The AFL has finally been forced to admit defeat to COVID-19 restrictions, with the VFL season officially called off for the second year in a row.
Officials have been desperately exploring all options to get the finals played and crown a premier, but ongoing lockdowns and state border closures have made the task insurmountable, with all 22 clubs notified of the sad but unavoidable decision on Wednesday.
Footscray will be recognised as the 2021 minor premiers for its undefeated 10-0 campaign, but no premiership will be awarded. The J.J. Liston Medal vote count has also been called off without a winner.
The decision does not affect the rebel VFLW Grand Final, with various scenarios still being worked through between the AFL and competing teams Collingwood and Geelong, with the delay to the 2022 AFLW season providing an extended timeframe to get the game played.
AFL Head of Talent Pathways and State League Competitions Tristan Salter said the COVID-19 situation in NSW and Victoria, plus having the four remaining teams – Footscray, Southport, Box Hill Hawks and Geelong – located in four different states due to AFL finals requirements, had provided too big a challenge.
"The 2021 season saw multiple schedule changes, several match cancellations, postponements and weeks of hiatus for many clubs, and all clubs, players, officials and umpires should be congratulated for their relentless pursuit to play matches," he said.
Salter said the decision was made after consultation with the Bulldogs, Sharks, Hawks and Cats.
"All levels of the game across Australia have been impacted by the health pandemic this year and it has been another challenging year for everyone connected to football," he said.
"Footy clubs are the heartbeat of many local communities and the identity of our clubs and our league will not be defined by the outcome of the 2020 and 2021 season," Salter said.
"We acknowledge this is very disappointing news for the players, coaches, officials, volunteers and fans of the VFL and commend every VFL club who has worked tirelessly to ensure a united approach to the outcome of the 2021 season.
"We have explored many scenarios as to how we could still proceed in Victoria and interstate over the last few weeks, but it ultimately provided too great a challenge for all involved."
It was a huge effort from the AFL and the 22 VFL clubs to get through 107 home and away games across three states in the present climate, and efforts to obtain State government approval to continue under a professional sport exemption were unsuccessful due to the part-time nature of the competition.
Salter said it would also be impossible to fairly award a Liston Medal due to the uneven number of games each team played (between nine and 11) this season, but the Jim "Frosty" Miller Medal for the leading goalkicker would be presented to Aspley’s Matthew Hammelmann for his 42 goals in 10 games.
There will be a Fothergill-Round-Mitchell Medal awarded for the most promising talent in the VFL under the age of 24, while a VFL Team and Coach of the Year and a worthy recipient of the Alec Gillon Award for the Volunteer of the Year will be selected and announced in the next couple of weeks.
All the VFLW awards will also be announced shortly, headed by the Lambert-Pearce Medal for the competition’s best-and-fairest, the Debbie Lee Rising Star Medal for the best first year player, the Rohenna Young Medal for the leading goalkicker, the Ann Rulton Award for the Volunteer of the Year and the VFLW Team and Coach of the Year.
"The Liston has a proud and rich history and previous winners are icons of Australian football," Salter said.
"The AFL determined that given the uneven number of available games played to all players, that awarding a winner was not the right decision this season."
Salter thanked VFL supporters and said the AFL was supporting the players, coaches and officials to keep them involved in the 2022 season, presently scheduled to start in March or April, while it was also exploring how to provide mature age talent with extra exposure before the NAB AFL National Draft in November.
He said officials were already excited for what the 2022 season could do to help people recover from a terrible two-year period and was already shaping up as being one of the most even competitions in recent memory, with all 21 remaining teams expected to have genuine claims towards securing a finals berth, some for the first time in many years.
"State league football is imperative in the evolution and growth of Australian football and contributes to a more connected football model across Australia," Salter said.
"To the legion of passionate fans of the VFL, we thank you for your support and understanding of these unique and challenging circumstances.
"The one constant over the past two years has been the loyalty and unwavering support of our fans and members and we look forward to preparing a memorable return to VFL football in 2022 ... (and) welcoming as many fans as possible back to matches to reconnect with."