My best ever Geelong team – part 2


I have chosen Paul Couch for the half-forward flank. Couch played in the high-scoring Geelong teams of the Blight era, mainly in the centre, but at times as a creative half-forward. Couch had great vision, wonderful evasive skills and a deadly accurate left foot kick. He played 259 games for Geelong and kicked 203 goals. He won the 1989 Brownlow medal and three best and fairest awards. He was named in the All-Australian team three times and was chosen on the interchange bench in the Geelong team of the century. Couch’s Brownlow marked a turning point for my generation of Geelong supporters. For Geelong had been a talented but under-achieving side for most of 1970s and ‘80s. We sometimes made the finals but never a grand final. We never hit rock bottom but we never won anything*. But finally in 1989 we made the GF and Couch won the Brownlow medal. We narrowly missed the premiership, but Ablett Snr won the Norm Smith and we felt that finally we had arrived; our turn was next – that it was possible for the country cousins from Sleepy Hollow to win the flag. Unfortunately we had to wait another 18 years.

*Larry Donohoe won the goal kicking in 1976 with 105 goals but he was never a favourite with the fans. He was an accurate kick but he spilled a lot of easy marks. We felt at the time that he only got to a 100 because the mid-field fed him quality ball time after time, a lot of which he stuffed up. In retrospect this might have been a bit harsh.

I have selected Barry Stoneham, another player from the Blight era to play centre-half forward. I played centre-half forward in school and junior footy and had been waiting an eternity for Geelong to get a decent tall forward. I remember an aging Sam Newman playing the position in the late 1970s in his white boots. I wore Stephen Reynoldson’s number 17 for short time in the early ’80s, but his star faded quickly. And finally in 1986 a skinny but tough redhead form St Joseph’s had arrived. Stoneham played with a bit of mongrel, which was rare for Geelong at the time. He was a great mark and was extremely agile. A great endurance runner he could play anywhere and often did. He was an exceptional ruckman, could play as a key back and even played on the wing at the SCG (a deathtrap for centre-half forwards). Stoneham won the best and fairest in the disappointing season of 1990* showing his strength of character and made the All-Australian team in 1992. He suffered severe leg injuries in 1994-95 and while he eventually returned to captain the side and play over 200 games he had lost his running ability and was not the same player.

*In 1990 we missed the finals after the heroics of 1989. At the time I observed that we were the only side to suffer a premiership hangover without actually winning the premiership.

On the other half-forward flank is the most incredible player I have ever seen, Gary Ablett Snr. He debuted for Geelong in 1984. We started going to football regularly in the early ’80s when my dad got us reserved seats behind the goals in the Reg Hickey stand. By ’84 we had graduated to the Social Club Members on the half-forward flank and boy did Ablett repay that investment many times over. I remember reading in the club newsletter over the summer that Ablett was considered by the club to be their best recruit since Polly Farmer in the early 1960s. Already a cynic a 14 I was sceptical, wondering why Hawthorn would let him go after only six games if he was so good. It took one game to dispel my scepticism, round 1, 1984 against Fitzroy at Kardinia Park. Ablett played on the wing, had 20 kicks and kicked three goals. He was also suspended for three weeks for elbowing Fitzroy legend, Gary Wilson. In the months to follow our family chiropractor, Hawthorn’s head trainer, Bob Yeoman, would tell us some stories about Ablett that helped explain his departure from Hawthorn. As we know, off-field issues would continue to dog Ablett but in 1984 we were just excited by his play.

Later that year I saw him dominate a game against St Kilda in the wet at Geelong. He had 30 possessions and kicked five goals from the wing in a hard fought win. This was super-impressive because he was playing on a very good player in Geoff Cunningham but also because wingmen didn’t kick 5 goals back then. Teams relied on full-forwards and small forwards to kick multiple goals.

