Over the years, the Geelong Football Club has deservedly acquired a reputation for producing teams which play classy, skilful, attacking football. The senior side's success rate over more than a hundred seasons of VFL and AFL football is bettered only by league heavyweights Collingwood, Carlton and Essendon, and recent arrivals the West Coast Eagles. Yet, despite reaching the finals on more than fifty occasions, the Cats have achieved ultimate premiership glory only nine times, a tally not in keeping with the quality of teams and individual stars the club has fielded over the years.
Prior to their dazzling and emphatic premiership successes of 2007, 2009, and 2011, the Cats' prolonged sequence of 'outs' had tended to reinforce a view of the Cats as 'classy but soft', as capable of producing quite scintillating bursts of football when conditions and opposition allowed, but of being fundamentally incapable of coping 'when the going gets tough'. Successive grand final annihilations at the hands of West Coast (by 80 points) and Carlton (by 61 points) in 1994 and 1995 had the effect of creating what, at the time, and for a considerable while thereafter, amounted to an enormous monkey on the Cats' back, a state of affairs as visually unappealing as it was no doubt uncomfortable. In many people's eyes, Geelong's repeated grand final failures constituted the 1990s equivalent of the Collywobbles, and the last thing any self-respecting Geelong supporter wants is to be associated in any way, shape or form with the men from Victoria Park.
All of which raises the important question of what constitutes 'success' - or, to put it in a way that relates more directly to the theme at hand, why do people play football? Obviously they do it in the hope or expectation that they will derive some form of enjoyment from it, but what brings about that enjoyment? If, as many would unquestioningly maintain, the sole purpose of playing football is to experience the joy of winning, and in particular the joy of winning premierships, then Geelong's achievements since the formation in 1897 of the Victorian Football League have to be described as modest (although the fact that the club's ninth flag was won so recently might seem to make them loom somewhat larger in the consciousness for a time). On the other hand, if one accepts that 'success' can just as readily be measured in terms of such intangibles as the achievement of improved personal and group standards, the pursuit of the aesthetically pleasing and spectacular, the eliciting of community pride and satisfaction, then Geelong Football Club must be viewed as one of Australia's most genuinely successful sporting organisations. As Col Hutchinson put it:
People who attend Geelong matches have never been deprived of entertainment. Even when the team has not been winning there have been controversies, brilliant passages of play, characters strutting their stuff or records being established. (^2)
Never was this illustrated more clearly than during the two decades or so prior to the 2007 flag win. Despite failing to achieve premiership success during that time the Cats often enjoyed a reputation as the league's most spectacular and exciting team, at times elevating the sport of Australian football to previously unimagined heights of virtuosity and brilliance. Players like Couch, Ablett, Hinkley, Barnes, Bairstow and Brownless possessed the ability, when on song, to take opposition sides apart, and to do so in a manner which impressed even the supporters of rival clubs (assuming their own clubs were not on the receiving end, of course). Time and again, the Cats eclipsed both club and league scoring records, including the AFL/VFL record for the highest ever score in a match (37.17 (239) against Brisbane in 1992), and the largest ever season's 'points for' aggregate (3,558 in 25 matches, also in 1992).
Such spectacular achievements should serve to convince that Geelong are very much a pivotal feature (pun intended) of the modern, media-saturated world of Australian football. They have long been one of the best supported sides in the country - indeed, on a pro rata basis, given the current population of Geelong, arguably the best supported side in the country - and, with the advent of corporate superpowers like West Coast and Adelaide increasingly divorcing football from its traditional, local supporters, they provide probably the closest direct link with a discernible, discrete community base of any AFL club.
Geelong is actually one of the oldest clubs in Australian football having originated in 1859 - the same year which saw the birth of Melbourne, which is traditionally accorded the accolade of being Australia's senior football club, of any code. Even from the start, the club had a reputation for skilful, open football, in contrast with the more physical game favoured by the Melbourne clubs, and it was this contrast in styles, and the healthy rivalry it promoted, which probably did as much as anything to foster interest in the Victorian brand of football at the expense of all others.
Despite hailing from a modest country town - often referred to by Melburnians, perhaps half enviously, as 'Sleepy Hollow' - the Pivotonians, as they swiftly became known, almost immediately emerged as a significant force. Prior to the formation of the Victorian Football Association in 1877 the club was acknowledged as being at the forefront of the game, and it swiftly enhanced this status by securing seven of the first ten VFA premierships to be contested. There were no further flags prior to the establishment of the breakaway Victorian Football League at the end of the 1896 season, but Geelong's persistent competitiveness ensured that it would be a part of the new set up from the outset.
At the conclusion of the home and away matches in the VFL's debut season of 1897 the four highest placed clubs - Collingwood, Essendon, Geelong and Melbourne - contested a round robin series of matches to determine the premiers. Geelong kicked poorly in its opening round loss to Essendon, as well as - in the view of its supporters - suffering at the hands of the umpires. It went down in the end by 6 points, 3.11 (29) to 5.5 (35), but then played well to overcome both Melbourne and Collingwood to secure a creditable runners up position. The 'Geelong Advertiser' was simultaneously rueful and defiant:
The opening of the season was very unpromising for Geelong, three matches being lost in succession, but the finish finds it a good runner-up, and fairly entitled to regard itself put out of the premiership by the vagaries of an umpire. Impartial supporters of football will be found ready to concede that the displacement of Geelong from the position which it had brought itself by an unbroken series of victories was due rather to fortune's fickle mood than to superiority on the part of the team that has secured the first League premiership. (^3)
Geelong was similarly competitive over most of the next decade, but a premiership proved elusive. Then, with the expansion of the VFL from eight clubs to ten in 1908, came disaster, as Geelong plummeted to a first ever wooden spoon, with even debutants University (twice) and Richmond (once) proving to have the Pivotonians' measure in head to head encounters. When University travelled to Corio Oval on 13th June the Geelong players welcomed them onto the ground with three hearty cheers, no doubt reinforcing the visitors' confidence in the process. It would be hard to imagine similar sentiments being displayed nowadays.
