Ranking VFL/AFL clubs – which has been the most successful?

Last year, I wrote an article, A look at the most dominant eras in VFL/AFL history, which, as the title implies, looked at which VFL/AFL clubs have enjoyed the best eras/dynasties spanning five to eight years. Such dynasties are invariably built on the back of a club boasting an amazingly talented playing group during the period, and usually accompanied by a true master-coach at the helm. While it’s simply not possible for a club to maintain such a reign of dominance for decades on end, I’ve been wondering which club has been the most successful across its entire VFL/AFL history. The big question: How do you rank overall, long-term success?

I’m sure many people will say “That’s easy! Look at which club has won the most competition Premierships!”

Well, it sounds like a good place to start:

*It's a little known fact that there have been two VFL/AFL seasons in which no Grand Final was played. These were the inaugural season of 1897, and also the 1924 season. In both of those seasons, a round-robin finals series was contested with no Grand Final being played. Essendon was awarded the premiership on both occasions. So although Essendon has officially earned 16 Premierships, it has actually won only 14 grand finals.

So Carlton and Essendon have won the most Premierships with 16 each, followed by Collingwood with 15 and then Hawthorn with 13. So does that mean Carlton and Essendon have been the most successful clubs in VFL/AFL history? Not so fast. You have to take into account that Hawthorn didn’t enter the competition until 1925, whereas Essendon, Carlton, and Collingwood are all foundation members since 1897. Those foundation members have had 28 more years to win more Premierships than Hawthorn.

So if we are looking at Premierships as a gauge, we clearly need to look at Premiership strike-rate. ie Premierships won per year of competition existence:

Metric#1: Premiership win-rate

Now we see a fairer picture, Hawthorn have actually won the most Premierships per season with a 13.8% strike-rate – or  1.38 Premierships for every ten years. Carlton and Essendon are ranked second and third respectively, and we see that West Coast has displaced Collingwood in the top four with its 12.5% Premiership strike-rate.

So does this mean Hawthorn are actually the most successful VFL/AFL club of all-time? Again, not so fast. As mentioned, bags of Premierships can be gathered on the back of two or three dominant eras/dynasties.  If we are going to look at how good a club has been at key times across its history, then we also need to look at how bad it’s been.

2. Wooden Spoons

We can look at the opposite to winning a Premiership – ‘winning’ the dreaded ‘Wooden Spoon’ (ranked from best to worst):

All of a sudden, Hawthorn go from being ranked first, to being ranked 16th due to finishing last 11 times in its 94 year history – 11.7% of the time. At the top of this table we learn that only two clubs have never finished last – the two South Australian clubs – Adelaide and Port Adelaide. We also see that, remarkably, Collingwood has finished last just twice in its 122 year history and is ranked third. In a way that’s more impressive than the ‘younger’ Adelaide clubs’ clean-sheet but we certainly can’t assume that one of them will get ‘spooned’ any time soon, so they certainly deserve their spots at the top of this table.

At the bottom, we can see that the defunct University ‘won’ the wooden spoon more often than not during its short-lived existence, and GWS has received two in its seven completed seasons to date. But the most damning spoon record appears to be St. Kilda which has received a whopping 27 wooden spoons – finishing last about one in every five seasons.

3. Minor Premierships:

Ok, so we’ve looked at Premierships and Wooden Spoons, but there is another award for clubs (they do actually receive a small trophy) who finish on top of the ladder after the regular Home and Away season.  These clubs are crowned the ‘Minor Premier’. Many pundits don’t rate finishing as Minor Premier very highly since it’s an award dished out before any finals have even been contested. Still, it would be remiss of me to not include them as an official ranking factor. So here we go:

So Collingwood have been Minor Premiers the most times with 19 and also the highest percentage of times with 15.6%. Essendon and Carlton are ranked second and third. At the other end of the scale, we see that Footscray/Western Bulldogs have never been Minor Premiers in any of their 94 seasons. They, along with Brisbane, are the only two clubs to have won a Premiership but never the Minor Premiership. Conversely, Fremantle is the only club to have been Minor Premier (once in 2015) but never the actual Premier.

4. Average finishing position

Another measure is to rank clubs by their average finishing ladder position:

Collingwood come out on top quite clearly here with an average finishing ladder position of 4.8, followed by Carlton (5.4), Geelong (5.6), and Essendon (5.8). If we look to the bottom, we see that Gold Coast (15.6) is well and truly last. Now, this particular ranking methodology, although useful, slightly disadvantages a struggling newer club like Gold Coast which has always played in an 18-club competition, resulting in a more blown-out figure compared to University for example which only took part in seasons featuring ten clubs.

5. Overall home win-rate

So far we’ve looked at Premierships, Wooden Spoons, Minor Premierships, and average finishing position. Perhaps an even better measure of overall success is win percentage of all matches played in a club’s history. Let’s begin with overall win percentage  when playing as the designated home side:

As can be seen, West Coast (69.9%) have performed better at home than any other club. Next best is Collingwood (68.1%), followed by Adelaide (67.2%), and Geelong (65.5%) At the other end of the table we see that three clubs have actually recorded a negative overall win percentage at home – St Kilda, Gold Coast, and University. This is a tell-tale a sign of clubs whose histories consist mostly of gloomy times. North Melbourne barely scrape into positive territory and are also well below average by this measure.

