatness after a third premiership in four years, rather than whether this flag is one to be taken seriously at all.

It took us a while, but we got used to all those changes. The shorter games. The initial lack of crowds. The neutral venues. The compacting of the fixture.

We might have struggled with the standard of football at times. And players might have occasionally, and sometimes understandably, struggled with hub life trapped in a football bubble. But even that offered plenty of incident.

It was an eventful season, all right. And here are the 20 moments which mattered the most.

20. Hunter hits the skids

The Bulldog midfielder's season ended far better than it started. Hunter was suspended for four games, fined and lost the vice-captaincy during the season pause over a drink-driving crash in April involving four other cars, two of which belonged to the family of teammate Bailey Smith's girlfriend.

19. Elijah Taylor in big trouble

The Swans youngster had already been suspended for the rest of the season in August after breaching quarantine regulations in Perth. But far worse was to follow when he pleaded guilty in September to assaulting his ex-girlfriend, his sentence to be handed down in early December. Taylor has played just four AFL games. A promising career may already be over.

18. The Essendon explosion

The Bombers made finals in 2019, won four of their first five games this season, then promptly collapsed in a heap in all departments. Essendon would win just one of their last 10 games, play a lethargic disinterested brand of football, and implode amidst a backdrop of bickering and internal disharmony. The co-coaching of John Worsfold and Ben Rutten a failure, and in the end, an exodus of key players like Joe Daniher, Conor McKenna, Adam Saad and Orazio Fantasia. There's a lot of pieces to be picked up in 2021.

17. Matt Rowell shines, then misses

It was one of the most sensational debuts the game has seen, Gold Coast's No. 1 draft pick starring in the Suns' first four games, three of them victories in which Rowell averaged 20 disposals and two goals to tally nine Brownlow Medal votes. Sadly, with the eyes of the football world on him in Round 5 against Geelong, Rowell dislocated a shoulder in the opening minutes, had surgery and missed the rest of the season.

16. Joe Daniher pulls the pin on Essendon (again)

It was déjà vu for the Bombers, having already thwarted the big goalkicker's bid to leave for Sydney last summer. Daniher's ongoing groin issues again prevented him getting on the park, his first game in red-and-black in Round 14 against Hawthorn. He impressed, too, with three goals, but barely got a sniff in his last three, and again handed in his papers, this time to head for Brisbane.

15. Steele Sidebottom slips up

A four-game suspension was the price paid by the senior Magpie for breaching COVID-19 regulations in July. He and teammate Lynden Dunn (suspended for one game) had visited injured teammate Jeremy Howe. Sidebottom then dropped in on another teammate Daniel Wells (another breach) before being picked up by police in Williamstown in an intoxicated state. Sidebottom missed crucial games against Essendon, Hawthorn, Geelong and West Coast. The Magpies lost two of them.

14. Adelaide breaks the drought

By the time Round 15 arrived, Adelaide were at short odds to become the first team to complete a winless season since Fitzroy in 1964. The Crows had chalked up 16 losses in a row (three last year), and gone 395 days without a win. But the drought was broken with a 35-point defeat of Hawthorn at home. On September 1, the first day of Spring, a long, dark winter for the club was banished in style.

13. The return of Majak Daw

The feel-good story of the season saw the North Melbourne big man play his first senior game for more than 700 days after sustaining horrific pelvic and hip injuries when he fell 25m into the Yarra River from Melbourne's Bolte Bridge in December 2018. Daw's comeback was waylaid by injury several times, but in Round 9 against Adelaide, he finally made it back, a late goal in a big win seeing him swamped by jubilant teammates.

12. The clutch kicks

Carlton went 1-1 in two outstanding post-siren shots at goal to win a game. The first was a dagger through the heart, as Port Adelaide's Robbie Gray converted from 45m out just inside the boundary in Round 7 at the Gabba. But the Blues got their own back against Fremantle in Perth in Round 12. Jack Newnes was the hero, ushering both a cameraman and security guard out of the way, still kicking well outside the field of play, but coolly slotting an amazing goal to give Carlton a memorable four-point win.

11. Jeremy Cameron opts out of GWS

The dual All-Australian spearhead had an ordinary year, kicking just 24 goals from his 17 games, looked unsettled, and in Grand Final week officially announced what by then seemed inevitable, a departure from the Giants as a restricted free agent, Geelong his preferred destination. In a nightmare season for GWS, this was the biggest blow.

