SEASON 2020 isn’t going to go according to plan for the Geelong Cats, in fact, it isn’t going to pan out the way anyone expected. For the famous Victorian-based football club though, the prospect of a lost season could signal the end of an era and kickstart a slide out of the race for the flag and into the dreaded bottom-10. Geelong has been a consistent force for the majority of the 21st century, but if they can’t taste premiership glory within the next season or two, Cats fans could be facing a long, long climb back to the top.
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OVER the past 15 years, Geelong has been one of the most successful and consistent clubs in the AFL, winning three flags and qualifying for the finals 13 times. Through that Mark Thompson/Chris Scott era, the Cats have only had one losing season with past greats like Jimmy Bartel, Corey Enright, Paul Chapman, Matthew Scarlett, Steve Johnson and countless others buoying Geelong and driving the franchise to a consistent period of dominance. For all their winning and success, they haven’t tasted premiership success since 2011, nor have they even qualified for another Grand Final – losing four preliminary finals in the past seven seasons.
THE Cats have obviously been close without breaking through for footy’s ultimate prize, annually hovering around the mark and putting themselves in a position to win it all. As their stars continue to age though, the 2020 season presented Geelong with one of their last chances to capture an elusive cup with their current playing group. Just three players (Joel Selwood, Tom Hawkins and Mitch Duncan as the sub) remain from the winning 2011 side with other aging vets like Gary Ablett, Harry Taylor and Josh Jenkins also in the twilight of their AFL careers. Most of those players are integral parts of the Geelong fabric and losing any combination of them in the offseason will undoubtedly see the Cats take a step backwards – unless someone else can step up.
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THE someone else is the biggest unknown at Geelong with the Cats finding themselves in a strange list position with talented veterans, skilled youngsters and a lack of support in the middle age bracket. I have faith in the youth at the Cattery with Brandin Parfitt, Charlie Constable, Quinten Narkle, Jordan Clark, Gryan Miers, Esava Ratugolea and a bunch of others hopefully able to fill the void that the elder statesmen will one day leave. For Geelong to stay in the mix for a premiership though, their mid-20 aged players will need to lift their output. If that tier fails to pick up the slack Geelong will be far from doomed, however, we’ve seen a pair powerhouse clubs fall out of the mix, with both Hawthorn and Sydney finishing outside the top-8 a year ago after a period of sustained success.
YOU can partially blame Tom Mitchell’s broken leg for the Hawks’ slip, but the writing has been on the wall for Alistair Clarkson’s men. Leading up to 2017, Hawthorn posted six straight seasons where they won at least 16 games in the regular season capitalising on their purple patch with three premierships and another Grand Final loss. Over the next three offseasons, they would go on to lose invaluable members of their core with Luke Hodge, Josh Gibson, Cyril Rioli, Bradley Hill and Sam Mitchell all departing the club. It will come as no surprise to learn that Hawthorn hasn’t had the same success since, posting a 36-29-1 regular-season record with just one finals appearance. The fall from grace for the Swans was much more sudden, with Sydney posting a pair of 6th placed finishes in 2017/2018 before plummeting to 15th on the ladder last season.
THOSE three campaigns came a year after the Swans claimed the minor premiership in 2016 and recorded their 5th consecutive top-4 finish, further highlighting their dominance even while superstars such as Adam Goodes, Ryan O’Keefe, Nick Malceski and Jude Bolton retired. The 2016-2018 offseasons saw Sydney undergo more change, losing Tom Mitchell, Toby Nankervis, Ted Richards, Kurt Tippett, Gary Rohan and Nic Newman before watching iconic quartet Jarryd McVeigh, Kieran Jack, Nick Smith and Heath Grundy at the conclusion of the 2019 season. On paper, that’s a lot of big-time names and classy players that have left the club, leaving us to wonder if Sydney is facing a long climb back into the top-8 and more importantly, into premiership contention.
ALL three of these premier AFL clubs have managed to stay in contention for the majority of the 21st century, qualifying for the finals more than 50% of the time in the last 20 seasons – joining the Eagles and Magpies as the only teams who can claim that honour. However, as I highlighted earlier Geelong are teetering close to the edge and Patrick Dangerfield can only do so much of the heavy lifting already with 249 games under his belt already.
DANGER only arrived at the club in 2016, with solid contributors like Gary Rohan, Luke Dahlhaus, Zac Smith, Jack Steven and of course, Gary Ablett all arriving via trade or free agency since then too. The Cats’ on-field success has helped them position themselves as a destination club for a lot of players, which could help them from succumbing to a similar fate as the Hawks and Swans. Investing in some more middle-tier talent will not only strengthen the clubs’ depth, but as the retirees continue to file out the door, the opportunity is there for a 50-100 game player to turn themselves into a star. The tricky part is investing in the right players – obviously, easier said than done.
HAVING always been around the premiership mark, the Cats were one of the favourites to contend in 2020 once again, however, with the season on hiatus we may have to accept the fact that 2021 will be the next time regular AFL games are back up and running. Without adding any miles to his body, there’s a chance Gary Ablett and some of their other veterans will play on in ’21, which should see Geelong once again put up a fight in the race for a flag. They MUST capitalise within the next two seasons though and enhance their reputation as an elite AFL franchise before the inevitable drop off hits them like a ton of bricks, and they’re left stranded out of the finals facing a long climb back to the top.
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