Chris Scott: Geelong’s most polarising figure
AFTER finishing on top of the ladder, Geelong was knocked out of the premiership race by Richmond on Friday night. The loss has divided Cats fans, with many taking aim at Chris Scott for some of his questionable coaching decisions during the 2019 finals campaign. But is their frustration justified? Grady Hudd takes an in-depth look at Geelong’s most polarising figure.
AT the end of 2010, most people thought the Golden Era of the Geelong Football Club had come to an end.
Much of the season had been overshadowed by the fallout between coach Mark Thompson and Gary Ablett Jnr, whose inevitable move to the Gold Coast had created palpable tension behind the scenes.
It was remarkable to think that only a year after winning the 2009 grand final, a heavy preliminary final defeat at the hands of Collingwood was enough for most pundits to write Geelong off for good.
Those opinions seemed further validated when ‘Bomber’ departed as coach at the end of the season, leaving an ageing, but still decorated playing list, without anyone to steer the ship.
The appointment of Chris Scott as his successor was met with scepticism from a lot of Cats fans.
After all, who could possibly replace Thompson, a man so cool, quirky and unique that he’d often be seen munching sandwiches in the coaches’ box mid-game?
But, there was also a tentative optimism.
As a multiple premiership player at Brisbane, Scott was tough, fiery and maybe exactly what the Cats needed to spark them back to life.
As it so proved, it didn’t take long for him to endear himself to Cats fans, myself included.
He was every bit the character we had hoped for, and then some.
A coach who, like many of the Geelong faithful, would wear his heart on his sleeve, who would join in with us in screaming at the play, who would sit in eye-popping disbelief when an umpiring decision went against us.
He brought a passion that was missing from the 2010 season, and gave hope to Cats fans that maybe the Geelong story still had a few successful chapters left to write.
So, when the Cats defied the odds to storm to the 2011 premiership, their third in five seasons, we were filled with such hope that a new era was about to dawn, and that Scott was the man to guide us to our next dynasty.
Eight seasons later, those dreams have not translated into reality.
So near, yet so far
After promising so much, Scott has delivered just four finals victories from 15 attempts following his maiden premiership.
Four times the Cats have made the preliminary final, and four times they have fallen short.
It’s a record that most other clubs would envy – clubs like St Kilda, which after three grand final attempts in 2009 and 2010 (including the replay), have fallen to the depths of the table.
Even Hawthorn, after winning four flags between 2008 and 2015, seemingly has a rebuild in front of it.
While other clubs have fallen away, the Cats have remained competitive.
After Geelong’s 19-point preliminary final loss to Richmond on Friday night, Scott – ever-defiant in his post-game presser – argued making finals was a measure of success.
“Everyone in the know thinks that, unfortunately it doesn’t seem as if there’s that many people in the know,” he said.
It’s that prickly, sometimes arrogant, dismissive persona – the ‘don’t question my judgement’ attitude – that has slowly eroded Cats’ fans tolerance of Scott.
Because, when looking at this finals series in isolation – when juxtaposed against the past seven seasons of so near, yet so far – there are a lot of things that should be explained to fans.
But what grates Geelong supporters about Scott is that an explanation is rarely, almost never, forthcoming.
After having 19 touches to half-time against Richmond in the Preliminary Final, playing a crucial part in building the Cats a 21-point lead, why was Patrick Dangerfield started forward for the third term?
The Tigers dominated the centre clearances to start the quarter in his absence, and had erased the deficit in the blink of an eye – all during the seven minutes All Australian defender Tom Stewart was watching from the boundary, after beginning the second half on the bench.
There is the question of why, after playing him at full-back all season – a position he was won dual club best and fairests in – Mark Blicavs was left at sea on the wing, while Richmond’s Tom Lynch dominated Harry Taylor.
Blicavs, who Matthew Scarlett in December described as “the general” of Geelong’s backline, was a far better match-up for Lynch, in terms of size and aerobic capacity, yet he did not go near the Tiger tall as he booted five goals and took 10 marks in a match-winning performance.
Everyone, from spectators, to commentator James Brayshaw and Swans premiership coach Paul Roos, was left to ask: why?
Was it to fill the void left by injured wingman Mitch Duncan?
Did Scott think Blicavs could add another down-the-line marking option?
Frustratingly, this is the answer we all received post-game:
“There were just some things we did in the third quarter that are going to take a long time to get over,” Scott said.
What does that actually mean?
Scott might be talking about the players, but he and his coaching panel should be looking at themselves.
There should also be more scrutiny on why Geelong entered this year’s Qualifying Final without a ruckman, allowing Collingwood superstar Brodie Grundy to dominate the hit-outs, and destabilising the Cats’ forward and defensive structures as Blicavs and Esava Ratugolea pinch-hit in the position.