10. The kebab kerfuffle

Richmond pair Sydney Stack and Callum Coleman-Jones were sent home, suspended for 10 matches, their club fined AU$100,000 and faced with the potential loss of premiership points after they broke COVID-19 regulations for a night out on the Gold Coast, taking in a visit to a strip club, a late-night kebab and a fight. It led many to question whether the Tigers' famed culture was being eroded after a series of off-field incidents, a question the club promptly answered with its third flag in four years.

9. Conor McKenna tests positive

Barely had the season resumed when it was again thrown into chaos, Essendon defender Conor McKenna returning a positive test for coronavirus despite being asymptomatic. Essendon's scheduled Sunday game against Melbourne was immediately postponed, and McKenna, along with teammate James Stewart, a close contact, quarantined. McKenna would play only six games for the Bombers before announcing he was returning to his native Ireland.

8. Rhyce Shaw departs North Melbourne

The speculation had swirled around the football world for weeks, and on 16 October, North Melbourne announced senior coach Rhyce Shaw would be taking an extended break from the job for personal reasons. Less than a week later, that separation would be declared permanent, Shaw having completed only one season in the job after taking over as a caretaker in 2019. It was the final blow to a nightmare of a year for the Roos, on and off the field.

7. Lachie Neale bolts the Brownlow in

This was less of a Brownlow Medal count and more of a procession. In his second season with Brisbane after moving from Fremantle, the little man from Kybybolite in country South Australia had been a consistent star. It was next to no surprise when he bolted to a big early lead, eventually polling 31 votes in just 17 games, 30 of those votes coming in 10 best-on-ground performances, to beat Port Adelaide's Travis Boak by an astonishing 10 votes.

6. A Gabba night Grand Final

An evening timeslot for the biggest game of the season was the news all traditionalists dreaded. But once it became clear the first Grand Final outside Victoria was a fait accompli, so was the move to a premiership-decider under lights. AFL chief executive Gill McLachlan made it official on 2 September, the start time on 24 October 6.30pm in Brisbane, 7.30pm for the eastern states with daylight saving. And so another footy ritual bit the dust.

5. We're off again ... in mid-June

After two months of idle weekends, the AFL announced on 15 May that the aborted season would finally resume on 11 June. It would be a schedule drawn up on the run, and a logistical nightmare, but the relief as Richmond and Collingwood ran on to the MCG that Thursday was palpable. Their 36-36 draw was a shocker, arguably the poorest game of the season, but at least we had something to watch again.

4. Third Norm Smith Medal for 'Dusty'

The accolades just keep coming for this modern-day champion. And post-Grand Final, so has the discussion around Richmond star Dustin Martin. Forget contemporary, is he one of the greatest players of all time? Certainly in finals. And now Martin is the first triple Norm Smith medallist after another peerless display on the biggest stage, his 21 disposals and four goals, all at critical moments, the driving force behind the Tigers' comeback against Geelong, then their powering away. Genuine A-grade superstar material is this man.

3. Gary Ablett retires

The champion's final year of AFL football was difficult to say the least, his son diagnosed with a rare degenerative disease and his mother-in-law passing away from lung cancer. But after taking time away, the 36-year-old returned for Geelong's finals campaign, showing he could still have an impact. The Cats couldn't quite cap it off, but as the 357-game dual Brownlow medallist left the Gabba on Grand Final night, flanked by teammates and opponents alike, there was barely a dry eye in the house.

2. The Tigers triumphant

It's been a dominant four years from Richmond, rewarded with three flags, the third leg of a premiership trifecta coming in with that hard-fought 31-point win over Geelong last Saturday. Who knows, but for Mason Cox's one ill-fated night in September 2018 it might have been four. It's also one of the most amazing turnarounds football has seen, Richmond finishing 13th in 2016 and by then flagless for 36 years. A remarkable transition, capped off in style.

1. AFL season starts ... and stops

The league had already announced a shortened season, but hadn't even got through the first round when there was more pandemic-enforced bad news. On Sunday March 22, at half-time of just the eighth game of the program, AFL chief executive Gill McLachlan delivered the grim news, all play suspended until at least the end of March, the potential financial disaster immediately obvious.

*You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at footyology.com.au.