Cats are purring under Chris Scott as AFL’s fall guys finally land on feet

At the end of the 2018 season, following yet another cutthroat final that had gone belly-up in less than ten minutes, another final where the Cats had looked old, slow and ripe for a rebuild, Chris Scott addressed the players, staff, and sponsors. “We’re not giving up,” he told them. “We’re not playing it safe. No rebuild. No managing expectations. No acquiescence to equalisation.”

For many, it was typical Chris Scott – stubbornly trying to beat the handicapper. Every year, the Cats would lug their weight, and race on the speed. Every year, they would be mown down by some emerging lightweight. Many Geelong fans resented the coach for his prickly ways, for his game-plan, for the manner in which he’d moved on several legends of the club, for the fact that he wasn’t Bomber Thompson.

Last year’s preliminary final soured the relationship further. Several players ran out green-gilled. Max Gawn massacred them. During the ad breaks – and there were plenty of them because Melbourne kicked so many goals – Channel 7 screened previews for its SAS program. It was full of athletes and influencers being berated and stripped raw by jacked-up geezers. All the contestants looked like they’d just been rescued from the Taliban. Geelong’s defenders didn’t look much different.

Afterwards, Scott was his usual unrepentant, gnomic, salty self. The Footy Almanac published a piece that summed up the relationship between club and supporter base. “The Cats have been reading brilliant novels but stopping on page 39,” it read. “Buying the Grange but drinking the Spumante. Planting lamp posts instead of trees.”

As always, the club and the coach refused to wave the white flag. A lot had gone wrong in 2021, and they were still a kick away from top spot. Cameron, Dangerfield, Stewart and Duncan – four of their best players – couldn’t get a proper run at it. But things had to change. For years, they’d been so cautious, so determined to play at their speed, and on their terms.

In February, Scott told Mark Robinson: “In terms of game style, we took about six weeks to say, ‘let’s approach this as if we’re a new group and if we’re just starting from scratch, so how would we do it?’ Since then, they’ve had a far bigger appetite for risk, a greater willingness to attack through the corridor, to handball forward, to play on.

Broadcaster Gerard Whateley calls them football’s bellwether team. All roads to a premiership lead through Geelong, he says. Carlton, clearly a team going places, had its shot on Saturday night. But the the Blues are a high possession, high octane, high marking side and this wasn’t a night for that. It was freezing and squally. The playing surface was strewn with pie wrappers and polystyrene. It was a night to strangle and stifle, shut down and sag off. It was a night for structure and smarts.

It was methodical football, but it came with flashes of the new Geelong. Jeremy Cameron, with his chicken legs and casual air, couldn’t be a more different physical or social specimen to Gary Ablett Snr. But his left foot snap from deep in the forward pocket was a facsimile of several of Snr’s goals from the early 90s. Together with Tyson Stengle and Sam De Koning, Cameron has virtually been a new recruit this year.

There were so many compelling storylines to emerge from this round of football – the unbridled joy and relief of North Melbourne breaking a 14-game losing streak, the self-sabotaging Richmond, the magisterial Scott Pendlebury, the consummate Nick Daicos, the limp St Kilda, the baffling Bulldogs, the ever-dangerous Sydney, and the pyrotechnic Pickett.

But sitting above it all were the Cats. For so long, they’ve been the fall guys for every great side of this generation. Some of footy’s defining moments of the last ten years – Richmond and Melbourne breaking their finals droughts, Dusty’s surgical removal of all four feline limbs at the Gabba, Buddy’s 1000th, Gawn’s Perth masterclass, Adelaide’s last big finals win– they’ve all come against Geelong. For years, the Cats have been a team that always contends, but fails to excite, convince, and threaten. They’ve presented as an orderly assortment of the ageing and the adequate.

But every year, Geelong simply haven’t been good enough. They’ve never caught the wave at the right time. They’ve never really deserved it. There’s been no season where they can look back and say “we were robbed” or “we were desperately unlucky.”

This year feels different. They don’t play any other top eight sides in the run home. They will soon welcome back Tom Stewart. They will almost certainly finish top. They are the best Geelong side to watch, the hardest to counter, and the best placed to win a premiership since 2011.

But try convincing a Geelong supporter. For a supporter base that has known nothing but success, double chances and perennial contention, they really are a glass-half-empty lot. For Geelong fans, this premiership talk is all too familiar, a special kind of torture, a song they’ve heard too many times.