While sport might leave you cold, Aussie sport particularly so, something happened between 2009 and 2011 which has all the elements of high drama – if it had happened over here, it would have been the stuff of legend.
There were villains, quislings, heroes, the overcoming of adversity and the renewal of self-belief after a series of kicks in the gut.
I thought it was a bit OTT when a fan made a video tribute [at the end, below] and used the Celtic song from Gladiator but later it actually seemed appropriate. Bear with me while I tell the story – it’s one from far shores which could inspire our country, if our country was but interested.
It’s a story of triumph when all seemed lost.
When my family emigrated to Oz, they settled in sleepy hollow, the town of Geelong, along with so many others from Yorkshire. One thing the town had going for it was a football team, actually one of the original two in the AFL, circa 1859, the only smalltown team to play major league. The area was a farming community and quite conservative and from the get-go, that team developed a style of play which they’ve never altered – slick passing, finessing, moving the ball quickly.
They were known for being impossible to catch if they had a sniff of victory:
… but if you could run at them hard, tie them up, entangle them and demoralize them, you could win. Some of the greatest finals have been against Geelong, more usually with the opposition winning, a few times Geelong itself scraped in.
The other thing the town had going for it was Ford, major sponsors for decades and the giver of work in the local community.
By the 80s and 90s, GFC had hardly altered -some of the greatest individual players in the history of the game had come from there but they were provincial in many ways and lacked discipline, a point made by a friend of mine who played for Hawthorn, the power team of the 80s [when I was there]. The modern era of super-discipline and all playing for one, running as a rugby team does, hadn’t yet eventuated.
Fast forward to 2003, the era of the Brisbane Lions, a constructed team amalgamating two other clubs and they won three flags, showing a sort of skills mix and brutality combined which was hard to counter, especially as they recruited massive players. The coach of that team was an ex-Hawthorn champion, known for his no-nonsense, uncompromising play – his nickname was Lethal Leigh.
Geelong must have noted that and began clearing out the dead wood in management, getting in a recruiting team and slowly bringing in that uncompromising type of recruit. They had their ups and downs for a few years but believed they were on the right track.
It paid off in 2007:
In 2008, it was Hawthorn itself which was the nemesis of Geelong once again, which left a very bitter taste and made Geelong almost maniacal to win in 2009, which they did, over their other nemesis, St. Kilda, a most exciting finish:
And this was the play which made it into the American top ten plays list:
Thus an era came to a close in most people’s eyes. They’d been up there for so long, its stars were aging, they’d lost the desire by 2010, still making it to the finals, as Brisbane had done when they’d begun their downwards path but being brushed aside by a black and white team called Collingwood.
Those were dark days. Their best player was lured north by money and even their head coach walked out on the players, by the back door, leaving the club rudderless. Two wins in four years had been a good result. Management cast around and realized that two brothers from the all-conquering Brisbane side [now retired] were looking for coaching roles. They gave the job to one of the brothers, Chris and the football world were surprised at the high-risk strategy. Scott had been an uncompromising player, many called him a thug, a Vinnie Jones but he was the new coach, when all was said and done.
Here is a clip of the brothers:
Poetically, this below was Chris Scott’s final game as a player for one ageing champion team, Brisbane, against the side he now coaches and loves, also now an ageing champion team:
Here was the press conference:
He told the players a few quite crucial things. First he told them they still had the talent to take a flag in 2011. Most smiled. They really were past it, about seven were at retirement age. He told them to let him worry about that – he’d rotate them using the interchange system and would even rest them from certain games on a rota basis or as was needed. Young players would be blooded on those days.
They began to look at each other and started to think it was possible. Still, these were all words, weren’t they? The second thing was that he didn’t want to alter their game plan but tweak it in certain areas, particularly on the backline. Thirdly he conceded his admiration for them, even when he was riding high with Brisbane. He told them Brisbane had always seen them as a tough nut to crack.
Fourthly, he told them that there was more than one way to move a ball. The other sides might outrun their legs but if they handpassed quickly and kicked accurately to a contest, he saw them winning the majority of those individual contests and thus they’d score.
Geelong have always been a confidence side and here was this man, whom no one questioned for endeavour or “grunt”, challenging their pride in themselves, their manliness, their desire. He did it from inside though, as one of them. And as men, where once they’d been maverick boys, they nodded and got down to it.
The first match was their arch-rival St. Kilda and they couldn’t have been given more of a baptism of fire. The media had been on about “too old, too slow” and someone asked, “What about too good?”
