Footy in crisis: Ranking the AFL's biggest sagas

AFL football is full of hyperbole. So when you hear superlatives like "greatest", "biggest", "best" thrown around ad nauseam, you tend to roll your eyes.

But as a selection of AFL heavyweights like Gillon McLachlan, Eddie McGuire and Jeff Kennett all declared the league was facing its most serious crisis, barely anyone has batted an eyelid.

Such is the scale of the threat coronavirus poses not only to the game's immediate but long-term future, it's still almost impossible to get your head around the extent of the damage.

Just 48 hours or so have seen the cessation of play for the first time in 125 years, players pondering 50 percent pay cuts, and the immediate standing down of around 80 percent of an entire workforce.

A sporting body that has mutated into a corporate giant needs super-charged revenue streams. In an instant, most have dried up completely. The toll would be extreme enough regardless of whether matches can be resumed come June. And that possibility seems more unlikely by the day.

For the first time in more than 20 years, clubs' futures are in serious doubt, careful planning rendered next to irrelevant. The AFL which emerges from these dark days may be a considerably leaner, narrower organisation running a more conservative competition.

Football's governing body has dealt with other major crises. War, scandal, greed, corruption. This one, however, has no tangible villain, is more insidious and less predictable, and its destructive path is closer the beginning than a conclusion.

Here is a catalogue of the other biggest challenges the game has faced. All were serious but eventually overcome, an outcome McLachlan and Co. would love to be certain will be the case now. But they can't. This is by any measure of a crisis, the "daddy" of them all. Good luck, guys.

Footy's biggest sagas, pre-coronavirus

1. 1986: The VFL is going broke

There's a good reason the history books tell you that 1986 was the final year of an all-Victorian senior competition. That's because the VFL might have struggled to continue were it not for the lucrative licence fees that the 1987 entry to the competition of Brisbane and West Coast would fetch. In fact, Victorian Corporate Affairs commissioner Gordon Lewis in August 1986 wrote to the VFL Commission explaining that no fewer than seven clubs -- Fitzroy, Geelong, Footscray, Collingwood, Melbourne, North Melbourne and Richmond -- were technically insolvent. Unless he was immediately satisfied drastic action would be forthcoming, the competition, on the eve of the finals, would be shut down. Eventually, the licence fees from two new clubs ensured the league was saved. But it was a close call.

2. 2013: The Essendon supplements scandal

The Bombers were thrown out of the 2013 finals series, fined heavily, banned from the draft and had senior coach James Hird and several assistants suspended. But the scandal reached a global scale when after first being cleared by the league, Essendon's players were the subject of a WADA appeal, subsequently upheld by the international Court of Arbitration for Sport. It suspended for a year 34 players, 17 of whom were still in the AFL. The Bombers in 2016 were forced to field a patched-up and inadequate team all season, and the saga took a huge personal toll on both Hird and senior assistant Mark Thompson. The protracted and sensational story also took much attention away from the actual game for at least three years.

3. 1916: World War I reduces competition to a shell

"Which team won the wooden spoon and premiership in the same year?" is perhaps football's greatest trivia question. The answer is Fitzroy, the qualifier that it happened in a VFL consisting of just four teams, as the First World War consumed a whole nation's focus and manpower. There was fierce debate about whether the season should proceed, with five clubs voting "no", leaving just Carlton, Collingwood, Richmond and Fitzroy taking part. A 12-round season ensued, by the end of which the Lions had won just two games. Incredibly, they then bowled over Collingwood and Carlton (twice) to take out the flag. By the end of the war, the VFL was at least back to eight teams, just one short of its (then) full complement of nine.

4. 1996: The year of mergers and deaths

The AFL's much-hyped "Centenary season" ended up dominated by the threat of mergers and the extinction of Fitzroy, a foundation competition member. The Lions, who'd been in financial strife for more than a decade, were intent on striking a deal with North Melbourne. The AFL wanted a "shotgun marriage" between the Lions and Brisbane Bears. The prospect of an even stronger outfit than North already boasted scared rivals, who voted down the proposition at the board table, with Fitzroy predictably swallowed by the weight of geography and Brisbane's impending on-field success. At the same time, a struggling Melbourne and a successful but financially-foundering Hawthorn had signed a heads of agreement to become the "Melbourne Hawks", a union finally rejected by Hawthorn members. Within six months, Port Adelaide had entered the AFL, and mergers were put on the backburner.

5. 1910: The Carlton bribery scandal

On the morning of Carlton's semifinal against South Melbourne, "The Argus" sensationally reported three Carlton players - Alex "Bongo" Lang, Doug Gillespie and Doug Fraser - had been dropped for alleged bribery. Carlton officials were convinced some players had taken bribes in the previous year's Grand Final loss to South Melbourne, and suspicions were heightened after the last home and away game, when the top-of-table Blues lost to previously winless St Kilda. Carlton, disrupted and divided, lost both the semi against the Swans and the Grand Final against Collingwood. An investigation would clear Gillespie, but Lang and Fraser were suspended for 99 games, the equivalent of six years. The scandal would force the VFL's hand in approving player payments for the 1911 season.

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