Geelong found the seasons leading up to the outbreak of world war one a struggle, only twice - in 1912 and 1914 - contesting the finals, for first semi final defeats both times. In 1915 the club experienced the ignominy of a second wooden spoon before going temporarily into recess the following year. Back once more in 1917 Geelong embarked on a four season bout of mediocrity before returning to the finals fray - again with a first semi final loss - in 1921.
Football at Corio Oval was beginning to re-emerge from the doldrums, and there was better to come. In 1923 Geelong began to be referred to as 'the Cats' after 'Melbourne Herald' cartoonist Sam Wells suggested that a black cat would provide the team with the unlikely good fortune it needed to defeat high-ranking Carlton. When Geelong duly went on to record an upset victory the nickname was quick to take hold, and with it came a dramatic upturn in the club's performances. Two seasons later in 1925 Geelong swept virtually all before it en route to a long-awaited premiership, the club's first for forty-one years. With the reserves having been successful in both of the preceding two seasons the club's playing strength had been building gradually for some time but the triumph nevertheless came as something of a surprise to many observers.
By coincidence, 1925 was also significant in heralding something of an economic 'shot in the arm' for the Geelong locality as a Ford assembly plant was opened. Down the years many a Geelong player acquired employment at the plant and, some half a century later when sponsorship became a major factor in the game, the Ford Motor Company would become the club's primary sponsor.
In 1925, however, football was still first and foremost essentially a game, with economic considerations secondary. Geelong's performances during the season were exemplary, characterised by a blend of prodigious kicking, towering marks and relentless pace. Only 2 home and away matches for the year were lost as the Cats headed the list going into the finals, but if there was any complacency in the camp it was quickly dispelled by Melbourne which scored a surprise 15 point second semi final win.
As minor premiers, however, Geelong lived to fight again, and two weeks later they confronted Collingwood - conquerors of Melbourne - for the premiership. After an even first quarter the Cats took a major step towards the flag in the second term when they outscored their opponents 4.6 to 2.4 despite kicking into the breeze. Leading by 17 points at half time Geelong continued to dominate when aided by the wind in the third quarter, and although Collingwood fought back fiercely in the closing stanza there was only ever going to be one winner. Captain coach Cliff Rankin finished the match with 5 of Geelong's 10 goals, being joined on the best players list by half forward flankers Jack Chambers and Arthur Rayson, full back Keith Johns, and half back Ken Leahy. (When Geelong named its 'Team of the Twentieth Century' in 2001, two members of the club's inaugural VFL flag-winning side in the shape of George 'Jocka' Todd and Edward 'Carji' Greeves were included, while Cliff Rankin was named as an emergency.)
After the match, a civic reception attended by nearly 10,000 people awaited all the players on their return to Geelong:
Thousands of people congregated at the station, and subsequently escorted the players to the City Hall, where congratulatory speeches were made. Three of Collingwood's leading officials came to Geelong by car on Saturday night especially to join in honouring the Geelong players and congratulatory messages were received from all parts. A suggestion has been made that, apart from the trip to be given by the committee, the citizens of Geelong should make some small gift to each of the players in the 1925 team. (^4)
The club's supporters did not have such a long wait this time before their heroes returned to the fore. After contesting the finals - without success - in 1926 and 1927 the Cats missed out for two seasons before going within an ace of another flag. After downing Carlton 13.11 (89) to 8.21 (69) in the first semi final Geelong played superbly to overcome minor premier Collingwood by 26 points in what, because of the result, became the season's penultimate game. Exercising their right of challenge the following week the Magpies, after trailing by 21 points at the long break, added 11.9 to 3.6 during the final two quarters to clinch a fourth consecutive premiership with formidable conviction.
Geelong had the smell of a flag in their nostrils, however. The following year the VFL, in common with numerous other leagues around Australia, introduced the Page-McIntyre system of playing finals, and the Cats proved to be the VFL's first beneficiaries of the new system, for after succumbing to a second semi final loss at the hands of Richmond they recovered well with wins over Carlton, by a single straight kick in the preliminary final, and then, in the return against the Tigers, with surprising comfort, 9.14 (68) to 7.6 (48).
Geelong's 20-point defeat of Richmond constituted the first official VFL grand final. Prior to 1931 - with the exception of 1897 and 1924, when a round robin system had been tried - the destiny of the premiership had either been determined on the basis of a final, in which the minor premier proved successful, or a challenge final, in which the minor premier, having been unsuccessful at some stage during the finals, played off against the winner of the final.
The Cats' best during the 1931 grand final included wingman Jack Carney, follower Len Metherell, reputed by some to be the first VFL player regularly to use the drop punt, centre half forward Jack Collins and centreman Edward 'Carji' Greeves. (^6) The last-named will forever have a place in football folklore as the first ever winner of the Brownlow Medal in 1924. A classical, long-kicking pivot player in the traditional mould, he was also a runner up for the Medal in 1930. As has been mentioned, Greeves was later chosen in Geelong's 'Team of the 20th Century', an honour which was also bestowed on his 1931 team mates Reg Hickey, George Todd and Les Hardiman. Jack Collins and Tom Quinn were named as emergencies.
