Professional sporting club songs often contain forgettable and inaccurate lyrics, plenty are miss and yet a few hit the mark. The Geelong Football Club song couldn't be more fitting, at least for its recent golden age with these two lines:
"We are Geelong, the greatest team of all..."
"We play the game the way it should be played..."
Today saw James Kelly and Mathew Stokes announce they wouldn't be at the club next season. While not champions, they have both been a significant part of the most magnificent era. With club legends Jimmy Bartel, Corey Enright and Steve Johnson on their last legs it makes footy fans ponder what Geelong have been able to achieve in the last decade or so.
In 2004 the Cats led the three-time premier Brisbane Lions late in the preliminary final and looked like they may cause an immense upset. Eventually they went down by 8 points, but we saw a sign of things to come. The year after, they were well on their way to a massive semi-final win over the Sydney Swans before Nick Davis happened.
Over these two years the seeds were sown and the football world looked at this precocious young list and were excited. In the next decade names like Gary Ablett, Bartel, Johnson, Paul Chapman, Matthew Scarlett and company rose to incredible heights in winning the 2007, 2009 and 2011 premierships. If not for inaccurate kicking in 2008 and Stuart Dew, we would have had a team winning four flags in five years. Put simply, the unthinkable almost happened.
How it happened was through purely brilliant football. It was bold, confident (some would say arrogant), risk-taking football with a supreme confidence in their skills. This was not an era built on top draft picks but rather shrewd recruiting - from 1999 to 2001 they drafted Chapman (at pick 31), Cameron Ling (38), Corey Enright (47), Bartel (8), Kelly (17), and Johnson (24) where other teams took often highly-rated players, most of whom did not amount to anything but solid league footballers. While there were exceptions in all three drafts, but if Geelong were being graded they scored a solid A+++ for drafting as they nailed every pick.
The players were mixed into a lethal cocktail. In Scarlett, Enright, Andrew Mackie and Darren Milburn they had defenders who thrived from playing in attack mode, daring to take on the game down the middle of the ground. In Ablett, Bartel, Kelly, Ling, Joel Corey and Joel Selwood they had a mix of attacking flair, legitimate toughness and accountability as well as having truly great big-game players like Bartel who owned the moment when it mattered most.
Their game style took handballing to a new level as they tallied far more disposals by hand than any other team. Instead of handballing for the sake of the action, they used it as a lethal attacking weapon off half-back and through the middle of the ground. Teams scurried to find a solution or play copycat but no-one came close to being able to do so on a consistent basis.
In Steve Johnson and Paul Chapman, they had two of the first breed of high half-forwards and arguably the two best mid-sized forwards in the game. Both moved into the midfield when needed and saved their best for the big stage, as Norm Smith medals in 2007 (Johnson) and 2009 (Chapman) can attest to.
The tall forwards and ruckmen were never elite, but they didn't need to be. Cameron Mooney, Tom Hawkins, Tom Harley, Nathan Ablett and Brad Ottens were more serviceable than standout but they played their roles in exactly the manner Geelong needed them to.
This was an era where flooding, tagging and defensive negating football had more than its fair share of negative publicity. Teams like St.Kilda and Sydney modelled their teams around stopping the opposition rather than their own use of the ball and while it was tough to watch, the Cats were a breath of fresh air. Players took pay cuts to stay together, they won at home and away and it took plenty to beat them at any time, let alone in a final. They played with a sense of flair and confidence that was built on elite coaching and skilled footballers on every line.
Youngsters like Cam Guthrie, Dan Menzel, Josh Caddy and Steven Motlop are seen as the future, and it is no disrespect to them when we say they needn't be half the players their predecessors were to be considered a success.
Premiership players Chapman, Ablett, Allen Christenson and Travis Varcoe have found their way to other clubs. Kelly and Stokes have been shown the door and many others will follow; as footy fans it will be tough to see Enright, Bartel and Johnson exit the Cattery as they are true legends of the game.
But the time is right, and it is worth remembering that all good things must come to an end. In the world's greatest sport, this good thing just happens to be the end of the greatest modern era the AFL has known. For now all we have are the memories, and in this case that is all we need.
Geelong, you are right - in our time you were the greatest team of all and you definitely played the game everyone should play it.