In the next few years Ablett would play on the half-forward flank where he would often have 13 or 14 shots at goal – many from long range on the boundary. We observed at the time that one day with a bit of luck he would snag a dozen or more and sure enough in 1989 I saw him kick 14 against Richmond, playing the entire first half on the wing. He did this again in 1993 in a loss against Essendon and 1994 against Sydney. Ablett kicked 1030 in his career, fifth on the all time list, even though he only played full forward for the last four years of his career. He won a Norm Smith medal and holds the records for the most goals in a grand final and the most goals in a finals series (both in 1989). In 1993 he kicked 100 goals in 14 games, the second fastest in history. He won the Geelong best and fairest only once but finished runner-up four times and third three times. He won three Coleman medals. He made the All-Australian team seven times. He was named in the Geelong and AFL teams of the century.

When on song, Ablett was an unstoppable force. He was the most complete package of strength and skill. He was the best mark and the best kick in the side if not the league. He was the fastest and the strongest and could deliver a hip and shoulder with frightening might. In the ‘80s and ‘90s I went to the football as often as I could and I went to watch Gary Ablett.

In the forward pocket I have selected Steve Johnson. Blessed with freakish skill, speed and endurance, the young Steve Johnson seemed determined to stuff things up. He debuted in 2002 and gave us glimpses of his talent over the next five seasons but injuries related to off-field stupidity held him back. He would have been traded to Collingwood at the end of 2006 except that he failed their medical and found himself in trouble again over the Christmas period. Banished to the reserves for the first five weeks, Johnson finally found the discipline and the fortitude required to succeed in the AFL. He returned in round 6 for Geelong’s 157 point thrashing of Richmond and went on to kick 49 goals for the season, including 4 in the GF, where he won the Norm Smith medal – the first by a Geelong player in a winning team. Since then, Johnson has become one of the mainstays of this great Geelong team, an important link between the midfield and the goals. He is really strong and has wonderful vision. He has kicked more than 300 goals but has become a team player, priding himself on his goal assists. He has made three All-Australian teams, only missing out in 2009 because of injury.

I have selected Billy Brownless, another enigmatic All-Australian to play full forward. Brownless arrived at Geelong in 1985 amid great hype and expectation. He hailed from Jerilderie, went to a famous football school in Assumption College and could kick the ball over a silo, literally. Football supporters had long believed in the champion from the bush who could come to the big league and lead the team to glory and we so wanted Brownless to be that player. He was tall, athletic and a booming kick. At the time we thought that he could complement Ablett and give us the forward line we had always dreamed of. In the early 1980s Geelong made two preliminary finals on the back of a strong defense but our forwards struggled. In 1980 we were let down by the wayward Peter Johnston and in ‘81 we had to rely on ruckman, John Mossop, pinch-hitting at full forward. So for the first time I could recall we were beginning to get some forwards we could believe in. Brownless showed early promise but suffered a serious setback when Ablett cannoned into his shoulder on the way to another screamer. He returned and in 1989, under Malcolm Blight, he blossomed. He was given an opportunity to play across half-forward and finally with Ablett, Stoneham and the occasional brilliance of Bruce Lindner, we had our dream forward line*. In 1991 and ’92 Brownless played full forward and led the club goal kicking. In ’91 he kicked eight goals in the elimination final against St Kilda and 81 goals for the season, winning All-Australian selection. He backed this up with 79 goals in ’92 but his career suffered when Blight moved Ablett to the goals square in ’93. Brownless retired at the end of ’97 having played 198 games and kicked 441 goals (third highest in the history of the club). Given the hype of the bush champion, we probably hoped for more. Ablett was clearly a better full forward but the forward line looks more balanced and more dangerous with both Ablett and Brownless in it.

*Between 1989-92, Geelong recorded seven of their eight highest scores of all time, including the VFL/AFL record of 37. 17 (239) against Brisbane at Carrara.

