Black Cats: How everyone’s second favourite team exhausted its goodwill

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    Bitterness towards the recent reunion of the Geelong Cats and Gary Ablett isn’t as much a tipping point as the realisation of a growing – but largely suppressed – feeling of coolness towards the Cats.

    After all, even the most stone-hearted football fan must struggle to resist the romance of a club’s favourite son – who just happens to be the son of the club’s original favourite son – returning to the club to play out his final farewell act in front of its adoring fans.

    Never mind a Bombers supporting child of the 1980s and 1990s who, like many fans of other clubs, looked on the loveable but ultimately flawed Cats of the time as my second favourite team.

    This was of course against the backdrop of those wildly entertaining Geelong sides, headlined by Gary Ablett (senior) and with football savant Malcolm Blight at the helm, which played such an irresistible brand of free-flowing, attacking football.

    But the football itself was only part of the attraction for the neutral supporter.

    The Cats – residents of Victoria’s second city Geelong, long dubbed ‘Sleepy Hollow’ – were the closest thing the competition had to a country club and tapped into the goodwill big city Australians have always felt for the bush.

    For jaded fans of Melbourne based clubs, it was hard not to be drawn in by the innocent naivety of tales of Cats centre-half-forward Billy Brownless kicking a football over a wheat silo or the (late) Paul Couch being surprised at the arrival of the fire brigade at his house after he set a tree on fire in order to kill a creeping vine.

    Of course, there was also Buddha Hocking’s infamous ‘Whiskas’ name change stunt aimed at raising much-needed cash for the club.

    The fact Geelong also represented the gateway to the surf coast for many Melburnians also ensured thoughts of the Cats were somehow always intertwined with summer holiday nostalgia.

    Perhaps the formative footballing moment in respect of many neutral fans’ fondness for the Cats was the epic 1989 grand final.

    There was something so profoundly heroic about that Geelong side dispensing with its genetic flair so as to go toe to toe with that all-conquering, snarling Hawthorn beast in such a shockingly brutal affair.

    That this approach was ultimately credited as the reason the Cats came so close to victory and also the distraction that robbed them of a flag, only heightened the sense of tragedy and feeling of admiration for Geelong.

    The Cats would go on to lose three more grand finals which only endeared them more to the neutral.

    After celebrating the Cats drought-breaking romp over Port Adelaide in the 2007 grand final, the 2008 grand final boilover against the fledgeling unsociable Hawks revived that familiar mixture of fondness and sympathy for the blue and white hoops.

    And then all that goodwill slowly started to evaporate.

    While undoubtedly success has played its part, it does not tell the whole story.

    Perhaps the first cracks in the Cats’ veneer appeared when the Cats defeated the Saints in the 2009 grand final and in doing so, shattered the dreams of a club which rivalled the Cats as a flawed heartbreaker.

    Then came the appointment of the hard-nosed and pragmatic Chris Scott, who was very much at odds with his somewhat mad football genius type predecessors in Mark Thompson and Blight.

    Joel Selwood’s Peter Costello-like smug grin, coupled with his penchant for cynically ducking into tackles to attract free kicks never fails to rankle.

    On the minor end of the scale, there was Harry Taylor’s bizarre ‘ham’ handshake with Adelaide Crow Josh Jenkins.

    But most unsavoury of all was the Cats’ shameless 2012 mid-season delegation to Adelaide to try and woo the Power’s Jan Juc boy, Travis Boak back home. That it came at a time when the Power was on its knees left an even greater stain on the Cats.

    And now the Ablett trade, which just happens to represent the second (eventual in the case of Patrick Dangerfield) Brownlow medallist the Cats have poached from rival clubs in the last two years.

    Gary Ablett Geelong Cats AFL

    (Photo by Mark Dadswell/Getty Images)

    Despite the Cats disingenuous protestations to the contrary, the trade always had an air of inevitability when you considered the bleeding trade partner in Gold Coast and the thinly veiled threat of retirement from Ablett’s camp.

    The surprisingly high compensatory draft pick awarded to the Cats for Steven Motlop’s departure – and ultimately used as a makeweight in the deal – did little for the trade’s popularity outside of Geelong.

    In any event, none of this will trouble the vast majority of Cats fans rightly revelling in their club’s golden era.

    It just might mean the Saints have a few more friends moving forward.

    Author’s note: While not referenced in the article, a note to acknowledge the sad passing of Natasha Ablett and not to ignore the personal reasons involved in players seeking a trade closer to home.

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