Feline football: 60-plus years of following the Cats, from near and far

I am a Geelong tragic. The Cats have held me in thrall for more than 60 years. Here is the story of the joy and pain they have given me.

In the beginning

My father came from central Europe, my mother from Sydney. They had not the slightest interest in Australian Rules football. My siblings were mostly uninterested too.

But my first 13 years were lived in Melbourne, most of Dad’s workmates were VFL followers (one of them, Brian Milnes, playing for St Kilda), and Australian Rules football was the only item on the winter sports menu at school. That’s how I came to love the game.

My first football memory is of the VFL Grand Final of 1951. I was only six years old at the time, but had already become attached to Geelong – one of Dad’s workmates steered me in this direction. I heard some of the game on radio (between calls of the races from Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide). In my mind’s eye I can see the 1951 Cats keeping Essendon’s last-quarter charge at bay to win by 11 points. The tension was electric, as Dick Reynolds (the Dons’ coach) ran onto the ground as the second reserve in a desperate but ultimately vain attempt to get his team home.

I have some patchy recollections of the 1952 home-and-away season. The finals series, however, is imprinted on my mind – especially the Grand Final, which the Cats won by a whopping 46 points over Collingwood. Even at the tender age of seven years, I knew the significance of a Grand-Final win over the Magpies – well, any win over them! As in the previous year, my access to VFL games was only via radio broadcasts constantly punctuated by calls of the races – but I had come to feel the intensity and drama of the footy.

By 1953, aged eight, I was hooked on the game and the Cats. I clearly remember going to Richmond’s Punt Road ground in May 1953. Dad’s closest workmate, who was more like an uncle to us, took me. It drizzled all afternoon, George Goninon drop-kicked a goal from just forward of the centre (hotly pursued by Richmond’s Des Rowe), Tom Hafey played in the back pocket for the Tigers, and I yelled for Geelong at top volume. The Cats won by nine goals.

My ‘uncle” took me to Princes Park a month later. The game (against Carlton) proved to be a heart-stopper, Geelong winning by 11 points. Again I hollered for the Cats. For some reason I took a particular set against the Blues’ George Stafford. I don’t remember exactly why, but maybe his reputation preceded him – history records that he was involved as a spectator in a wild altercation at the under-19 grand final in 1954, so it’s possible that he was a volatile character.

I don’t remember going to other games in 1953, but remember listening – between racing broadcasts – to the closing stages of matches against North Melbourne in July (which we won by a point) and Collingwood in August (which we lost by 20 points). The Magpies’ win broke Geelong’s unbeaten streak of 26 games (including 23 successive wins). I was distraught, even more so when Collingwood beat the Cats again in the second semi-final and the Grand Final.

The next four years

The following year I began to play some footy at school. I was too slow and uncoordinated to be any good at it, but still felt like a Geelong star – usually Bernie Smith – and kept playing over the next four years.

I still went to VFL games, sometimes with my ‘uncle’ and sometimes on my own. There probably weren’t that many of them, because my matches at school were usually played on Saturdays and finished too late. Amazingly, I never saw Geelong lose a game over this time.

One of the things that I enjoyed most about being at the game was getting the scores from other grounds. In today’s enlightened times, it would surprise no one if the AFL scheduled a Queen’s Birthday weekend match for a Thursday in Dubai. In those days all six VFL fixtures were usually played at the same time on a Saturday afternoon. The quarter-by-quarter scores were posted on the scoreboard, and I faithfully wrote them in the Footy Record. By 5 pm I knew who had won and who had lost, and I could work out who was where on the ladder at the end of the round. Of course I could get the same information from the radio, but there was magic about being at the ground and doing it myself.

Much of my footy news came via the Melbourne ‘pink paper’, The Sporting Globe. It was published after the footy ended on Saturdays. I could hardly wait to get my hands on it and read Peter Bye’s and others’ accounts of the six games. I also avidly read Alf Brown’s tips in Friday’s Herald. Then early on Saturday night there was 3KZ’S Pelaco Inquest with Philip Gibbs and the redoubtable Jack Dyer (‘Pelaco – it is indeed a lovely shirt, sir’).