Here are the final moments of that game, with St. Kilda headed for a tight win and about a minute and a half to go [ignore the youtube counter – look at the clock onscreen]:
Over the next few games, it became obvious that Chris Scott’s tough style as a player was now coming through in them and they had certain characteristics – if the opposition was slow or dropped the ball, they’d swoop and almost inevitably goal, often through sheer opportunism. Many said they were lucky but when the soccer kick along the ground or “bananered” in from the side had been done over and over, it became clear it was part of the game plan.
They’d now crunch opposition players and with the mix of mature and youngbloods, they started scoring huge wins over all but three teams – Hawthorn, St. Kilda and Collingwood. They beat Collingwood narrowly but still not many believed it was more than a flash in the pan. Hey, who said they weren’t talented? But they’re old – let’s see how they are after a hard season.
An air of confidence, almost arrogance, took hold. They knew in their hearts they could win against the worst thrown at them. The systems were working, they played for each other, no one individualized, everyone supported whoever had scored, as in the 2009 days. Belief had returned and other teams watched with quiet dismay.
Then they lost.
They lost to the very team their ex-coach had absconded to, so it was put down to his inside knowledge. Then they lost again. Later, they lost to a team on their own home turf, their impregnable citadel. Reality check. What people had been saying about too old, too slow looked true. Other sides had learned to negate the new game plan. It had been a fine dream.
With the average score in a game about 15 goals and sometimes in the 20s on a good day, they hit back at the original team in the comp , this year placed about middle of the table and posted a 37 goal scoreline, to equal the AFL record, actually held by them from years earlier. Here is how they played that day:
They came back next week and did it again against someone else. With the finals approaching, other top sides were watching carefully. Meanwhile, St. Kilda’s star had faded a bit, Hawthorn was doing quite well but Collingwood were blitzing every other team by big scores, just as Geelong were. People were speaking of a Gee v Coll Grand Final. The interesting thing which had football lovers licking their lips was that in the final home and away round of the season, these two teams were scheduled to meet at the MCG, the finals ground. The scene was set for a showdown, Collingwood blitzed them in the first quarter and then this happened:
That was the top team and reigning premiers they’d done that to, not some club down the list. The 16 goal win to the Cats was dismissed by Collingwood as an aberration but they’d taken a heap of injuries and were beginning to see Geelong as its own nemesis. They’d lost only twice in the season – both times to Geelong.
Fans from other teams were posting things like:
I’m not a Geelong fan but I do enjoy watching you guys cream Collingwood, Carlton and Essendon etc.
Over here, I was still nervous, as usual, that Collingwood would come back but more than that, first the Cats had to get over their second nemesis Hawthorn, whom they were meeting on the very first day of the finals:
A few weeks later, what everyone had predicted came true – the two top sides would meet in the final. I was working that day, so I asked two friends to check scores and text me at work. As the time came, I was more than nervous – Collingwood would come back as they’re renowned to do, surely they’d save their best till last.
They had the Cats down for the count, the main Geelong forward suffered a cruciate injury and was subbed, they were down by quite a few goals and not playing well. Collingwood were hitting hard, getting revenge for Round 24. The premiers of 2010 were heading for back-to-back. The town of Geelong was hushed.
Near three-quarter time, Geelong managed to get a few back and it was neck and neck – one of the great Grand finals, according to pundits:
They stormed away in the last term for a third title in five years, when by the law of averages, they should have been in wheelchairs in the nursing home. Not only that but this year, 2011, they’ve been one of the most complete teams in history, with every element necessary, every box ticked and certainly they’ve been the greatest Geelong team ever. They’re rated by the media as “one of the greatest of the modern era”.
My little team. The catters. From sleepy hollow. Wow. I’m not even looking towards 2012 – many of their key players have now retired, the youngsters are now in. Good if they do well but understandable if they don’t. Of course the players themselves aren’t thinking that way. They’re remembering October 2010 and plan to do October 2011 all over again.
Technology is wonderful – I have copies of the games on file and I have a feeling we’ll not see their like again, the team of 2011. In this time of adversity in society, it’s teams like Geelong which keep my head up and chin thrust out. It’s the easiest thing in the world to transfer this emotion to the political playing field and give ’em hell in 2012.
There is always, always, a spiritual element to greatness, to belief, to self-belief. Brilliance is when all the elements in your spirit, mind and body work together in harmony, a rare thing, to achieve the end. Greatness is when you voluntarily dedicate, subordinate that brilliance to the greater good.
Because you wish to.
When many do that, it translates into victory.