What has become of the Geelong Cats footy factory?

Stuart McKenzie Roar Rookie

By , Stuart McKenzie is a Roar Rookie

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    At this time of the year, the name Stephen Wells was one that we’d hear muttered in hushed tones.

    The master talent spotter would make the calls on draft night, the kids would come to the Mark Thompson footy factory and they would be ‘trained up’ (as Bomber would say), to become quality AFL footballers.

    Quite remarkably, in their three premiership teams of 2007, 2009 and 2011 there were only three players from other clubs, Brad Ottens, who played in all three and Tom Harley and Cam Mooney who played in the 2007 and 2009 teams, the rest were pretty much products of the Cats footy factory.

    Even more extraordinary, is that in building the list that delivered those three premierships, there were only four top 10 draft picks – Joel Corey at No.8 in 1999, Jimmy Bartel at No.8 in 2001, Andrew Mackie at No.7 in 2002 and Joel Selwood at No.7 in 2006.

    Yes, the success of father-son selections Matthew Scarlett, Gary Ablett and Tom Hawkins far outweighed expectations, but the astute selection of players such as Corey Enright (pick 47), Cameron Ling (pick 38), Steve Johnson (pick 24), Paul Chapman (pick 31), James Kelly pick 17), David Wojcinski (pick 24), Max Rooke (rookie selection), Tom Lonergan (pick 50), Harry Taylor (pick 17), Mitch Duncan (pick 28), and Allen Christensen (pick 40) – players that all clubs had an opportunity to draft – formed the backbone of the Cats’ premiership success.

    It’s little wonder that not so long ago, Geelong supporters suggested that a statue of Stephen Wells be erected at Simonds Stadium. The footy factory was led by ‘Bomber’, a renowned footy teacher, and supported by Brendan McCartney, Nigel Lappin and Ken Hinkley. They educated the players selected by Wells in the ways of AFL footy. It was a system that produced unprecedented success.

    When Thompson left at the end of 2010 and Chris Scott took over, the club’s approach to recruitment, drafting and trading undertook a marked shift. Under the Thompson era, draft picks were the prime currency and investment in their development was the priority, but not so under Scott.

    Since Scott’s arrival, the Cats have brought in Hamish McIntosh, Jared Rivers, Mitch Clark, Sam Blease, Patrick Dangerfield, Lachie Henderson, Zac Smith, Scott Selwood, Josh Caddy, Aaron Black, Zach Tuohy and now Gary Ablett.

    It remains to be seen what impact the Little Master will have, but it’s highly questionable, just how successful these acquisitions have been.

    Other than using salary cap capacity, the Cats gave up nothing for Black (pick 92) Rivers, Blease, and Selwood, though with Rivers and Blease no longer listed, Black playing 5 of a possible 24 games and Selwood having played only 19 of a possible 49 matches, that doesn’t seem to have been money well spent or list places well utilised.

    McIntosh (traded for pick 36), Clark (swapped for Varcoe in a three-way trade with Melbourne and Collingwood) and Caddy (traded for a first and third round draft pick) are no longer with the club. By any measure that’s a big miss.

    Tuohy and Henderson, who will both be 29 next year, cost the Cats first round picks, each slotting nicely into Geelong’s defence.

    And it’s hard to argue that the recruitment of Dangerfield has been anything other than a resounding success, though we’ll never know to what extent Dangerfield’s salary prevented the Cats retaining Caddy and Steve Motlop.

    In failing to bottom out after a period of sustained success, Geelong has achieved something of a miracle in the modern AFL world. Their worst finish since the 2011 premiership was 10th in 2015.

    While they’ve repeatedly played finals, with comprehensive defeats in the past two preliminary finals and a straight sets exit in 2014, a Grand Final, yet alone a premiership, has been a bridge too far.

    Yes, the Cats may still win the flag that vindicates their change of direction, but Geelong supporters must wonder how their team would be placed today had they held their nerve and backed in Stephen Wells and the Cats footy factory.