The concept of co-captaincy in Australian rules football dates as far back as the 1800s, when Collingwood appointed Bill Proudfoot and Dick Condon as co-skippers for the club's third season as part of the Victorian Football League (VFL).
With North Melbourne announcing Jy Simpkin and Luke McDonald as the club's first co-captains pairing in their history, there are now four clubs entering the 2023 AFL season with multiple players leading their packs through the banners, assuming Richmond, GWS and Sydney stick with their previous leadership groups.
Despite its prevalence in the league throughout the centuries, the appointment of co-captains continues to draw considerable criticism from pundits and media alike. Whether it's seen as a lack of indecision by the players as to who should lead them, or a gimmick to assist in the rebranding of a club, what matters most is how it impacts a club's success on the field.
Since the beginning of the AFL era (1990), co-captained teams have made up less than 10% of all possible individual club seasons for a total of 54 combined seasons. Of those seasons, only 10 clubs have handed the reins to multiple players; Adelaide, Brisbane, Carlton, Fremantle, Gold Coast, GWS, Melbourne, St Kilda and Sydney.
While not included in this data, only three clubs have never assigned the role of captain to multiple players throughout their existence in the VFA, VFL or AFL; Essendon, Hawthorn and West Coast
Of those 54 seasons, the average ladder position of teams at the conclusion of the home and away rounds has been 10th, with 61% of those teams missing finals while being led by co-captains.
Breaking it down even further, over 31% of those teams finished in the bottom four, a rather significant number. In the past 32 seasons of football, five teams have “won” the wooden spoon while co-captained.
- Brisbane, 1998 - Alastair Lynch and Michael Voss
- Fremantle, 2001 - Shaun McManus and Adrian Fletcher
- Gold Coast, 2019 - David Swallow and Jarrod Witts
- GWS, 2012 - Phil Davis, Callan Ward and Luke Power
- GWS, 2013 - Phil Davis and Callan Ward
Though the above paints the concept of co-captaincy in a bad light, some clubs have seen multiple seasons of success as a result of it. The aforementioned wooden spooners of 2013, GWS, managed to rise from the shadows and make four consecutive finals series under the leadership of Phil Davis and Callan Ward. In 2019, they became the first captains in GWS' history to take the club to a grand final, though ultimately lost to the dynastic Richmond.
St Kilda met a similar fate in 1997, with the Nathan Burke and Stewart Loewe-led side falling to Adelaide in the grand final. Despite the loss, they were the first co-captained side of the AFL era to win the minor premiership.
The Giants' cross-bridge rivals, the Sydney Swans, have not only shown that co-captaincy can deliver glory, but you can build your club's culture around more than one leader. Since the 2005 season, the Swans have been co-captained for 14 out of a possible 18 seasons. In this time, the club has secured two premierships from six grand final appearances, with an additional five finals series in between.
With the majority of co-captained sides struggling to even break into the top eight, one could argue that the success Sydney have found under multiple leaders is an anomaly and unobtainable. However, you can quite as easily flip the script, and argue that the Bloods are showing everyone how it's done, and that it can be done.
Every club is made up of multiple cultures and personalities, and some just aren't naturally suited to a shared leadership role, despite that decision ultimately being made. How clubs reach the decision to appoint co-captains is never set in stone. Is it a tied vote by the rest of the playing group? Is it a player uncomfortable taking on all the responsibility? Is it a transitional decision?
The frustration from fans towards their clubs is valid, especially when the data shows co-captained sides tend to fall considerably short of finals, let alone a grand final. But such is the nature of the AFL, where success becomes a test of patience, especially when rival clubs, like Sydney, continue to find it against the odds.
