Some never seem to lose

by Tom Briglia

2nd Elimination Final, 2020
Richmond 5.1, 9.1, 10.4, 12.8 (80)
St Kilda 2.2, 3.6, 5.11, 6.13 (49)
Crowd: 13,778 at Metricon Stadium, Friday, October 9th at 7.50pm

There is an element of inevitability about a season that ends with a finals loss like this. It colours the entire journey that is the season. Over time, any anger or frustration about Cotchin and Lynch, or our for missed shots on goal, or Paddy’s injury, Carlisle’s withdrawal and Long’s suspension will subside. We will likely be left with, well, Richmond is a great fucking team that uses intimidation and physicality to its benefit, and we ran into them in a Semi Final. There’s no magic nor conspiracy there.

There is always a bias to winning form going into Semi Final week. By nature of the current final eight system, Semi Finals pit a loser from the top four, all of a sudden now seen as vulnerable and maybe shown up, against an Elimination Final winner on a high, full of confidence. More Semi Finals have been won by teams in fifth to eighth over recent years, but the number is still in favour of the top four, and it says something that even in the most uncertain of seasons, the top four teams on the ladder have comfortably won through to the Preliminary Finals. They usually finish there for a reason. Finals footy is more uncompromising. Teams need to use any and all of their headroom; that extra gain they found when they needed it during the home and away season that won them games and put them near the top. There’s nothing more dangerous than a team that has been there before and is still hunting.

***

Usually the end of a season has been met with relief. The 2010s descended into something dire and dour. We haven’t had to face the mortality of a season like this for nine years, and even then the entire 2011 season was a cloud of football depression and hatred. But facing even an expected football mortality isn’t any easier when the Tigers go straight out of the centre square for a Lynch goal, an ominous sign featuring the night’s two biggest villains. When you realise that Richmond is very switched on. When Edwards and McIntosh seemingly start shitting out goals, and Bolton gets the right bounce while Paton is taking a shower in his own blood courtesy of going back with the flight into the path of an unapologetic and unflinching Lynch.

Maybe the team was tired (maybe it had tired at three-quarter time last week). Maybe, yes, Richmond is actually just that good. Our ball movement was haphazard from the start. There was no real clear rhyme or reason to the forward forays. Richmond’s defenders raced away with anything that went into the forward 50, so we had to go over them – Savage ran past Butler for a long ball that sailed, and sailed and sailed through, the type of goal we thought he’d be kicking regularly when we gave up Ben McEvoy. Another in due to injury, Marsh was one of the few making an impact, throwing his body around in a physical game that required a Saint, any Saints, to throw their body around. He’s unfashionable, but he was needed at all ends (and heights) of the ground during the night, and he put in a brave effort. The game might have been over a lot earlier without him.

At the fall of every hurried ball forward, Richmond players ran off half-back with ease, knowing exactly where the next player would be if the pressure or momentary dispute came. Cotchin slung Jones by the neck, after a free kick to Billings was awarded, knowing exactly what he was doing. Of course, no punishment, and when Geary was the only one who went to him he was moved on with disdain by Dusty, Castagna and Jayden Short, who had quickly joined Cotchin in the vicinity.

The panic sets in a little. What? No, wait. Give us a second. We’ve just got to sort our shit out. Wait, wait, wait. You trade down quickly. You start to wish for a dignified response. No sooner does that dignity arrive do you suddenly trade back up. No, I want more. I want to be in a Preliminary Final. You become more indignant when Kent gets pushed in the back off the ball in the pocket while Marsh is lining up on the boundary. After all the extra elbows. The umpire saying “bad luck” to Butler about a deliberate out of bounds free paid against. You just want some sort of justice. A fair hearing, especially when it’s all on video, there to review.

***

This should have got 90,000 at the MCG on a Friday night in that early-to-mid September period (even if just on the account of Richmond playing alone). I think I spent all week recovering from the final quarter the week before. There didn’t appear to be as much of a chance to build the anticipation when you don’t have the St Kilda scarves randomly spotted around town. The fresh experience of having been at the MCG on the weekend before for the Elimination Final.