Geelong was to remain a force to be contended with for much of the ensuing decade.
There were half a dozen survivors from the Class of '31 when Geelong next graced the MCG on grand final day six years later. Opposition was to be provided by Collingwood, premiers in each of the previous two seasons and, at that stage, the most successful VFL side in history. There was nothing between the sides for three quarters in a match played in good spirits in front of a then record crowd of 88,540, some of whom sat or squatted up to two metres inside the boundary line. With scores deadlocked on 80 points apiece at the final change the match was set for a riveting conclusion, but Geelong, in no mood for a cliff-hanger, added 6.6 to 1.4 to win with deceptive comfort. Ultimately the Cats had too much pace and system for the Magpies, with wingman Angie Muller, rover Tom Quinn, brothers Les ('Splinter') and 'Peter' (real name Harold) Hardiman, both of whom were followers, and four-goal forward pocket Jack Metherell in his last VFL game, especially prominent. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, given that for many years the 1937 grand final was regarded as the finest example of classical, open football in VFL history, only two players from the Cats' winning line up - Reg Hickey, who coached and captained the side, and Les Hardiman - gained selection in the club's 'Team of the Twentieth Century' (although, as mentioned above, Quinn was named as an emergency).
In 1938 the Cats bowed out to eventual premiers Carlton at the preliminary final stage, and the following year managed just 7 wins to miss the finals completely. There was a partial recovery in 1940 as the side finished fourth, but this proved to be the club's last finals foray for a decade. Indeed, with wartime travelling restrictions in full force in 1942 and 1943 Geelong did not even participate in the competition. The 1950s, however, would be another story altogether. By then, the club would have a new home base, Kardinia Park, and the navy and white hooped jumpers would be being donned to telling effect each Saturday by some of the most legendary names in football history.
The 1949 season represented something of a watershed, not just in the history of the Geelong Football Club, but in the development of the code of Australian football itself. Reg Hickey, one of Geelong's and the game's greatest ever players, who had captained the Cats to their last flag in 1937, took over from Tommy Quinn as the team's non-playing coach. He was a man with very definite ideas on how the game should be played, and although it would take a while for the players to catch up with those ideas, the eventual upshot was that Geelong managed to obtain a significant jump on the opposition, implementing and perfecting a style of play which was at once both revolutionary and effective, an all too rare combination:
Speed and sensational ball handling were Geelong's secret weapons.......This Geelong team was no fluke. Reg Hickey had planned it, step by step. Geelong sides were traditionally fast. This was the answer, but it was not blind speed. Hickey carefully chose his speedsters, and then drilled them. Every kick and every move was part of a pattern. Mobile rucks and a long striding half back line got the ball forward, and the forwards fanned out to provide a host of opportunities. (^7)
Underlying these strategies, and in a sense a key to their success, was a training philosophy which verged on the modern:
Remember that you play only as well as you are fit. The three quarters player lacks the will to win. If he's finished physically he can't go on with the job when the call is greatest. So again I say, never slack your training. Some people talk of teams going stale. Personally I don't think any team goes stale if they retain their interest to improve. It's hard to come up fighting Saturday after Saturday if you are being whipped. To lose five or six matches on end is a 'killer'. I've been through it, and I can sympathise. But there's only one remedy. Get up with the field. The field won't come back to you. So it's back to the old grind, training, developmental work, and more training. (^8)
In Hickey's first season in charge, 1949, the Cats played intermittently well, winning 9 of their first 15 games to appear in a strong position to contest their first finals series since 1940. However, an injury to key defender John Hyde badly unsettled the team, and contributed to a horror run of 4 successive losses which effectively de-railed the Cats' season.
A key to Geelong's improvement in 1950 was the recruitment from Essendon of talented full forward George Goninon whose senior opportunities at Windy Hill had been limited owing to the presence there of the greatest full forward in the game, a certain John Coleman. Goninon's arrival proved especially timely as the Cats' primary goal kicker of the previous decade, Lindsay White, snapped his Achilles tendon in a match against South Melbourne and never played again. Afforded greater responsibility in the wake of White's departure, Goninon's form improved, and his overall contributions to the team effort increased, as the season wore on.
With 10 wins from 18 home-and-away matches, Geelong qualified for the finals in 1950 in fourth place. A 13.10 (88) to 6.8 (44) first semi-final defeat of Melbourne was not only the Cats' first finals win since the 1937 grand final, it was also very definitely a strong hint of things to come. However, the fact that the side was not quite yet the finished article was starkly demonstrated a fortnight later when it bowed out of the premiership race by 17 points "in a spirited game" (^9) against North Melbourne.
The Hickey 'pace and space' formula finally clicked in 1951. With experienced and highly gifted individuals like future 'Team of the Century' members Bob Davis, Fred Flanagan and Bernie Smith now at their absolute peak as footballers, Geelong had a nucleus of talent unequalled anywhere. The supporting cast was not bad either, comprising as it did defenders of the calibre of Bruce Morrison, John Hyde, Russ Middlemiss and Norm Scott, a ruck division which included Tom Morrow, Russell Renfrey, Loy Stewart and Jim Norman, explosive wingmen in Syd Tate and Terry Fulton, polished and assiduous rovers in Peter Pianto and Neil Trezise, and of course the unfailingly accurate George Goninon to finish things off.
