How Clarko saved Geelong

Saturday afternoon. I am reading nineteenth century newspapers, writing about the 1898 Grand Final. And waiting for time to pass until I get the train to the MCG.

Jungle Ruler has just saluted. I am containing myself. I am happy in the way that Crows fans are not, because on the television the Adelaide Football Club is disintegrating. I have backed the likely leader in the Stradbroke in the hope that from the one alley and with nothing on its back Listen Son might sneak away at the 600 and pinch the race, the way that sometimes happens in the great handicaps.

The Stradbroke is a one of the great handicaps. I don’t know who this bloke Stradbroke was but he’s done particularly well in the naming stakes. The island is a beauty too. And there’s two of them. North. And South. Very Queensland: just like the race, and Eagle Farm, and the plantation feel it has when you stand under the poincianas and look at all the punters with skin cancers cut off their foreheads. All trying to find the winner.

Listen Son leads as anticipated, but can’t keep going.

I am off to the footy for the first time since Round 1. I’ve got the moonboot on, and I’m hoping for luck in running on the train, and especially at the MCG. The hoof is still rather tender. And I now fully understand what Matthew Egan has gone through.

I have watched a lot of footy on TV in the last three months, which is always a blessing in one sense. But I find it so hard to know what is really happening on the field. And to understand it.

Not like the old days when cameras were like a set of spectator’s eyes and they gave you a vista, as if you were there. Wayne Closter would get the footy in the centre and roost it forward and the camera would follow the flight of the Sherrin, making the kick look huge to a little kid. And Doug Wade would contest it, his gummy mouth open, and his pant a little high.

The crowd is milling around the MCG, but apart from a narrow section near Gate 6, the foot is in little danger.

I find J. Dunne. I am certain he will have backed the Hawks at the $2.70. The Cats are ripe for the picking.

I challenge him with this immediately.

He is wounded that I would think this. It’s his standard response.

“You have, haven’t you?” I say.

“No,” he says, incorrigibly. “I haven’t backed them at $2.70.”

He pauses. “I’ve taken $3.30 under 39 and a half.”

This is a joke (I think). He assures me he hasn’t backed them.

A couple of beers and we take our seats with P. Flynn, who is in a quiet mood. He has his footy face on: his Geelong footy face. P. Flynn grew up in Geelong. In the 1970s. So it is a well-worn footy face; a well-lived footy face; a footy face where the remnants of fear and loathing are still detectable, particularly at moments like these, when the might of Hawthorn is about surface.

I announce confidently that Buddy will not play. “Buddy will not play,” I say.

“Oh,” they say.

“No,” I say. “My physio barracks for Hawthorn and he tells me that Buddy cannot possibly have done his calf in the match. That it is not a corky. That the calf was injured at rehab. That it is certainly a tear, and a bleed. And that he will miss at least two weeks. No, he won’t be out there tonight.” I have the authority of a man who has talked footy with a qualified sports physio.

“That’s Buddy there,” says J. Dunne. He is pointing at Buddy.

I take a phone call from a bloke I like to bet with on the footy. Hawky. He barracks for the Hawks. He owes me two lunches, a game of golf, three bottles of Coonawarra red. The Hawks haven’t beaten us since Jeff Kennett mozzed them one morning on Offsiders. Hawky wants 29 and a half head start. Clearly he should run a trade union. This redefines ambit claims. I lobby for straight out. We settle on 5 and a half start.

The beer is has about as much zing in it as the Crows, and the pie is satisfactory.

But I am at the footy. The crowd grows. It’s pretty quiet.

I smile. I am reminded that footballers are real. There’s Otto. Johnno. “Hi, Johnno,” I want to yell. And wave. “I’m here.”

I don’t tell J. Dunne because he’s busy deciding whether he’ll ring up and back Hawthorn. I offer to do it for him, because I am ringing to back the Gold Coast a second time. Flat dish-water beer will do that to you.

“The Suns are specials tonight,” I say. “Good form.”

“You backed ‘em?” J. Dunne asks.

“Yep,” I say.

J. Dunne raises an eyebrow.

“I’m just ringing up to have saver at the line,” I say.

Those within earshot note that they are sitting near an imbecile.

It’s not long before the first score goes up on the board. North 3.0 Suns 0.1. And minutes later North 7.0 Suns 0.1. That’s the end of that.

Conditions at the MCG are magnificent. After the Hawks open the scoring through Buddy, thanks to a mistake in the backline, and Selwood and Chappy cough the Sherrin up, the Cats settle. It seems they have been given the freedom to attack, and to run the ball through the corridor swiftly. They play magnificent-conditions football. Assisted by a steady supply of free kicks, they get the pig leather into Podsiadly who latches on to a strong mark, dishes to Travis, and I’m feeling like I’ve never been away.

I make a note to one day write Steve Johnson’s biography, mainly because I have the perfect title: The Madness of Stevie J. That’s how he’s playing. Like Van Gogh on Valium with a red Bull chaser. As the Cats play sparkling footy I feel my smugometer rising.

