This game is unique. Its players are unique sportsmen, as athletes imported from other sports have discovered. Its fans as a collective – you won’t find anything like them. When a communal noise wells up, you can’t always give a name to the sentiment animating it, but you’ll get what it’s about, because AFL fans are so damned knowing. This particular noise was a crescendo of knowing. But it was no less surreal for that when the Geelong faithful cheered an Adelaide player.
It was round 23, September 2015, Simonds Stadium. The final round of the home-and-away season. Adelaide was about to make a surprise finals appearance after a tumultuous and tragic year, yet they were being whipped by Geelong at the Cattery. Geelong was out of the finals race for the first time in a decade.
It had been an emotional game for the Cats’ supporters and players. Our conditioning for mortality includes little life-and-death cycles like the ephemeral lives of our pets, or the finite careers of our sporting heroes. This is a gift from a universe that otherwise offers mostly silence, and we’re supposed to become better for it. Still, fans take it hard.
Three of their favourites had been told that week their contracts were not to be renewed: Steve Johnson, James Kelly and Matthew Stokes. All premiership players. In the end, the three of them – but particularly the mercurial Stevie J – were toying with the Crows like Harlem Globetrotters, targeting one-another with passes, building each other up, making statements. Stevie J was defiantly spectacular. Earlier he’d rudely
TOPLACE FAMILY ABOVE FOOTBALL, ANDNEEDED TOBEHOME.
dumped Patrick Dangerfield on his head.
Another trio played together in that game for the first time since 2011. Each had been afflicted by injury but kept on the list by a club renowned for proving that fidelity is no misfit in a culture of success. Daniel Menzel, after four years and four knee reconstructions, had made his triumphant and much-anticipated comeback the week before. Nathan Vardy and Josh Cowan, playing his fifth AFL game in his fifth season, made significant contributions. These three would be part of the next exciting surge in Geelong’s fortunes, beginning with 2016. To the fans it was a time of mourning and celebration. It was painful, pleasant. Disorienting. Change was sweeping briskly through the place.
The final siren went, signalling a 39-point win for the Cats. As it sounded, Dangerfield, a star – the star – for the Adelaide Crows in a team of established and emerging stars, marked and was having a shot. What kind of providential scripting was this? Adelaide playing Geelong in the last match of the season; Dangerfield the last man to touch the ball! Stevie, Jimmy and Matty had begun their rueful trudge into uncertain futures, enveloped by commiserating scrums of teammates. The cheer that went up around the ground as Dangerfield went back to take his pointless kick was not the sort of
gentillesse dans la victoire a home crowd can afford to demonstrate toward a wellbeaten opponent.
The crowd barracked for Dangerfield as if he were already one of theirs; as though this was some sort of ceremonial handover. In the week leading up to the game, The Geelong Advertiser had run a #comehomepaddy campaign and asked fans to sign a petition. The cheer said, “See you next year, Paddy.” It said, “Welcome home.” It said, “Don’t you go injuring yourself during the finals now, will you, Paddy?” It was loaded. It told a story. It was intended as an event of significance. Dangerfield missed the big sticks.
During that game, by the way, Dangerfield attracted three dogged Cats every time he went near the ball like flies to a sticky lozenge, but in his characteristic way always threatened to bust out, and occasionally did. Because Patrick Dangerfield is outstanding, even in an era of extraordinary midfielders. Once, early in the game, when he was inundated by Cats defenders, the noise that went up had a kind of “Hey! Hey! Go easy, boys!” tone to it.
Two weeks later, the announcement came. Dangerfield was officially a Cat.
It had all been done discreetly. The speculation had dominated the season since well before Adelaide coach Phil Walsh’s death, but it wasn’t like the Franklin, Cloak, Boak and Ablett affairs. More like Judd, except that Judd opened the door to all suitors before choosing Carlton, whereas Dangerfield only had eyes for Geelong. There was no wrangling. His earning potential wasn’t a consideration for him. The best offer was a homecoming.
The other reason he entertained no other offer tells us why he’s one of the more interesting types we’ve seen in a long time: “I couldn’t have fronted them and said, ‘I’m leaving but it’s not necessarily to go home, it’s just to go to another club based in Melbourne.’ It wouldn’t be the morally right thing to do.”
Still, a man like Dangerfield doesn’t leave a team like Adelaide in circumstances like these without something like angst, no matter how careful, gracious and gallant his gallop to the finish might be.
