Cats Fans Have Much To Celebrate

In contrast to 2010, this year it was easy to decide who to barack for in the Grand Final. I live in Collingwood, not far from the traditional Collingwood home ground of Victoria Park. It was to this station that I walked in the rain to catch a train to a friend’s house to watch the match. Victoria Park sat empty in the wet and part of the ground is a construction/destruction site. It looked a lonely place to be, especially when the team that is synonymous with the ground was playing that day. Although I didn’t have long to ruminate on my thoughts as I had to run to get on the departing train, I had identified one of the reasons why Collingwood had rediscovered their pomp and, in the process, had re-awakened people’s hatred. Put simply, they had sold out and I was going for Geelong.

One of the key factors in Geelong’s success over the last few years has been their home ground. As Jimmy Bartel said, they are one of the few teams in the AFL to train on the ground on which they play. They are also the only Victorian team that has retained a distinct home ground advantage. Carlton tried to do it but eventually shifted to the Docklands stadium with Ian Collins providing the conflict of interest. The Cats also have a quarter of their list recruited from either the Geelong area or with the father-son rule. While a number of clubs pay a great deal of lip service to keeping the fans satisfied, Geelong has done it best. It recruits locals, plays locally, and wins. Driving through Geelong in the lead up to the Grand Final, the whole city was awash with blue and white paraphernalia.

Collingwood, meanwhile, have done all that they can to be a powerhouse in the changing landscape of AFL football. They have shifted away from their suburb to a state-of-the-art facility. They invest the most in their football department. They regularly fly their players to Arizona for altitude training. They have a prominent president. They are regularly mentioned in the media. They have the largest membership of all clubs. They have enormous sponsorship deals. Most clubs are envious of their position. But as I walked through my suburb, there was a distinct absence of black and white balloons, streamers and flags flying from the houses. Whilst both clubs were striving for excellence, Collingwood, along with many others, seem to have lost their soul. The football club grew out of slums that existed in the suburb and became strong because of it. Does the team that runs out onto the MCG represent this?

The great sideshow of the Grand Final was that this was Mick Malthouse’s last game as the coach of Collingwood. President Eddie McGuire speaks of Malthouse in the same breath as Jock McHale, both Collingwood legends. What is conveniently over-looked is that Malthouse is a professional football coach and a mercenary. He played for both of St Kilda and Richmond, then coached Footscray and West Coast. He had already coached two premierships before being enticed to coach the Magpies. McHale, meanwhile, lived in the inner-north and played and coached Collingwood exclusively from 1902-1949! This period included nine premierships! I have enormous respect and admiration for Malthouse, I think he would have been an amazing coach to play for. But surely McGuire is trying to re-write Collingwood Football Club history to suit his own narrative.

When Travis Varcoe sped forward and kicked the first goal inside of a minute, many people at our barbecue were celebrating. Most who were going for Geelong didn’t dislike Collingwood because of historical animosity, but because they were sick of them being so ubiquitous. The Cats looked to be the better team early in the game but couldn’t quite convert their dominance into scoring. The Magpies held on and in the second term the momentum clearly swung their way. Cat James Podsiadly has made a great story. The J-Pod has given hope to many ‘veteran’ suburban footballers hoping that they too can burst onto the scene late in their 20s. He also fits the Geelong mould, having been recruited from their VFL team and, in fact, their football department staff. When Podsiadly went down, Collingwood were 10 points up and added another. The dread of a Magpie win began to pervade.

The Cats dug in. They came back at Collingwood hard and with three minutes left in the half Jimmy Bartel had a set shot from a very tight angle. Bartel was born in Geelong and has lived in no other place. The only flaw in his all-Geelong story is that he barracked for a different side growing up, the Tigers. Despite this minor blemish, the Geelong faithful quite rightfully claim him as one of their own. With a crucial kick, Bartel curled the ball through the goals artfully, ensuring that the Cats would go into the main break only three points in arrears. Bartel would go on to be voted the best player on the ground and won the Norm Smith Medal.

The other notable player on Grand Final day was much-maligned Tom Hawkins. For years, Hawkins has been criticised for poor performance. Typically in football, Hawkins was not as bad as popularly believed, just as much as the best players aren’t as good made out to be. Nevertheless, he rounded out a solid finals series with an excellent second half. His father, Jack, played 182 games for Geelong in the 70s and 80s so when Tom began dominating school footy, it was inevitable that the Cats would come calling. When the Tomahawk repeatedly clunked contested marks on a tiring Ben Reid, the Geelong fans began to get excited.

The most impressive performance after the game was from first-year coach Chris Scott who said he felt humbled just to be a part of the club. Intuitively Scott knows that a key part of being accepted by the Geelong faithful is to point out the importance of the club before the person. I took the number 96 tram home along Smith St late at night. As with every Saturday night, revellers were spilling from bars and nightclubs, and drifting into the kebab shops. The Magpie loss hadn’t dampened the spirits of those on Collingwood’s main street. I imagined that Moorabool St in Geelong was awash with celebrants in blue and white. I remembered something I read earlier in the year. The people who play and work for football clubs are merely transient custodians. They do their job for a few years. The real owners of the club are the fans because they do their job for generations. The Cats were winners in more ways than one.

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