The game changes in the second quarter. This is in direct response to my confident quarter-tome assertion that the Cats are on top and will go on with it. “They’ll go on with this, the Cats. This could get ugly for Hawthorn,” I say.

The Cats are so far from going on with it, it is ridiculous.

They develop Cyril-fear. And a fierce desire to kick the ball to his patch, in the same way that after champagne and canapés in high-rise buildings one is drawn to contemplate jumping off in to a Gold Coast canal.

Cyril is just superb. At one point, right in front of us, so we can hear the snort from the nostrils of Enright in pursuit, Cyril glares at the footy, makes a mental note of its trajectory, looks up to survey the scene while the ball is wedging itself between his crooked arm and his armpit. It’s a new stats category: the look-away gather. I don’t know how but Cyril and a few of his mates have turned the game around and, from three goals down, they are suddenly two goals up,

J. Dunne asserts his own genius. “Ebbs and flows,” he says. “No doubt about it. This will be a game of ebbs and flows.”

P. Flynn invites J. Dunne to forecast the arrival of a Hawk ebb. He wants it quickly.

Pods knows a good ebb. Thank goodness. He gets the footy every time it goes up there, and kicks truly. When he has four goals P. Flynn identifies him as the new Gavin Exell. “He’s the new Gavin Exell,” he says.

Pods nails another one.

Then the footy comes high to him again, and even from 100 metres away you can see he has marked it between his Adam’s apple and his chin.

It’s a particularly good Hawk ebb. The Cats go a couple clear but an ebb-change occurs in the shadows of half-time.

The Cats are a goal up in a highly entertaining match. We discuss modern footy, especially its ebbs and flows.

I say it is the coaches, but I’ve been wrong all night. It looks from Row Z like a license to attack is granted for a while. And then it is revoked and sides close things down. Then attack again.

The Cats start the second half a goal up. They add a few points but Hawthorn dominate. Blokes whom I’ve never heard of rack up disposals. Mitchell seems to have plenty of the footy. Sewell is solid. They start to draw away, in what is the Cats most sustained ebb of the night.

Buddy is playing a weird game. Cheating out the back, waiting for the ball to come off hands, or a nice handball over the top. “Why doesn’t he lead?” I ask, just moments before he leads.

I am out of form.

“Why doesn’t he fly for those marks?” I ask.

The Cats look tired. The skipper gets caught holding the ball in front of goals. He thinks he’s a Ferrari when at this moment he’s actually a Chrysler Gallant. And stationary. And on the mark.

The Cats are spooked by Cyril. They look for him, and alter the direction of their kick. That split second change creates pressure. You can feel it.

The Cats ebb becomes a Hawk flow and those of the hoops around me are pensive, and about to resort to `70s humour as mechanism de cope.

Seventeen points down at three quarter time and the combined thoughts of three lifelong Geelong fans cannot find a way out.

“It’s a game of ebbs and flows,” J. Dunne says.

Then Alistair Clarkson does something uncommonly generous. He loses the game for Hawthorn. He sets up with just three forwards from the opening of the last quarter.

“Clarkson’s going to try to make this a nil-all draw,” I say. “Dangerous.”

Meanwhile Bartel and Selwood, who have been quiet, come in to the game. In the clogged Geelong forward line, where the ball takes up residence, scoring is a matter of simple probability. Johnno scores a nothing goal. Then Menzel (also quiet) scores a nothing goal. Then Selwood (who is not in the Hawks good books but will be in the emergency umpire’s) bombs a kick forward to Johnno running with the flight. He marks, runs around, and snaps across his body. There’s still quarter of an hour to play. “That’s a something goal,” I say.

“You’re harsh on the second nothing goal,” P. Flynn says.

The Cats, bizarrely, are in front. Hawthorn have not been able to get the footy past Scarlett and Taylor who are loose across the back of the square. But the Cats won’t attack either, deciding to head for the boundary line like it’s 1898 and a mud-heap at Brunswick Street. I want to yell out it’s 2011 and the MCG is pristine. The Cats have other opportunities and register a couple of behinds, but can’t kick clear.

In the dying minutes Hawthorn, who lose Roughead to an achilles injury, have numerous chances as they break out of defence. It looks like a game of schoolyard chasey when they get clear, or greasy pig at Queensland country fete.

But either Scarlett and Taylor stem the flow, or the Hawks muck it up (even Cyril is indecisive), or worse still they get clear and even though Birchall and the likes spread quickly, their backmen chip sideways.

I am quietly thankful for this.

One time Birchall has time to break free to the flank, return to the corridor, and break free again, and finally the ball is kicked to him.

The tension over that final quarter of an hour is gripping, although only in a home and away way. Not the tension of the 2007 prelim or the 2009 Grand Final. But tense.