Goninon it was who virtually proved the difference between the combatants on second semi final day, contributing half of Geelong's 22 goals in an 82 point annihilation of Collingwood. Eleven goals in a finals match equalled the all time VFL record established by Harry Vallence of Carlton in the Blues' 20.10 (130) to 5.12 (42) first semi final defeat of Collingwood in 1931 (^10). According to future VFL chief commissioner Jack Hamilton, who was at full back for the Magpies when Goninon entered his name in the record books:
It was the worst day I have ever had. I had handled Goninon quite easily in two matches in which we had met earlier in the season and was confident of being able to subdue him again. As it turned out, George couldn't do a thing wrong and I couldn't do a thing right. Geelong had the ball on their forward line for most of the match and I had no chance of stopping some of the passes that were delivered to him. His kicking was superb, he was credited with 11.1, but it should have been 12.0. One of his shots went straight through the middle and the goal umpire signalled a behind! It wasn't my place to argue.
Two factors combined to bolster the Cats' confidence in advance of their grand final showdown against reigning premiers Essendon, which had ended Collingwood's season with two-point victory in the preliminary final. The first was that Bomber spearhead John Coleman, the biggest superstar in the VFL, would miss the match after having been suspended by the VFL tribunal for striking Carlton's Harry Casper in the last minor round game of the year. Coleman had averaged more than 4 goals a game in 1951 and it went without saying that, without him, the Bombers would be a significantly less troublesome opponent. The second boost to the players' confidence came from classy and irrepressible back pocket Bernie Smith being awarded the Brownlow Medal, the first Geelong player since 'Carji' Greeves, in the Medal's inaugural year of 1924, to be so honoured.
The 1951 grand final started well for Geelong as George Goninon had a goal on the board within a minute of the opening bounce. Full of confidence, the Cats surged forward again and again, but their next half a dozen shots for goal all resulted in minor scores. Meanwhile the Bombers, with virtually their only coherent forward foray of the term, goaled through Hutchison. Goals for Geelong late in the term through Norman and Goninon gave the Cats a 3.8 (26) to 1.0 (6) quarter time lead, but given the extent of their superiority they should have been much further in front.
Perhaps predictably, Essendon proceeded to punish Geelong's waywardness during the second term, adding 5.2 to 1.2 to lead at the main break by 4 points. With the match very much in the balance the Geelong players were forced to dig deep, which they duly did to run the Bombers off their feet in a decisive third quarter. At three quarter time the Cats led by 27 points and looked home and dry, and so it ultimately proved, although not before the Bombers had received a late lift by the entry to the arena of their legendary champion 'King Dick' Reynolds. Inspired by Reynolds, Essendon got within five points late in the final term, but Geelong was able to steady and pull away to secure an 11 point victory, 11.15 (81) to 10.10 (70). The victors were best served by their defensive trio of Hyde, Morrison and Smith, rovers Pianto and Trezise, centreman Leo Turner (another member of the club's 'Team of the 20th Century') and ruckman 'Bill' McMaster. George Goninon top scored with 4 goals. Whether the presence of John Coleman in the Essendon team would have made a difference to the eventual result is a tantalising question, the answer to which will necessarily vary depending on your allegiance. Nevertheless, what cannot be denied is that Geelong under Hickey had developed into a marvellous team. Indeed, with Bernie Smith having won the Brownlow, and George Goninon, with 86 goals, having been the league's top goal kicker, the Cats had secured a prestigious treble which only Collingwood, in 1927 and 1929, had previously accomplished.
After the grand final Geelong visited Adelaide where it met SANFL premiers Port Adelaide in a challenge match. The Cats won a tough, high standard encounter by 8 points, 8.14 (62) to 6.18 (54).
With more or less the same group of players as in 1951 Geelong continued to dominate, and indeed to improve, the following year. Only 2 home and away matches were lost this time around, compared to 4 the previous season, and with the defence in particular displaying extraordinary impenetrability, many of the wins were achieved with redoubtable conviction. Only twice, against Carlton in round seven and Essendon at the Brisbane Exhibition Ground in round eight, did the Cats have tallies in excess of 100 points kicked against them. They tuned up for the finals with a 10.17 (77) to 3.14 (32) strangulation of Carlton in front of a Kardinia Park record crowd of 49,109, and thereafter 'did it on the bit' with 54 and 46 point finals wins over Collingwood. In the grand final, watched by a crowd of 82,890, "the Magpies pitted their courage and determination against Geelong's superior speed, skill and system, but it wasn't enough. Geelong established an early lead, and the result was a foregone conclusion" (^13).
An incident which epitomised Geelong's superiority, as well as exemplifying the team's style of play under Hickey, occurred early in the third quarter after the Magpies had started to show signs of getting back into the game:
Highlight of the match was a third quarter dash of 100 yards around the outer wing by Davis (Geelong). Starting on the half back flank, Davis raced around the wing, bouncing the ball as he went at top speed, and leaving Collingwood players far behind. Tackled near the half forward flank, he handpassed to Worner, who passed back to Davis, and the ball eventually finished in the teeth of goal. (^14)
Davis later gave his own version of the incident:
Ah, I remember it well! I had seven or eight bounces in that run and then let fly with a running drop kick - my favourite form of disposal. As a boy I had always dreamed of playing in a grand final at the MCG and of launching myself on an extended run downfield. The funny thing is that I recalled this dream as I was bouncing the ball and dodging my Collingwood opponents. (^15)
Following this incident, Geelong went on to add 6 goals for the term to Collingwood's 2, effectively laying to rest any doubts as to where the 1952 VFL pennant was heading. The last quarter was a cakewalk as the Cats kept Collingwood goalless as they careered to a 46 point win, 13.8 (86) to 5.10 (40). Geelong's fair headed half back flanker Geoff Williams was best afield, with rover Neil Trezise, change ruckman Norm Sharp, back pocket Bernie Smith, and 5 goal full forward George Goninon also prominent.