The presentation of the 2015 Malcolm Blight Medal for the Crows’ best player was made, to Dangerfield (more from the providential pen!), in the week his departure was announced, and the gala occasion was shot through with ambivalence, irony, despondency, forced cheer – the lot. I don’t know who the comedian was, but I’m sure he’d rather have been Billy Bragg playing a Donald Trump rally.
The acceptance speech was delivered by a young man who knows how to convey sincerity better than Ablett, certainly Franklin, ever could, because if mischief had a face, it would be Paddy Dangerfield’s. It’s an unusual face; a character face. A face you’d find in some ’60s sitcom, like
Bewitched or Petticoat Junction. The face of a straight man who’s not so straight. Humour is never far away, and his perpetual halfgrin makes you suspect a joke is on.
But the complete absence of that half-grin
made us realise just how light-hearted he is in default mode, and how earnest he was on the night. About to marry his fiancee Mardi, he was determined to place family above football, he said, and needed to be home, around and about the Bellarine Peninsula, where they could raise one in familiar surrounds.
But he didn’t hold back on himself. “There’s a certain amount of selfishness you have to have when you’re making a decision such as this,” he told the packed room. “People at the club become far more than just work colleagues and acquaintances; they really become part of your family. So to turn my back on that is incredibly difficult. It certainly brings up a huge range of emotions. Standing here in front of everyone, it’s very difficult because I understand it’s a decision not too many people were too pleased about, but I’d hope that they understand it’s in the right manner.”
“To turn my back ... ” The candour of it all was impressive.
Incorruptible as Nostromo at his best, he seemed to feel a little dirtied by the matter, as though even dignity was, in a way, dishonest, simply because this was undeniably all about that heartless, amoral thing called business, which dictated that he wasn’t to make the decision public.
“There’s certainly times when you’d like to be more truthful. You have to sort of dance around certain questions because it’s simply not appropriate to say at that time. My decision was made before the finals started so there’s questions you have to dance around but to be honest that was done with the best interests of the football club at heart.”
Dangerfield means that. He’s as markedly intelligent and integrity-driven as Judd was. Suave and powerful a footballer though he is, he’s more a man of the people than his champion contemporaries; never remote. He’s at home down here with the rest of us. It seems that’s where his most important aspirations lie, not on a football field. He genuinely treasures relationships and loves interaction. On Twitter, he offers opinions on politics, popular culture and social matters. He champions causes, either because he believes they’re a good idea or, as in the case of “Be The Influence – Tackling Binge Drinking”, because of painful personal experience. He doesn’t mind revealing he had an uncle who died behind the wheel after drinking heavily.
He’d come to Adelaide as a kid with high recommendation. Mick Turner, at the Geelong Falcons, said he was the best
young player he’d seen come through, and given that team boasts alumni the calibre of Hodge, Ablett, Bartel and Brown, that’s some endorsement.
But from the start, in 2008, when Adelaide passed up Brad Ebert, the son of a local legend – in a town where to be local is to be consecrated – for Dangerfield, there was a whiff of Adelaide-style reserve to all that wholehearted praise. Some of the more proprietorial Crows fans were chary. Ebert would have been an immediate starter. Dangerfield immediately made it known he’d be residing in Melbourne while he studied for his VCE, rather than training with the side. Marine biology figured in his plans, as did teaching, and Dangerfield is an assiduous maker of plans. Adelaide could take it or leave it. Of course they took it, knowing they had not only an outstanding footballing prospect, but a young man of great character.
He confirmed these views in 2012, when the pull from Geelong was already strong on every level. By this time a midfielder of pile-driver impact, an All-Australian boasting killer stats in disposals, contested possessions, clearances and hard-ball gets, he attracted enormous interest when his contract was up.
His family wanted him back; he was homesick. Demonstrating admirable integrity, Dangerfield would share his plans with no-one in the family. His father, John, could only make an educated guess at his motives: “He’s a very loyal person. That’s a strong family trait and I know it’s something Patrick values and holds very close. We’d love to have Patrick back home because we miss him a lot. But we understand the decision will be Patrick’s and he has a lot to weigh up.”
John, the man who taught his son to be hard on the field but insisted he shake hands with opponents before a game (providing us a rare sight in modern football), also said of his son that pressure “doesn’t bother him at all.”
He was right. Dangerfield signed for another three years when many thought he wouldn’t.
