2021 Men's Premiership Champions
Updated: Aug 12, 2021
The North London Lions Men's Premiership team have put in a mighty display of contested football and tackling to add a sixth premiership into the club's trophy cabinet, overcoming rivals West London Wildcats 6.4 (40) to 4.7 (31) at Motspur Park. It was also the club's first men's silverware in any grade since 2015.
It's been a wet London summer which has left more than a few AFL London punters pining for the return of the 2017 and 2018 heatwaves, so it was only fitting that come Grand Final day the heaven's would open up yet again. But after securing a Grand Final place with a round to spare, a little rain wasn't going to offer much deterrence to a team that had long been primed for August 7 by coach Michael Sharp.
Earlier in the season the Lions travelled to Dukes Meadows to take on the Wildcats and laid down a serious marker on what was to come in 2021, walking away with a huge 9-goal victory. Today, however, was never going to be the same with a lot more on the line and vastly different conditions that suited mudlarks down to a tee.
Prior to the game, it had been recognised that the duel between both sides would have a record number of GB players participating, and GB Coach Dean Thomas stated that: “It is a testament to both clubs’ recruitment drives during the long Covid affected lay-off which the sport had endured in the UK, and to the players themselves for staying motivated and engaged with their clubs and the sport in general. What a great sign for all clubs that so many local players were involved in the biggest game of the footy calendar in the UK”.
It was no surprise then to see both teams flying at each from the first bounce. Despite a commanding start in the first ten minutes, the Lions were on the backfoot from some relentless pressure on behalf of the Cats. However, the Lions lead at quarter time 2.0 to 1.1 thanks to two counter-attacking goals from Andy Walkden and Liam Butler - and an already wounded Pride of Lions could sense the opportunity.
The second quarter saw the Lions withstand a ton of pressure with the ball camped on the West London half forward line for the first five minutes before the Wildcats were able to break the defensive wall and get a goal, taking them into the lead. The centre bounce gave North London the chance to reset and they launched straight into attack only to see a Charlie Dillon mark in front of goal overturned. Nevertheless a turnover ensued from the Cats defensive rebound which allowed Walkden to kick his second of the day and a grand final special, snapping truly from 40 metres off a few steps to restore the Lions lead in quick time.
The remainder of the second term went back to how it started with the ball spending significantly more time in the Wildcats forward half than the Lions forward half but the North London defence put in a mountainous volume of work conceding just one more goal for the half - the Wildcats taking a 3.5 (23) to 3.0 (18) lead to the main break. Despite losing the term by 10 points, one could very well argue this was the quarter which won the match for the Lions given the Cats were on the attack for all but a few minutes. Sometimes football isn’t just about hitting the scoreboard when you’re up and about. The grit and determination on display from North London to ensure the damage was limited was hugely influential in the final scoreline.
With the rain easing, the ground drying ever so slightly and the petrol tanks not quite yet on empty the third quarter saw the best ball movement of the match from both teams with the footy flinging from end to end faster than it would all day (though make no mistake, it was still attritional footy out there). Both teams had their share of opportunity but it was the likes of Lachie Trembath, Owain Ryland and Andy Gardner across the half back line who stood up over and over repelling several forward forays from West London.
The second half deadlock was broken after about six minutes when best afield Todd May took advantage of a 50-metre penalty to hit up Butler who never looks like missing a set shot, regardless of the conditions. Butler’s second of the afternoon was followed up only minutes later, although this time the route to goal followed a less conventional path as Chris Barrie finished off a series of three soccer kicks resulting in a 7-point lead and a tiny amount of breathing space. After a see-sawing ten minutes, the Lions gained some ascendancy only to go unrewarded, missing a couple of gettable shots and blemishing their perfect kicking record in the process. It was with just over a minute to go before the final break when the arm wrestle was broken with another brilliant snap, this time from the boot of Dillon only a few metres in fromthe boundary line, and with the scoreboard reading 6.2 (38) to 3.6 (24) the Red, Gold and Black faithful hit fever pitch.
A 14-point lead was never going to be easy to chase down but at the same time the Lions knew they had to keep the intensity levels set to ten, even as the legs burnt. This is grand final footy after all. The fourth quarter started as a total carbon copy of the second with the ball seeming to spend an eternity across the Wildcats half forward line. As ever, the North London defence stood strong, the highlight being a holding the ball tackle from Ryland about 15 metres from the goal mouth which was presenting the Cats with a golden opportunity for goal and a path back into the match.
The Lions didn't even get to see the ball inside their forward 50 until 11 minutes into the final term, at which point they did start to gain some control and in the space of 90 seconds had two efforts touched on the line, either of which would have been enough to lock up the silverware. It was with about five minutes to go that the Cats again started bombarding the Lions defences in what was one final roll of the dice and when a ruck infringement led to a goal with just under three minutes on the clock there were a few nervous faces in the Lions camp. Again from the restart the Cats went forward and Lions hearts fluttered as they thought it was surely inconceivable to concede 3 goals in 3 minutes after conceding the same amount in the preceding 77, but North London denied their opponents any clean ball and the only damage in the dying stages was a solitary behind.