Writing in 'The Argus', Hugh Buggy summarised the reasons behind Geelong's supremacy thus:
Geelong, the team whose blistering pace has given football a new meaning in the last two years, romped away from Collingwood in the League grand final on Saturday to win its second successive pennant. To achieve this new club record, Geelong had to wear down a tenacious and aggressive Magpie side that battled on, yard by yard, with the desperation of despair. It was a triumph richly deserved by a sternly disciplined Geelong 'machine', which plays a clean exhilarating game, entirely free from dirt, spite, and the murky reprisal. It was a fitting reward, too, for a team which has been a model of consistency, and one which stepped up the tempo of the game to a pitch no rival could either excel or equal. (^16)
Geelong, if the saying can be stomached, appeared to 'have the wood' on the Magpies, having emerged victorious from each of the last five meetings between the sides. The 1953 season, however, was to see Collingwood achieve conclusive revenge, beginning with the round fourteen home and away clash at Kardinia Park. Going into the match, which was played in conditions more suited to open air mud wrestling than football, the Cats had remained unbeaten for 26 games, spread across two seasons, a VFL record. However, "the Magpies turned Mud Larks and beat the seemingly invincible Cats 10.15 (75) to 7.13 (55)" (^17).
If this was the first crack to appear in the Geelong armour, a potentially more injurious one appeared three weeks later when South Melbourne handed the Cats their biggest hiding for over a year, in the process making them look tired, hesitant and lacking in confidence. Qualification for the finals was never in doubt, and indeed the side already had enough wins in the bank combined with a sufficiently hefty percentage to ensure a top place finish. However, the sudden decline in form was as bewildering as it was alarming and badly timed.
Football, like most sports, is evolutionary in nature. That is to say, the criteria for success are continually being modified and redefined. Geelong in the early 1950s had set new standards with a fast, open, run on style of football which certain other teams had swiftly endeavoured to copy, but without ever achieving the same degrees of fluency or effectiveness. Sides like Collingwood and Footscray, however, adopted a totally different tack; instead of 'if you can't beat them, join them', they endeavoured to counteract, stymie and undermine. Such an approach required considerably less pure football talent than the method favoured by Geelong, but it did at least possess the supreme virtues of being (a) easier to implement, and (b) much more in keeping with the traditional, hard-nosed, unspectacular Victorian ethos which held that 'good football was pressure football'.
Despite having what Bob Davis regarded as a stronger all-round team than in either of the previous two seasons (^18), Geelong in 1953 ultimately came unstuck at the hands of a Collingwood side which had been well schooled in the traditional 'Victorian football values' of persistence, hard work, and channelled aggression. In the second semi final, the Cats, with their confidence still perhaps impaired by their tentative performance against South Melbourne a few weeks earlier, were harassed and intimidated virtually to a stand still by a tenacious, vibrant Magpie outfit. Collingwood won 13.12 (90) to 8.12 (60), and although Geelong ultimately qualified for a third consecutive grand final with a 26-point preliminary final defeat of Footscray, they again found the Magpies too hot to handle.
Admittedly, a determined last quarter effort brought the final margin back to just 12 points, but at the end of the day there could be little doubt that the Hickey formula had finally found its measure.
Reg Hickey remained at the helm at Geelong for a further six seasons, but the club's halcyon era was well and truly over. At first, its decline was gradual - consecutive third place finishes in 1954 and 1955, followed by a drop to fourth in 1956 - but in 1957 and 1958 the Cats experienced the indignity of their first non-wartime wooden spoons since 1908. The 1959 season brought marginal improvement - 5 wins from 18 matches, and tenth spot on the ladder - but Hickey had had enough, and opted to step down as coach. (Had he been in charge forty years later, it is doubtful if he would have been afforded this luxury.)
The man to whom the Geelong committee turned to resurrect the club's fortunes was, like Hickey, one of the club's most celebrated products. Captain of both of the club's most recent premiership sides in 1951 and 1952, Bob Davis had only retired as a player a season ago. Known as 'the Geelong Flier', or 'Woofa', he was one of the most exciting footballers of his era, and the 1960s would see him enhance his considerable reputation still further, this time in the coaching arena.
Like his predecessor in the coaching hot seat, Bob Davis had a very clear notion on how he was going to approach the job:
I had watched other clubs during my season off and I realised that Geelong had become inbred. Training was now a ritual and there were set attitudes when it came to judgements on players. For example, Geelong had always been considered a highly skilled side blessed with pace to burn off the opposition. The club had always looked for fast, classy footballers. I could detect, however, that there was negligence in finding the tough-as-nails men who would hold the side together in times of crisis.
True to his word, Geelong under Davis supplemented their trademark flair and artistry with a backbone of ruthless determination and sheer, unequivocal toughness. Players like John Devine, Doug Wade, Terry Callan, John Watts, Colin Rice, and Paul Vinar - all of whom, except for Callan, played in the club's 1963 premiership side - were as hardy and unyielding as they come. Moreover, Davis had the rare gift of being able to spot the finished jewel in the raw, uncut stone and, with the assistance of Leo O'Brien and chairman of selectors Tom Morrow, he bolstered Geelong's playing ranks during the course of his first two seasons at the helm by recruiting future stars (and 1963 premiership players) like Devine, Callan, Peter Walker, John Brown, Stewart Lord, Doug Wade and Roy West. However, a 1961 season which saw the Cats climb the ladder to sixth with a 10-7-1 record showed that there was still one glaringly missing piece from the jigsaw: the side desperately needed a dominating, top class ruckman.
