Spontaneous combustion

by Kenneth Nguyen

The dread thought has hung over me all Easter weekend, through a Good Friday spent getting dumped by 5-footers down at Lorne, through Saturday’s Mad Men catch-up session and Easter Sunday’s inevitable chocolate binge: We’re going to lose this one.

For three seasons since 2008’s Day That Shall Not Speaketh Its Name, Geelong have fulfilled Paul Chapman’s vow, that it would never lose to Hawthorn again. Seven times in a row, the Cats have prevailed. My favourite remains 2009’s last-quarter comeback when Jimmy Bartel sealed an after-the-siren victory with a behind. I’d watched that one by myself at the Rose in Fitzroy, fortuitously finding an old colleague of mine, Jake Niall of The Age, also there flying solo, marvelling at Geelong’s will to win. We drank local beers and Jake – a Pies man and a learned man – had generously indulged my high-spiritedness. One heady day, my friends, one heady day.

But that was a heady day many years ago. Today, the Hawks are – deservedly – premiership favourites, having impressively imposed themselves against the Pies the previous week. And the Cats? They’d played last week against Freo not so much as if suffering a premiership hangover; rather, they’d played as if still premiership-drunk, all sloppy skills and ill discipline, with the threat and, finally, the reality of physical brawling hanging over proceedings. They lost, of course. Per Shakespeare’s dictum on drunkenness, their desire had been provoked but their performance taken away.

So here we are: top of the Member’s Reserve, with the Girlfriend and Angus, a Fellow Geelong Supporter, and the Token Hawks Supporter. The wind is blowing Antarctic and the sky is three-seasons-in-one-day stuff. (Summer isn’t making an appearance.)

Siren goes and straight away, Chappy gives away a free kick, to Sam Mitchell. Chappy symbolises all my fears about the Cats. He has been so reliable, but last week he looked every one of his 30 years. Over at my favourite Geelong-themed blog, Big League Little League (motto: “Two clowns from G-Town piss and moan about AFL-related matters), the words “Fork. Chapman. Put.” had appeared, and I couldn’t really disagree with them.

We’re not hurt by the free-against, though, and against the initial run of play, the Cats kick the first goal. A Stevie J left-footed snap over the shoulder. Echoes of his first goal in last year’s Grand Final. A couple of minutes later, Stevie J gets a free kick directly in front and, despite the lack of angle, again goes with the snap (and puts it through).

I would buy tickets to the Stevie J Show.

There’s no scope for comfort, though. Roughead has already put one through. Mitchell seems everywhere. Buddy Franklin gets on the end of a few and, more importantly, kicks them truly. Chappy’s giving away free kicks and reminds me of Krusty the Clown’s description of Sideshow Raheem: “Angry man. Angry, angry young man.” Geelong’s early lead is gone and there’s not much room for cheer, other than when Hawkins clears a pack and takes a Wayne Carey-doppelganger of a mark. He misses to the left. Finally, Podsiadly takes a big grab of his own and restores Geelong’s lead. (Apropos of nothing: Nicolas Cage would play the role in the movie, wouldn’t he?)

Second quarter and the teams’ respective strengths are starting to assert themselves. Sam Mitchell looks free as a bird, assisting Jordan Lewis to a goal and scoring one of his own. Buddy is worrying Lonergan and Mackie into giving away free kicks: sure, Buddy throws his head back as if re-enacting the Zapruder tape, but the free kicks are there. Down at the City end, it’s still Geelong’s once-maligned big forwards, Hawkins and Podsiadly, who are keeping the Cats in the game.

A bit of luck: Billy Smiedts kicks a ball from 70 metres out into the forward pocket, and it bounces at right angles and over heads until it tumbles between the big sticks and I laugh like a schoolgirl. I remember Tim Rogers’s words in the intro to the 2009 Almanac book: “It’s an oval ball … how can one predict?”

How can one predict? Hawthorn, suddenly, go bang-bang-bang, courtesy of Lewis, Lewis again, and Whitecross, and at half-time, we’re left to drink ambers at the Frank Grey Smith, avoid catching the eye of any Hawthorn-barracking acquaintances – the Frank Grey is full of ’em – and attempt to forget that dread thought: We’re going to lose this one.

The dread thought continues. The Girlfriend has chosen a time late in the half-time break to try her first-ever cider (Verdict: Thumbs down), so we’re still in the Frank Grey Smith as Hawthorn extend their lead through a hitherto-quiet Cyril Rioli and then David Hale. (From the archives: When playing for North, the unfashionable Hale once managed to kick seven goals against Geelong at Kardinia Park when the Cats were in all their imperial pomp – an occurrence deathlessly described in the aforementioned Big League, Little League as akin to “a golden retriever successfully reverse-parking a 1978 Ford Cortina”, or words to that effect.)

The momentum changes as surely as the weather. In the five or so minutes it takes us to leave the Frank Grey, scan the second level for spare seats and then trudge sadly back up to the fourth level, the Cats put on three goals and even up the scores. Clearly, my viewing of the football has rather the same effect as my viewing of Pat Cash used to have during ’80s Wimbledon tournaments, ie my boys do better when I’m not watching. Sure enough, we get back to our seats and Hawthorn put on what looks like a game-winning burst. Cyril slots one on the left, and assists for another; then a ball falls (un)fortunately off Buddy’s hands, straight into Whitecross’, who snaps to put Hawthorn into a commanding lead. Three quarter time, Hawthorn three goals up. I wish I was watching Mad Men. It’s freezing up here.

