The Unsung Heroes Who Stepped Up On AFL Grand Final Day

AFL fans are well aware of the feats Gary Ablett Sr, Luke Hodge and Andrew McLeod pulled off on Grand Final day, with the legendary trio claiming five Norm Smith Medals between them. However, it’s not uncommon for a lesser name to make themselves a fan favourite one fateful day in September – producing a crucial cameo that proved to be the difference between agony and defeat. Whether it was a classic quarter, one straight kick or a desperate dive, the nine players below deserve to be remembered for their heroics on the game’s biggest stage.

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Dom Sheed 2018

West Coast fans are still bragging about the left boot of Dom Sheed, and rightly so. The WA-born Eagle produced what many view as the most clutch goal ever kicked, tucked tight in the right forward pocket with his side trailing and less than two minutes remaining on the clock. Sheed and the Eagles were forced to come from behind to claim the 2018 decider and registering seven of the final eight scores of the game helped them claw their way back into the contest. They only managed to kick 2.5 from those chances, but West Coast will be counting their lucky stars that Sheed’s kick sailed straight. The Eagles utility finished with 32 touches to go with his match-swinging six-pointer, trailing only Norm Smith Medalist Luke Shuey (34) for total disposals in the game.

Tedd Hopkins 1970

The 1970 decider is best remembered for Ron Barrasi’s half-time speech, in which he encouraged his players to handball and play on at all costs to combat the long-kicking Collingwood game plan. However, a key positional change was the move that really mattered, with 21-year-old Tedd Hopkins substituted for Bert Thornley to start the second half. From there, Carlton erased the Magpies’ 44-point lead in the blink of an eye, with Hopkins kicking four goals in the Blues’ famous victory. To this day, the 1970 Grand Final is heralded as “the birth of modern football”, with an all-time attendance record (121,696 spectators) that still stands today. Hopkins picked the right game to step up and deliver, adding just one more game to his career tally of 28 following the ’70 GF.

Shane Ellen 1997

Having lost their main weapon in Tony Modra during the Crows’ 1997 Preliminary Final W, Adelaide needed someone to step up as the Grand Final approached. Enter Shane Ellen, who usually found himself in a defensive role with just three career goals to his name before the Crows locked horns with St Kilda. Starting Ellen inside attacking 50 proved to be a masterstroke from Malcolm Blight with the little-known forward kicking two goals in the first half, before adding another three in the second half while splitting time between the forward and back line. Darren Jarman’s five last quarter goals and Andrew McLeod’s medal-winning magic are still popular talking points from the match, but never forget the instrumental role Ellen played in the Crows’ first flag.

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Wayne Harmes 1979

The winner of the first-ever Norm Smith Medal makes Wayne Harmes a popular trivia question answer, but make no mistake, he was a true hero in the ’79 Grand Final. During his 169-game career, Harmes won three premierships with the Blues and come Grand Final day in 1979, he and his Carlton teammates were ready to do battle with arch-rivals Collingwood with a wet, muddy, hard-fought contest on the cards for both sides. By the time the game was over Harmes had accumulated 17 disposals and kicked a goal, which may make his Norm win seem like a surprise. However, the rugged Blue displayed great desperation late in the contest – sliding along the ground to save the ball from going out of bounds and knocking it towards Ken Sheldon who kicked what turned out to be the winning goal.

Mitch Morton 2012

Mitch Morton added just a dozen games to his career tally as a Swan, but he made his impact felt during the 2012 season. The former Eagle and Tiger forward had to wait until Round 21 to make his Sydney debut, but he held onto his place in the side all the way to the Grand Final – thanks to a handy cameo in the Qualifying Final where Morton kicked two goals, including a crucial one late in the third quarter against the Crows. Morton managed to hit the scoreboard twice against Hawthorn in the 2012 decider as well, scoring both his goals in quick succession to swing momentum Sydney’s way before half-time. Adding two goals in less than five minutes during a low-scoring, see-sawing contest was a crucial and underrated factor in the Swans’ 2012 triumph over the Hawks.

Stuart Dew 2008

Never judge a book by its cover or a footballer by his waistline. In his days with Port Adelaide, Stuart Dew produced a respectable career playing 180 games over 10 seasons and claiming a flag with the Power back in 2004. Alistair Clarkson managed to coax Dew out of retirement to start the 2008 season, with Dew’s rather round physique becoming a popular talking point throughout the year. Clarko’s decision to bring Dew and his booming left foot back into the AFL was under intense scrutiny in the ’08 Grand Final between Geelong and Hawthorn, but the former Port utility repaid the faith for his head coach late in the third quarter. The Hawks launched an assault before three-quarter time scoring four goals in less than three minutes to push the margin out to 30 points. Not only did Dew kick two of those majors, but he also played a pivotal role in setting up the other two and it’s fair to say Hawthorn wouldn’t have walked away as 2008 premiers without Dew’s heroics.

Xavier Ellis 2008

Stuart Dew wasn’t the only Hawk who stepped up in ’08 with Xavier Ellis proving to be just as impactful as his plump game-changing teammate. That season was the best of Ellis’ career with injuries restricting him to just 120 games – 34 of which came with the West Coast Eagles. Prior to that, Ellis found himself in the 2008 premiership decider taking on a juggernaut 23-1 Geelong team who entered the game as heavy favourites. The Hawks took the game to the Cats from the first bounce with Ellis’ first half doing wonders for his Norm Smith Medal odds – ending the game as one of Hawthorn’s finest with a team-high 28 disposals. However, it was Luke Hodge who claimed best-afield honours over Ellis and Geelong star Gary Ablett in the Hawks’ 26-point win. Still, Ellis can hold his head high knowing he was far from a passenger in the 2008 premiership team.

Glenn Freeborn 1996

You could be forgiven for not knowing about North Melbourne premiership player Glenn Freeborn, but his second quarter of the ’96 GF is a story that is worth remembering. Freeborn bounced between the Roos and Magpies during a 138-game career and in just his second season of footy, he found himself lining up next to Wayne Carey on North’s half-forward line as they prepared to battle Sydney for the 1996 flag. The Swans settled first, extending their lead to 24 points early in the second quarter before Freeborn gave North Melbourne the spark they needed to mount a comeback. The Roos utility turned the game on its head with three goals in the term to swing momentum back North’s way in their eventual 43-point victory. There weren’t many other crowning accomplishments from Freeborn’s playing career, but his three-goal quarter is one Kangaroos fans from the 90’s won’t forget quickly.

Toby Thurstans 2004

It was going to take a unified effort to dethrone the three-time reigning premiers in 2004 and Port Adelaide was up for the fight against a juggernaut Lions outfit – both figuratively and literally. Blows were exchanged before the first bounce, but the Power were able to hit the scoreboard fast and early against Brisbane, mainly with the help of their premier tall forwards, Warren Tredrea and Brendon Lade. Little-known tall and the least experienced player in the Port Adelaide side Toby Thurstans stood as the third-fiddle next to Tredrea and Lade inside 50 and as the game unfolded, Thurstans made his presence felt. The 110-veteran kicked a goal both sides of half-time, helping to quell the Lions’ surge before effectively putting a nail in the coffin with his third goal late in the game.

Peace ✌️

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