Geelong made the finals from 1954 to 1956. They weren’t quite what they had been, but they still gave a good sight.

Then they crashed, taking the ‘wooden spoon’ in 1957. I am to blame for this catastrophe, not getting to any match that year because my under-12C school games were now played later each Saturday.

Exile

A different kind of disaster followed. Early in 1958 Dad moved the family to Sydney. My only connection now with the VFL was via Radio Australia (with all its static and racing interruptions). I could get Melbourne’s ‘pink paper’ in Sydney, but not until the Monday or Tuesday.

Needless to say, Aussie Rules didn’t exist at school. I sometimes wandered down to Trumper Park in Paddington to see a game in the Sydney competition, but it wasn’t the same.

Worse was to come, from a football perspective anyway. The family moved to the bush in late 1959, and I went to a rural boarding school in 1960 and 1961. My mother faithfully sent me The Sporting Globe each week, but that was my only contact with footy.

Perhaps it was no bad thing to be so far from the VFL action in this period. Geelong was conspicuously unsuccessful. Just the same I missed the ‘vibe’ of it all.

I returned to Sydney in early 1962. It was still a complicated business to keep track of the footy, but I had more freedom than at boarding school!

The Cats reached the finals in 1962. They played Carlton in the preliminary final, which ended in a draw. They lost the replay by five points. ABC radio in Sydney broadcast most of the last quarter. I heard Doug Wade’s mark in the dying moments – he wouldn’t miss, would he? Then the umpire intervened – free kick to the Blues. The siren went seconds later.

With Polly Farmer and Bill Goggin at their best, the Cats made the grand final in 1963. This piece of history was not to be missed. I flew to Melbourne. We won by 49 points, producing a sensational last quarter. We also won the seconds. My cup was running over.

One of my sisters had her 21st birthday the following April. My present was a trip to Melbourne for Geelong’s game against the Demons. She had and has no great interest in football, but she half-supported the red-and-blue and jumped at the chance to be back in Melbourne. She enjoyed the game, even though the Cats won.

The Cats remained a force in the VFL, for the rest of the 1960s. Why wouldn’t they? They boasted some remarkable players such as Farmer, Goggin and Denis Marshall. Much to their supporters’ frustration, however, they couldn’t crack another flag.

The greatest let-down was 1967. They reached the grand final against Richmond, and would have won if Polly had not been injured late in the game. They lost by nine points.

They made the finals again in 1968 and 1969, but a 20-goal defeat at Richmond’s hands in the first semi-final of 1969 signified that a dark night was coming. Sure enough, all went pear-shaped in 1970 when they finished ninth.

My footballing experience settled into a pattern for much of the 1970s and 1980s. I had moved to Canberra in 1969. Television covered a game each Saturday afternoon. ABC radio also broadcast a match and gave regular scores from other grounds.

Much else changed in my life, but my devotion to the Cats remained constant – as did their chronic inability to win a premiership. They reached the finals a few times. In 1980 and 1981 they made the preliminary final, losing narrowly to Collingwood both times – yes, it’s always Collingwood. Needless to say, the Magpies lost both Grand Finals.

The last quarter-century

In 1989 the Cats made the Grand Final for the first time since 1967. Hawthorn prevailed by a goal in an epic match. Three months later, my spouse and I took our boys (aged eight and five) to Victoria for a holiday.

We went into my old parish church in a quiet Melbourne suburb, and found that Mass was under way. The celebrant looked familiar. At the end, he looked straight at us and said ‘You’re new here’. I said ‘Sort of – I was in the parish 30 years ago and I’m just showing my family around’.

He invited us into the presbytery for a yarn. He was Father John Brosnan, formerly chaplain at Pentridge Gaol and one of my idols for his work there and in the community. He was also chaplain to the Cats and regaled us for a couple of hours with stories about his time at the club and many of life’s greater issues. He also phoned the Cats’ skipper, Damian Bourke, so that our lads could talk to their hero. Sadly, Damian was not home.

