Andrew Gaff's road to redemption starts with an A+

MELBOURNE, Australia -- He may have missed out on West Coast's 2018 Grand Final triumph, but Andrew Gaff hasn't skipped a beat.

Gaff was hit with an eight-match suspension for striking and breaking the jaw of Fremantle youngster Andrew Brayshaw in last year's Round 20 derby, but made his highly anticipated return to football on Saturday night, helping the Eagles to another win over Collingwood at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

The constant boos and jeers directed at him didn't seem to have much of an effect; Gaff played with a point to prove and ended the night as just about the best player on the ground. He provided endless run, amassed a game-high 35 disposals (13 contested), won five clearances and sent the ball inside 50 on four occasions.

"I thought he was absolutely outstanding and it's fantastic to have him back," 2018 Norm Smith Medallist Luke Shuey told ESPN after the game. "I don't know too many midfielders who can perform like that after six months off, not to mention everything that's gone on in his life. But he's an A-grade player and he has been for a long time now."

Gaff's suspension ruled him out of the entire 2018 finals series -- as well as the first two rounds of 2019 -- and when West Coast went on to lift the premiership cup he was clearly left distraught that he couldn't be a part of the success.

"I'm sure it would have been very difficult for him after working so hard," Dom Sheed told ESPN. "But unfortunately that's footy and that's the way it goes sometimes. I know he's just looking ahead now and he's hungry for success."

"He's had another great pre-season and he's been chomping at the bit to get back out there. He's just slotted straight back in tonight and played really well again."

Those that know Gaff best say he has done an incredible amount of work behind the scenes during his suspension. From long training sessions to passing on sound advice, Gaff has played an instrumental role in shaping this rampant West Coast outfit.

"The way he's handled the last six or seven months has been terrific," Shuey told ESPN. "He's taken his maturity to a new level through it all and obviously his footy is going alright as well."

With Gaff back in the team, along with defender Brad Sheppard, the Eagles are only getting stronger. Add in the fact that Adam Simpson's side will welcome back star ruckman Nic Naitanui mid-season and back-to-back premierships isn't unrealistic.

Perhaps 2019 could be a redemption year for Gaff, one which culminates in a premiership.