Then the siren. Then the celebrations. North London had the spoils. Scenes of jubilation erupted around Motspur Park as Red, Gold and Black converged onto the field to congratulate their chargers. Having won the Women’s Premiership in 2019, the club was bringing home a cup in consecutive seasons for just the second time in its history, having previously done so with Men’s Premiership flags in 2001 and 2002.
Perhaps unknown to the wider AFL London crowd, but certainly not lost on the North London coaching panel who have built this squad up over the last 5 or so years was the Lions fielded a record 12 non-Australian’s in Saturday’s line-up, including 11 from Great Britain and two for whom it was their first ever season of Australian football - Ed Roberts and Dominic Rollo-Walker. For new British recruit Andrew Cochran it was a ninth Australian Rules trophy across the various competitions he has played for Great Britain (2 trophies), England (2), Manchester (3), West London (1) plus his newly minted Lions cup. One can not forget legendary clubman Amine Ramdani who has come from France to co-coach our Women's Premiership team, including during the breakthrough flag season two years ago.
The rest of the contingency across both clubs included West London’s three GB players, amongst them European Cup medal winner defender James Clayton, along with very promising newcomers Jacob Robinson and Archie Wright-Miller. Alongside those mentioned above, North London lined up with European Championship medal winners in GB stalwart Owain Ryland, GB leading goalkicker Andy Walkden, Michael Sharp, Samuel Walon and Sam Killoway. The more recent products of Birmingham University Theo Wrigley and James Williams were ever-present, alongside British-born Jack Blair who learned about the game whilst living in Australia. The club has never shied away from its commitment to develop the non-Aussies that come down to training in Regents Park, regardless of talent level, and it has paid off in spades with this result.
Coach Mike Sharp reflected on this post-celebrations saying “In the 6 years I’ve been here with the Lions, there’s always been a deeply-rooted backing of our GB and ROW (Rest of the World) players, across both of our women and mens teams. It’s evident from their very first training session with us, and people feel that. This year, we wanted to make sure that steps were implemented to make an even stronger and more significant contingency of non-aussies playing the game in Lions guernseys, and more importantly feeling the support and backing from myself and the club, and I feel like we’ve really reached that pinnacle this year. We’ve probably had 35-40 Non-aussie guys and girls represent us this season alone. With that, I just think there’s a genuine belief from our most experienced Australian players through to our first year players; that our GB / ROW players are amongst the best players at the club, best in the league and some of the best outside of Australia - and that shows when we play them in key positions on the ground in a Grand Final as hardly fought as what you’ve just seen. So I think everyone has acknowledged that, and that’s genuinely the really special thing about this Premiership - we’ve managed to bridge the gap of AFL experience in a really short space of time in London, and that means everything - that’s been the goal for a while now. And when the dust settles, we plan how we follow that up to go back-to-back”.
It would be remiss not to take a moment to reflect on some Lions out's who contributed greatly to the season's successes - Thomas Howard (regular captain and 2019 B&F winner), Nicoll Sandison, Thomas Cantwell, Jake Russell, Adam Pitt, Josh Cauchi, Alfie Armstrong and Sam Ferguson. Despite these outs - and it must be said all clubs have to deal with unavailability - coach Sharp was never worried about the men he bought in on Saturday, with the club adopting a "soldier out, soldier in" policy that is crucial in AFL London where team sheets can fluctuate wildly from one weekend to the next.
So the North London Lions have triumphed in this most unique of times. The pandemic had meant the usual season lasting roughly a dozen weeks had been reduced to just six after no play was possible at all in 2020. Unique times indeed, although somewhat ironically AFL London reflected footy back home closer than it ever has with curtailed travel plans and very few new working holiday arrivals making for a less transient feel at training and game day. Regardless of the circumstances, it was certainly a relief for all to get on the field and get some normality back into life over the last month and a bit. We can’t wait to do it all again.
A short-piece by NLL Midfielder Luke Wakeling:
… and the low roar of the Lions pride sounds the start of one last exhalation of wild exuberation, a final rendition of the club song for the year 2021. With linked arms ‘It’s a Grand Old Flag’ is belted out across South West London.
Medals are exchanged, the cup awarded, best on ground announced. The ceremony is undertaken with sportsmanship and grace.
And so they disperse, to wipe the mud from their faces and embrace team mates, friends, family. For the Lions congratulations, for the Wildcats commiserations.
2021 AFL London Men’s Premiership Grand Final North London Lions 2.0 3.0 6.2 6.4 (40) West London Wildcats 1.1 3.5 3.6 4.7 (31)
Goals: Butler 2, Walkden 2, Barrie, Dillon Best on Ground Medal: Todd May
Online Replay (Starts at QT): https://sportvot.com/event/EVENT_610a426d53954c73b3d99523
Lions Premiership XXIV: Lachie Trembath (Captain), Sam Killoway*, Sam Walon*, Andrew Gardner, Owain Ryland*, Sandon McCann, Domonic Rollo-Walker*, Luke Power, Theodore Wrigley*, Liam Butler, Jack Blair*, Andrew Cochran*, Andy Walkden* (Vice-Captain), Charlie Dillon, Chris Barrie, John O'Brien, Todd May, Luke Wakeling, Michael Sharp* (Coach), Amine Ramdani**, Ed Roberts*, Josh Taylor, Brady Miell, James Williams*.
* = British player
** = Rest of the World player