6. Overall away win-rate

Now let’s look at how clubs have performed while playing away:

Away Stats (all matches including finals)
Collingwood (52.7%) easily takes the cake here – it is also the only club to have recorded a positive win percentage when playing away. A remarkable effort and certainly helped a great deal by the crowd-support the club receives from its army of supporters not just all around Melbourne and Victoria, but all around the nation. In second place, another club with a prodigious supporter-base, Carlton (49.8%), have come very close to having a 50/50 away record, as have Essendon (48.7%). Rounding out the Melbourne-based powerhouse clubs, in fourth place , Richmond (44.0%) has a relatively poor away record compared to its ‘Big Four’ peers.

At the bottom of the table we see that, in a damning sign,  Gold Coast’s away record (15.9%) after 82 matches is even worse than University’s (19.0%) away record. I also wrote an article comparing the plights of these two clubs.

7. Reaching the Finals

Another pretty obvious measure springs to mind – finals. Reaching the finals (or not) is clearly a good indicator of a club’s  success over the journey. So let’s look at how often each club has made the finals:

This time West Coast clearly tops the table having made the finals 23 times in 32 years  – at a very impressive 71.88%. Next best is Collingwood at 81/122 (66.39%). There is a quite a bit of daylight between the Pies and third-ranked Sydney with 22/37 (59.46%). Only six clubs have made the finals more often than not – West Coast, Collingwood, Sydney, Carlton, Adelaide, and Essendon.

At the other end of the table we see that the defunct University never played finals in its brief seven year history, nor has Gold Coast in what, as mentioned earlier, has been a very disappointing start to its existence.

8. Finals matches win-rate

Now, making the finals is one thing, but winning them is more important. The following table ranks clubs by this measure:

So Brisbane are the clear chart-toppers in this one, winning 68% of its 25 finals matches. It is followed by Hawthorn (61.63%), Melbourne (58.62%), and Richmond (58.14%). We see that Fitzroy (57.63%), at fifth, also had a very good record in finals. The big fall from grace by this ranking system is Collingwood. We saw earlier that Collingwood has qualified for the finals almost seven times per ten seasons in its history, but we see here that it has  won only  43.09% of its 181 finals matches.

9. Reaching the Grand Final

We have looked at finals overall, so now it is time to look at clubs’ performances in the most important final of them all, the Big Dance, the GF, the Grand Final!

Firstly, we’ll look at how often clubs manage to contest the ultimate match (draws not counted):

We see that Collingwood has made the Grand Final an extraordinary 42 times at a rate of 3.4 times per ten seasons. Next best is Carlton with 29 Grand Finals (2.4 per ten seasons). At the bottom of the table we see that the defunct University never qualified for the Grand Final. GWS Giants and Gold Coast are also yet to do so in their brief histories.

 

10. Grand Final win-rate

Making the Grand Final is a good achievement, but let’s examine how clubs have actually performed on the big stage when it matters most:

Topping the table is Brisbane, but thanks solely to its 2001-2004 dynasty in which it contested four consecutive Grand Finals, winning the first three in a row for a 75% win percentage. Perhaps more impressive is Melbourne which also boasts an impressive  win rate on the big stage going 12/17 (71%), and Hawthorn are not far behind with 13/19 (68%).

It must be noted that Collingwood, despite a great effort to qualify for the Grand Final on 42 occasions, has an absolutely horrendous big stage record winning only 15/42 (36%). Yes, bewilderingly, Collingwood has finished 27 seasons as runner-up. I’d be surprised if any other top-tier sports league from around the world has seen a team lose the ultimate clash at such a rate. Perhaps a topic for another article.

And the most successful club is…

This article has looked at ten ranking methods all of which, I believe, are solid and reliable measures of success across a club’s entire history. They are:

  1. Premiership %
  2. Wooden Spoon %
  3. Minor Premiership %
  4. Average Finish Position
  5. Overall Home Win %
  6. Overall Away Win %
  7. Made Finals %
  8. Finals Win %
  9. Made Grand Final %
  10. Grand Final Win %

In each of the ten tables above, clubs have been assigned a ranking position from 1 to 21. Hence,  I have assigned 21 points for a first position, 20 points for a second position, 19 points for a third position and so on. The grand table below shows the clubs ranked by their total points accumulated across the ten key measures of historical success:

The winner is Carlton! Now, this may come as a surprise to some, due to Carlton’s recent lack of on-field success, brought-on primarily by the salary-cap scandal of the late nineties/early 2000s for which it was severely penalised and forced to forfeit player picks across three drafts. A huge set-back that it is only just beginning to recover from. As a result, it may be easy to forget what a truly successful powerhouse club the Old Navy Blues have been over the journey – the stats don’t lie.

In second place, Collingwood is left to ponder what may have been. If not for such a poor record in finals, especially Grand Finals, it would almost certainly sit on top of the table.

Ranked third is Essendon which has obviously always been a very strong club. Like Carlton, Essendon has been set-back by scandals of its own in recent seasons.

West Coast round out a clearly strong top four and show what a high-achieving club it has been since joining the competition in 1987. Looking at the final table, we can see there is a significant gap between West Coast and fifth-placed Hawthorn.

Towards the less desirable end the table we see that GWS has already surpassed the lowly St. Kilda across the key indicators during its brief existence. However, the same can’t be said for fellow expansion-club Gold Coast. The Suns, and the defunct University really are two poorly-performed outliers at the bottom of the table.

So there you have it. Congratulations to Carlton

Paul P Mark.