A history of dubious decision-making
In almost every season since 2011, there has been coaching and selection decisions that have seemed like Scott has tried to win the match from the coaches’ box – to outsmart his opposition number – rather than trusting his players to do the job.
I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with former North Melbourne star-turned media commentator David King, but I think he was spot on when – after the Collingwood loss three weeks ago – he said “I think Chris wants to be the reason they win”.
“I think you’ve got to trust your players and set up the systems and endorse the program in totality and say ‘you guys are going to be the reason we win’,” he said.
“You don’t have to win every game from the coaches’ box.
“To make changes after finishing top of the table, to make changes like not playing a ruckman, what that does to the rest of the team is the discussion.
“They take their best and fairest-winning full-back out of the role he has played so well and put him into the ruck.
“Complete confusion down back.
“This game was lost by Chris Scott.”
King was criticised for those comments, but when you take a look back over Scott’s coaching tenure, there has been a number of key decisions that have proved detrimental to Geelong’s chances of winning finals.
The first time I started doubting Scott’s coaching was the 2013 Qualifying Final against Fremantle.
Playing the Dockers at our Kardinia Park fortress, the Cats were almost a certainty of victory.
Yet, self-sabotage came when Scott and his team made the unfathomable decision to start Paul Chapman as sub in his 250th game.
Aside from the disrespect to one of the club’s great players, it was strategically a shocker.
Chapman had 11 touches after being brought on for Corey Enright at half-time, but it wasn’t enough to massively influence the result.
The optics were terrible, and many Geelong fans greatly disapproved of the move.
Another head-scratching move came in the 2017 Qualifying Final against Richmond, when the Cats dropped Daniel Menzel for Zac Guthrie, despite him kicking 40 goals that season.
Unsurprisingly, Geelong struggled to hit the scoreboard, kicking just five majors for the match, as Guthrie had 13 touches and little influence in what was a heavy loss.
But whenever he is challenged about such decisions, Scott is almost always abrasive, defensive, and bullish.
“That’s private,” he said on Friday night, when asked to elaborate on what he told the players after the loss to Richmond.
His refusal to be open, or explain such significant coaching decisions, is wearing thin with Cats fans.
I can remember being irate when in Round 22, 2014, Geelong coughed up 33-point third quarter lead against arch rival Hawthorn to lose by 23 points.
After the match, Scott described the result as “mission accomplished” in what has almost become a running joke amongst the Cats’ supporter base.
“It sounds funny to say, but it was a step forward in our preparation,” he said at the time.
“We always went into the game wanting to play well, we certainly didn’t put the cue in the rack – not consciously – at half-time after a good performance.”
Weeks later, Geelong would lose its Qualifying Final to Hawthorn by 36 points, before being bundled out in straights sets by North Melbourne after conceding seven first-quarter goals.
Slow starts, and giving up heavy bursts of goals, have plagued the Cats in finals ever since.
Should we be complaining?
From the outside looking in, most AFL supporters view Geelong fans as a spoilt bunch – and in a way, they’re right.
After being starved of success for so long, the three flags in 2007, 2009 and 2011 has instilled an expectation that premierships must be delivered regularly – despite there being none forthcoming in the 44 years prior.
The current generation of supporters – and I’ve been guilty of this – have been frustrated by four preliminary finals losses since 2013.
But, to put it into context: imagine the suffering of those who witnessed four Geelong grand final losses between 1989 and ’95.
The Cats, since the formation of the AFL, have never dropped below 12th position.
Fans have never felt what it’s like to see their team genuinely struggle, and that may be cause for their lofty expectations – and it may also explain why sometimes the criticism they direct at the club, including Scott, is seen by others as unreasonable, and spoilt.
Scott reminded supporters of that after the loss to Richmond.
“I think if you go back over a period of time, any reasonable person would say it’s been a pretty remarkable performance to stay up and around the finals for a long period of time with a new group of players,” he said.
“It’s virtually a completely new group of players.”
Scott is right in saying the way Geelong has remained competitive while transitioning almost its entire list is an impressive feat.
Some of that has to be credited to him; after all, he had the difficult task of moving on past champions – James Kelly, Chapman, Steve Johnson, Matthew Stokes, to name a few – to ensure the Cats have remained in the mix.
This can’t have been easy for a coach in only his first few years at a new club.
But the burning question is: why is such a talented ensemble of players incapable of achieving the ultimate success?
In the absence of answers from the club, many fans have tried to pinpoint the reason themselves: and many of them have landed on Scott as the common denominator.
After all, the only thing that has remained constant through the past eight flag-less seasons, during a complete overhaul of the playing list, is the coach.
Is Chris the right coach?
It is without question that list manager Stephen Wells has delivered Scott the cattle required to succeed, yet a premiership has not come since 2011 using a side built by Thompson.
