Top 10 WAFL stories of 2020
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
It was a remarkable season of WAFL football in 2020, and once again 91.3 Sport FM was there to broadcast all the stories that mattered on and off the field.
Host of WAFL World and WAFL commentator Jacob Landsmeer put together the top ten stories that defined the year.
10. Lions dominance over… for now
Every WAFL football pundit had Subiaco playing finals football in 2020. The powerhouse club of the competition for two decades, the Lions were shooting for a historic three-peat of premierships this year, having played in a staggering six consecutive WAFL Grand Finals.
A first up loss to Claremont had people suggesting the mighty were about to fall. Injuries to key players such as Jordan Lockyer, Rowen Powell, Harry Marsh and Kyal Horsley made life difficult for the Lions in the early rounds, winning only two of their first five games.
Predictably Beau Wardman’s side rallied with stirring wins over Perth and East Fremantle to sit inside the top four heading in to the final round of the season against West Perth.
Having not lost to the Falcons since 2016 it appeared Subiaco were finding form at the best possible time as they headed to Arena Joondalup to sew up another finals appearance.
With Geoff Valentine’s side coming off a poor round 8 loss to Claremont the Falcons responded emphatically, at one stage leading by 50 points in the third term before the Lions got themselves up off the canvas in the final quarter, trying valiantly to snatch fourth spot on percentage from East Perth.
They would fall short by 0.007 of a percentage point, cancelled out in any event by Perth’s win over South Fremantle, meaning the reigning premiers would miss finals for the first time since 2013.
The retirement of champion player Kyal Horsley will leave a massive void as the Lions hope to bounce back quickly in 2021, but you would be a brave man or woman to tip against them being back apart of finals football next year.
IMAGE: The West Australian.
9. A New Water-man: Alec Waterman’s second coming
The re-emergence of Claremont forward Alec Waterman was one of the feel-good stories of 2020, in a year where we desperately needed such stories that made us smile.
The 24-year-old, son of dual West Coast Eagles premiership player Chris Waterman had his initial AFL career scuppered in 2016 by crippling glandular fever and chronic fatigue, delisted by West Coast without playing a senior game.
After several years where he was bed ridden and unable to live a normal young adult life Waterman returned to football in 2018 through the Claremont reserves, making his league debut the following year and kicking a goal with his first kick at league level.
Having played 12 games in 2019 Waterman became a key focal point in attack for the Tigers in 2020, taking his game to another level with an increased fitness base and confidence levels, playing a key part in Claremont’s premiership push.
Waterman kicked 26 goals in 10 games including 20 majors in his last six matches, showcasing his elite skills that saw him initially drafted in to the AFL in 2014.
Having been drafted initially as a midfielder Waterman looked at home inside the forward 50, often playing as the deepest forward and attracting the opposition’s best defender.
His match winning ability was on show in finals, kicking four goals to be best afield in the Tigers second semi-final win over the Bulldogs and almost replicating that effort in the Grand Final, kicking three superb goals in a low scoring contest.
Waterman won the E.B Cook Medal as Claremont’s fairest and best player for his incredible season, and while the AFL opportunity so many people thought would come his way did not materialise, it was still a wonderful comeback story. A triumph of the human spirit.
The AFL lifeline may yet arrive in 2021.
8. Teenage sensations light up WAFL
The 2020 WAFL season will be remembered for the deeds of the next generation of footballing talent in Western Australia.
Three youngsters were drafted in the first round of the 2020 AFL National Draft, Perth’s Logan McDonald (Sydney), Swan Districts’ Denver-Grainger Barras (Hawthorn) and West Perth’s Heath Chapman (Fremantle) all finding homes within the first 20 picks of the draft.
McDonald and Grainger-Barras played every game at league level for their respective clubs, McDonald finishing runner up in the Bernie Naylor Medal with 21 goals from eight home and away games, also finishing runner up in the Demons best and fairest in a stunning introduction to senior football that saw the Swans swoop on the key forward with pick four in the draft.