Back in 1958, during his final season as a player, Bob Davis had been selected to captain the VFL at the centenary Melbourne carnival. It proved to be a highly memorable series for Davis, who performed brilliantly throughout, and was rewarded with the captaincy of the All Australian team chosen once the carnival had finished. Even more significant than this, however, was a fleeting incident which took place in the heat of battle during the decisive final match of the carnival between the 'Big V' and Western Australia. One of the Western Australian players, a strongly built aboriginal ruckman from East Perth with a propensity for catching the ball cleanly at rucking contests and then feeding his team mates with impeccably directed handpasses, some of which travelled as far as kicks, was proving a real thorn in the Victorians' sides. During a lull in play, Davis found himself standing alongside this troublesome customer and remarked that it was his ambition at some stage to coach Geelong and, if and when he did, he'd like to see the East Perth champion in his side. The East Perth champion in question was Graham 'Polly' Farmer, arguably the greatest ruckman, some would say the finest player, in the history of the game. Three and a half years on from this hurried conversation Davis got his wish as, after protracted and at times tortuous clearance negotiations, Farmer turned up at Kardinia Park ready to throw in his lot with the Cats, in the process providing Bob Davis with the catalyst he needed to transform his team from premiership hopefuls to premiers-in-waiting.
Unfortunately for everyone concerned (other than the opposition, of course), Farmer's debut season at Geelong was cut short by injury. Even without their champion ruckman, however, the Cats went within an ace of making the grand final after drawing the preliminary final against Carlton and then losing the replay by just 5 points.
In just half a dozen senior games for the club in 1962 'Polly' Farmer, who was being paid the sensational, for the time, sum of £1,000 a year, over and above his match payments, had already made it clear that he was a bona fide champion, whetting the appetites of everyone connected with Geelong as they awaited the 1963 season. This year Farmer would be joined in Victoria by his former East Perth team mate and fellow ruckman John Watts, "who understood the nature of Farmer's power and could exploit it" (^19). Bob Davis now had at his disposal all of the components necessary to assemble a premiership-winning combination. Once assembled, it was a combination which would require little in the way of maintenance or refining, which was probably just as well given the nature of Davis' coaching philosophy:
I used to get 'em fit, keep 'em happy, put 'em in the right positions, and send 'em out on the field and say, "We're going to do to them exactly what they think they're going to do to us, we're going to fix 'em right up." And that was it ..... I taught 'em to love to play football, that there was a thrill in playing in the League, that it was a game and you played it as well as you possibly could play. We put 'em in their best positions, and they all knew what they were expected to do. (^20)
The 1963 VFL season proved to be one of the tightest on record. By beating minor premiers Hawthorn by 38 points at Glenferrie in the final home and away match of the year Geelong book a 2nd semi final meeting with the same club a fortnight later; had the Cats lost, however, they would have missed the 'four' entirely.
A huge crowd of 91,471 turned up on 2nd semi final day and saw Geelong, with Gordon Hynes, Wade, Farmer and Watts especially prominent, do just enough to win by 19 points. Needless to say, this entitled the Cats to premiership favouritism when the two sides were matched against one another once again in the grand final, after Hawthorn had ousted Melbourne from the flag race in a ferociously fought preliminary final. However, few people, not even the most ardent of Geelong supporters, would have expected a win of quite the magnitude that eventuated.
In truth, although the Cats' final victory margin was substantial, it was deceptively so, as up until three quarter time the match was tough, tight and exceedingly tense. For much of the opening term in fact it was the Hawks who enjoyed the ascendancy, only for a combination of profligacy in front of goal and inadvertent easing off during the time on period to enable the Cats to claw their way back to within 3 points at the 1st change.
With the Farmer-Goggin show in full swing, Geelong added 4.7 to 2.0 in the 2nd quarter to steal what looked to be a decisive march on the opposition, but Hawthorn refused to surrender, and rallied strongly in the 3rd term to bring the margin back to just 10 points at the final change. With only thirty minutes of football left, the outcome of the 1963 premiership race remained very much in the balance.
Nothing that had gone before would have prepared the crowd of 101,209 for the events of the opening nine minutes of the last term.
With the Hawthorn players, universally acknowledged as the fittest and strongest in the league, suddenly looking tired and slow, Geelong surged forward again and again, registering full points on four occasions through Wade, Alistair Lord, Hynes, and skipper Fred Wooller. Further goals to Hynes and Wooller during the closing phase of the game blew the final margin out to 49 points, with the Hawks managing just 3 behinds for the quarter. Graham Farmer, with 22 disposals, included a quarter of Geelong's 44 handballs for the match, repaid a chunk of his £1,000 per week salary with a best on ground display. Meanwhile John Devine, who also managed 22 disposals, Bill Goggin (16 kicks, 7 handballs), John Watts (10 marks) and Peter walker, who kept a tight rein on Hawks spearhead John Peck, were other noteworthy performers.