The Cats flopped in 1990. We moved to England (not because of the Cats!) at the end of the year. The Cats did a lot better in 1991 – just missing a place in the Grand Final – and we managed to catch some games via Radio Australia by connecting an aerial to a gutter. The broadcast we full of static, but was better than nothing. The game usually ended at about eight in the morning, and we would adjourn to the nearby park for a kick.

We moved to Perth in mid-1992. This was very poor timing. West Coast beat Geelong in two Grand Finals (1992 and 1994) while we were there. Didn’t the locals let us know! To make matters worse, Carlton beat us in the 1995 decider. No, that’s not why we returned to the nation’s capital early in 1996 – I was transferred by my employer.

Since then we have been based in Canberra. We have gone to many matches at Geelong, the MCG, the SCG and Docklands. In early 2013 our two sons moved to Victoria with their partners. All went to most of the Cats’ 2013 games in Melbourne and Geelong. The story will continue for a while yet.

Drought-breaking

This little essay wouldn’t be complete without a few words of wisdom on the glories of recent years. After all, my spouse and I were at Docklands and Kardinia Park when the Cats’ fortunes turned in May 2007. After a wretched start to the season, they beat Richmond by 157 points and West Coast – the defending premiers – by 39 points.

We like to think that our presence was responsible for these performances. My record of never having seen the Cats lose at Geelong (a record that still stands) surely made the difference in the Eagles’ match.

As everyone knows, the Cats went on to win the flag. They defeated Port Adelaide in the Grand Final by a record margin of 119 points. It was no surprise that, after 44 years, tears flowed freely and joy was unrestrained.

It was a near thing, though. They came within a straight kick of losing their preliminary final to – yes – Collingwood. How typical of the past it would have been if they had lost that one.

The Great Disappointment of 2008 felt very much like a return to the past. The Cats became just the third team in VFL/AFL history to reach the grand final with only one defeat for the year – yes, the loss was to Collingwood. The Grand Final against Hawthorn should have been as easy win. Instead Geelong scored 11.23 against 18.7. Enough said.

It was back to the winner’s stall in 2009. In the good ol’ days Geelong would have found a way to finish second in the Grand Final against a St Kilda side that had won 19 games in a row at one point in the season. In the new dispensation the Cats found a way to win what was a mighty struggle – this time by a couple of goals.

Geelong made the preliminary final in 2010 after an eventful year in which Gary Ablett and Mark Thompson did not always see eye to eye. It all ended badly. Ablett went to the Gold Coast. Thompson went back to Essendon. Geelong lost the preliminary final by a wide margin to (who else but) Collingwood. The Magpies won the grand final a week later.

Without Ablett the Cats had a wonderful season in 2011. In his first year as coach, Chris Scott took them to a flag. They even defeated Collingwood by a convincing 38 points in the grand final, captain Cameron Ling kicking the last goal in his last game. The ghosts of 1953 could now be laid to rest.

Geelong remained competitive in 2012 and 2013, and should probably have won the 2013 preliminary final against Hawthorn. The outlook for 2014 is positive. The universe is a different place.

Football, the Cats and the cosmos

Ah yes, the universe. Vince Lombardi, when he was coaching the Green Bay Packers in the United States, is reputed to have said that “Winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing”. He was wrong.

Winning is a great thing, but there’s more to a game than that. Geelong would otherwise have lost most of its supporters long before breaking the 44-year drought.

At its best football is a community and family festival. Whether the team is winning or losing, the game provides a common focus and brings people together – not just at the ground but in workplaces and many other settings. Supporters of opposing clubs sit side by side, and mostly leave grounds in peace.

This is despite the frustration that supporters of all but one club feel each season: in the end only one wins the ultimate prize. Fans’ loyalty is in part a triumph of hope over experience, but for most it goes beyond that to a love of the game itself.

Let me romanticise and simplify for a moment. I think the wider world can learn something from this. We can be strongly committed to our own traditions and convictions while working for a common purpose with others of different persuasions. We can respect, even honour, differences in background and beliefs. Footy can and often does this better than do political and civic leaders.

