Callum Mills will walk away from the 2021 AFL season with a large dose of excitement over the re-emergence of his young Swans outfit, a high personal satisfaction about his best season in the AFL, a few private thoughts of what might have been, and some outstanding material for future speaking engagements.

The trials and tribulations, public and private, of AFL Covid season #2.

There was the Covid journey. How the Swans left Sydney at 24 hours’ notice in June for ‘two or three weeks’ and spent the last 12 weeks away. No games at the SCG after round 13.

And yet still the club posted its equal biggest increase in wins in a season all-time. The second-biggest climb up the ladder all-time. And a team percentage increase that was the club’s fourth biggest all-time and the biggest since 1942.

In the medal count, despite being eliminated in week one of the finals, the Swans ranked fourth overall with 84 votes behind the Western Bulldogs (85), Port Adelaide (91) and Melbourne (96). Fifteen different Swans players polled. Only Geelong (17) had more, while grand finalists Melbourne and the Dogs had 11 each.

There is the pride and satisfaction of his elevated team role iced by his first All-Australian squad selection, a personal-best fifth placing in the Bob Skilton Medal and the honour of topping the Swans vote in the Brownlow Medal for the first time.

There’s the inevitable curiosity of what might have happened collectively and personally had a bad Achilles not robbed him of four games in the home-and-away season and a spot in the finals.

Would Mills’ presence have been enough to reverse a one-point elimination final loss to GWS? And where might he have finished in the club championship and the Brownlow if he’d played every game?

And there’s the tales of finishing equal 13th in a bizarre Brownlow count in which Swans players did it all via zoom, isolated at home wearing a jacket, shirt and tie on top of track pants, board shorts or pyjamas.

There would have been plenty of fun to be had with the private banter between those involved on top of all the quarantine stories of a campaign tougher even the Covid season #1 because of the weekly uncertainty. It has sportsman’s nights written all over it.

Mills went into the 2021 season with five votes in his first 92 AFL games - 88 games in which votes were awarded. He’d polled just twice. Three votes in his 49th game in 2018 and two votes in his 83rd game in 2020.

Yet in 18 games this year he polled seven times, including five best afield three-voters, for 18 votes.

He pipped 2021 Skilton Medallist Luke Parker (17) by one vote from Lance Franklin, Josh Kennedy and Isaac Heeney (8), Jordan Dawson (6), Tom Hickey and Tom Papley (4), Ollie Florent, Jake Lloyd, Errol Gulden and Will Hayward (2), George Hewitt, Hayden McLean and Chad Warner (1).

It was a changing of the guard after Parker and Kennedy between them had topped the Swans vote count in each of the last six years.

In other highlights:-

  • Kennedy’s eight votes took his career total to 146. Only Bob Skilton (180) and Adam Goodes (163) have polled more for the Swans. He polled in the medal for the 11th year in a row.
  • Parker’s 14 votes jumped his career total to 126. He went past 1940 Brownlow winner Herbie Matthews (122) and 1949 winner Ron Clegg (121) into fourth spot on the club’s all-time list.
  • Gulden’s 19 possessions and three goals on debut against Brisbane in Round 1 made him the fifth Swans player to poll in his first game. He followed Darren McAsey and John Ironmonger in the same game in 1985, Adam Schneider in 2003 and Heath Grundy in 2006.
  • Warner polled his first votes in his sixth game, Hayden McLean in his 14th game and Will Hayward in his 87th
  • And Franklin’s eight votes gives him a total of 96 votes in 125 eligible games with the Swans (0.77 votes per game) and 82 votes in 168 eligible games with Hawthorn (0.49 votes per game). He is within striking distance of joining Skilton, Goodes, Kennedy, Parker, Matthews, Clegg, Dan Hannebery (106), Barry Round (104) and Paul Kelly (103) in the Swans’ 100-vote club.
Callum Mills handball during Sydney's clash with St. Kilda

How far has Mills come? The stats say a long, long way.

From 2016-20 he averaged 18.2 possessions, 5.4 contested possessions, 2.6 tackles, 0.65 clearances and 0.13 goal assists per game. And kicked three goals.

In 2021 he averaged 27.5 possessions, 10.4 contested possessions, 5.3 tackles, 4.78 clearances and 0.5 goal assists. And kicked six goals.

He was fifth in the 2021 Skilton Medal behind Parker, Lloyd, Dawson and Papley but on a per votes per game it was Mills (26.4) from Parker (23.6), Lloyd (22.9), Dawson (21.8) and Hickey (21.1).

