After coming so close, but so far, to a premiership in 2019, Geelong entered 2020 with surprisingly little hype for a reigning minor premier.
Every AFL finals series delivers narratives about the competing teams.
Geelong’s last year was mainly negative, centred on their poor record in finals.
But there was also another one, about their champion in No. 35, his ‘Superman cape’ and lack of a grand final appearance.
Patrick Dangerfield is the best current player to never play in a grand final. He has experienced individual and team success that almost everyone would be envious of, but none of this has translated to the final Saturday in September.
This century only two Brownlow medallists have not played in a grand final: Dangerfield and Adam Cooney. Or three if you count Jobe Watson.
It’s a similar story with the Leigh Matthews Trophy, the AFLPA most valuable player: Dangerfield, Gerald Healy, Luke Darcy and Patrick Cripps are the only men who have won the award and never appeared in a grand final.
He’s played in four preliminary finals and the lowest finish he’s ever experienced is 14th on the ladder.
This is nothing new. Football history is littered with great names who never won a premiership. You only need to look at the likes of Tony Lockett, Nathan Buckley, Matthew Pavlich, Nick Riewoldt, Robert Harvey, Gart Ablett Sr. – the lists goes on.
But one thing all these players also have common is that they all made it to a grand final. There are many champion players who never reached a grand final, but the point is that a lot of the greats do get there.
Dangerfield has also been in a better situation than the likes of Robbie Flower, Bob Skilton and Matthew Richardson, who featured in only one finals series during their respective careers.
No player wants to just make a grand final and not go one better, but players like Taylor Walker and Nic Naitanui have said they were glad to experience the big day despite suffering crushing defeats.
It is definitely a career achievement to make it there.
There is a mythology that surrounds certain athletes, the idea that they can put the team on their back and drive them to victory. It’s built the legends of Tom Brady and Michael Jordan, who led their team’s to multiple championships.
Dangerfield holds a similar mystique with his Superman cape, but he has no premiership medals to accompany the cape in his wardrobe.
He expressed his embarrassment and how much he hated not being a premiership player in an interview with Mark Robinson on the eve of finals amid opinions about whether Dangerfield had to pull on the cape for Geelong to succeed.
The funniest thing was that the narrative held true during last year’s finals series.
Collingwood beat Geelong in their qualifying final despite Dangerfield having what was regarded as one of the great finals performances, particularly in the second half. Geelong outplayed Collingwood after half-time but could not overcome the deficit they had conceded.
Elliot Yeo was able to mitigate his influence in the first three quarters of their semi-final, but in the final quarter Dangerfield stood up with some Wayne Carey-esque contested marks to ignite his team. This coincided with an unanswered four-goal quarter from the Cats after trailing by four points at three-quarter-time.
In their preliminary final Geelong were up by 21 points at half-time and Dangerfield was having a great game, which he capped off by kicking the final goal of the first half. He was noticeably quieter in the second half as the Tigers fought back to secure their spot in the grand final.
Whenever Dangerfield pulled on the proverbial Superman cape, his team lifted around him.
Everybody knows that individual brilliance does not guarantee team success, especially in the AFL.
But it is unique for a team’s fortunes, for as strong and balanced as Geelong are, they land so squarely on one man’s shoulders, even though Dangerfield is no ordinary player.
Earlier this year Dangerfield re-signed until 2024 and will be 34 by the end of that contract. His premiership hopes are attached to Geelong as much as theirs are with him.
Their respective narratives of failing to take the extra step in the finals are intertwined and will remain that way unless they can change it.