In the other forward pocket I have selected another Norm Smith medalist and two-time All-Australian, Paul Chapman. Chapman is a straight-talking tough unit who would ensure that the other forwards don’t get ahead of themselves. He is strong and supremely skilled. He’s a little guy (179cm) who can take a big mark – witness his screamer in the 2007 GF. He’s not quick but always gets himself to right the spot – witness his match-winning goal in the 2009 GF. He’s almost impossible to tackle. He has played more than 200 games and is approaching 300 goals. He can rotate through the midfield and is a force when starting in the centre square. His best and fairest in the disastrous 2006 season and his three goals and Norm Smith medal in the tough 2009 GF illustrate his temperament and character. Chapman is deeply loved by Geelong supporters and greatly respected by everyone else.


On the interchange bench I have looked for players that offer flexibility. I have also aimed to reward some of our most loyal servants.

Tom Harley holds a special a place in the hearts of Geelong supporters. Harley was an underrated player for much of his career. Not overly tall for a key defender, he overcame this with excellent aerial ability. He was a wonderful judge of the high ball and knew when to mark and when to spoil. Late in his career he became renowned for marking the ball from opposition kicks into the forward line and won overdue recognition with All-Australian selection in 2008. However, it is Harley’s leadership skills that will be most remembered. In 2007 he was made captain after a disastrous season where Geelong finished tenth after being touted as premiership favourite early in the season. Harley also inherited what had become known as the captain’s curse at Geelong with a series of previous captains failing to live up to expectations, often due to injury. Harley played a critical role in uniting the team and the club and captained the team to the 2007 and 2009 premierships.

Cameron Mooney was critical to Geelong’s resurgence in 2007. In 2004 and 2005 Thompson’s young team played finals and were somewhat unlucky to be knocked out in the prelim in ‘04 and that fateful qualifying final against Sydney in ’05. After playing key forward early in his career, Mooney played mainly ruck and halfback during those seasons. In 2006, Geelong finally gave up on the hapless Kent Kingsley and moved Mooney forward, that is, when he wasn’t suspended. Over the next five years he would become the mainstay of the forward line. He benefitted from Geelong’s new play-on style. Quick on the lead, with strong hands, Mooney provided the link between defense and attack. He kicked 55 goals in 2007 (five in the GF) and dished off many more with deadly passes off both sides of the body; this resulted in All-Australian selection. His goal-kicking yips would prove costly in ’08 but he redeemed himself with two important goals in the low scoring 2009 GF. Mooney adds a lot to the team as he can come off the bench and play forward, back or ruck.

Peter Riccardi can perhaps be considered an unlucky footballer. He played in three losing grand finals in his first four years of senior football and retired just one year before Geelong’s drought breaking victory in 2007. Riccardi is the only player in my team whose career spans the heady days of the Blight era and Geelong’s long awaited return to the top rungs of the ladder under Mark Thompson. However, Riccardi was at his best in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s when the team mostly struggled; he won the best and fairest in ’98 when Geelong finished twelfth. He was quick, strong and a beautiful left-foot kick. Riccardi was excellent around goal and late in his career he became an interchange specialist, with Thompson using him as an impact player. This helped prolong his career and Riccardi’s 288 senior games has him third on Geelong’s all time list*.

*Darren Milburn is on 285 and closing.

No Geelong team would be complete without the current captain, Cameron Ling (aka – the mayor of Geelong). Ling transformed himself from a pudgy forward to a fit, hard-running midfielder. Seen primarily as a shutdown player, Ling is not just a tagger; he averages more than 20 possessions a game, kicks important goals and provides important muscle around the ball and important on-ground leadership. Ling’s qualities are greatly appreciated by the club as he has finished in the top four of the best and fairest seven times, winning the award in 2004. He has also been recognised outside the club with All-Australian selection in 2007. Ling has played really well in grand finals and I’m hoping that this year he’ll get to raise the cup.


The first coach I remember was Rod Olsson (1976 – 79). I can’t recall too much about him except that he played for Hawthorn, took us to the finals twice and liked to wear cream turtleneck woolen knits.

Olsson was replaced by club legend, Billy Goggin (1980-82). Goggin had already coached Footscray, making the finals once, and we were looking forward to his return to Geelong. He made an immediate impact. In 1980 we finished top after the home and away season but lost our two finals, the prelim to Collingwood by four points with Peter Johnston missing from the goal square in the final minutes. We backed up again in ’81; again losing the prelim to Collingwood by a narrow margin after beating them earlier in the finals. In ’82 we missed the finals and sadly Goggin was gone.

