When the siren sounded on Grand Final Day, 2011, the Geelong Football Club stood atop the AFL mountain, victorious, for the third time in five years.

Premierships in 2007, 2009, and now 2011 cemented their position as possibly the greatest team of the modern era. There have been dynasties before and since, but this particular group had something else, something intangible.

They just felt invincible.

They had as many characters as they did All-Australians. Even the neutrals loved watching the likes of Ablett, Mooney, Scarlett, Bartell, Kelly, and Stevie J on the field as much as they hung out to see what they’d be wearing each Mad Monday.  

They were perhaps the last larrikins to climb the mountain. Their talent matched only by their work ethic and competitiveness. There’s a pang of a lost Australia in there somewhere.

They were the beating heart of their hometown, and in a way that perhaps only the South and Western Australian teams can begin to understand.

But at the time, the 2011 premiership was anything but inevitable.

If you look a bit closer something extraordinary happened down at Kardinia Park just over a decade ago.

Too old, too slow, remember?

Over the next five installments, to celebrate Retro Round, we’ll tell the story of how a football club suffered one of the most tumultuous off-season’s in living memory and somehow found enough for one glorious run.

It’s a tale of abandonment and loss, arguments and despair, renewal, relentlessness, and ultimately greatness.  The story of a club that has done it differently to most, remaining in reach of the cup virtually every year since, the seeds sown in the down year of 2006, through the triumph of 2007, and against the grain in 2011.

Those teams and those players forever changed how the Geelong Football Club was viewed and how the people of Geelong saw themselves.

No longer ‘sleepy hollow’, on the back of that success the people of Geelong grew confident and proud of who they were and where they were from, and over a decade on it’s become a destination not just for players drawn to Geelong for its culture as much as its lifestyle, but for Melbournite’s looking for a change in a post-pandemic world.  

Geelong has come alive, and it all started down at Kardinia Park.

Torquay, September 2010

Matthew Scarlett’s phone rings. On the other end is his coach, Mark ‘Bomber’ Thompson, and he wants to talk. Scarlett is at the Surf Coast home of his great mate Corey ‘Boris’ Enright.

The pair would end their careers with 666 games between them, including 12 All-Australian jumpers, three best and fairest’s, and of course six premierships.

But on this overcast Torquay day, they were just two mates sharing a beer after a long, arduous, and ultimately, disappointing season had come to an end.

According to Scarlett, the coach’s call came out of the blue and his visit, in the end, didn’t amount to much either.

It was said that he was fidgety and troubled, and after a quick chat about the upcoming season, he left. Both men thought Thompson had come with something he wanted to say that day, but ultimately couldn’t get it out.  

That was on the Monday. On Wednesday morning, Gary Ablett Jr. sent a text to all his teammates.

“Hey boys, just wanted to let you know that… after a lot of thought and consideration, I have decided to take on a new venture at the Gold Coast footy club. It’s been an absolute honour to play alongside you boys – times I’ll never forget.”

Later that morning, the greatest player of the modern era, and Geelong royalty, Ablett officially joined the Gold Coast Suns.

But the week of upheaval wouldn’t end there. While the Ablett situation had been resolved after a long season of will he, won’t he chatter, there was still uncertainty around the coach himself.

The Cats believed that Essendon, the club that he had captained to the 1993 premiership, had been trying to lure him back to Windy Hill and Geelong officials were becoming increasingly wary that there was more than a hint of truth to the rumors.

Crown Palladium, Melbourne  

On Thursday, the club held the Carji Greeves Medal count and Thompson was scheduled to speak.

Though he hadn’t informed anyone officially of his intentions other than assistant coaches Brendan McCartney and Brenton Sanderson, the consensus in the room was that, whether he left for Essendon or not, Thompson had likely coached his last game for Geelong. 

The room of 1700 waited impatiently for him to appear at the lectern, and the address when it came, was emotional, albeit somewhat inconclusive, but captain Cameron Ling had no trouble reading between the lines. 

“He’s gone,” he said. 

On the 4th of October 2010, Mark Thompson officially resigned as the coach of Geelong after 11 seasons at the helm. He broke the news to President Frank Costa in the backroom of a café in Anglesea, a coastal town 40 mins outside of Geelong.

And just like that, the Bomber Thompson era ended. 

Part 2: The Hunger Games

At 8am on Tuesday, October 5 2010, the day after Mark Thompson had resigned as coach of the Geelong Football Club, the sub-committee charged with finding the next coach convened for the first time. 

