Fast becoming my favourite footy time of the week is Tuesday night. It seems a fairly strange time of the week to have my heart, but I wouldn’t have it if not for my Foxtel subscription. Basically, pretty much every Tuesday night the Fox Footy Channel airs two consecutive programs that I really love.
The first is Chooseday Night Footy, where viewers are given the choice between a few old games that they can vote on to watch, with that receiving the most votes put to air. Immediately following this program is 30 Minute Thrillers, which shows the last quarter of an old game that has a nail-biting finish. Each game offers footy romantics such as myself the opportunity to watch the game as it was with the players as they were. It is a delight.
This week both programs featured a Geelong team from the start of its recent successful era, with a close loss to West Coast in its underwhelming 2006, and a tight Preliminary Final win against Collingwood in its breakthrough Premiership year of 2007. I was particularly excited by this team when it was actually strutting its stuff, so to watch it in hindsight, with some of its then stars currently waning or retiring gave me a weird feeling. I felt sad.
Seeing those young stars in the prime of their youthful vigour with their careers ahead of them, but having also experienced recent reminders that their times had come or were coming, left me in the mood for reverie. The side of that era was very exciting and played with a great combination of strength, speed, dare, courage and freakish skill. There was a heavy focus on sharing the ball, particularly by handball to clear it from stoppages, but once it was out the team leapt into top gear. The ball could move with blistering speed, both around the packs, and from one end of the ground to the other.
The key playmakers of the side were some of the best to watch of their era. Gary Ablett Jnr, in the period of 2006-7 was just starting to find the belief in himself that would see him move from being one of the more dangerous goalsneaks in the competition, to being possibly the best midfielder the game has ever seen. Enough has been written of him, but it can be said that few players have shared as many elite traits as the little bald champ, who was at the time not yet entirely bald.
It was the presence of Ablett and his brother Nathan that had started me down the path of watching the Cats at that time. Like most Richmond supporters who experienced the 1980s and 1990s, I had grown up watching Gary Ablett Snr destroy my side a couple of times a year. I held him in mythical adoration. He was the man, though his nickname suggested he was more than that. So, when his son started playing for the Cats in 2002, and his other son shortly after, I was tuning in to watch, wondering if his progeny could do anything to remind me of their old man.
Watching Bartel play live on Saturday night, and then seeing him play in a game from 2007 made it very obvious that he is not now the player he was. The same can be said for many of his teammates. Corey Enright was the perfect back flank, Steve Johnson the miraculous scoundrel (he actually still is that), James Kelly a young, straight running bull with fluffy hair, Andrew Mackie and talented, confident running defender, Matthew Stokes a nippy, skilful forward pocket. None of these players are close to what once they were.
The rest of the premiership players from 2007 have retired, with the exception of Ablett, who is still somehow at his best when unijured, and Joel Selwood, who was a first year player in 2007. It is some credit to Selwood’s ability in his first year that he was very similar to what he is now. He is a mighty player indeed.
Yes, all of Tom Harley, Matthew Scarlett, Josh Hunt, Darren Milburn, David Wojcinski, Joel Corey, Cameron Mooney, Paul Chapman, Nathan Ablett, Brad Ottens, Cameron Ling, Steven King, Shannon Brynes and Max Rooke have retired. They are sure to be joined by a couple more in the coming weeks. It is only eight years ago, but so footy goes. The jumper mostly stays the same, but the faces constantly change.
Of the above bunch, I have a few favourites. Wojcinski’s legs were capable of carrying him faster than his body was able to handle. He was so damn fast, he was rarely able to kick the ball as well as I think he could’ve if he’d slowed down that little bit. I reckon he kicked point of the year about 10 times. I loved watching him, as he looked like he was strapped into a rocket and had no control over what was about to happen. He was one of the last untamed things that weren’t Steve Johnson in the big league.
Scarlett was a genuine enigma. He played over 300 games of footy and said almost nothing to the media in that time. He did his talking with his footy, and it spoke volumes. He spoke of determination, confidence, reliability, skill and tenacity. He spoke of team. You would want to play knowing you had Scarlett behind you, as you could back yourself knowing that if you got it wrong, you could count on him to fix things up.
It’s possible I’d be less bitter if we’d been a bit smarter with picks 12 and 16, which we had gotten for him. Still, none of Ottens, Danny Meyer and Adam Pattison are still playing, so it all just joins all the other droplets of water to flow under the bridge.
Water under the bridge, that is what I take from this little reverie. Everything comes to an end, from individual careers, to teams, to game styles, to eras, all things come and go and it is the nature of us humans to go with that change, always looking for the next champion player or team, the next style to beat the current. We do, though, look back.
There is much to be learnt from the past, and much to enjoy in it. Eras such as the Brisbane teams of the early 2000s, to the Hawthorn and Essendon teams of the 1980s have left their mark on our hearts to varying degrees. No doubt there are long suffering Melbourne supporters out there that look back fondly to the mighty teams of the 1950s, God knows they need it. In years that will soon be upon us, we will look back on the wonderful Hawthorn teams of the present era and marvel at the players that dazzled with their precision kicking and adherence to team.
So whilst I felt the unexpected sensation of sorrow from watching those Cats games from ’06-7, I also enjoyed the memories of what was once so real and present, with all its possibilities, hopes and mysteries. Those mysteries have been unlocked in what is now history. And I suppose the next, and most logical question must be: what next for the Cats?
We will have to wait and see.