Between 1983 and 1991, Hawthorn played in eight grand finals, winning five.
In 1990, after seven grand finals in a row they battled injuries early in the season and despite a big run in the lead up to finals, it ended in an elimination final loss to the perennially battling Melbourne Demons. Melbourne took out the wasteful Hawks when the Demons finally took the lead 18 minutes into the third term, holding on in a thriller when the Hawks kicked 3.6 to 1.3 in the final quarter.
Watching on were captain Tony Shaw and his eclectic mix of battlers, enforcers and stars from the Leigh Matthews-coached Collingwood, who had emerged from a promising 1989 campaign to appear a genuine contender in 1990.
The Hawks however had beaten the Pies by 83 points in Round 20 that season, a psychological battering few thought they would recover from and the prospect of the Magpies turning that result around should they meet the intimidating Hawks in finals a few weeks later seemed remote.
However, with the Hawks eliminated by another club and despite a heart-stopping draw in the qualifying final against West Coast, the Magpies went on to claim the 1990 premiership in a comfortable eight-goal win over arch rival Essendon. It coined the eternal question to Bombers fans of who kicked five goals in the 1990 grand final?
The Pies’ timing in 1990 was perfect. The stars not only aligned but it seemed the asteroid in their path had been cleared by someone else, Melbourne of all clubs.
Essendon, West Coast and Melbourne were up and about but the Pies had more than held their own against these sides and were not intimidated by them. Matthews had his window and he pounced with the flag that temporarily at least buried the Colliwobble tag given to the Pies for choking in grand finals.
Ultimately it was a hit-and-run flag with the Pies unable to replicate that timing despite getting close in subsequent seasons. 1990 ended up perfect timing for the Pies’ snatch-and-run flag before the Hawks resumed their rightful place in 1991 with yet another premiership.
Fast forward to 2021, Geelong have been so good and so close for so long, working on their own theory of not so much timing your run, better to simply contend deep as you can every year as the spoils will then come.
In the decades prior to their breakthrough flag in 2007 (after a 44-year wait), the Cats were starting to form their own version of the Colliewobbles with losses in key finals, sometimes as favourite. Ironically the Pies would knock them out in close preliminary finals in 1980 and 1981.
In 1989, in the greatest grand final of all time, they infamously went the biff early, gave up a massive head start and failed by just six points to reel in the wounded Hawks with Dermott Brereton writing a new chapter in his folklore. In 1991 they lost by two points to eventual premier Hawthorn in a double-chance semi-final and then bowed out by 15 points in the preliminary to the West Coast Eagles.
They went one better in 1992 and 1994, bowing out to the powerful new team from the west on both occasions in grand finals. They made their fourth grand final in seven years in 1995 but had lost them all, this time to a powerful Carlton side. In 1997 they finished in second position but went out in straight sets.
After another quick finals exit in 2000, the Cats settled mid-table for a few years before starting again. It’s been an extraordinary run for the Cats ever since. Starting from 2004, the Cats finished fourth in the home-and-away season before bowing out again in the preliminary final, this time a heartbreaking nine-point loss to Brisbane.
Season 2005 is worth dwelling on for just a moment if you are a Sydney fan. The Cats finished sixth, yet saw their own pathway open up as they led the Sydney Swans by four goals well into the final quarter of a dour cut-throat semi-final in a year the flag was up for grabs.
A preliminary final against St Kilda at the MCG beckoned. Goals had seemed near impossible to score and the four-goal lead felt like eight. Enter Nick Davis into immortality with four individual goals in the final 14 minutes of the game. Paul Roos called it “without doubt the best quarter of finals football ever played by anyone”.
With all due respect to Darren Jarman in the final quarter of the 1997 grand final, it was. It was unbelievable. On-air TV commentator Anthony Hudson, a mad Geelong fan, was immortalised in the moment.