The legendary Tom Hafey (1983-85) took over, but I felt at the time he was yesterday’s man. He took Geelong to sixth twice but had the playing talent to do more.

Premiership hero, John Devine (1986-88), came next. The playing list improved again during his time but his old-school methodology divided the team and again we failed to make the finals.

Finally in 1989 we got an A-grade coach in Malcolm Blight. He was a star player for North Melbourne in the 1970s always seeming to dominate against Geelong. He failed as a captain-coach of the Shinboners in the early ‘80s but then returned to South Australia where he lifted Woodville off the bottom of the ladder and into the finals. In 1988 Blight became a commentator and impressed with his knowledge of the game. He was a young, in demand coach, and we were rapt to get him after six years of wasted potential. Despite three grand final losses, I’m still a big fan of Malcolm Blight and am pleased he won premierships with Adelaide. He took us on a wild ride, which not only thrilled the football world, but also restored respect for the football club.

His successor Gary Ayres also took us to a grand final, but his dour style and lack of imagination eventually returned us to the bottom half of the ladder. I was ecstatic when he left with a year remaining on his contract and so was the cash -strapped administration.

Then we got Bomber.

There can be no other choice for coach of my best ever Geelong team than Mark Thompson. The Geelong administration showed great vision in going after a strong-willed, determined and hungry young coach. Thompson had a big job in front of him as he inherited an aging and dispirited playing group. We made the finals in his first year but lost the elimination to a mediocre Hawthorn side. It proved a false dawn as Thompson embarked on the task of turning over the list.

We next played finals in 2004 and only inexperience cost us the prelim against the mighty Brisbane Lions. 2005 was a mixed year. We were inconsistent and suffered four straight losses late in the season. We entered the finals with little confidence or momentum but easily won our first final against Melbourne. We then faced (eventual premiers) Sydney at the SCG on a wet night and led for all but the last four seconds of the game. The image of Cameron Mooney in tears at the end of the game is one that would eventually inspire the team to great deeds.

In 2006 we won the pre-season cup and entered the season with great hope. There was a feeling in the media that Geelong had finally rid itself of its grand final curse and the hype intensified after 12 goal wins in the first two rounds. It all came crashing down on Easter Saturday against lowly Hawthorn at Kardinia Park. My parents had rented a big house in Daylesford for the Easter break and I remember walking down to the pub with my dad to watch the game. Our early confidence turned to frustration and then horror when Hawthorn more than doubled our score. A one point loss to the Bulldogs the following week restored some hope but a 100 point drubbing at the hands of Collingwood on a cold night at the MCG a few weeks later signaled that something was amiss. With Kingsley and the other forwards constantly letting us down, the players became confused and lost faith in the game plan. In round 10 we lost to West Coast after leading by as much as 54 points. At this point I was ready to give up on football. We finished the season in tenth place. CEO Brian Cook undertook an exhaustive review to determine what went wrong and the measures needed to put things right. In the end Thompson survived. At the time I wasn’t sure this was the right move; in hindsight it was a masterstroke. Steve Johnson was put on the market but failed the medical. I agreed with this assessment at the time and in hindsight it was clearly erroneous. Kingsley was delisted. I think everyone agreed with this and it was not surprising that Richmond was the club stupid enough to take him.

In the off-season, Geelong employed Neil Balme as manager of football operations. They made Tom Harley captain. Drafted Joel Selwood – the one positive from finishing tenth. Next, Thompson got the team really fit after having been let down by his fitness coach in 2006. And finally the coach developed a new game plan. The team was instructed to chip the ball into the centre-corridor from defense and then play-on with lots of run and handball and quick transitions into the forward line.