Grainger-Barras’ prowess in the air showed as he finished the WAFL season as the leading intercept possession winner in the competition at just 18 years of age, the key defender off to the Hawks with their first pick and likely to slot straight in to the Hawks back six.
Chapman captained the Falcons colts side to finals football while also starring on league debut in round eight against Claremont, making the side’s best players with 11 disposals and five marks, the Dockers with another strong intercept marking defender on their books.
Ten West Australian players in all were selected in the national draft, Perth’s Nathan O’Driscoll (Fremantle) and Peel Thunder’s Isiah Winder (West Coast) also having a taste of senior football with their respective clubs.
With no national under 18’s competition due to coronavirus in 2020, the WAFL again showcased the talent that is developed through it’s ranks for AFL clubs. Don’t forget about us Sandgropers, AFL house!
7. Peel’s season from hell: Winless season compounded by salary cap breach
Long-time Peel Thunder fans have seen seasons like these before. But they have been few and far between for the Mandurah based club over recent years, having won back-to-back premierships in 2016 and 2017.
Controversy reared its ugly head before the shortened season had even begun, with a report in the West Australian in July confirming the club was being investigated for salary cap breaches in 2018 and 2019.
The news came after the club’s alignment with Fremantle was put on the backburner for 2020 due to the AFL’s ruling on no AFL listed players being allowed to play in state-based competitions, making the club’s task of succeeding in the season exceptionally difficult.
While the punishment for the salary cap breaches didn’t come until November, a weakened Peel side went through the season without a win to their name, an average losing margin of 42 points.
A financial penalty of $50,000 arrived post season, the WAFC also issuing Peel a reduction of 20 player recruitment points (10 of those being held over as a suspended penalty) and a reduction of 16 premiership points (16 of those points being held over as a suspended penalty).
CEO John Ditchburn will depart the club as a result of the penalties, capping off a year from hell for the Thunder.
While the Fremantle players are likely to return in 2021 and the signing of retired premiership Eagle Will Schofield will add some much needed experience to the group, it would appear the pain for Peel might last for a while yet.
6. New Swan makes instant impact: Sam Fisher wins 2020 Sandover Medal
Sam Fisher was an unknown footballing commodity to WAFL fans heading in to the 2020 season. By the end of Swan Districts’ campaign, he was being hailed as a household name.
The 22-year-old caused a boil over in winning the 2020 Sandover Medal, not one punter tipping him for the prestigious individual accolade heading in to the count at the Crown Palladium Ballroom.
Fisher won the Sandover Medal with 13 votes, two votes clear of West Perth captain Aaron Black and three votes clear of East Perth star Jackson Ramsay.
A ball winning midfielder who spent a season on Sydney’s rookie list in 2017, Fisher averaged 27 disposals (ranked second in the WAFL) and seven clearances (third) per game to be the star midfielder in black and white, and according to umpires the best and fairest player in the competition.
The Canberra raised product will be a key part of Swans push for a return to finals for the first time since 2017 next year, and will no doubt attract more attention from opposition teams after making a stellar impact on the WAFL in 2020.
5. WAFC finances laid bare- leaked salaries email sets off alarm bells at WA footy HQ
Let’s be honest, we have all sent an email to the wrong person by mistake at one point or another. If not an email, a text. If not a text, a private message on messenger. A quick sheepish apology generally solves the issue and everybody moves on.
But things were not that simple in June when a leaked WAFC email outlined where the football commission’s millions were being spent, the revealing the WAFC pays at least $9 million to its 134 staff with 23 employees getting at least $100,000.
It left the football public questioning the state football body’s expenditure and use of government funding, WA Minister for Sport Mick Murray ordering a review of the WAFC’s use of funds provided by the state government, more than 11 million dollars annually.