It comes down to Buddy. The Hawthorn tardiness allows the Cats to get back desperately. Players are sucking in air as they sprint to fill the spaces. It’s going to Buddy. The whole world knows it’s going to Buddy. Buddy knows it’s going to Buddy. Tom Lonergan, who has played reliably throughout, knows it’s going to Buddy. It’s the 127 minute mark of the match and Tom Lonergan is exhausted. But he has to find the will to chase and the prayers to a loving God that will get Bartel or Hunt or someone in a blue and white jumper to come across Buddy’s path. Jack McBurney knows it’s going to Buddy, and he steels himself for the moment. Buddy is going to have to jump. High.

But, wait, no he doesn’t. In the Richie Cunningham moment he finds a narrow channel and bursts into it. Time slows. It is right in front of us. I can spoil I reckon. The kick is OK, but not brilliant. It has penetration, which it needs, but it is a bit high. Buddy jumps, up and forward, throws his arms in the air, the ball slaps off them, and he falls forward. In a micro-second my inner-umpire tells me it is not a free kick. This keeps my inner-Cat very happy.

Strangely time is still slow. And my vision goes straight to Jack McBurney. He has waited, it seems, for my gaze. From memory, he has his hands down, and is shaking his head. I think this is a magic moment. He is in the right position. He knows the context. He knows that the football universe is watching, and he makes his decision. Buddy has helped him. Buddy, not Tom Lonergan, has attracted his eye.

I make a mental note to ask P. Flynn and J. Dunne whether it is too late to nominate Jack for a Queen’s Birthday honour.

The Cats hang on.

I go home. On the platform at Merri Station, an old lady in her Cats scarf  is having a little rest on the garden seat.

She smiles at me.


Votes: 3. S. Mitchell  2. J. Podsiadly   1. J. Kelly





About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears (appeared?) on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three school-age kids - Theo, Anna, Evie. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst four. His ambition was to lunch for Australia but it clashed with his other ambition - to shoot his age.


  1. JTH – wonderful story telling. Interesting votes. I didn’t have Mitchell in my three (and probably not in my 1st six). He gets the footy but he’s lost the ability to use it like he once did. I noted 4 of his kicks into the forward 50 went along the ground. Very strange. Pods and Kelly I can understand. Thought Shiels played a ripper. Cyril close behind him.

    We owe the Hawks about a century of misery. Hopefully the last 3 years are just the beginning.

  2. Some very bruised Hawks after the game by all accounts John.

  3. Rick Kane says

    Lovely description JTH, of a game of, yes, ebbs and flows. Damn tense ebbs, though.

    Pee funniest line: “my inner umpire …”


  4. Richard Naco says

    And love you like a brother as I do, Harmsy, finding out where precisely in the inner you keep said umpire would definitely be a case of too much information.

    I think that Cats – Hawks games are the pinnacle of each season, and although I was able to catch this – with my Hawker mate, Dave – on 10’s hopelessly delayed broadcast to Sydney (why they and Fox both opted to bradcast the Norths – Gold Coast travesty is beyond me), it was a tad sad as it was the first time since 2009 that I haven’t made the flight south to the G for one of these each season.

    Phantom: by all reports, very bruised Pies & (black and) Blues after their close run games against the Cats as well this season. Hardly what Collingwood would be wanting immediately before the post-season, methinks, especially as the ever-increasing influence of the Chris Scott Master Plan is only going to make this new version of the Hoops even more brutally efficient as each week goes by.

  5. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Gotta love the ‘Richie Cunningham moment’. Easily the best game I’ve seen this year. Great description JTH.

  6. Steve Fahey says

    Good call re Clarko JTH. He did the same in the second quarter…after the Hawks had already kicked 6 (and the Cats had replied with a few). Unfathomable to me at the time.

  7. Richard Naco says

    It proves that you can take the coach out of the cluster, but you can never really take the cluster out of the coach.

    Without an appropriately qualified proctologist.

  8. Re: Clarkos forward setup, there seems to be a prevailing view amongst opposition coaches that the way to beat Geelong is to isolate their defenders. That may have been right once, but with Scotty’s new defensive structure its soooooo yesterday.

  9. david butler says

    John, the Richie the C metaphor is lost on me. Did someone find their thrill on Blueberry Hill?

    Read your piece in the Canberra Times today. I remember drinking pots of xxxx in chilled glasses at the Southport Races in about 1986? Neil Williams rode the first 4 or 5 winners that day and I enjoyed the beer muchly.

  10. johnharms says

    DB (a beer in NZ)

    I have a recollection of time slowing when Richie had a chance to win the basketball game for ihs side. But I might have made that up in my own mind.

    I will put the CT piece up on the site.


  11. Grant Fraser says

    Remember in 2008 how I said that I thought the Hawks were a 30% chance of winning? How we would win maybe 3 out of 10 against the rampant puddies? 6 now to the Cats after our 1 in the one that matters…kinda makes the next one interesting, no?

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