There’s nobody harder to please than a perfectionist.
And it would be fair to say Geelong fans have been, over the past 15 years, the perfectionists of the AFL.
After all, they’ve watched some of the greatest football teams in modern history run out in the blue and white hoops, winning three flags across 2007-11 and arguably deserving another.
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That sort of remarkable success creates a certain level of expectations – especially when the Cats continued to contend, even after ‘Bomber’ Thompson departed as coach, to be replaced by Chris Scott.
And it’s Scott who has been the victim of those expectations.
There would not have been a more criticised premiership coach over the last decade than Scott, who in his first season at the helm led Geelong to the 2011 flag, and then had to listen to yearly complaints about not winning another.
Most of them from Geelong fans.
This is not to say that Scott did nothing worth criticising as he led Geelong to finals campaign after finals campaign between 2012 and 2021. But his mistakes, if they were made, were different.
For a start, they usually came in September, when half the league’s coaches were on holiday.
Few teams have had finals selection missteps questioned so loudly, from the 2017 qualifying final to the 2019 qualifying final. The latter, dropping Rhys Stanley seemingly trusting rain would fall at the MCG, saw Mark Blicavs outduelled in the ruck by Collingwood’s Brodie Grundy and unable to be replaced down back; the minor premiers were upset and then forced into a preliminary final against Richmond they would agonisingly lose.
(Blicavs, for what it’s worth, has always possessed such incredible versatility that it almost forced Scott into mistakes. After all, when you can play anywhere, where is your best position? It wasn’t until late this season, when he became a frequent fixture as a big-bodied centre bounce midfielder, that the Cats’ scoring from stoppages exploded – and they dominated from that source in the Grand Final.)
These were mistakes amplified by the stage on which they occurred. Nobody is calling for a coach to be sacked when his 7-12 team plays someone out of position in a Round 23 dead rubber, after all.
The Cats’ regular season dominance, which has resulted in top-four berths in nine of Scott’s 12 seasons, saw them often upset in week one of the finals. The suggestion this was a trait particularly associated with Scott’s teams saw him at pains to dismiss it, calling it “lazy”.
It is easy to see how the narrative was created and maintained, though it’s worth noting the Cats’ finals losses under Scott have almost always come when his side was the underdog, and their wins when they were the favourite.
We are bringing up these now-forgotten complaints for a reason; they are the complaints of the privileged.
After all, most fans would give their little toe to have a team that almost always features in the finals; they’d lose the big one if it meant repeated top-four berths.
But through their almost-inevitable finals losses – typically a qualifying final with a slow start, then a semi-final bounce-back, and finally the prelim where they were briefly competitive until the inevitable blowout – Cats fans became scarred.
Speaking from personal experience, they are a remarkably anxious and downcast bunch for supporters who get to see so much success. And their anxiety manifested in complaints about the coach.
Which leads us back to Scott: arguably the greatest week-to-week football coach in VFL-AFL history. Hear us out.
He is certainly the winningest. No other man with 100-plus VFL-AFL games coached has a winning percentage over 70%.
Of the 44 men with 200-plus games coached at VFL-AFL level, only three others – Jock McHale, Dick Reynolds and Frank ‘Checker’ Hughes – even have a winning percentage over 65%.
BEST WINNING PERCENTAGE (VFL-AFL coaches, 200+ games in charge)
Chris Scott (Geelong, 2011-22) – 200 wins, 2 draws, 84 losses – 70.28% win percentage
Dick Reynolds (Essendon, 1939-60) – 275 wins, 6 draws, 134 losses – 66.99%
Jock McHale (Collingwood, 1912-49) – 466 wins, 10 draws, 237 losses – 66.06%
Frank ‘Checker’ Hughes (Richmond/Melbourne, 1927-65) – 244 wins, 4 draws, 130 losses – 65.08%
Tom Hafey (Richmond/Collingwood/Geelong/Sydney, 1966-88) – 336 wins, 4 draws, 182 losses – 64.75%
John Longmire (Sydney, 2011-22) – 177 wins, 2 draws, 104 losses – 62.90%
Allan Jeans (St Kilda/Hawthorn/Richmond, 1961-92) – 357 wins, 2 draws, 217 losses – 62.15%
Mark ‘Bomber’ Thompson (Geelong/Essendon, 2000-14) – 173 wins, 4 draws, 106 losses – 61.84%
Perce Bentley (Richmond/Carlton, 1934-55) – 253 wins, 5 draws, 156 losses – 61.71%
Norman Clark (Carlton/Richmond/St Kilda/North Melbourne, 1912-31) – 128 wins, 6 draws, 80 losses – 61.21%
All numbers via AFL Tables
Scott now has the greatest winning percentage of all multiple-time premiership coaches – he’s in the 70s, while more modern greats like Alastair Clarkson, Leigh Matthews, Kevin Sheedy and Mick Malthouse are all in the high 50s.
