Here’s something that I, as a post-’90s North Melbourne fan, have never had the opportunity to actually know: when a football team has gone through a rich period of success, does winning really still mean as much?
I was alive to see North Melbourne win premierships on TV, but I don’t have a moment’s memory of it. And the one defining football experience I crave is to be in the stands watching as my team wins the premiership. Give me that, and I’ll die happy – at least as far as football fandom ambitions go.
At that point I imagine I would become a footballing Buddha – completely at peace with the sport and willing to watch any team win with grace, for I have seen all the success that I need to. It’s a nice idea.
But is that actually what happens to football fans when they get a taste of success? Is it what would happen to me? Well, we might never find out with regards to the latter – but it’s clear in the lead-up to this week’s grand final that supporters of both Richmond and Geelong remain as hungry as ever.
And there’s good reason for that. While both fan-bases have lifted the premiership cup in recent memory, both still have plenty to gain from winning the 2020 premiership tonight.
For Geelong, 17 of the 22 members of their squad would be premiership players for the first time. That in itself is more than enough motivation for any team, and to see great stories like Tom Stewart, Mark Blicavs or Sam Menegola collect a medal would warm the hearts of every Cats fan.
Of course, more promiment than any of those names is Patrick Dangerfield, one of the great players of the modern era, who at the age of 30 and after playing in five preliminary finals at two different clubs is finally getting his first chance at a grand final.
A premiership is the most lusted-after thing on any all-time great’s resume and it’s the only thing left missing from his.
Should the Cats fall short, Joel Selwood and Gary Ablett won’t exactly finish their careers feeling like they failed – both have had more success than any footballer coming into the system could dream of achieving.
But for Selwood there is an opportunity to become the only four-time premiership player in the history of the Geelong Football Club, and to win a premiership as captain for the first time. For Ablett there’s the opportunity to end his career on the ultimate high note, to be the prodigal Son of God who returned to deliver premiership glory.
Richmond’s narratives don’t have quite the same drama. They’ve won two of the last three already, and have only a single player in their squad – Noah Balta – who would have to continue life without a premiership medal should they lose tonight.
And should that happen, no Richmond fan will find themselves feeling that this side’s success in recent years does not satisfy. These Tigers have already written themselves into history as the team that broke the club’s longest premiership drought, and went on to dominate the competition.
Still, many of you would’ve seen Brendon Gale’s bold three-flags-by-2020 prediction doing the rounds on social media this week, and while two out of three ain’t bad – as the AFL’s most infamous grand final entertainer would say – it would be beautifully symbolic of the Richmond renaissance for them to achieve exactly that.
It’s fair to say, too, that there’s no love left to lose between these two fan-bases. Perhaps neither is the other’s most famous rival, but they might well be their most bitter.
Both of Richmond’s recent premierships have involved knocking off the Cats in September. In 2017 it was their breakthrough qualifying final win, which drew inevitable controversy as a ‘home’ final for the Cats, fixtured at Richmond’s preferred venue of the MCG.
Then there was last year’s preliminary final, when Geelong so very nearly pulled off one of the great upsets, only to be sunk by five goals from Tom Lynch. Mark Blicavs on the wing, anyone?
Geelong coach Chris Scott has clearly never felt a need not to add fuel to the fire. In 2019 he said the Tigers weren’t as good as in their minor premiership-winning previous season. Earlier this year he claimed Richmond don’t compare to the great Hawthorn, Geelong, St Kilda or Collingwood sides of the past decade.
You might well agree with him, but it’s rare that a coach would be so straightforwardly honest in his assessment of a rival team – particularly one that, by any measure, has stood head and shoulders above the rest of the competition these past three years.
Winning tonight may well vindicate Scott’s comments, losing will open up yet another barrage of critcism. The margin between those outcomes is razor-thin and Scott’s reputation has as much if not more to gain – or lose – tonight as anyone else’s.
He is already a premiership coach, but on that many would say was lucky to inherit a premiership-ready team. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but it’s a refrain that will keep being echoed in his direction until he proves himself again.
Tonight will be Scott’s 211th game coaching the Cats since that 2011 flag win. No one in history has coached so many games at the same club between consecutive premierships – after ten years at the helm, no one could say this isn’t every bit a Chris Scott team.
We neutral fans are often drawn to the narrative, and I’ll admit that, like most others I suspect, I’ve been won over by Geelong’s. The many reasons why have all been listed above, the one that stands out the most is the desire to see Gary Ablett Junior go out on a high.
And there’s good reason to believe exactly that will happen. My statistical tipping model says the Cats by three points, 12 of the 13 tracked on Squiggle are also backing the white and navy blue.
But my gut? My gut says there’s no other way this ends than with Richmond lifting the cup again. In the eyes of many the Tigers may be the villains of the piece, but that’s the great thing about footy – sometimes the villains win.
That in itself can be a motivation – that siege-mentality, backs-against-the-wall opportunity to win a ‘screw you’ premiership even after every neutral fan has grown sick of seeing you succeed (or at least, that’s what they’ll tell themselves). See Hawthorn in 2015 for the best example.
The Tigers like to play intense, fast-paced football, a brand that’s well suited to what we’re expecting will be wet, possibly even stormy Queensland conditions. Geelong on the other hand are known for slower ball movement, set shots and uncontested possession – a style that may prove difficult to practice. I’m expecting that to be the difference.
I’ve tipped some grand finals in the past on who I wanted to win, a narrative I bought into because I wanted to see it happen. It worked okay for the Bulldogs in 2016, not so much Fremantle in 2013, or the Giants last year.
Not this time: I’m tipping 2020’s bad guys. Richmond by 18, Dustin Martin to make yet more history with a third Norm Smith medal. Come on Geelong – prove me wrong.