“I don’t believe it! I see it, but I don’t believe it! He has single-handedly put them into the preliminary final,” cried Hudson as Davis kicked his fourth final-quarter goal to send the Swans in front with just four seconds left in the game. It was worthy of Collingwood in a grand final, such was the scale of the loss.
The late Clinton Grybas, in an epic 3AW commentary, described the scene on air and in the moment better than I can: “Final play of the season, ball at the top of the goal square. Nick Davis. Nick Davis. Davis has done it for Sydney. It’s grand larceny. It’s highway robbery. It’s Ronnie Biggs. It’s Ned Kelly. It’s the greatest thieving effort you will ever see.”
Despite Garry Lyon and Rex Hunt doing their best to interrupt, it’s worth listening to the Grybas grab, taken way too young.
No wonder Geelong would need to regroup in 2006 after that, but regroup they did and they launched again in 2007.
Despite a preliminary final scare, the Cats of 2007 finally exorcised their demons against Port Adelaide to the tune of 119 points. The premiership gap was not just broken, it was shattered to pieces.
In 2008 it appeared back-to-back was a formality but instead the Cats had a surprise loss to Hawthorn again in a grand final after finishing the season 21-1 and 16 points clear on top, kicking 11.23. They went on to finish second in 2009 and win another flag thanks to a Matty Scarlett toe poke that this time for Cats fans is always worth revisiting.
All those moments as a kid kicking in the backyard perhaps honed those instincts for Scarlett that immortalised a choice made in a microsecond.
Second again followed in 2010, this time bowing out to the red-hot Pies in the preliminary final. There was no shame in this one. The first half was the Pies’ best ever finals footy. The trite ‘too old and too slow’ chant on the Cats started around then and continues to this day despite the continual performances showing otherwise.
In 2011 premier Collingwood had their best home-and-away season ever, losing just three games for the year. However, all three were losses to the Cats and they overran the Pies in the last quarter of an underrated classic grand final. It seemed they were far from too old or slow.
Since that epic 2011 grand final where the Cats won their third premiership in five years, the Cats have finished the home-and-away season sixth in 2012, bowing out Week 1, second in 2013, ultimately denied by Hawthorn in the preliminary final by five points, third in 2014 and out in straight sets to Hawthorn and North Melbourne, another quick regroup with tenth in 2015, second in 2016 losing the preliminary final to Sydney, second in 2017 losing the preliminary final to Adelaide, eighth in 2018 bowing out Week 1, first in 2019 but losing to the Tigers in the preliminary and of course in 2020 bowing out to the Tigers with a disappointing second half in the grand final.
What does this look like in summary? The Cats have missed just two final series in the past 17 years, 2006 and 2015. They have basically been either up to their eyeballs in contention or quickly rebounding to contention this entire century. That is a remarkable statistic from an incredibly well managed footy club.
West Coast and Hawthorn are their only true rivals for consistency this century, maybe Sydney getting up there. I say well managed. What other side in the competition could bring in Isaac Smith, Shaun Higgins and Jeremy Cameron in a post-season after a grand final? Nathan Buckley pondered a similar question in his resignation press conference.
The Pies of 1990, the Bombers of 1993, the Crows of 1997-1998, the Swans of 2005 and 2012, the Bulldogs of 2016, the Tigers in the second half of 2017 timed their run to the flag beautifully in gap years where a timing run was open.
Opposition teams were either falling over or a lack of one outstanding side opened up the path for a run. Like Steven Bradbury in the Winter Olympics, these premiers cruised past the stumbling opposition around them.
Cats have lost grand finals to powerful, epic sides: Hawthorn in 1989, West Coast in 1992 and 1994, Carlton in 1995 and Richmond in 2020. After the insipid showing by Greater Western Sydney in the grand final, they likely would have won 2019 too but the Tigers denied them in the second half of the preliminary final.
In all these years one side was just that bit better. They were clearly next best. Even the Hawks of 2013 were the dynasty side in the making and they came back from 20 points down in the preliminary final against the Cats to win by five points. Travis Varcoe missed with a shot 30 metres out straight in front to tie the game with one minute left; an opportunity lost but once again you have to make it there in the first place to give yourself a chance.