There endeth the lesson for today. Season 2014 is nearly upon us. Go Cats!

Once a Punter….

26 January 2014

About Andrew Herscovitch

I am a reformed but still active punter (if that's not a contradiction in terms). I have also supported the Geelong Cats in sunshine and in sorrow since 1950. It's a tough life, but someone has to do it.

Comments

  1. Wonderful piece and a wonderful life, OAP. Thanks for sharing the ride with us.
    I must say that when I went to edit your piece and read the first 2 lines, I put a peg on my nose and thought “60 years of Catporn” – will it never end? After a couple of paras the peg came off and you had me transfixed with the breadth and generousity of your experience.
    Loved your conclusion.
    And the moniker “Once a Punter”? Must be a story in that, given the early references to your dad listening to the races. Perhaps you can share it with us one day.
    As a fellow long-time sufferer who managed to eventually put it back in a box, can I be OAP II?

  2. Bob Morrow says

    As a fellow Geelong fanatic , I can give “oncer” a few years , I loved the article it brought back memories. I likewise had no immediate family interested in football so my Uncles told me I must barrack for Carlton & so I did. However living in Brunswick my school was Princes Hill & by football season I found that the entire school barracked for Carlton. This was no good for me so I looked around. We had been to a trip to Geelong & it must have impressed me as a nice place so I barracked for Geelong . This would have been around 1948. My hero was Fred Flanagan & I wore his number 10 on my back for years. In about 1960 I was going down to Lorne for holidays & insisted on going to Fred’s pub in Geelong for old times sake . One of my friends mentioned to the barman of my feeling for the owner of the establishment. . He later came up to me & instructed me to follow him . He led me down to a back room in which, having a quiet beer, were Fred Flanagan , Bernie Smith & Ron Hovey. I was told to pull up a pew & have a beer – BLISS. I was at the 1963 GF with a mate who suggested that as we were killing Hawthorn we should leave early. I told him this was a Grand Final & I wished to savior it .I didn’t dream that I would have to savior it for 44 years.. I could go on but I wont , thanks again for the early memories.

  3. Glen Potter says

    OAP,
    My father took me along for my first VFL match in ’78, aged 6, and I was hooked on the ‘hoops’. We lived in Melbourne and I loved the journey to Kardinia Park. My primary school was riddled with Essendon, Collingwood or Richmond fans – teams I still to this day refer to as ‘The Axis of Evil’ – so being one of only a handful of Cats’ supporters was quite the novelty. I vaguely recall the excitement of ’80 & ’81 and as you alluded to, the Magpies lost both GFs after knocking us out in the PFs. I’m sure Richmond would’ve found the Cats a much harder proposition in the ’80 GF than the Pies, as we’d defeated the Tigers during the home and away rounds at the MCG. If only we’d made it!

    ’89 through to ’97 were enjoyable years – the Cats played an attacking brand of football that was a delight to watch and filled us with great memories. The ’07 to present years have simply been amazing. Great to hear your memories. Well done.

    Peter – In your reference to ‘Catporn’, if we were to align a genre to the style of football played, I would draw the analogy that Geelong’s game style in the peak periods of the 90s and of the present have indeed been pornographic, as it has that innate ability to significantly arouse. Could you hint at a genre to align with the defence-minded Weagles of the 90s and 00s?

    Glen

  4. Neil Anderson says

    This story could be a blueprint of what the Footy Almanac represents for us football followers.
    Following a team selected at childhood for what ever reason, where ever you are in the world through the good and bad times. In Geelong’s case, success at the start in the 50’s and 60’s, then the big drought and success again in recent times.
    Except for the recent premierships, you could have been writing about my journey with the Bulldogs since the 1950’s.
    Unfortunately the drought hasn’t broken for us, but when it does, try to imagine how good it felt for you in 2007 and multiply it to the power of ten to understand how we will feel.
    In the meantime we can enjoy reading stories like yours on the Almanac which sound so familiar, particularly to the more ‘ senior ‘ members.