Jimmy. Jiiiiimmmmmy. I’ve sat at any number of restaurant tables for any number of dates over the years and heard any number of dinner partners tell me how much they love Jimmy Bartel. Which is absolutely fine, because I love the man too, as much as you can love any man with whom you’ve shared no more than seven words over the years. (Entire conversation, in the Kardinia Park carpark: “How are you goin’, Jimmy?” “Yeah, good.”) It’s the fourth quarter of a game against the Hawks and Geelong are three goals down and the rain is raising the level of Port Phillip Bay and so – of course – Jimmy Bartel takes a contested, overhead mark inside 50 and nails the kick. Nails it.

Down the other end, Buddy – apparently, the girls love him, too – gets the chance to stream towards goal with the ball in his hands and re-enact his two goals against Essendon last year. Except he doesn’t nail it. Instead, he dribbles the ball and it rolls in desultory fashion through for a behind. My heart starts again. Roughead gets a shot on goal, as well, and he dribbles a behind. My heart starts again … again.

Fifteen minutes to go, and Hawkins crashes a pack and takes a big mark. Harmsy once wrote that Tom Hawkins “plays football like he’s wearing a golf sweater over his shoulders”. Which was cruel but arguably true at the time. Now, he’s playing like he know he’s got a Geelong guernsey on and he belongs to it and it belongs to him. He passes to Chappy who passes to Podsiadly who takes a one-hander, skips past Gibson and goals. Game on.

There’s a goal-and-a-half in it when Joel Selwood’s head caps the full brunt of Whitecross’ head in an awful-looking accident. Whitecross looks after Selwood. This is good stuff. After a few minutes, Selwood manages to jog off the ground, to a chorus of inexplicable boos. This is not good stuff.

Is there a more disturbing sight for an opposition supporter than Buddy Franklin running towards goal with the ball in front of him? With ten minutes to go, Buddy has Lonergan in his pocket and then in his wake as the ball runs towards the pocket. He squares it to Osborne in the goalsquare, who should score. Osborne should pick it up and kick a goal and win the game for Hawthorn. Osborne should soccer it off the ground and kick a goal and win the game for Hawthorn. Osborne thinks about doing both, doesn’t do either properly, and Mackie scrambles a rushed behind. I’ve never quite trusted Mackie as a defender. I think it’s his hair. No defender should have hair as consciously styled as Mackie’s. They should have hair like Bruce Doull. But Mackie has done a great, memorable thing here. He has saved Geelong. And besides, Stephen Silvagni had great hair and a peerlessly photogenic wife, so what know I of defenders?

Podsiadly was once said to have an MCG-shaped monkey on his back. But he’s shaken that off in a few matches against Hawthorn now, and now he gets the advantage of a downfield free kick and bananas a goal through. There are about seven minutes left, and Geelong are less than a goal down. Then a minute later, Podsiadly stays down in a contest, roves the back of the pack and runs in for an easy goal. Geelong lead. Geelong LEAD. Angus and I spontaneously combust. Half the ground, or a bit less maybe, spontaneously combusts. I have no idea how we got here.

The next five minutes are a blur. Steve Johnson goes to the bench to be fitted out with what looks to be a new addition to the Geelong uniform, a head bandage. (Selwood is wearing one of these as well.) Christensen, who has been wonderful, spills an easy grab in space which, if taken, would likely have led to a game-sealing score. Buddy gets a second chance to re-enact The Essendon Goals and again muffs it up. The ball gets bombed into Hawthorn’s forward line and Roughhead gets one grab, two grabs and … not the third. Siren. As the kids of today would say, we lose our s–t. We sing the song. We sing it again.

One heady day, my friends, one heady day.



  1. Richard Naco says

    Appropriately fantastic recounting of a truly epic match.

    I’d love to watch a Cats’ game with you, Kenny. (Even if 10% of it was ro score a minor supporting role in a tale like this. ;) )

  2. Phil Dimitriadis says

    You capture the emotions and the elements beautifully Kenny. Christina Hendricks has the power to take my mind off footy for a few minutes.

  3. John Harms says

    Ken, a very entertaining read, with some cracking lines.

    Re N. Cage: he could also play the late Seve Ballesteros, Paul Keating and my brother Sparrow.

  4. Peter Schumacher says

    Great piece, agree with you about Jimmy, he is such a great player. Hawkins has come of age, Podsiadly would have years ago had he been given the chance.

  5. Ken Nguyen says

    Thanks Richard, Phil, JTH and Peter! Long time reader, first time writer and all that…

    Peter, T Hawkins is extraordinarily exciting to watch at the moment, isn’t he? Has there been such a clean step up in form as he’s had between, say, round 23 of last year (when some Cats fans still hoped that Moondog would play a role in September) and the finals? Incredible. When he leaps at the ball, there’s little better in footy right now.

    Phil, because of various flaws in my character, I’ve always been a Betty Draper man myself. (If I was a better man, I’d be a Peggy man. Which I am, but only in a different way…)

  6. John Quelch says

    Really fine writing Ken. The Almanac encourages great literary pieces on real life from ordinary Australians and for that I am truly appreciative. Hope you keep writing. John Q

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