In the room were Brian Cook, Neil Balme, and football manager Steve Hocking. Colin Carter, who was set to replace Frank Costa at the end of the year was there, as were Gareth Andrews and Diana Taylor. 

Balme opened the meeting:

“This is a good opportunity for us. It’s very rare that you can change direction when you are on a high, even though the last game was a bit of a low, we’re still a pretty well-performed club.’

Balme was right. 

The Cats had become victims of their own expectations, in a way. For most clubs, a 17-win season and a trip to the preliminary final would be more than enough to satisfy players, fans, and board members alike, but not Geelong. 

The club was hurting for falling short, and the role of the next coach would be one like no other.

Chris Scott was in Bali for a wedding when he was first approached:

“It was one of those things where I thought, ‘Well, Geelong people are probably going to get it, so do I even want to put myself through that process?”

But a little-known aside was that there were ‘Geelong people’ who had had their own experiences with the former Brisbane Lion as far back as 2008, in particular Steve Hocking. 

At the time, Mark Thompson was chosen to lead the Victorian side during the Hall of Fame Tribute match. Thompson brought with him his own crew of assistants, including Ken Hinkley and Brenton Sanderson, but Scott, then just six months into his tenure at Fremantle was added to the group and evidently impressed the men from Kardinia Park, especially Hocking. 

Scott was in Bright doing the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail when he got the call. 

“From the start it was something I never expected. Right until I got the call from Neil Balme, I didn’t think it was any chance, must less a good chance.”

Just prior to the announcement, the mobile phones of Cats players holidaying abroad lit up with the news that Scott had been appointed to succeed Thompson.  

Their responses were as telling as they were identical. In many ways, it was this moment, playing out as it did across the world, that began the climb back up the mountain. 

As good as Thompson was, and he was very, very good for the Geelong Football Club, the hiring of Chris Scott arguably changed the trajectory of the club, it’s players and ultimately the 2011 season.  

Ruckman Brad Ottens said the decision jolted the playing group into a new preparedness. 

“The decision probably took us out of our comfort zone as you have to prove yourself to the new coach,” he said.

“Established guys in the team would have thought they had a walk-up start with Kenny (Hinkley), rather than having to earn your spot with a new head coach.”

Matthew Scarlett was in New York with Corey Enright when he got the message. 

“It provided an instant challenge – we all had to prove ourselves again. 

“The irregular runs over there became daily. While we’d still go out and have a drink, we’d be in the gym the next morning working out on the bike.”

Geelong, November 2010

Scott’s hard and uncompromising attitude as a player would follow him to Kardinia Park, and the memories of the way those Michael Voss led Lions he was a part of that brutalised the competition in the early 2000s were fresh in the mind of the more senior Cats.  

But it was his initial address to the playing group on the opening day of pre-season training in November that impressed most. 

“I love so much of what you guys do,” he said.

“That’s why you’re a good team and it’s why I respect you a lot. I’m not going to be able to tell you how to play the game because you all know how to do that, and you’ve done it well over a long time.”

‘But we just need to change a few things to make us a better side.’

And just like that, the coach and the players were on the same page. 

By January, though it hadn’t been exactly smooth sailing, things were now starting to click. The new year brought new hope, and the buzzword around the then Skilled Stadium was ‘trust.’ And it was key. 

Scott’s consultative style, bringing the senior players along was starting to bear fruit. They were in it together, and everyone could feel it. 

‘I would say to them, “You guys know footy just as well as me, some of you better than me in certain respects.”’ ‘If they had genuine concerns that something wasn’t working or it was not the right way of going about things, come and talk to me. 

‘I’ll either convince you that it is, or you’ll convince me, and we’ll make changes. That’ trust. Being together on this was the only way we were going to get it done. ‘

Part 3: The Hunters

Like much of eastern Australia, the Geelong summer of 2010-11 was wet and dreary. In fact, the previous six months was the wettest since records had begun in 1871.

The grey skies that had apparently set permanently above Kardinia Park were for many a poetic metaphor for the fortunes of the Geelong Football Club.

But the mood inside the club was different.

Clubs will often say that what is being said outside the walls has as much impact on them as the weather on Mars, but it did matter to this group of players.

In particular the heroes of 2007 and 2009.

Harry Taylor said he couldn’t bear to hear talk that the Cats had slipped; other players have said similar things. That the great Geelong’s obituary had apparently been written would power and propel them forward, and it’s why the Round 8 clash with Collingwood was circled on the draw early.