He went on to give Adelaide three dazzling seasons, establishing himself not only as one of the competition’s elite midfielders, but one of the most eye-catching. In 2013 he played as a forward filler in an injury-hit side and shone there as well as in his more familiar role. In 2014, niggled by injury, dragging taggers around wherever he went, he was undiminished. Taggers were coming to see there was little antidote to speed, strength and smarts.
Then 2015. Every advantage the Crows enjoyed was just what the doctor ordered at Geelong – the only place in the world
Dangerfield wanted to end up. Win-win.
Unbelievably there were misgivings, too, in Victoria about his move. The addition of a hyped and highly paid superstar was, some considered, a rude break from a tradition that had led to Geelong’s recent success, and would lead to future triumph.
In recent years, many a magnificent footballer took a pay cut or skipped dizzying paydays for the sake of staying in Geelong. Dressing-room dynamics, jealousy, disruption – all were mentioned in dispatches. Judd, Del Santo, Goddard were brought up as examples of leading players who did little to improve the position of their new teams. But this was Geelong, and since their win in 2011, they’d maintained their hunger.
Rebuilding, or rather renovating, Geelong had retained remnants of its great sides thanks to a club culture to rival Hawthorn’s, characterised by judiciousness, loyalty, selflessness and vision. And excellence. They knew they needed Dangerfield because he was that culture embodied. But Adelaide needed him as well. They
always needed him. During that last year he demonstrated how indispensable he was. His extreme talent was argument enough, but the way he experienced 2015 proved a compelling example for everyone. Not only did he rally his side with wisdom, compassion and occasional humour, but he played his best season.
The late Walsh might have had a bit to do with that. The foundation he set in his short time there was truly remarkable. We were coming to recognise him as formidable. There was a feeling at Adelaide of brimming proficiency. Dangerfield believes he carries important life principles learned from Walsh. His dedication inspired everyone. While he was with the Crows, he was a Crows man to the finish, and made it known. He upped the amplitude after Walsh’s death.
But even a month before that sad event, Dangerfield proved his star quality in a titanic encounter with eventual Brownlowmedallist Nat Fyfe, which took fans back to the good old days of one-on-one contests. They could have skirted round one-another and played standout games anyway, but, drawn to each other, they forged a little legend for those who saw it. It took us by surprise, because no one expects sustained one-on-one action anymore in a game that’s come to be about safeguarding the collective while protecting the individual – at the expense of individuality. To engrossed fans, this was Ali and Frazier crossing paths at the airport, Pacino and de Niro finding themselves in the same diner, Federer and Nadal turning up to the
HE WENT ON TO GIVE ADELAIDE THREE DAZZLING SEASONS, ESTABLISHING HIMSELF AS ONE OF THE COMPETITION’S ELITE MIDFIELDERS.
same backwoods charity tournament. It was fantastic; the sort of drawcard that had them on the edges of their seats the entire match.
Adelaide knew long before the finals that Dangerfield was leaving. And though the usual subterfuge was needed with a prying press, he still played it admirably straight. He cared about his team. When a man has received a better offer but cannot acknowledge it, the potential energy is released here and there, causing damage, but Dangerfield resolutely remained industrious and responsible. He maintained his reputation for having an outspoken say and he involved himself in organising the new luxury players’ facility.
There was enormous pressure on him to make the decision to stay. Walsh’s predecessor as coach, Brenton Sanderson, had stated without equivocation that “the club would have to start again” if Dangerfield ever left. After Walsh’s slaying, abandoning a club that needed him more than ever was out of the question – so commentators unreservedly declared. But the deal remained on the table, and he fielded the moral coercion expertly. “It was incredibly sad. I think he was an incredible person and coach. We would have loved to have him for longer and longer. The game needed to have him for longer, I think, such is his passion for it and those who competed in it. But at the same time, I didn’t feel an obligation to stay because Phil had passed away.”
Still, there was a sense of magnitude. The circumstances of departure always
are sensitive, but the situation was red-raw. Dangerfield was a leader, nominally or otherwise. He was being depended upon to rally the troops and remind them of Walsh’s wishes for the team. And criticism was never far away. It would have been easy to appear distasteful and selfish. Walsh’s death was enough. But Geelong also had form in South Australia. Their attempt to lure Travis Boak in 2012 was considered objectionable.