It’s remarkable to think that a team comprising Dangerfield, Selwood, Ablett, Stewart, Blicavs, Hawkins, Duncan and Tim Kelly has nothing to show for all their talent.
Many Cats fans, including myself, believe a lot of that comes down to coaching.
Geelong’s team against Richmond on Friday had nine defenders in it: Lachie Henderson, Jed Bews, Blicavs, Stewart, Mark O’Connor, Jack Henry, Harry Taylor, Jake Kolodjashnij, and Zach Tuohy.
In a line-up already bereft of star forward Tom Hawkins, kicking a winning score was always going to be the challenge, and the selection did nothing but make it more difficult.
Compare that side to the one in the opening 12 rounds, when the Cats went 11-1 and the team had far better balance.
Blicavs was at full-back, Selwood was on a wing, Ablett a permanent forward, Henry a rock in defence.
Players were being played in their correct positions.
However, when Bews, Cam Guthrie and Tuohy – seemingly three of Scott’s favourites – returned from injury, the coach had a problem: how to fit them all in?
Instead of making the tough decision and leaving them, or others, out on team balance, Scott instead took the easy option: axe the youngsters, and shift the magnets.
Ball-winning young gun Charlie Constable, who dominated in the opening half of the season, was suddenly banished to the VFL, never to be seen again.
Henry was thrown forward, promising young defender Jordan Clark – who, with his pace and dash, was a revelation in defence – was moved onto a wing, and up forward, where he looked far less comfortable and damaging.
The result was that come the crunch end of the season, Geelong fielded an almost identical finals team to the one that looked slow, impotent and was blown off the park in the Elimination Final against Melbourne 12 months earlier.
This is despite the club spruiking right throughout the pre-season it was committed to change, which it seemed to implement in the first half of the year as a new-look unit raced to the top of the ladder.
Yet, when the whips were cracking, Scott fell back on his favourites, and continued to experiment with weird tactical decisions in September – and, unsurprisingly, the outcome was the same as years previous.
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.
Some of Scott’s coaching moves over the past few finals campaigns could certainly qualify as insane by that assessment.
Where to from here?
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think Geelong fans expect too much.
We support our team fiercely and passionately – but, it would be a lot easier to do this if some of the coaching decisions were better explained.
We were all hurting after the Richmond loss, and the players and coaches would’ve been even more so.
Post-game, we looked to our coach to help explain what had happened – in a way, we were looking to be comforted, and gain some closure, following another September heartbreak.
Instead we got this:
“As we were last year, we’re pretty clear where we need to improve and where some of the deficiencies in our game are, but we’re just not in the business of explaining that to people,” Scott said.
“I don’t think that’s our role, and anyone who thinks it is, is just wrong.”
Scott is an incredibly intelligent guy – arguably one of the AFL’s smartest coaches – yet alienating the fan base is a dumb move.
Geelong president Colin Carter went even further on radio in the days after the loss to criticise supporters who had written letters to the club, many signing their names, looking for answers and venting their frustrations.
“I’m amazed at how ugly a very small rump of the supporters are,” he said.
“(They are) talking about our people in a way which is completely disrespectful and not consistent with the way in which Geelong holds itself.
“It’s a very, very small rump.
“I think we enjoy enormous support from almost all of our members but there is an ugly side out there that is pretty distressing.”
Abusive correspondence should never be tolerated, but asking for explanations is not unreasonable.
Fans are writing these letters because no-one – not Scott, not the players, not the administration – will explain some of the baffling selection and coaching decisions that have frustrated them since 2013.
All we want is transparency.
Personally, I want to like Chris Scott, I really do – just as I did when he burst onto the scene in 2011 as a straight talking, fist-pumping bloke filled with passion for the blue and white hoops.
But for whatever reason, that passion and fire hasn’t translated to his coaching.
Our game plan is boring, and unimaginative – a huge contrast to the daring, exciting brand of football that has been the hallmark of Geelong teams for as long as I can remember.
Even when the Cats weren’t successful through the late ‘90s and early 2000s, they still played an exciting brand of footy.
Despite the losses, I still felt somewhat less disillusioned about the way we were playing than I do now.
While we missed out on a grand final berth by less than 20 points, I believe season 2020 is a huge fork-in-the-road moment for Scott, and a massive test of his coaching ability.
It’s likely he’ll be without some ageing stars, with Ablett and Taylor potentially entering retirement, while Dangerfield, Selwood and Hawkins aren’t getting any younger, and Kelly is all but guaranteed to head home to Perth.
The time has come for Scott to be brave and take risks, and welcome the fans along for the ride by including them more – whether that be greater player access via the Cats’ social media channels, or not being so dismissive when his decision-making is challenged.
But, if he continues down the path of blocking the fans out, spinning his way through post-match press conferences, and making strange selection and coaching decisions without attempting to explain them, I can only see the present discontentment bubbling out of control.