How much does the Geelong Football Club mean to the Bellarine Peninsula, Surf Coast, Western District and other areas surrounding this once-booming port city? Well, it was once said productivity at the Ford car factory in Norlane improved by six or eight per cent on Mondays after the Cats scored a big win, happy teams on the production line whistling while they worked and recounted highlights from the weekend’s game.

But an advertisement in Victorian newspapers this week really gave the game away. On the back of Geelong’s qualification for Saturday’s grand final against Port Adelaide, the quarter-page ad for Provincial Victoria carried a photograph of Geelong’s boy wonder, Gary Ablett, and was headlined: “If you’ve ever thought of making the move to provincial Victoria, there’s never been a better time”.

Ablett, as an ambassador for provincial Victoria, then makes a convincing case for disaffected city types to make the move to Geelong and surrounds, spruiking the quality of the beaches, the relaxed quality of life and much in between.

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So this is how much Geelong FC means to the region: everything. The mood of the people rises and falls in tandem with the success, or otherwise, of the team. Now that the footy club is rocketing along, and on the verge of breaking a 44-year premiership drought, the decentralise-mad mandarins in the state government have hopped on for the ride, trying to milk the Cats’ success for all it’s worth.

The phenomenon is not a new one. For years locals have remarked how easy it is to tell whether the Cats are winning or losing. Simply walk down Moorabool Street or Ryrie Street and gauge the atmosphere among the people. It’s that transparent.

The best parallel in Australian sport is the Newcastle Knights rugby league team, and the exalted place it occupies in a provincial city of roughly Geelong’s size. Knights players, like those from Geelong, often complain about living in a fishbowl, where their actions are scrutinized and publicized in a way that simply wouldn’t happen in Sydney or Melbourne.

Andrew Johns, the former Newcastle legend, found it especially difficult because he was recognised everywhere he went. There was no let-up.

When there was talk of Johns switching to rugby union a few years back, a ratbag element in Newcastle harassed him, regularly “egging” his beachside home and sometimes “two-bobbing” his car, circumnavigating it with a coin edge. And because almost every fit male in Newcastle and the Hunter Valley has played rugby league, Johns was often a target for drunken young men who failed on the football field.

Geelong players will be able to identify with Johns’ travails. They illustrate how playing in a one-team provincial town can be the original double-edged sword. Yes, the adulation comes in spades, and few Geelong footballers would ever have had to buy their own beer at local nightclubs. Nary a day would pass when they weren’t told how good they were.

But the downside is the pressure and the expectation, which is magnified far beyond that experienced by the big-city clubs. And the expectation on Geelong FC this week is enormous. Forty-four years is a long time to ask supporters to wait for premiership success, especially when they’ve endured five losing grand finals in the meantime.

But if the Cats can finally do it on Saturday, expect a community to be in raptures for weeks. Hangovers permitting, that should mean a record output at the Ford plant on Monday – and perhaps even a wave of big-city migrants arriving in the provinces to be a part of the Ablett-inspired action.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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