I’m still in a pandemic stupor of being here in mid-October, playing a Semi Final against Richmond on the Gold Coast. If anyone said to us a few years ago we’d be playing at this time of year you’d think we’d manage to play in another Grand Final Draw, and the Replay was drawn. There was still some of the usual finals time feature we just haven’t been used to, the cocktail of looking forward and having those from the past speak about what it would mean and what this year has already meant. Kosi spoke to Kane Cornes on SEN on the Friday morning – if the Saints and Cats won, then the Preliminary Finals would be the exact as 2004.

The Saints sitting on the front pages of the newspapers, including Dan Butler in the clash jumper with black home shorts on the front page of The Age. Shane Savage in the 2014 Stickman pre-season jumper used for team selections on The Age online. All of this after the non-stop chat. Ben Long going the Tribunal. Ben Long’s suspension. Ben Long’s appeal. Carlisle’s leaving the hub for bub. Ryder’s injury. Rowan Marshall’s parents painting cows

Would any of the questions end up mattering? So often finals are blowouts. The only ones who tipped us in the Herald Sun out of 27 were Nick Riewoldt and the Kiss of Death. Daniel Cherny said Richmond by 30. It was 14-0 in The Age.

All of those things can be wiped away in few minutes with some Cotchin and Dusty and lynch aggression and a few fast moments of Shai Bolton and Shane Edwards excellence. One half to pull off the probably impossible.

***

Elimination Finals and Semi Finals aren’t usually the domain of premiership teams, or premiership hopes. That specific thought doesn’t usually run through your head as you watch your team get bullied, but you can feel the gravity of the bottom half of the top eight when Geary drops an easy mark and Butler only just manages to sneak in his snap on the quarter-time siren. We were always going to need just a bit too much to go our way.

As the game went on, it became apparent that that those goals shat out in the first by the Tigers weren’t really shat out. In the second quarter, Edwards’ snap around the corner, Lynch’s set shot from a decent angle. Every time we kicked a goal, the Tigers ran away with the centre clearance. How we really did need Ben Long coming off the back of the centre square and making Dusty or Cotchin think a little about that next clearance. Jake Carlisle hitting back at and fucking around with Lynch off the ball. Paddy Ryder just getting Nankervis out of the fucking way. It’s easy to think they would have made some difference. Or to daydream about what could have been. But for all of the times the ball was vaguely contested, Tigers players were unrelenting. The body went in, the ball was knocked on, handballed, kicked, to a player moving in the right direction every time. Just about every Saint up to Ross and Geary were guilty of that moment of slightly-too-much assessment that immediately put the team on the wrong side of the contest. This wasn’t going to change with the ins and outs. That was a team playing on a different plane of footballing existence.

Like so many of the performances in the back-half of the year, periods of domination were punctuated with low-percentage, awkwardly-placed, high-anxiety entries forward or shots on goal. Extended periods of finding space and time with the ball in the first half of the second and third quarters made little to no impact on the scoreboard. If set shots weren’t taken from tough spots they were shanked. The returned Battle threatened, briefly, to turn the game. King was a presence but finished with 0.3. He and Marshall and Battle couldn’t take the chance to grab the momentum at different points. We kicked 3.6 in the first half, 3.7 in the second half. The goals we did kick required much too much effort. Savage had to kick the ball 60 metres, Butler had to beat the clock, Steele had to curl one in from the boundary, Butler, King and Kent almost fluffed one of the few chances we had right in front of goal. Even that came after a scramble in the square in which the ball ricocheted off Butler, into Battle, into the post.

There was a small, fleeting moment early in the last, Hunter Clark pulled off the best St Kilda move of game early in the last, driving the ball forward from the wing, running through to the contest where it fell, gathered without breaking stride, looked to give off the handball, realised he had more time and space and delivered the ball neatly on his right boot to Membrey, who quickly handballed back over his head to the Seb Ross in the goal square. Somehow it was 17 points. That was as close as it got. And just as you show proof of a pulse, Castagna turns up, Dusty snaps a goal we couldn’t have, and the ending is now just a countdown away.

***

This was our time be taught a lesson. Our turn to literally get hit around. Feel that indignation. Have to sit on it with no on-field recourse until well into next year. Hardwick and Cotchin being fuckheads was something we could laugh at a little from a distance, watching the Cats and the Crows and the Giants all have to deal with it. Now it was our concern. It’s going to be our concern in the future. We’ve had a small taste. Of what “next week” means, and of having that opportunity that can just as easily be extinguished as realised in the same short two hours.