Of course, all of that winning also speaks to Scott’s ‘problem’ – getting so close yet not winning that second premiership, until Saturday. But it is impossible to be so successful and not be a very, very good coach.
This year is Scott’s crowning achievement for a multitude of reasons; but the most important one, to us, is how he oversaw the construction and execution of a plan.
After a long period of contention with the same group of assistants, the Cats revamped almost everything this past off-season. Out were Corey Enright, Matthew Knights and Matthew Scarlett – the latter running the Cats’ defence since 2016, and holding strong views about the types of players, and play, he wanted from his back six.
James Kelly, Matthew Egan and Eddie Betts joined the club, plus Josh Jenkins in a part-time capacity, while Shaun Grigg stepped up to further assist. Coaches were also given more general roles, rather than being traditional line coaches.
“In recent seasons, the Cats had strong coaches working on specific lines, such as Matthew Scarlett (defence), Corey Enright (forwards) and Matthew Knights (midfield), who were given freedom to run their cohort of players without strenuous oversight,” the Geelong Advertiser explained in January.
With this change in personnel came a clear change in philosophy; the stodgy, safe ball movement that produced terrific defences and home and away performances, but was exploited under the pressure of finals football, was gone.
Scott conceded in a February interview with Mark Robinson the Cats were finally willing to move the ball faster, playing a more adventurous brand of football.
“You can cherry pick numbers a little bit, but the issue for us in our view, and we knew this last year as well, but it was difficult for various reasons to change,” Scott said at the time.
“We thought, to go from the way we were playing when it wasn’t working well to playing a more attacking style when we needed to score was too much of a shift in our game.
“We don’t want to be a team who plays one mode and if that’s not working, then we’re going to turn it on its head and play a different way.
“The short answer is, ‘yes’, we are thinking about shifting some things to put more pressure on the opposition and if it means we get scored against a little bit more, we’re going to have to live with that.’’
At the time it was easy to write this off as a plan that sounded great on paper, but wouldn’t necessarily work on the field. After all, every coach’s plan sounds great in the pre-season, and then 17 of them don’t end up winning the flag.
Scott was right and wrong. The Cats of 2022 were a much better scoring side, averaging 99 points per game, as compared to the 81 per game they recorded in 2021.
But they didn’t “get scored against a little bit more” – they allowed 66 points a week, down from 69 the year prior.
And when push came to shove in September, Geelong scored 110 points per game and conceded 58 per game. A nailbiting win over Collingwood – just like in 2007 – was the closest they came to losing a final, as dominant wins over Brisbane and Sydney earned the Cats the flag they’d been fighting so hard for.
The plan laid out by Scott, created by his coaching panel and executed by his veteran-filled and bursting-at-the-seams-with-talent squad, worked to perfection.
It was that which appeared to give him the most satisfaction.
“I know we’ve said it a lot but the last couple of years have been hard work and to get so close and still not be able to share it with the fans, makes this so sweet,” Scott told Nine’s Sunday Footy Show from the Cats’ celebrations outside GMHBA Stadium.
“It’s been a long road over the last decade or so. If I confine it to the last 12 months, I’m just really proud of the way our whole group came together – not just the coaches … most of the key players were really involved in the process of kind of reassessing the way we want to go about it.
“We had some tough games – one against Richmond springs to mind. We played really well and then played really poorly and then played really well at the end to come back.
“The sense of understanding of what we were trying to do in those chaotic situations was one of the parts I was really proud of. The Port Adelaide game was another one where we had the game on toast and they kicked seven in a row and looked for all money like they’d win at three quarter time.
“But our senior leaders and our coaching group, assistant coaches’ ability to just keep calm and back in, if we played the way we’d talked about, then we’d be able to prevail.”
So while the Cats added talent between 2021 and 2022 – an All-Australian in Tyson Stengle comes to mind – the most decisive change came from off the field, not on it.
This was a flag won by coaching.
A flag Chris Scott well and truly deserves.