After all, it was the Magpies who had bounced Geelong out of the finals in 2010 on their way to their first flag in 20 years, and it was Mick Malthouse’s men who would need to be beaten if the Cats were to grace the dais once again on Grand Final day six months from now.  

Geelong, December 2010

The pre-season hadn’t been smooth sailing.

The consensus was the game plan needed tinkering, and the ensuing summer of learning was marked by lots of video, botched drills on the track, and some conflict.

“We knew we had to change some things and you can’t learn that in a couple of weeks," Harry Taylor said. “It takes a lot of work and well, a lot of arguments.”

The club would remain a work in progress throughout the season but after a Round 1 scare against St.Kilda, the club would flex its still substantial muscle, dispatching of Fremantle, Port Adelaide, Sydney, and Hawthorn before rounding out the first stanza with an 11 goal win over the Kangaroos which was the Cats 25th consecutive win at home, a VFL/AFL record.

Up the highway, no one had managed to beat Collingwood either, setting up a mouth-watering top of the table clash with the Magpies.

While some pundits had begun to talk up Geelong’s premiership chances after their Round 5 win over the Hawks, the premiership was still seen largely as Collingwood’s to lose.

It was an unusual position for the once invincible Cats to be in, the hunted had become the hunter.

“We were pretty pumped up because we wanted to really prove ourselves against the best, the same as the other teams had done against us for the previous few years,” midfielder James Kelly said.

Melbourne, May 2011

81,691 people packed the MCG on that windy Friday night to see if Geelong could be the one to knock over a seemingly invincible Magpie outfit who had only lost once in the last 22 games.

The Cats were ferocious at the footy early but for wayward kicking couldn’t get a reward on the scoreboard, kicking 2.9 in the first term, but the game would eventually live up to its own lofty expectation, remaining delicately poised for the next 90 minutes.

In his 100th game, Joel Selwood was best on ground, grabbing 28 valuable touches, including seven clearances and eight inside 50s, but Geelong had winners everywhere when it counted.

Dan Menzel’s outduelling of a peak-of-his-powers Dane Swan on the wing with 11 minutes to go to set up a crucial Steve Johnson goal could be sculpted in bronze, and Joel Corey was an irresistible force in the final quarter, just ripping the ball out of stoppages.

The last five minutes are five of the tensest five minutes you’ll ever see in a home and away match. They’re a lesson in resilience and determination, a lesson in the Geelong way.  

The Cats at times look uncertain, and mistakes were made, but they would almost immediately rectify them.

In the dying minutes, Brad Ottens gave up a free kick to Colingwood ruckman Cameron Wood for a shot at goal. The kick fell short, but who would gather and clear it from the goal square and set up another Geelong forward advance? Ottens.

A Harry Taylor miskick was almost immediately followed up by a crucial spoil on Travis Cloke.

In a perverse way, it appeared at times like each Geelong error was making them stronger.

And when the siren sounded, there was no mistaking what the 3-point win meant.

“It was important,” defender Josh Hunt would say later. 

“After what happened in that prelim, this year everyone was saying that Collingwood was the only team in it and the only way they’ll get beaten is if they beat themselves. 

“We took that personally, so to beat them with our new gameplan was a massive statement.”

Part 4: The Handover    

“Mate, you stand up and take us all the way.”

It was the week of the Qualifying Final, with the Hawks waiting on Friday night at the MCG. 

Geelong had completely dismantled the league leading Magpies in the final round of the home and away season. Most saw it as a dead rubber, whatever the result, ladder positions wouldn’t change: Collingwood first, Geelong second. 

Not Geelong. It was a clinic, and it’s not hard to see how the Cats had grown in confidence after the 96-point victory. Wise footy heads will always tell you that you can’t flirt with form. 

Finals week at football clubs is a tense mix of excitement and nerves. Things can end suddenly, or the flame continues to flicker. And then you do it again next week, maybe.

It was in that environment that Geelong skipper Cameron Ling approached 23-year-old Tom Hawkins at the main training session ahead of the 2011 finals series opener. 

“You be the one to lead us,” Ling told the son of Jumping Jack Hawkins.  

“All these guys here, we’re right behind you.”

The transition, or handover, from the beloved Cameron Mooney to Hawkins, was no Kirribilli agreement. It happened, but it wasn’t linear. It may not have been the difference between Geelong winning or losing the premiership, but the way it was handled could have been. 