Halfway into 2021 the Cats will clearly contend again but this time perhaps the stars are aligning. Sitting beautifully under the radar, the Cats are purring along in the top four with a nice percentage. Their arch nemesis Richmond are injury plagued and have been up and down as a result.
West Coast have also been hammered by injury and inconsistent form. The Cats thrashed the Tigers by 63 points and West Coast by 97. With the Bulldogs to come, the Cats have lost to Sydney and Adelaide and won’t face either of these sides come the pointy end of the season.
Melbourne is the interesting one. They beat the Cats soundly by 25 points and the Demons have hardly put a foot wrong all year. It was April though when Melbourne surprised them and the Cats had no Gary Rohan, Patrick Dangerfield or Jeremy Cameron in the side.
The Demons too have next to no finals experience and loom as a side who could easily get stage fright come September. How would the Demons go if they found themselves in a grand final against these final-seasoned, experienced and big-bodied Cats? It could be a winning result of 2007 all over again.
Who else is contending? Brisbane? A contender for sure, but look what the Cats did to them in that preliminary final last year and Geelong are stronger this year with the addition of Jeremy Cameron. Granted, the Lions now have Joe Daniher but the Cats have the best defence by far in the competition and can shut down sides. Daniher is more likely to go missing in action than Cameron.
The Cats also wouldn’t fear the Lions anywhere. Their record at the Gabba last year was strong and they can benefit from the increased exposure to the ground they had in 2020.
Port Adelaide? The Cats just beat them in Adelaide and convincingly to boot. The Power seem a step back from last year instead of a step forward. No fear there.
The only other side in their way is the Western Bulldogs and this match-up on June 18 will be an interesting game. If the Cats fall to the Doggies, this will give the Doggies some hope come finals time. Still, the Doggies have changed a fair bit from 2016 and they too will have a number of star-struck players come a big final in September. Could you tip them against the experience, nous, size and strength of the Cats in a big cut-throat final? I am not sure I could.
I see the main danger to the Cats still being Richmond and in particular of course Dustin Martin. The Tigers are wounded but lurking. If injury continues to plague them in the second half of 2021 however, there may simply not be enough time for the Tigers to climb high enough.
Someone else may well take out the Tigers this year, clearing the path further for the Cats. The Tigers currently appear unlikely for a top-four spot and as a result would be playing knockout finals. They may simply not get far enough to have another crack at the Cats.
Geelong is more likely to face the Dogs, Lions or Demons at this stage in Week 1 and I’d back them to win any of those games, taking them straight to a preliminary final.
Who will still be around come preliminary final time is the question? If it happened to be Geelong, Brisbane, Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs, then the cup is likely to be heading down Geelong Road again.
Season 2021 is aligning beautifully for the Cats. They face the Doggies next followed by a second encounter against the Lions, leaving eight games remaining. Out of those only Richmond and Melbourne loom as a genuine challenge.
While the focus in the media is on the exciting upstarts in Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs, the Cats glide along happily gaining connection experience with Tom Hawkins, Rohan and Cameron.
They are very well coached. Chris Scott looks composed. He knows everything is in place and they just need to execute now.
The Cats’ timing may well be spot on in 2021 and how poetic for the Cats to bookend two premierships ten years apart with pretty much a new side rebuilt on the fly while contending year on year.
They have proven already that clubs don’t need to hit rock bottom and put forward three-to-five-year plans such as the Pies are now spouting. They simply put themselves in contention as much as they can year on year and know the stars will align at some stage.
This year is likely to be that alignment. Four flags in 15 years would prove testament to their strategy and list management skills and have them equal Hawthorn as the best performing side this century.
While their detractors point to poor finals performances in the past ten years, that’s a negative way of looking at things. The same criticism is used for Collingwood in losing grand finals. Would these same people prefer to not make finals for fear of losing?
2021 is the year of the Cat.