Geelong is a place that still has a sense of itself. Sure, Melbourne might be advancing down the highway, swallowing Werribee, sprawling towards Avalon in a way that could one day make the length of the Princes Highway a concrete conglomerate. But people from Geelong know that they are something different. They define themselves by it. Down that highway, out of the Melbourne footy fishbowl, Geelong Football Club offers one part of that sense of identity.
Geography doesn’t mean much in the AFL anymore. Modern-day Carlton is full of lawyers and the uni student children of wealth, not earthy Italian cafe owners shouting “Woof!” at Ang Christou. Collingwood, Richmond, North Melbourne, the ghosts of Fitzroy, all fuse into an inner-city conglomerate: the surviving commission flats form islands among the hipsters and artists who can still afford it and the rich dullards wanting that reflected coolness while complaining about the noise. Real estate parasites would place St Kilda, Essendon, Footscray, Hawthorn all within the most desirable inner band of a metropolis ballooning beyond. Most Melburnians who follow football now live in a Melbourne that football doesn’t represent.
South Australia got a generic Adelaide team, then an Adelaide suburb. Western Australia got a generic team that everyone knew was Perth, then a Perth suburb. New South Wales got a generic Sydney team with a Harbour Bridge motif, then another that is supposed to cover everything else from Redfern to Canberra. Queensland got a generic Brisbane team, and while the Gold Coast is a Geelong-like distance away, it is umbilically attached to the state capital in a way that the Victorian cities would never countenance. No one from Melbourne goes to Geelong voluntarily, and no one in Geelong wants them to come.
All of which means there is only one rural or regional influence in an otherwise urban AFL. Geelong may have become a city itself, but it’s still the home of the woolsheds, still the big smoke for the Western District, still a place that represents the Bellarine Peninsula down the coast or the endless pastures inland. Even as the kilometres spool out into hundreds to the south or west, the default option is to be a Cats fan: in Colac, in Horsham, in Warrnambool, in Ararat, down the Great Ocean Road. There is the country link with the club’s stars: Billy Brownless kicking footies over a silo, Gary Ablett driving down from Drouin, Tom Hawkins beaming photogenically at his farm, Patrick Dangerfield lured back by the surf coast. These days, the Cats represents the concept of being regional rather than a region itself.
Which all feeds into why Geelong the club means so much to Geelong the town. Kardinia Park has grown into a colossus, packed every second week through winter to create the only remaining intra-state home ground advantage in the league. Success in the AFL lays a marker for local strength. It is a smaller cohesive power showing the big cities that it can compete. Cohesion is what only a place like this can create. My main childhood memory of the 1989 grand final, more than the game itself, was all of Geelong decked in white and blue: streamers on trees, balloons in shops, drapery from windows. The solitary house dressed in brown and gold only emphasised how total the prevailing sentiment was.
The solitary house got the win, and so began four grand final losses in seven years. There was plenty of local pride at the Cats’ buccaneering style, but it also hurt not returning a premiership. By 2004 an upstart side was back in finals contention, and in 2007 the cup was won at last. All season the mantra had been to “keep the lid on”. During the homecoming presentation the following day, someone who I don’t recall remarked that the lid was last seen flying somewhere over Torquay.
So began four grand finals in five years. This time, three of them were won. For supporters, contentment could rest easy at last. Also deeply satisfying was becoming a leading club in other ways. A ‘no dickheads’ policy meant that drafting relied on character as well as skill. Scandals all but vanished. The league’s best recruitment and development program made gun players from low draft picks and discards and those outside the system. Teams evolved into new versions without collapsing down the ladder. Gambling revenue was evicted from the organisation. From an outside view, Indigenous players and staff became prominent on the inside. Coach Chris Scott exudes a sense of calm and decency. People who complain about free kicks for current captain Joel Selwood had to watch him on Brownlow night accepting the Jim Stynes Award for 15 years of community service.
It’s easy to say nice things about your club, but it’s easier when the things are true. By 2022, Geelong supporters are hungry again, wanting reward for the new era that only features Scott, Selwood, Hawkins and Mitch Duncan from the 2011 premiership. It’s funny: had the Cats been mid-tier since then, those previous three flags might still feel satisfyingly recent enough. But having stayed in contention ever since, a loss to Sydney this week would feel savagely like an era of opportunity wasted.
Flags are not everything, but the best win-loss record in the competition over a decade without one is hard to understand. There was a strange upset to Fremantle in 2012, a missed kick in the last minute of the 2013 prelim, out in straight sets in 2014, and several knockout torchings in years to follow. The 2020 grand final was strange - shortened quarters played in Brisbane during lockdown against a Richmond side in its own pomp - but a third-quarter lead was still an opportunity lost. This season is back to normal, back to the MCG at last, and the Cats have clearly been the best team of the year. This is the one that they should and must bring home, for this era to feel worthwhile. Although, no matter the result, the crowds will turn up to Kardinia Park again to start next year. They are Geelong, after all.