The 'Geelong Advertiser' was predictably exuberant:
In winning the 1963 Victorian Football League premiership from Hawthorn at the MCG on Saturday, Geelong showed that a team could play skilful, crowd-pleasing football and still play with courage and determination. Geelong's win was based on the football skill of Graham Farmer in the ruck, of fast, clever small players, of flashing handball, and above all, of teamwork developed of an exceptionally high order. (^21)
Graham Farmer's six seasons at Geelong produced 100% finals participation (^22), culminating in a second grand final appearance in 1967. This time around the Cats, who were now being coached by former rover Peter Pianto, had to do things the ostensibly hard way by progressing from the 1st semi final; however, the side clicked into form at just the right time, and both Collingwood (by 30 points) and Carlton (by 29 points) were swept aside with relative ease. Richmond, which had played brilliantly in amassing 20.21 (141) against Carlton in the 2nd semi final, and which had overcome the Cats (by 38 and 12 point margins) in both home and away meetings between the sides that season, was favoured to win by most pundits, most of whom also predicted a high standard game, particularly if the weather conditions were favourable. "It will be a case of skill versus skill because both sides prefer it that way," was the opinion ventured in the grand final issue of 'Football Record'. "Beyond all shadow of doubt, the Tigers and the Cats are the most skilful teams in the League." (^23)
What actually eventuated, however, was a veritable football classic transcending even the most optimistic projections of the media. Ultimately, Geelong went under by 9 points, but rarely can the cliché 'football was the real winner' have had a more legitimate excuse to be resorted to. The match was closely fought and of high standard all day, mounting to an incredible last quarter crescendo in which players of both sides somehow managed to access hitherto untapped resources, both physical and mental, and to perform at a pace, and with levels of desperation and brilliance, more typical of the professionalised game of the 1990s. It was, quite simply, thirty minutes of football ahead of its time, with the 109,396 spectators at the ground privileged to have been there.
It was also, sadly for Geelong supporters, 'Polly' Farmer's last competitive game for the club. The big ruckman's football career was far from over, but never again would fans in the outer at Kardinia Park be able to thrill to his exploits.
The Cats post-Farmer continued as a force for the remainder of the 1960s, but the '70s, for the most part - fleeting finals appearances in 1976 and 1978 excepted - proved to be something of a demoralising disaster.
Things appeared to be getting back on track in 1980 when Geelong, with former champion rover Bill Goggin in his first season as coach, and boasting a wealth of talent on every line, won 17 out of 22 'home and home' matches for the season to clinch the minor premiership for the first time since 1954. Glaringly lacking in finals experience, however, the Cats then nose-dived out of premiership contention in successive weeks, losing all the way by 4 goals against Richmond, and then leaving their surge too late against Collingwood to fall agonisingly short by 4 points.
The situation was no better the following year as brittleness in the finals again rendered worthless the team's excellent form for the majority of its home and away campaign. That Geelong at this time boasted a rich assembly of talent could not be doubted. Players like wingmen Mike 'Turkey' Turner and David Clarke, utilities Terry Bright and Brian Peake, centreman Peter Featherby, full back Gary Malarkey, and the Nankervis brothers, Ian and Bruce, were as good as any in the league, and lost little or nothing in comparison with the club's illustrious array of champions from previous eras. (Mike Turner would later join his father, Leo, in Geelong's 'Team of the 20th Century', with Clarke being named as an emergency.) Unfortunately, a record of just one win from five finals matches over two seasons tells its own story.
The period between 1982 and 1988 saw the Geelong Football Club embedded in mediocrity, never contesting the finals, but simultaneously never finishing lower than ninth. With a dismal success rate for the period of just 43.2% 'Sleepy Hollow', it seemed, was living up to its nickname. What was needed was an injection of inspiration and direction, and in 1989:
"... the arrival of (Malcolm) Blight to Geelong (as coach) changed the chemistry and atmospherics at the club. He had a personal dynamism and created a style of play that was positive, exciting and exhilarating." (^25)
Of course, a coach alone cannot 'create a style of play'; he needs players of the appropriate mentality and calibre to implement his ideas. Fortunately, Geelong in 1989 had a wealth of such talent, notably the fans' idol Gary Ablett, who at season's end would become only the second player from a losing grand final team to win the Norm Smith Medal, eventual 1989 Brownlow Medallist Paul Couch, a prolific possession-winning centreman with a thumping left foot kick, strong marking key position player Barry Stoneham, the ebulliently eager and aggressive Gary 'Buddha' Hocking, and enormously dependable defender Mark Bos, winner of the club's previous two best and fairest awards. (Ablett and Hocking later gained selection in the club's 'Team of the Century', with Couch being named as an emergency.)
The Cats in '89 were a scintillating combination to watch and duly reached the grand final, where they were confronted by the league's toughest, most professional side in reigning premiers Hawthorn. The grand final afforded a classic contrast in styles, and after the Hawks had exploded out of the blocks it developed into a titanic tussle in which both goals and seismic body clashes abounded. As far as most Geelong fans were concerned, Hawthorn was literally saved by the final bell, as the Cats, having fully seized the momentum during a tumultuous final term, added eight goals to their opponents three to edge within a single straight kick. Alas, the siren blew, and the Geelong players, almost to a man, having performed heroically in defeat, collapsed despondently to the turf.
Geelong continued to produce football of the highest order at least intermittently over the remaining five years of the Blight era but, despite contesting grand finals in both 1992 and 1994, a premiership remained elusive. Under Blight's successor as coach, former Hawthorn champion and dual Norm Smith Medallist Gary Ayres, the Cats again reached the grand final in 1995, but Carlton ran away with the match, and the premiership, by more than 10 goals.
As we embark on a new century the football landscape has changed as dramatically as it did more than a hundred years ago, when eight renegade VFA clubs formed the VFL. The old VFL is no more, having evolved, with significant input from both the SANFL and WAFL, into a proximate national competition. Within this context, Geelong, as the only 'small town' member club, holds a unique, and arguably vital, position. As major sports across the globe become more homogenised, formularised and sanitised, nothing excites admiration and approval like a flash of individuality or distinctiveness. A league containing eighteen Goliaths would be almost unendurably monotonous; throw in a David, though, and you have an instant recipe for excitement and unpredictability.
