SWAN Districts deserves to come away from Sunday's elimination final against West Perth with a feeling of missing an opportunity, and for a star pair who announced their retirements afterwards there will be no tomorrow.
Swan Districts might have come into the finals from fifth position at the end of the home and away season, but they were ready to make the most of their first finals appearance since 2017 against the Falcons at Joondalup's Provident Financial Oval on Sunday afternoon.
Swans had defeated West Perth in an elimination final last time they played finals and were determined to repeat the dose, and looked capable of pulling it off leading by eight points at quarter-time and then 14 points at the half-time break.
The black-and-whites then found themselves 16 points down during the fourth term after three quick goals from West Perth but the visitors hit back with three straight of their own to hit the lead when Aidan Clarke kicked truly.
Rudy Riddoch and Lewis Jetta then traded goals with Swan Districts back on top by two points but West Perth had the last say with a goal to Mitch Antonio just before the siren to win by four points and end the season of the black-and-whites.
It was a devastating way to exit for Swan Districts considering they played so well for so much of the day, and deserved to be confident against Claremont, South Fremantle and Subiaco moving forward in the finals had they advanced.
The game also proved to be the last for 174-game life member and outstanding defender Alex Howard along with premiership player and dual fairest and best winner Matt Riggio, with both announcing their retirements from Swan Districts post-match.
Howard has spent his life at Swan Districts and made his debut in 2011 as a 17-year-old. He came into a team who were reigning premiers so had every reason to expect to be part of his success in his career, but it wasn’t to be and that's where there is extra frustration for him.
With Swan Districts losing on Sunday, Howard knows that could have been his best chance of going a long way in finals for his career and he has no doubt they could have continued to advance further had they got over West Perth in the elimination final.
"There's a lot of frustration there at the moment and I've talked a lot with Brandon (Erceg), (Chris) Jonesy and also Andrew Pruitt our midfield coach who I work with, and the biggest feeling there is just frustration," Howard said.
"We believe we let it slip and there's so much belief in that group and we thought we had what it takes to go all the way this year after what we had worked hard to build the last two to three years.
"We built the squad up and we believe we were right there which makes it harder to go at right now and knowing I won't be part of it next year only adds to that. We had all the belief in the world that we were going to win that game going into it and that top five was that hard to split this year.
"You just look at the game on Saturday as well and it was decided with a kick on the siren, us against South Freo was only a few points in it, we went close to Claremont even when we were missing eight players and even going back we had beaten Subiaco.
"So our talk going into the finals was that we believed we could take down any of those four teams so that makes it harder going out the way we did."
While it's not easy to digest now so close to the heartbreaking loss and it's challenging knowing he won't be part of it, but looking forward Howard has no doubt that Swan Districts are well placed for success to be near in the club's future.
"The club is in a great position looking forward. Pickers has got all the boys bandied together and the number of young guys we have coming through along with the guys who are AFL talent coming back," Howard said.
"The people who Smarty has been to recruit and bring in just fit in straight away. This squad was built over the last two, three and four years and it's definitely on its way up. I don’t think we are far off at all."
Without question, the great strength of this Swan Districts team of 2021 was its back-line and Howard remained a key part of that.
He was proud to continue to team up with Tony Note, Anthony Stephens and eventually Jackson Beck, but it was Brandon Erceg's emergence and ability to stay healthy and the arrival of Chris Jones that really topped the back six unit off nicely.
"This year was awesome with our back-line. We clicked straightaway as soon as Jonesy came over and he fitted into our back-line perfect," Howard said.
"Obviously with me, both Tonys and Brandon playing together for a few years now too, we had that chemistry and Jonesy fit straight in and we sort of knew from Day 1 that it would be our back-line for the whole year.
"We are a little team inside the team back there and there were a lot of weeks where we were under a lot of pressure with zero rotations and having 60 inside 50s against us. But we just had to hold strong and we all got each other through it pretty well."
While Howard doesn’t feel too differently right now to what he would had a usual season just concluded, he knows he's going to start missing life at Swan Districts once their pre-season hits up and it was certainly emotional saying goodbye on Sunday.
"At the moment it doesn’t really feel any different and it just feels like the end of a normal season along with everybody else," Howard said.
"But I think probably come December or January when they are getting back together for pre-season then it will sink in then. But at the moment it feels just like the end to any other season really.
"I was trying to hold the emotions in when I was getting carried off the ground but then as soon as I looked over at my wife and she was in the line-up leading into the changerooms, and I saw how emotional she was and that's when it really hit me.
"Then once we were in the changerooms I just sort of let it all out. It was hard then once we were in there and that's when it really hit me.
"At that time we didn’t actually know it was going to be Rigs' last game and he didn’t announce that until we were in the changerooms and after Pickers had given a speech. But once he got up and said his thing, then the emotions spilled out all over again."