By the end of the season WAFC CEO Gavin Taylor had resigned from his post, and a workforce restructure saw 22% of staff lose their jobs within the organisation.
Former Tennis West CEO Michael Roberts is Taylor's replacement in the top job, faced with the unenviable task of repairing a fractured WA footballing public.
IMAGE: The West Australian.
New commissioners were also announced in December, former Subiaco premiership player Phil Lamb and media identity Dixie Marshall among those elected.
While time will tell, that leaked email could prove to be the best thing that has happened for WA football in quite some time, as the WAFC looks for a fresh start to reconnect with a disillusioned WA footballing public.
4. Tiger shock- Darren Harris sacked as coach of Claremont
Claremont might not have won any of the premierships on offer in 2020, but with all three grades qualifying for Grand Finals all appeared well at Tigerland on and off the field.
One of the most stunning stories of the year occurred after the season concluded, Tigers coach Darren Harris sensationally sacked by the club’s board less than a fortnight after losing a Grand Final by under a goal.
The former West Perth premiership player and coach was given his marching orders having coached the club since the start of the 2017 season, winning 39 of his 73 games in charge.
Former Tigers mentor and player Ash Prescott was installed as Harris’ replacement two weeks later, after time in the AFL system with Fremantle, Essendon and Gold Coast.
The decision came as a shock to all in the WA football industry, particularly Harris himself who was told at a board meeting that he thought was set to confirm details of a return to pre-season training.
No doubt the club’s board will feel the pressure as much as the players and coaching staff should they fail to go deep in to the 2021 season.
IMAGE: Albany Advertiser.
3. Red and White delight- Souths win 2020 flag
From the opening salvos of a remarkable 2020 season, a South Fremantle premiership seemed likely.
A 95-point thrashing of rivals East Fremantle in round one set the tone in star midfielder Haiden Schloithe’s 150th game, Todd Curley’s men chasing retribution after a dismal Grand Final loss to Subiaco in 2019.
Undefeated until their final home and away game against Perth where they appeared to put the cue in the rack with their minor premiership already assured, the Bulldogs were primed for a Grand Final appearance on their home ground, Fremantle Oval having been confirmed as the venue for the decider in late August.
Then disaster struck. A 47-point loss to Claremont in the second semi-final had Doggies fans nervous and fearing a straight sets exit, injuries and poor form appearing at the most inopportune time.
All fears were allayed a week later when Souths rallied after half time through talisman Schloithe to book a spot in the big dance but were dealt a telling blow late in the contest when star midfielder Jake Florenca ruptured his Achilles, ruled out of the Grand Final as a result.
The Tigers headed in to the Grand Final with plenty of confidence from their second semi-final result, Souths expected to produce their best football on a glorious day for football at the Port in what was the first Sunday of October.
In a close game throughout, South Fremantle had the answers when it mattered in the last quarter, with goals to spearheads Mason Shaw and Jimmy Miller seeing them come from behind to snatch a memorable three-point win in front of a packed crowd.
Zach Strom was magnificent all day, clunking several telling contested marks to be his side’s best player, Dylan Main and Jacob Dragovich outstanding in the clinches to play a part in the club’s first flag since 2009.
As one excitable Sport FM commentator exclaimed on the final siren, it was red and white delight for all of those at the kennel, in the club’s 120th year.
2. Perth exorcise September demons with first finals campaign since 1997
When the 2020 season finally began in July, the irony of the home and away season extending in to September would not have been lost on Demons fans.
A proud club with a rich history, the ninth month of the year in recent years and indeed recent decades has not been kind to the team from Lathlain Park.
Finals had eluded the team in red and black since the turn of the millennium, with their last finals appearance coming back in 1997. John Howard was in his first term as Prime Minister, and Richard Court was our state premier. Yep, it had been a while.
2019 was especially cruel for Demons supporters, with Perth in the top five for every week of the season until the final round when they missed finals with a loss to Peel by three points at Rushton Park, the siren sounding with the ball in their full-forward goal square.