Among the 40-man All-Australian squad only Franklin and GWS’ Toby Greene missed more home-and-away games. It was Franklin (5), Greene (5), Mills (4), Essendon’s Jake Stringer (4) and Carlton’s Harry McKay (3). The other 35 played 20-plus.

But in the Brownlow count the 24-year-old star graduate from the Swans Academy was just another face on a screen as players in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne interacted with a count conducted in one room in Perth and players from the Dogs and Demons carefully isolated separately.

06:49 Mins
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Match Highlights: Brisbane v Sydney

The Sydney Swans kick off their 2021 season with a 31 point victory over Brisbane. See all the highlights from the clash.

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Mills polled three votes in Round 1 against Brisbane and Round 3 against Richmond and led the Swans count throughout. He was also judged best afield in Round 9 against Collingwood, Round 16 against West Coast and Round 20 against Essendon. Five wins.

Plus, he polled minor votes against the two grand final teams - one in a loss to Melbourne in Round 8 and two in a win over the Dogs in Round 17.

Hickey, who had polled just once in 102 games over 10 years before joining the Swans, was the other early bolter. He went 1-2-1 in his first three games in red and white.

That Mills would top the Swans vote wasn’t exactly a total shock after his outstanding season following his move into the midfield, but how he got there was a little curious. Just it was how others fared at times.

Using the 5-4-3-2-1 votes in the AFL Coach’s Association Player of the Year award converted to notional 3-2-1 Brownlow votes as a point of comparison there was a 62 percent correlation. Or a 38 percent variation. And that’s only comparing the three vote-getters in the medal with the three or more players voted best each week by the coaches.

Given there were five ties in the ‘Coachlow’ it was 44 of 71. Only 44 of the 66 players who polled in Sydney games in the Brownlow rated in the equivalent top bracket with the coaches.

And only five times in 22 games did the umpires and coaches identify the same three. Seven times they agreed on two of three and six times just one of three.

In the games where the coaches were split, twice the umpires voted for two of the coach’s four, once they got three of four, and once it was two of five.

06:38 Mins
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Match Highlights: Sydney Swans v Port Adelaide, Round 15

Watch all the match highlights following Sydney's Round 15 thriller with Port Adelaide at the Adelaide Oval

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The total outrider was the Round 15 game against Port. When the coaches had Port’s Charlie Dixon (10) best from Parker (8), Franklin, Mills and Port’s Travis Boak (3), Port’s Scott Lycett (2) and Willem Drew (1). The Brownlow votes went to Boak (3), Franklin (2) and Ollie Wines (1).

Dixon and Parker, clearly the best two with the coaches, did not get a vote. And Wines, who didn’t rate in the best seven players with the coaches, polled one vote. And won the medal by one vote.

In Round 18 against GWS, too, Papley and Parker were voted equal best by the coaches. Parker polled three medal votes and Papley none.

Sam Wicks was denied his first medal votes in similar fashion. He received 10 coaches votes in the Round 3 win over Richmond when he had 21 possessions and three goals and went unrewarded by the umpires.

Tom McCartin likewise in Round 17 when he received eight votes from the coaches, behind only Dawson (10), with Mills not among seven players recognised by the coaches. But Mills got one vote and McCartin none.

Braeden Campbell, too. He received five votes from the coaches in the Round 2 win over Adelaide, equal with McCartin behind only the Crows’ Taylor Walker. Kennedy and Hickey were not among seven players to vote with the coaches but the medal votes went Kennedy 3, Hickey 2 and Walker 1.

In Round 7, when Hickey returned from a one-week lay-off minus one posterior cruciate ligament, he got 10 coach’s votes against Geelong and a wipe from the umpires. McLean, rated eighth-best by the coaches with one vote, got one medal vote.

In Round 4 against Essendon the Swans picked up 25 of 30 coaches votes, with Sam Reid getting eight behind only Parker’s 10. But while Parker got three medal votes and Reid didn’t feature at all.

In Round 23 Franklin kicked six goals and was judged best by the coaches but had to be content with one medal vote.

But it worked both ways. In the Round 12 come-from-behind win over St.Kilda Parker wasn’t among seven players to poll with the coaches and the Saints’ Jack Higgins was equal best with the coaches yet Parker got three medal votes and Higgins none.

In the Round 6 loss to the Gold Coast the Suns polled 28 of 30 votes, with Touk Miller getting 10, but Miller didn’t poll in the medal and Josh Kennedy, the only Swan in the coaches votes with two, got one medal vote.

Callum Mills and Lance Franklin celebrate with the fans