Dangerfield’s last game with the Crows, the heavy losing semi-final against Hawthorn in which he was by far their best performer, must have deepened the Crows’ torment. He finished with 29 possessions, ten clearances and a preposterous checkside goal from the boundary in the first quarter. He’d come through the darkest of times not just with luminous talent, but radiant example. The vigorous escalation of his game after Walsh’s death was for his own benefit – it seemed he was letting it all out on the field – but also for that of his team. His running and carry were more scintillating than ever and, tellingly, his disposal had become more efficient. He was impressed himself once he emerged: “That was the most consistent band of games I’ve ever played.”
Anyway, now he’s a Cat, this rare bird with the afterburners of a Judd and speed he can sustain, able to streak into and out of a contest damagingly, forcefully, occasionally breaking into an unstoppable rampage. In addition to his growing quiver of skills, Dangerfield is a seriously good runner who was able to win both the 100 and 400 metres – speed, and sustained speed – Victorian championships as a schoolboy. He’s won the AFL’s Grand Final Sprint going away three times, thrashing renowned speedsters like Sydney’s Lewis Jetta, Fremantle’s Tendai Mzungu, Shaun Atlee from North, Tim Golds from GWS and Gold Coast’s Joel Wilkinson. Because of his scorching swiftness and his strength, Dangerfield happens suddenly. So often in the inside 50, when there’s a melee around goal, he appears from nowhere, slaps down a groping defender’s arm and
FOR GEELONG, DANGERFIELD IS A DREAM COMETRUE: A SUPER STAR WHO WANTS TO PLAY FOR THEIR CLUB WITH OUT BREAKING THEIR BANK.
gets ball to boot. Often it impacts on the board. His ball-getting, ball-carrying and penetrative capacity is the sort of thing Geelong built its attack on during its blissful days of dominance.
And now he’s home; a revenant heir. In 2015 the Geelong engine sputtered. James Kelly, Jimmy Bartel, Mitch Duncan and George Horlin-Smith spent much of the season injured. Now – another fascinating sub-plot – beleaguered captain Joel Selwood, another all-timer who could have commanded millions more dollars, is joined by his brother Scott, recruited from the Eagles. That’s the younger two Selwood brothers behind the now-retired twins, united for the first time. Add Lachie Henderson, Zac Smith and Dangerfield, all exciting new flourishes to a squad that already contains those gifted remnants – Bartel, Enright, Joel Selwood, Hawkins – and stirring new talents like Mark Blicavs.
For Geelong, Dangerfield is a dream come true: a superstar who wants to play for their club without breaking their bank. He just needs to be home, and besides, premierships are more important. “You see millionaires die every day of the week,” he’s said. “For me, it’s not about accumulating as much wealth as I possibly can, it’s about enjoying life, enjoying footy, combining the two but not at the expense of succeeding in our quest to win, you know, a fourth flag.”
This is manna. Yet, during the negotiations, he never once met with Cats coach Chris Scott, or captain Joel Selwood. He felt no duty to, and besides, he was concerned about the way the whole thing looked. It would have been a quietly ecstatic Scott and an immensely grateful Selwood whom he finally did meet, bedecked in Geelong colours. Selwood has carried Geelong’s midfield load, and being the Hercules he is, has the scar tissue to prove it. To have Dangerfield sharing the load will be paradise the fruits of which Selwood hasn’t known since Ablett was there. In 2015, Selwood was in the AFL’s top 20 for any stats to do with getting the ball and getting it clear – an amazing achievement in a team outside the eight. To play alongside someone else who prides himself on those stats – with abundant factor X thrown in – will delight the champion skipper.
Geelong is being talked about again. Overall, the Cats have played little football together, but they have force, drive and ability. Once the gestalt starts hanging together, they might even leapfrog this Hawthorn era to resurrect their own recent years of glory. Imagine if the Hawks era turned out to be an interregnum before the second ascension of their ferocious foe, and their storied rivalry was carried into a new epoch. Geelong has posed a lot of questions of late. Patrick Dangerfield is a clear, cogent answer.
He’s a man who arrives as suddenly as a revelation. If he turns up enough, the mighty Cats might do the same.
A champion sprinter shows clean heels. You win some, lose some; highs and
lows of last year's finals campaign with the Crows.
The Geelong Falcon playing TAC Cup back in 2007. With partner
Mardi at last year's Brownlow, preparing for
Kicking, tackling, offloading: a dangerous footballing package.
Dangerfield's efforts escalated in
2015, including those disposals.