A round one win over the Thunder at the same venue extracted some revenge for players and fans alike, before triumphs over East Perth and East Fremantle left everyone believing this was Perth’s year.
The addition of Brady Grey, Andrew Fisher and Fraser McInnes from West Coast seemed to be doing wonders for Earl Spalding’s side, young gun Logan McDonald marking everything and kicking goals for fun to get everyone in WA football talking.
A loss to West Perth in round five was a reality check, but a stirring response against a strong Claremont side at Revo Fitness Stadium the following week had the Demons 4-1 needing just one more win to secure an emotional return to finals.
Then came the almost predictable hurdle and subsequent stumble. Losses to Subiaco and the lowly placed Swan Districts had Perth’s finals spot in jeopardy, needing to beat the undefeated ladder leaders South Fremantle under lights at Lathlain in the final round to secure a finals berth.
What followed was one of the most magical nights in WAFL football in recent memory.
On a Saturday that would see three different clubs occupy fourth spot at various stages the Demons returned to finals in the most sensational of circumstances, coming from nine points down at three quarter time to win by five points against the minor premiers.
IMAGE: The West Australian.
The scenes following the final siren should be bottled up and put in a time capsule for the next time people bring out the ‘WAFL football is dying’ argument. Fans flocked out on the ground to celebrate with their team, having ridden all the lows of more than two decades for this unbelievable emotional high. It was hard not to shed a tear regardless of where your WAFL loyalties lie.
The Demon train rolled in to Joondalup the following Sunday for a first semi-final clash with West Perth, fans braving the miserable cold, wet and windy conditions to watch their team fight for a spot in a preliminary final.
Halfway through the final quarter it seemed like they were well on their way, only for Falcons stars Luke Meadows, Aaron Black and Tyler Keitel to rally their side to an 11 point win.
The Demons season was over, but not before they gave their fans something to smile about in such a turbulent year. One drought has been broken, but in 2021 an opportunity to break their premiership drought of 43 years now looms under new coach Garry Moss.
Now that would be a story.
IMAGE: Perth Football Club.
1. COVID threatens then shortens season- July start
2020 was the WAFL season we thought we might never have. Until we had it. When coronavirus appeared on our radar here in the West in mid-March the likelihood of a season eventuating seemed miniscule.
A state-based competition that relies on crowds and bar revenue in order for clubs to make a profit, most thought it would be a bridge too far when WA went in to lockdown in March for a season to get off the ground.
Slowly but surely the COVID curve flattened. Discussions around a return to competition began. Smaller salary caps, jobkeeper payments, return to training protocols. Training groups of ten. It was all so unusual in a year that threw everything we thought we knew up in the air.
2020 would see WAFL football after all, after clubs agreed to a season commencement of August 1st in late May.
The season would consist of nine home and away rounds, eight matches each with a bye thrown in after the AFL ruled no AFL listed players would be able to participate in the season, putting a line through the Eagles WAFL side and severely hampering Peel Thunder.
That start date was eventually bought forward by two weeks to July 18th as the state government eased restrictions allowing the return of crowds to matches, the final green light the WAFC needed to tick off the season.
The financial effects of coronavirus also saw the WAFL Grand Final moved from premier footballing venue Optus Stadium to Fremantle Oval, only 11,000 people able to watch the showpiece event in WA football.
A statement was made in the opening round when Claremont toppled reigning premiers Subiaco at Leederville Oval, setting the tone for a remarkable 2020 campaign where every minute of every game counted for plenty.
The players, coaches, clubs and the WA Football Commission should be commended for making sacrifices to get a season off the ground, when it would have been easier to pack up and come back next year.
Shorter quarters, shorter season, but no shortage of theatre, storylines, or intrigue. We won’t forget the 2020 WAFL season anytime soon. Particularly if your loyalty lies with the team in red and white.
By Jacob Landsmeer.