I am standing on the Merri platform waiting for a train which is not coming, and won’t. I am contemplating the start of another season; aware that my enthusiasm for the game has not withered. I am thinking that my world has changed. It won’t be long and Theo will be standing with me (God willing) and then Anna and Evie. But not while they are scheduling school-night games in Geelong. Theo will have to wait for the MCG.
I have time to consider the lot of my footy club. I have pre-season caution; re-build reticence; injury-related pessimism. Second half of the eight for the mighty Cats, in a year with two probables (Hawthorn and the Dockers) and a dozen other possibles.
By the time I am back on the platform, I have been convinced: the Cats will win the flag. The interim – eight good hours – are as enjoyable as home-and-away-season hours get.
I am at Spencer Street late for the 5.08 but it’s still there and the first carriage I look in not only reveals my Terrace-partners – P. Flynn and the Adelaide-supporting Akko – but affords me a seat next to them. This seems highly unlikely at first, but it becomes evident that hardly anyone on the train is going to the footy. They’re just commuters lost in (cyber) space.
Time demands we bypass all traditional watering holes and head straight inside Kardinia Park where the memory of election day and the Docker-loss surface. Beers are beyond the $7 mark, and the fish and chips at $10 are a disgrace. Two strips of battered spaghetti, only skinnier.
Emerging at the top of the steps into the late-afternoon light we are bemused that, with ten minutes to go before the bounce, there is no-one in the outer. We have the choice of thousands of seats and the lone supporter in our section of the Terrace is J. Dunne. We’re in shorts but he’s in an Elkington stable parka which is what you would expect of a man who has single-handedly turned the Geelong Cup into an international event.
Conditions are stunning: the ground is a picture, there’s a gentle breeze (although it gets stronger) and the sunset is making Highton feel like Santorini (which shows the state of mind the promise of good football delivers).
The hoops appear.
Always great to see the hoops. Always.
That lift they give you, and have always given you. The first glimpse of the blue and white as they gather in the race.
And before long we are under way.
The Cats start brilliantly. Immediately Dawson Simpson and Hamish McIntosh give the team a different feel; a granite-solid foundation. They influence. We lament the lost opportunity of 2013. If only. If.
Travis Varcoe comes out buzzing and James Kelly plays like he’s been locked in a cupboard in Little River for the summer. It’s Jimmy Bartel’s 250th and everyone is hoping he turns it on.
The Crows are expected to have a big year. I’m not sure why. I don’t have them in my top eight probably because I don’t know too much about half of them. 38? 34? 11? 2? 31? But they are sharp and withhold the early onslaught and, hang on, they’ve kicked a few themselves.
Patrick Dangerfield doesn’t seem to be on the ground. This seems to be an oversight from the coaching staff.
P. Flynn moves onto the red, the Ocean Grove shiraz he tells me, at $8 for a plastic thimble. Must go well with processed chicken strips, those special football ones that glow in the dark.
The Cats start the second quarter strongly. The sunset is now so spectacular that footy photographers with lenses that could tell you the colour of Brenton Sanderson’s nasal hair have left the boundary and are lined up on the front fence of the Terrace snapping away.
But they have some nice foreground as well. Jimmy Bartel does turn it on for the adoring crowd, reading the game like the true sportsman he is. Playing forward he kicks three and the Cats look comfortable. Mackie is left as the spare in defence. Enright has time: he is the most at-peace defender since Bruce Doull.
But the Crows don’t go away, and again they come back. Through the third quarter, which closes up, they threaten to do some damage. Betts hits the post (thankfully). But Jaensch – he has some run and carry and a long boot – bombs one home from outside 50. Then Wright misses (who is he?) and Sloane misses (we all know Rory).
This could be nasty. At least we have the wind in the final term.
When Dangerfield wraps around Kerridge and goals from 50, the Crows are in front. What! James Podsiadly, who has been chatting and directing all night (and has been well-received by the locals) encourages his young team. He senses the opportunity.
But Pods also knows what his former team-mates are made of. As we do on the Terrace.
Joel Selwood has a word to Johnno who is in the middle. They nod to Corey Enright, and to Mackie. The whisper gets about to Stokesy and to Travis. Kel knows. Mitch Duncan knows. Young Gurthrie doesn’t need to be told. The penny drops for J. Caddy. It’s on.
The Cats lift the pressure around the ground. The defensive intensity yields a tone of utter frenzy which translates to attack – those madly instinctive passages of high-risk options that make a side unstoppable – and the Cats get on a roll.
Madness suits Johnno – and a few of his mates. But especially Johnno. After a tough decision on Talia – deliberate out of bounds – he kicks a long goal.
Brown snaps one.
Then, after brave efforts from Guthrie in defence, Kelly one on one, and Caddy standing his ground in a marking contest, Brown kicks another. Caddy’s physical strength turns a few heads (in the entire footy world, is my guess), especially after he’s been scalped and sewn back together. He takes a high-leaping over-the-jostlers mark and dishes off to the skipper.
Fans are looking at each other. There’s a hint of the D. Menzel in it, the lineage going back to former robust utilities.
Jimmy finishes it after big Hamish McIntosh, who has kept going all night, contemplates a snap from the pocket, before catching the milestone man in his peripheral (should have been central) vision. Jimmy smiles at the faithful as he puts through his fourth. It’s a warm moment for the Geelong Football Club.
P. Flynn notes that the score is precisely that of the 2011 Grand Final. The game has had a similar trajectory, in that everything clicked for the Cats in the final quarter.
On the train home we contemplate the quality of the game – fast, skilful, enterprising. The Cats looked good – made all the better by some steel from Simpson and McIntosh. Blicavs played an antelopean role in the final third.
The Crows look OK. They could trouble the best sides; consistency will be an issue, as will the absence of a key forward. The Showdown is set up to be a fantastic match: two sides which play great footy on a festive occasion. I’m going.
As for the Cats: Jimmy Bartel is much-loved. He is a real footballer. And he deserved his night.
The skipper was imperious again. At one stage his chip kick was intercepted. He won the next contest with a turn and gather which is the stuff of the greats. Another time he attacked a high bouncing footy, putting just enough paw on it to bring it forward with his full momentum. No panic. He was best on ground in an otherwise even performance.
As I wandered towards the front door, I felt a strong sense of gratitude. Not sure who I was thanking: but what a side we get to watch each week.
We can win this.
Geelong 18.11.119 d Adelaide 12.9.81
Our votes: J. Selwood 3 A. Mackie 2 J. Bartel 1
Read the story of the 2014 season in The Footy Almanac 2014. Order your copy here.