I saw the first game of the season before I headed off to Europe on a three-month holiday. It was a 20-point loss to the Western Bulldogs, which didn’t reveal much. I followed bits and pieces on the internet and started to feel optimistic about the season after easy wins against Carlton and Melbourne. A close loss to Hawthorn followed by the now infamous loss to North Melbourne and the old feeling of disillusionment was back – even from as far away as Rome. However, I still checked the score the next week and saw that we had beaten Richmond by 157 points. I understood then that something had changed – even from as far away as Rome. Over the next weeks as I travelled up and down the Italian peninsula, I kept reading about impressive win after impressive win. We beat reigning premiers West Coast at Kardinia by 39 points. We beat both Port Adelaide and Adelaide at Football Park where we hadn’t won in years. We thrashed Brisbane. I got back for the win against Sydney, which I watched on television; and was at the MCG with 88,000 others for hard fought win over Collingwood. And finally after 38 years of supporting Geelong I knew we were clearly the best team in the competition. Even in the Blight years there were always other teams – namely Hawthorn and West Coast – which seemed to have the wood on us; but in 2007 we were streets ahead of the rest and the record margin in the Grand final stands as clear evidence.

In his eighth season as coach Thompson finally became a premiership coach. It is particularly impressive that he did this with a team that he entirely rebuilt as only two players from the 2007 premiership team – Milburn and King – were established senior players when Bomber arrived. It was impressive that the administration stood by him for all that time, when the media and some of the supporters were calling for his head. It was most impressive that Geelong won the premiership playing sparkling, attacking football, the kind of football that the club had built its reputation on. For football in 2005-06 had become dour, defensive and boring, ruined by something called the flood and we have Mark Thompson and the Geelong football team to thank for restoring daring and beauty to the game.

In 2010 things turned again. This time the press proved the most effective tactic and while its best practitioners are not as easy on the eye as Geelong circa 2007-08, the new style is far more attractive than that played by Sydney in 2005-06. Geelong lost the prelim to Collingwood, the eventual premiers, and Thompson decided he’d had enough despite having another year to go on his contract. He took a break and then signed on as James Hird’s right-hand-man at Essendon as everyone knew he would. People cried foul play and double standards given his campaign to keep Ablett but I say well-done, thanks for your tireless work and good luck. Anyone watching Geelong’s appalling first half against Collingwood could see that we needed a new man and Thompson had the courage and the wisdom to make the call. He should be admired for owning up when his heart wasn’t in it anymore. I also admire him for returning to his old club when it was desperately in need. Furthermore, I understand the Geelong administration’s misguided attempts to talk Thompson around. Their loyalty and belief in him should be applauded – he deserved it.


  1. Lukas Balnaves says

    I’m glad you have Peter Riccardi in. After Ablett snr, he was the most dazzling and highly skilled player I’ve seen at Geelong at his peak. Barry Stoneham at his prime in the early 90’s is easily the best centre half forward I’ve seen at Geelong. He was one of the best in the AFL back then period! Neville Bruns was another great player for Geelong who I don’t think was mentioned. Even Michael Mansfield and the brilliant Ronnie Burns.

  2. Richard Naco says

    I love this assessment, especially for it’s honesty & personal perspective.

    I could not agree more with what you’ve written, especially in regards to Mark Thompson. I’ll be coming down from Sydney for the Dons game in three weeks, and I’ll be one wearing hoops who will not be upset to see him there in the other colours. We owe him too much to be churlish, and I agree with Cam Mooney when he said earlier this week that Bomber went at the right time, regardless of how.

  3. Goodnes, no Doug Wade ! I won’t mention no Rod Waddell !

  4. Justin Kremmer says

    Doug Wade needs to feature. Mooney is a gun but Wade could still teach him a lesson in goalkicking.

  5. lscacciante says

    I am too young to remember Wade, born in 1969, the first year I can remember is 1976.

  6. Richard Naco says

    It’s also worth remembering that regardless of how well performed the players of past eras may have been within the context of their peers, today’s fitter, stronger, smarter and better prepared players – even the average core of any contemporsry AFL team – would simply smash them.

    These flights of subjective fancy are highly enjoyable, but hardly definitive doctrine.

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