  5. Dips O'Donnell says

    Magnificent Once A Punter. A wonderful journey. The Cats will win the flag this year because we have ruckmen again. Get strapped in for a wild ride!

  6. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Enjoyable read once a punter for even a non cats man . Gee long are owed a huge vote of thanks by the football community for proving that a attacking mindset and game style can win flags Thanks once a punter

  7. Peter Schumacher says

    Great article, were I still in SA I would relate much of the character of the piece to Norwood

  8. Cat ftom the Country says

    OAP great story and thanks for sharing. I have barracked for The Cats since the early 60’s before that fantastic win in 1963. My brothers all supported The Saints so we had some interesting times.
    Some years in Tasmania had me in a football wilderness. I was too busy having and raising a family and Melbourne radio did not always travel well to Tassie.
    Back home in Victoria ABC radio was a godsend as was 3KZ for footy.
    14 years ago I finally became a member and what a ride over the last few years!
    I had to find a new car, ended up with a white Ford. Boring!
    Now it sports three blue stripes behind both rear wheels and a GC number plate with three blue whiskers each side.
    They are a great conversation starter and no longer boring.
    I am optomistic every year and I do feel we can win the Flag this year.
    Go Cats

  9. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Very good point Peter there are similarities we had to wait 25 yrs between 50 and 75 and then several more droughts and then dominated in 12 and 13 were Norwood structure and leadership wise were a mile in front of most AFL clubs

  10. OAP. Wonderful piece. As a fellow Cats tragic over much the same period you brought back many great, and a few not-so-great, memories. What a journey it’s been. Even when we were no good we always tried to play fast attacking footy. Always worth a look.

    Just one point. We actually weren’t that far out of it in 1970. We finished fifth after losing narrowly to South at Kardinia Park late in the year. It was the day someone threw an apple and struck the ball as Doug Wade was kicking for goal. It meant the Norm Smith-led Swans made the finals for the first time in decades and Bobby Skilton played his only finals game, against the Saints. Though not happy at the time we Geelong fans couldn’t grumble too much. Good luck to the Swans.

    Go Cats in 2014….and beyond!

    Cheers, Burkie

  11. Wow…! I thought I was alone…!

  12. Marcus Holt says

    OAP, could you make sure you go to every Geelong home game at KP this season please, especially when we play Fremantle in Rd 20?
    That’s some record you’ve got going.

    Go Cats

  13. Once a Punter........ says

    Thank you all for your responses. Just a few points.

    Peter B – Maybe “The Selkrig Sequence” article on the Almanac site is what you’re looking for re the racing side of my story..

    Bob – i’m envious! Bernie Smith and Fred Flanagan were childhood heroes.of mine.

    Burkie – i had completely forgotten about the Swans’ game at KP in 1970. But we didn’t deserve to make the finals that year (from what I can remember anyway). I also was wrong to say that we finished ninth that year – it was fifth..

    Marcus – I’d really like to be at KP for every game, but it’s a bit difficult when living 700 km away! But our two sons live in Melbourne these days, so I might get to a few more than usual.

    Malcolm – I wish you well with your Doggies. There are a few ex-felines on the staff there, so you never know.

    Have a great season everyone.

  14. Jim Johnson says

    Great Story. Lucky 6 year old.
    Re “By 1953 at age 8”
    George Goninon of Geelong kicked eleven goals one behind with drop
    punts in the 1951 Semi Final against Collingwood. He only
    used the Drop Punt as a kick for Goal as per telephone
    conversation with Jim Feb 2010. Born Aug 1927 and came back to Melbourne
    from Club Burnie in Tasmania in 1948. He was a
    phenomenally accurate kick for goal. George won the VFL
    goal kicking with 86 goals in 1951(11 goals ahead of John
    Coleman) He had a very free flowing style of kicking the ball.
    See “ Who Invented The Drop Punt Australian Rules Football” on Google by Stab Punt Jim.

  15. Once a Punter says

    I have a dim memory of hearing about this on the radio, but it is probably just my imagination. It’s a long time ago! What a day it must have been for those who were there.

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