The Hawkins story is well known. A big, bustling, father-son selection loaded with promise struggles to find his way early as most big, bustling key forwards carrying expectations often do.  

Mooney, the ‘big hairy Cat’, who kicked 67 goals in the club’s breakthrough flag in 2007, was at the other end of his career, but desperate for one last premiership. 

But crucially, not at the expense of the team. And it’s this story, one of many selfless acts that litter this season, and seasons since that make up the Geelong story. 

Team first. Always. 

The selection dilemma was one that was familiar to full back Matthew Scarlett. 

He’d seen a similar story play out with former skipper Steven King in 2007, and now it was his close friend, Mooney, battling to hold his spot. Rugged defender Darren Milburn would eventually suffer a similar fate. 

But Scarlett was almost manic in his focus.

“My message to both of them was simple: I support whatever is best for the team.”

That Cats show rolled on after the Round 8 win over the Magpies, the only hiccups being against Essendon and West Coast in Rounds 14 and 15 by a total of 12 points. 

But it was the gradual emergence of Hawkins that was raising eyebrows in the Geelong coaches box. He was dominant against Brisbane in Round 17 with three goals, put three on Richmond the following week, before kicking five in the 186 point demolition of Melbourne.

“It was the stuff we had seen him do at training, but he just hadn’t been able to translate it into a game," Chris Scott said. 

“It was almost like the penny dropped and he was saying, ‘Now, I know what you’re talking about.”

What had become clear at that point of the season was that James Podsiadly, himself an incredible story, from staff member and VFL player, to number one forward in the space of two seasons, had assumed the number one mantle. 

That left one spot in the side going forward. 

“I get back into the side against Melbourne that day, we kicked 200 odd points. I thought I’m on my way. I’m feeling good,” Mooney recently told the Herald Sun’s Sacked podcast. 

“And then the next week we played Gold Coast. So, we played the two worst teams in the comp. I’ve beaten up on them and I thought I was going all right.”

The Cats would drop one more that season, a rare home loss to the Swans by 13 points, setting up a 1 vs 2 clash against the Magpies to end the home and away season. 

That week, Chris Scott called Mooney into his office. Mooney said even though he was 60% fit, he thought the meeting might be good news. 

“Then I saw the tears welling in his eyes,” he said, ‘I’m going to go with the young fella. I don’t know why, it’s just a gut feeling.’ I said, ‘you’re probably right.’”

Hawkins had kicked just the 18 goals up to that point of the season, but Ling, Scott, and even Mooney knew what he was capable of, and Mooney himself, perhaps, no longer was. 

Ling had one last message to deliver to the emerging spearhead before he left the training track ahead of that Qualifying Final. 

“Deliver us a premiership.”

Geelong would duly dispose of the old enemy Hawthorn by five goals that weekend, their seventh straight win over the Hawks since the 2009 grand final, and send West Coast back across the Nullarbor hurting to the tune of 48 points to set up a date with Collingwood in the decider.

It could only have been the Magpies.

Part 5: The Geelong Way

It was once said that great grand finals have as many subplots as they do players on the field, and the 2011 decider was no different.

Steve Johnson would go down in the preliminary final with what appeared at the time to be a serious knee injury. His grand final week would be a kaleidoscope of hyperbaric chambers, media packs, ice packs and aerial shots of fitness tests.

Daniel Menzel, after five goals against Collingwood in his 20th game in Round 24, is lost to an ACL injury in the Qualifying Final.

Eventual Norm Smith Medallist Jimmy Bartel spent the week the subject of rumours that he’d secretly broken his ribs. He had apparently been spotted at an Ocean Grove Medical Clinic getting treatment. He was on the couch at the time.

James Podsiadly went from a VFL captain and part time fitness coach to the Cats’ number one forward in two seasons, while club stalwarts, Cameron Mooney, Darren Milburn, Brad Ottens and Cameron Ling would all be wrestling with their football mortality.

And then there’s Tom Lonergan. In 2006 he’d lost a kidney and the prospects for a while there were as bad as it could get.  And now he was about to play in an AFL Grand Final.

The list goes on, and the ball was yet to be bounced.

An hour from the MCG on the morning of the game, defenders Matthew Scarlett and Corey Enright were carpooling up the highway to the sound of a burnt CD that Enright had made for the trip consisting of old football songs, at Scarlett’s request.