In 2007, Geelong played the 'Goliath' role to perfection, in the process taking excitement and unpredictability to new levels. Nothing in the Cats' haphazard form over the preceding two or three seasons could be said to have presaged their achievements, not to mention the scale of their dominance, during arguably the most remarkable six-month period in their history. Whilst acknowledging that the extent of their supremacy transcended mere statistics, a summary of their main achievements during the year nevertheless makes salutary reading. Pre-eminent among these achievements, of course, was the premiership itself, which was won by virtue of a record breaking 119-point grand final win over Port Adelaide. The win confirmed the impression which had been forming since about the fifth or sixth week of the season that only a calamitous run with injuries was likely to prevent the Cats from ending their forty-four year premiership drought. No such calamitous run emerged, and the long drought was spectacularly and emphatically brought to an end.
Geelong's awesome grand final performance produced perhaps a dozen viable candidates for the Norm Smith Medal, although in the event the judges' voting was restricted to just three: Matthew Scarlett (7 votes), Paul Chapman (10 votes), and Steve Johnson (13 votes). An energetic and opportunistic crumbing forward and on-baller, Johnson thus became the first Geelong player to win the prestigious award as a member of a premiership-winning side (Gary Ablett senior having won in a losing team in 1989). Johnson was one of a record nine Cats originally selected in the 2007 All Australian team (victorious premiership coach Mark 'Bomber' Thompson subsequently made it ten), with one of the others, Jimmy Bartel, providing their first Brownlow Medal winner for eighteen years. For good measure, Geelong's VFL team won the premiership of that competition for the second time in half a dozen seasons, while Joel Selwood was an emphatic winner of the NAB AFL Rising Star Award. It may be a cliché, but seldom had it been more valid to observe that the bar had been raised, and raised significantly.
For the vast majority of the 2008 season, Geelong's upward performance spiral continued as the side topped the ladder with just 1 defeat from 22 matches before achieving comfortable finals victories over St Kilda and Western Bulldogs to set up a grand final showdown with Hawthorn. The Hawks were always going to be a tough nut to crack, but the Cats did not help their cause by frittering away numerous scoring opportunities, and despite enjoying considerable territorial supremacy at times they slumped to an unexpected, but scarcely unwarranted, 26 point defeat, with the scoreline - 11.23 (89) to 18.7 (115) - telling its own eloquently depressing story. No one would deny that the Cats were the best team in the AFL for most of the 2008 season, but the fact that they were found wanting when it mattered most renders such status, in historical terms, entirely meaningless.
Geelong's 2009 premiership combination may at times have lacked the conviction of and aroused marginally fewer superlatives than its predecessor of two years earlier but there can be no denying that its ultimate triumph was wholly deserved. Opposed in the grand final by a St Kilda side that was immeasurably superior in almost all respects to the Port Adelaide team they had trounced in '07, the Cats had to dig deep and unveil resources they had rarely been called on to utilise over the previous seasons. In the end their 12.8 (80) to 9.14 (68) victory arguably owed more to the old fashioned footy virtues of strength, determination, courage and physical fitness as to the skill upon which Geelong's football is traditionally based. Perhaps because of this, after the match there were quite a few voices predicting the imminent end of the latest Cats dynasty, the implication being that other teams, notably the Saints and Western Bulldogs, had almost caught them up, and would be likely to overtake them over the next twelve months.
The 2010 season ultimately saw this prediction confirmed, although it was Collingwood and not the Saints or Bulldogs whose rise was most pronounced. The Cats qualified for the finals comfortably enough, with their 17-5 record placing them second on the ladder behind the Magpies, but once there they underperformed, and losses to both St Kilda and Collingwood saw them ultimately finishing third. At season's end, following the departure of coach 'Bomber' Thompson to Essendon and key player Gary Ablett junior to the newly formed Gold Coast Suns, many were predicting the demise of the Cats in 2011.
But, with Chris Scott at the helm in his first year as senior coach, the club's seasoned players maintaining their brilliant standards of seasons past - the top five in the best-and-fairest award were all established stars: Corey Enright, Joel Corey, Jimmy Bartel, Cameron Ling and James Kelly - and some exciting youngsters emerging (such as Tom Hawkins, Daniel Menzel, Allen Christensen and ruckmen Nathan Vardy and Trent West), Geelong pulled off a stunning grand final defeat of Collingwood to keep their dynasty alive.
The match was closely contested for three quarters, at the end of which the Cats led by 7 points. The last term, however, was all Geelong with players like Jimmy Bartel (Norm Smith Medallist), Tom Hawkins, Steve Johnson and Cameron Ling to the fore, and in the end the Cats won comfortably, 18.11 (119) to 12.9 (81). If their triumph proved anything it was that in Australian football, much more so than in other team sports, success is never all that heavily dependent on just one individual, however audaciously talented he might be.
Since their 2011 flag Geelong have been almost perennial finalists, missing out only in 2015 when they finished tenth. In 2017 for example they qualified for the finals in second place and ultimately made it as far as a losing preliminary final in Adelaide against the Crows. A year later they fell at the first hurdle at the hands of a resurgent Melbourne combination. This was followed by further unsuccessful finals campaigns in 2019 and 2020, the latter of which saw them make it as far as the grand final, only to lose to Richmond. The club's tradition for fast, exhilarating, team orientated football remains undimmed, as does their status as one of the Australian code's principal innovators. Do not be at all surprised if more flags are imminent for the classy Cats.
Note: This article was written by John Devaney and subsequently updated with additonal material from australianfootball.com writers.