AFL teams with multiple captains since 2000
|Adelaide||Taylor Walker/Rory Sloane||2019||11|
|Brisbane||Alastair Lynch/Michael Voss||1997||8||Finalists|
|Brisbane||Alastair Lynch/Michael Voss||1998||16||Wooden Spooners|
|Brisbane||Alastair Lynch/Michael Voss||1999||3||Finalists|
|Brisbane||Alastair Lynch/Michael Voss||2000||6||Finalists|
|Brisbane||Simon Black/Jonathan Brown/Chris Johnson/Nigel Lappin/Luke Power||2007||10|
|Brisbane||Simon Black/Jonathan Brown/Nigel Lappin/Luke Power||2008||10|
|Brisbane||Johnathan Brown/Jed Adcock||2013||12|
|Carlton||Brett Ratten/Andrew McKay||2003||15||Bottom 4|
|Carlton||Patrick Cripps/Sam Docherty||2019||13|
|Carlton||Patrick Cripps/Sam Docherty||2020||11|
|Carlton||Patrick Cripps/Sam Docherty||2021||13|
|Fremantle||Shaun McManus/Adrian Fletcher||2000||12|
|Fremantle||Shaun McManus/Adrian Fletcher||2001||16||Wooden Spooners|
|Gold Coast||Tom Lynch/Steven May||2017||17||Bottom 4|
|Gold Coast||Tom Lynch/Steven May||2018||17||Bottom 4|
|Gold Coast||David Swallow/Jarrod Witts||2019||18||Wooden Spooners|
|Gold Coast||David Swallow/Jarrod Witts||2020||14|
|Gold Coast||David Swallow/Jarrod Witts||2021||16|
|GWS||Phil Davis/Callan Ward/Luke Power||2012||18||Wooden Spooners|
|GWS||Phil Davis/Callan Ward||2013||18||Wooden Spooners|
|GWS||Phil Davis/Callan Ward||2014||16||Bottom 4|
|GWS||Phil Davis/Callan Ward||2015||11|
|GWS||Phil Davis/Callan Ward||2016||4||Finalists|
|GWS||Phil Davis/Callan Ward||2017||4||Finalists|
|GWS||Phil Davis/Callan Ward||2018||7||Finalists|
|GWS||Phil Davis/Callan Ward||2019||6||Runner-Up|
|GWS||Stephen Coniglio/Toby Greene/Josh Kelly||2022||16||Bottom 4|
|Melbourne||Jack Grimes/Jack Trengove||2012||16||Bottom 4|
|Melbourne||Jack Grimes/Jack Trengove||2013||17||Bottom 4|
|Melbourne||Jack Grimes/Nathan Jones||2014||17||Bottom 4|
|Melbourne||Nathan Jones/Jack Viney||2017||9|
|Melbourne||Nathan Jones/Jack Viney||2018||5||Finalists|
|Melbourne||Nathan Jones/Jack Viney||2019||17||Bottom 4|
|Port Adelaide||Ollie Wines/Tom Jonas||2019||10|
|St Kilda||Nathan Burke/Stewart Loewe||1996||10|
|St Kilda||Nathan Burke/Stewart Loewe||1997||1||Runner-Up|
|St Kilda||Nathan Burke/Stewart Loewe||1998||6|
|St Kilda||Lenny Hayes/Nick Riewoldt/Luke Ball||2007||9|
|St Kilda||Jarryn Geary/Jack Steele||2021||10|
|Sydney||Barry Hall/Brett Kirk/Leo Barry||2005||3||Premiers|
|Sydney||Barry Hall/Brett Kirk/Leo Barry||2006||4||Runner-Up|
|Sydney||Barry Hall/Brett Kirk/Leo Barry||2007||7||Finalists|
|Sydney||Craig Bolton/Adam Goodes/Brett Kirk||2009||9|
|Sydney||Craig Bolton/Adam Goodes/Brett Kirk||2010||5||Finalists|
|Sydney||Adam Goodes/Jarrad McVeigh||2012||3||Premiers|
|Sydney||Keiren Jack/Jarrad McVeigh||2013||4||Finalists|
|Sydney||Keiren Jack/Jarrad McVeigh||2014||1||Runner-Up|
|Sydney||Keiren Jack/Jarrad McVeigh||2015||4||Finalists|
|Sydney||Keiren Jack/Jarrad McVeigh||2016||1||Runner-Up|
|Sydney||Josh Kennedy/Dane Rampe/Luke Parker||2019||15|
|Sydney||Josh Kennedy/Dane Rampe/Luke Parker||2020||16|
|Sydney||Josh Kennedy/Dane Rampe/Luke Parker||2021||6||Finalists|
|Sydney||Callum Mills/Dane Rampe/Luke Parker||2022||2||Runner-Up|