“Well, you work to earn a living, but on weekends comes a time…” You can’t make this stuff up.

Melbourne, 1 October 2011. 
When they arrive, the ‘G, arguably the greatest sporting arena in the world, is heaving. It’s high grey walls and colossal light towers are almost foreboding when silent, but on a Saturday afternoon on grand final day, it’s an intoxicating place.

And nothing fills the MCG quite like an expectant Magpie army.

Collingwood had spent the year on top of the ladder, reigning premiers, and the logical successor to the once mighty Geelong dynasty. But the Cats’ Round 24, 96-point drubbing had forced a rethink.

Mick Malthouse’s men had finished on top of the ladder having lost just twice for the season – both times to Geelong.

Any doubts or fears Collingwood and its fans had been harboring that morning came to life in one glorious passage of football almost immediately after the first bounce when Travis Varcoe burst out of the middle like a slingshot to register the Cats’ first goal.

Barely 11 seconds had passed.

Another quick one from Varcoe, whose game that day remains oddly underrated, and the Cats were away to the best possible start.

Enter Travis Cloke.

A match winner on his day, but he had a kicking boot that would regularly let him down when the pressure was highest, particularly when close to goal. Sit him outside the arc free of expectation and Cloke could be utterly lethal, and on that day, he was precisely that.  

Cloke became the catalyst and the Magpies, and their supporters were back in it. By the 18-minute mark of the second term, Collingwood were out to a 16-point lead and threatening to get off the leash.

The Podsiadly Injury
Then, James Podsiadly is upended in a marking contest and dislocates his shoulder. He said later he felt like his arm was behind him when he landed. If you watch the footage, you physically brace for impact as he hits the ground. It’s ugly.

The sound around the ground falls to a low murmur.

Some Cats supporters politely clap as he is taken down the race, others just stare. Part in disbelief, part in the hope he can come back, and part in helplessness if he can’t.

It’s wet, cold, the ground is heavy, the Cats are three goals down and their number one marking target is done for the day.

Geelong is on the precipice.

Is this where it ends? Could this seemingly mighty team ride off into the sunset with just two flags to mark their period of dominance?

Enter Tom Hawkins
At half time, Cameron Mooney approaches Tom Hawkins. The exchange is caught by the TV cameras. It’s intense.

“Your workload is about to increase, get to as many contests as you can,” he told him.

“Move. Start presenting. Don’t wait for it to be kicked on your head.”

Hawkins would later say the Mooney speech calmed him down and focused him. 

What happens next isn’t the reason Geelong won their third flag in four years that season. 

There’s not enough space to talk through the contributions of the likes of Joel Selwood, Bartel, Varcoe and Paul Chapman on this day alone. Ling’s lockdown job on Dane Swan can’t be overstated and Steve Johnson, a man who couldn’t walk the stairs in his own home during the week, added four crucial goals. 

Even Harry Taylor’s decision to switch off Cloke as he was threatening to tear the game apart - without consultation with the coach’s box – deserves a mention. It’s a study in bravery, a stunning move. It’s what great teams are built upon. 

But the Hawkins story is what we love about grand finals, and why we love the game the way we do. It’s the reason those opening lines of Up there Cazaly that Matthew Scarlett is so fond of, work. 

Hawkins delivers beyond all expectations. Seven contested marks and three goals from five shots, and one given away to Steve Johnson, in a half of football. Words genuinely can’t do his performance justice. 

They just can’t. Go back and watch it. 

In the moment, it was something else. You really do feel like you’re witnessing something extraordinary. It’s the stage of the story when the music changes, and Geelong were again, on top of the mountain. 

Premiers, for the third time in five years. 

“Does Geelong win [that] premiership without Tom Hawkins? No way, Mooney told the Herald Sun recently.

“We watched a boy become a man and it was so good to watch.”

But perhaps it’s the wrong question. Does Geelong win without the level of commitment to team that Cameron Mooney showed as his career was coming to a close. 

It’s one of many, many stories from that season, but Tom Hawkins was standing on the shoulder of giants that day, and that team first ethos, that selflessness and care for the jumper is to this day what makes the Geelong Football Club great. 

Sources: Comeback, The Fall and Rise of Geelong, James Button. Greatness Gullan, Scott, Greatness. Scarlett, Matthew, Hold the Line (My Story. Johnson, Steve (with Adam McNicol), Stevie J: The Cat with the Giant Story. Chapman, Paul (with Jon Anderson), Chappy: Believe it or Not.