In 2015, the Geelong Football Club had the opportunity to land one of the game’s premier players, in his prime, for a relatively modest amount of money and only one first-round draft pick.
The Cats had missed the finals for the first time in nine years, but acquiring Patrick Dangerfield at discount rates was a game-changer. Dangerfield wouldn’t simply arrest the decline, he would put them firmly back on a premiership-contention footing.
In that same post-season, they also landed Lachie Henderson in an expensive trade with Carlton, signed Scott Selwood as a free agent and hired Zac Smith with the hope of settling the troublesome ruck position. In 2016, they picked off Zach Tuohy from the Carlton fire sale.
In the three ‘‘Danger’’’ years, the Cats have finished third twice and have now fallen to eighth with 13 wins. Dangerfield – in concert with a raft of mature recruits, including Tom Stewart and Tim Kelly – has delivered enormous value. Without him, the Cats would not have remained in the same postcode of a premiership in 2016 and 2017.
Without him, they wouldn’t have played finals this year.
In the coming weeks, the Cats are expected to sign another free agent midfielder and local lad (from Leopold) in Luke Dahlhaus.
While Dahlhaus is no Dangerfield, he will not cost the Cats a draft pick and his four-year deal won’t prove ruinous to their salary cap either.
Getting Dahlhaus is reasonable in the circumstances, since he has some zip, isn’t too old and if he regains his best, he will be handy.
But the Cats should apply the handbrake this year when the trading period begins.
Their greatest need is not for a key back, key forward or a silky mid.
It is for elite young talent of any positional type. They must take a turn towards youth and replenish via the draft, even if this risks a fall down the ladder.
If someone such as St Kilda’s Jack Steven happened to become available, the Cats should decline the opportunity to recruit him in exchange for their first pick.
They ought to take that first draft choice, currently pick 11 (to become pick 12 after Tom Lynch joins Richmond) and draft whoever Stephen Wells and his team thinks is the best teenager available.
The Cats have sought to remain thereabouts by adding mature players every year. If this has enabled them to defy gravity, the lack of elite youngsters also has created a potential time bomb in their playing list.
Joel Selwood is 31 in May and has played the most combative and collision-happy brand of footy possible; he cannot be the cornerstone of a contending team for much longer. Gary Ablett is 34 and, as Friday night’s elimination confirmed, he cannot influence games much.
Harry Taylor is 32 and nearly spent. Tom Hawkins, outstanding from June through August, also is 30 and lacks a viable foil, much less a long-term replacement. Henderson is 28 and while he’s a steady player, the decision to trade a first rounder for him was questionable.
Geelong, largely due to the lack of early choices and their conversion to mature talent, has not drafted an outstanding teenager – the type that lowly Melbourne was able to harvest from 2012 to 2015 – since Selwood and Hawkins (father-son) in 2006. Mitch Duncan is a good, rather than exceptional player and Nakia Cockatoo – in whom so much hope was invested – has not played for long enough to develop into an A-grader.
Most critically, the Cats must avoid the mindset that demands that they ‘‘top up’’ with seasoned players while they have Dangerfield, Hawkins and Selwood. It was this kind of thinking that proved disastrous for the Brisbane Lions in 2009 and which has undone numerous clubs over the years.
One reason that clubs in this position come unstuck is that they fail to take into account that the champions are depreciating assets. The Cats can’t afford to be exposed when Selwood, Hawkins and Dangerfield leave or drop off around the same time.
The Cats have been discussing these very issues – what can and can’t be done and the path forward in list management – during 2018. Wells, Chris Scott and chief executive Brian Cook are shrewd operators and will recognise their demographic hole and the pitfalls of trying to prop up an ageing core.
That Geelong have just handed Scott a contract extension that would see him continue until the end of 2022 means the coach can be empowered to usher in a new generation of kids, to eschew short-term trades, and accept that they are unlikely to win a premiership without a list refurbishment.
They adjusted swiftly to the reality of free agency and, as the new system arrived and a promiscuous club-hopping culture followed, they were well-placed to be what has become known as a ‘‘destination club’’, especially for anyone west of Werribee and east of Edenhope.
Yet, in gaining so much access to players from other clubs, they arguably also left their one wood in the golf bag. The 2007-11 domination had been built almost entirely on brilliant drafting. It has been many moons since they offloaded a decent player to bring in a good pick. Ideally, this should be on the agenda in October.
The opportunities afforded destination clubs contain a hidden downside – that the club can overdo the short-term recruiting and end up with both a bursting salary cap and without sufficient hand in the draft. Eventually, the teams such as Melbourne sail past you.
The Cats haven’t reached the stage where they need a genuine rebuild, a phase that no club enters voluntarily. The R word will only be necessary in a couple of years if they fail to press the reset button now.