The last Brett Ratten post-match press conference. The last look at the stats for each player this year. The last look at this line-up representing this list of the St Kilda Football Club before the inevitable changes on and off-field. This is the most advanced this season became, a year in which we went to bed on a Thursday night at the beginning of August second on the ladder. Now it is past tense. This is how St Kilda fared during the pandemic. The longest season has reached its end.

Sweeping you along

by Tom Briglia

2nd Elimination Final, 2020
St Kilda 2.2, 5.4, 9.6, 10.7 (67)
Western Bulldogs 3.1, 4.3, 5.6, 9.10 (64)
Crowd: Not sure, but they had the Finals bays for each team and everything, at the Gabba, Saturday, October 3rd, at 4.40pm

After a ghost Grand Final Day, the season more or less felt over. Well done everyone for coming along and performing. This is what I assume a Premier League season might feel like when the title is taken a month out from the end.

The body calendar is right out. September is famously and inextricably intertwined with this league. With the ambitions of clubs and supporters. This year, the last Saturday in September was empty, serendipitously but probably appropriately. A quiet day of mourning and acknowledgement for what has been lost this year.

But no, now it was time for the real thing. Match day brought extended coverage for a St Kilda game we hadn’t seen for nine years. 3,311 days to be exact. The Herald Sun offered a feature piece on Paddy “I Still Can’t Believe He Plays for St Kilda” Ryder. The Age had their spotlight on Jarryn Geary, the lowest profile and oftentimes the lowest-impact captain in the game. Both articles proved to be prophetic. A return to finals (or the pointy end) for a club means former players are wheeled out for comment. This week, it was Clint Jones, and we were reminded that time indeed moves on for those involved in the heady Ross and GT eras. Even the most baby-faced, puppy-like.

***

There’s something about a Saturday afternoon game in spring being broadcast live on Channel 7. The club ran out for its breakthrough final to the glorious, traditional version of the club song by The Fable Singers, but, uh, to a more-than-half-empty Gabba, with no banner, on October 3rd.

Josh Bruce snapping the first goal and grabbing his red, white and blue jumper was a rude welcome back to this part of the season. The imprint of these moments will be deeper. This is what the tape will look like. Gotta get shit right now.

Something to look out for was which players would be either willing or able to successfully bring their better traits to final. Ben Long almost knocked out Jack Macrae and then almost knocked out Dan Hannebery. Yes, it’s caused a whole lot of problems,but it’s still excellent to have a St Kilda player willing to throw their body around in a high-stakes game.

There was Max King moving high up the ground and pulling down a huge mark, and then another towering take at the top of the goal square against three opponents.

For the end-of-2000-style new coach and trade raid of last year, there are still so many players associated with the dark days of the 2010s. Now, we Jack Billings playing in a final. Seb Ross playing in a final. Tim Membrey playing in a final. Already, Ben Long, Hunter Clark, Nick Coffield, Ben Paton and Max King playing in a final. How I dearly would have loved to have a 70,000-plus MCG crowd roar for Max King’s towering mark against three Bulldogs opponents, or the reaction to Ben Long’s hits (and no doubt the cauldron it would have created), and, yes, Geary’s contested marks at full forward.

Geary reprised the early season role of one-on-one defensive forward, this time on Caleb Daniel. Geary’s place in the best 22 has been questioned this year, but his best performances have come in this role. This one was a little bit closer to his game on Sam Docherty. With his first contested mark at full-forward, he gave the ball off to Tim Membrey for St Kilda’s first goal in a final since Nick Dal Santo put through what wouldn’t even be classified as a consolation goal late in the 2nd Elimination Final against the Swans in 2011, the final act of the GT and Ross eras.

At quarter-time, his performance had a couple of ticks and crosses. There were the marks, yes, but moments that he didn’t quite take – a chance to knock on a loose high ball near goal to a teammate waiting in space, but he didn’t have the nous, and then a missed set shot after the quarter-time siren. You’ve just gotta kick that.

