Geelong versus Fremantle (with a nod to Labor V Liberal and Pies V Port).
Qualifying Final, history in the making at Simonds Stadium.
If you’ve barracked for the Cats long enough a form of pessimism about their chances has been engraved in your psyche. Call it the genetic engineering of life experiences. Even the recent years of glory haven’t completely rewritten this blueprint.
So, leading up to Saturday’s qualifying final I’m concerned the talk and controversy about a home final will be a distraction, that, ridiculously, we’ll feel guilty about what’s actually reasonable, even if belatedly arranged, or that players might subconsciously relax thinking home ground advantage will get them over the line.
Some Melbourne media commentators predictably play their role painting Fremantle as the victim promoting conspiracy theories about Geelong’s involvement behind scenes. Though, I’m inclined to agree that the AFL’s primary motivation was money, not fairness.
Other commentators give the Dockers little chance of victory, pointing to home records as if they were as relevant for a final (that the only other final held in Geelong resulted in a loss adds to negative omens). Then Eddie McGuire tempts collective fate by protesting about venue availability for his team in Perth the following week.
Ah, Collingwood, that working class club with a born to rule mentality.
Meanwhile, Fremantle fly in under the radar, landing cosily at nearby Avalon to claim underdog status along with their luggage.
Despite this I still back a win. The morning of the game begins fine and sunny, but progressively deteriorates – the opposite of forecast. First upset of the day, though should work in our favour.
Freo fans only utilise half their ticket allocation, but a group of them loiter in Moorabool Street with a banner deriding the size of Simonds Stadium.
Inside, standing room is about three quarters full: whether that’s because of no-shows or under-allocating or for comfort is anyone’s guess. There are only two Freo fans nearby, in front – a woman at the terrace fence with a young boy.
Otherwise the stadium is packed. Usually Geelong crowds are relatively subdued, more like a cricket crowd, often only getting really excited when the game’s on the line – the Sleepy Hollow Effect? Today they are vocal from the start. The roar after the anthem is huge. During the game they even boo Freemantle players every time they take a set shot for goal, exhibiting previously unknown levels of parochialism. Maybe there’s a much larger contingent of the Melbourne-based chapter in attendance. Though, this is a day of history.
The Cats have ascendancy early but the inaccuracy trend carries over from last week belying any home ground advantage. Free kicks go our way to begin with and the crowd could be a factor. “Just like we’d cop playing in Perth”, I say, feeling some satisfaction about the equity of it all.
Fremantle fight their way to a lead in the second quarter, and their supporters find voice and an expat unity. A Cats fan behind disapproves of Ross Lyon’s coaching style (on and off field): “Boring as batshit!” he yells at regular intervals. What he has to say about Zac Dawson is less printable.
It does appear Lyon has adopted his brand of ‘unsociable football’ – pushing the envelope of legality knowing umpires will ping some infringements, but let a lot go. It’s a successful tactic and evident in many grand final winning teams. And it works against us when minds aren’t quite right – gets under our skin, stops our creative flow.
We also make uncharacteristic errors: fumbles, miss-kicks, and wayward handballs. To borrow from Julia Gillard – Freemantle’s pressure explains some things, but it doesn’t explain everything. Our thinking caps aren’t on; we’re rushing, not playing our natural game.
In last year’s final Fremantle appeared bigger bodied, and it seems that way now. Our small brigade get the ball enough, but are rarely effective. Their tall rucks make us reactionary rovers.
We settle in the second half, look better, and edge our way in front, but concentration lapses in forward pocket ruck contests let Freo back in. Sandilands to Barlow – goal! “Man up Cats”, I say at the take-two throw in. Sandilands (and Clarke) to Hill crumbing – goal! I’m disbelieving at the Groundhog Day of it.
In the last quarter Fremantle sense victory and literally don’t give us an inch, much to the chagrin of the anti-Lyon fan behind. It is a war of attrition, but most of us enjoy the contest, even though it’s generally hard for players to break free and perform more than fleeting cameos. We have it in our forward half enough, but can’t find an avenue to goal. A tap-out from a boundary throw-in to Hill coming off the bench catches Cats napping again. He runs all the way to goal and takes any remaining wind out of our sails. Winning last quarters like this is usually our trademark.
Supporters tend to only see what their players are doing or not-doing (except when it comes to infringing) and, while great in our endeavour, it seemed there were times we didn’t work as hard as needed. Freo supporters might have a different perspective, but I never saw their players ease off.
The final siren signals the end of a great contest. The young Dockers fan in front leans over the barrier and slaps the tin with glee. The reality of Geelong facing the hard road dawns and the Cats crowd disperses. Freemantle supporters now don’t want to leave the stadium.
The man behind the anti-Lyon refrain wears the heated complexion of a coach after a bad loss. “What do you think?” he asks without expression.
I say we didn’t handle the pressure of expectation, but that doesn’t explain it. Two women join in. One says playing at home should’ve been a good thing. Maybe we were over-hyped, I offer as a reason for the skill errors. Better to be over-hyped than under, though.
But in reality, Fremantle won because they were better on the day …and hungrier.
We made skill errors like this against Sydney in 2011, the last time we lost at home. We won the flag that year. There’s other history I’d rather avoid comparison with – 2010. Some history not yet created is totally unpalatable: a straight sets exit.
A lot of Geelong residents follow other teams and hate the Cats with venom. Many have moved here from elsewhere. They remind me of people who chose to live near an airport and complain about the planes. One of them sends an SMS asking what happened. It’s a preamble to a gloat.
Upsets continue that evening, but not with the election outcome – except it isn’t the rout predicted. On the ABC, Anthony Green’s nerdy enthusiasm amuses and lifts spirits. Barnaby Joyce’s ruddy-faced gloating causes a grab for the remote as Port Adelaide’s Jay Schulz soars to take a screamer. Julie Bishop’s iridescent blue wardrobe motivates similar channel surfing as the Pies draw level early in the third. Kevin Rudd is like an arsonist putting out his own fires, but eventually falls on his sword. Unbelievably, Port win by 24 points.
Confirmation Australians have elected another minority government is delivered by the big-eared budgie smuggler declaring victory to a rapturous crowd. Unsociable politics vindicated?
Labor out, Pies out, Cats teetering. I’m reminded of how Geelong’s fortunes have tracked Labor’s, both rising in 2007. Is this a changing of the football guard too? Port will approach next week with a nothing-to-lose and take-no-prisoners attitude. Geelong minds will need to be right. But I’m not being pessimistic. At least we won’t have to play another home final away against the Pies.