***

This game didn’t have the uncompromising physical pressure on quality ball movement usually reserved in the first week of September for Qualifying Finals. Ball movement was undone by not-quite-excellent execution a little bit too often. Geary missed his shot from close range, Membrey let one slip right through his hands and shanked the good work of Hannebery.

But there was the pressure of this being a finals match. There was always the threat that a few goals either way would be enough to break it open, in the unmistakable way that applies to a match that only comes down to whether you win or lose. The second quarter had some moments that felt as though a break might be nearing. We weren’t entirely humming. Crozier and Wallis nailed excellent set shots. Steele was down. But Hannebery was up. King played one of his best halves of the season (Paddy McCartin two-goal limit still applies though), pulling down contested marks higher up the ground and again close to goal as we began to make a move late in the second. Ryder was prominent. Clark showed as much composure and as much willingness to step off opponents as he has all year. Carlisle, Howard and Coffield were patrolling and controlling the skies in defence.


The most impressive passage of the night might well have been the chain of Hannebery, Clark, Wilkie, a quick follow-up by Marshall and excellent ground ball work from Hill (after a whole ground sprint) and Kent on the flank, and a rare calm moment from Lonie to hit Paddy on the lead. I remember watching the 2nd Elimination Final between North Melbourne and Essendon in 2014 on my own in the top deck of the MCC. We’d finished on the bottom of the ladder. It was time to check out a decent game in front of a decent crowd. Late in the game, as North were finishing over the top, Paddy Ryder took a one-handed mark just inside 50 on a tight angle and very audaciously wheeled around for one of the better snap goals you’ll see. As soon as he took the mark from Lonie’s neat kick and angled himself, I became the most confident about a St Kilda player kicking a goal from a set shot since BJ in the Draw. Paddy fucking Ryder, wearing a fucking St Kilda jumper.

***

Ryder’s quick kick hit Membrey from a fast start to the second half. We could just see a small crack appearing. Dunkley’s classy turn for a quick reply quelled that for a few moments. Tim English had moved and the Dogs had a tall target finding space. Max King almost ripped it open with a small sprint through the forward line. The ball movement had loosened up. Howard’s contested mark in defence was honoured by Steele hard up against the boundary, a quick kick from Billings, King bringing the ball to ground, finesse from Sinclair to find Hannebery who’d worked hard to get forward, another moment of calm from Lonie and the set shot goal from the leading mark out of full forward from, uh, Jarry Geary.

The game had swung. Seb caught and dumped Bont at half-back. Howard again started off a chain with a desperate knock to Billings. He flushed the kick to Lonie, Marshall stood up in a contest at half-forward and Paddy and Max could raffle it 15 out.

Yet again, a scintillating rebound goal from half-back finished off by Dan Butler represented the peak. Paddy took the high mark in defence, and Steele kept the ball moving after not hearing the play on call, and Paton and Sinclair quickly sent the ball forward to the tall target in, uh, Jarryn Geary, and Butler breezed by. The margin was 26 points, and the run now read 6.3 to 1.2. English missed a long set shot, and then Hunter an easy chance after a questionable free kick and a questionable 50.

***

Butler’s goal was the first moment I thought that we should win. Not necessarily that we would win. Simply, if we’re worth anything in 2020, then yes, we should win an Elimination Final after being 26 points up late in the third quarter.

Naughton’s goal didn’t come until just before the 10-minute mark. Richards missed a shot on the run. The game had changed. The throw-in was met by Paddy. The timing was exquisite; he palmed the ball down to Hannebery who had space and Butler flying past. Within a few seconds, Membrey had the ball in space in the forward pocket, and at full forward, by himself, was, uh, Jarryn Geary. He kicked the goal, and minted his best performance of the year.

That was the second moment I thought, well, we should win. My housemate (also Tom) proclaimed we had it safe multiple times from the third quarter onwards. As any St Kilda fan who witnessed the North Melbourne and Fremantle losses earlier this year (and St Kilda history generally( would, I met this with suspicion. (He is a Hawthorn fan, so rightly would believe any lead like that would be closed out.) St Kilda history is littered with things we should have done. It’s not littered with finals wins. We only had 21 of those coming into this year. Ten of those arrived between 1992 and 2010. The 10-year anniversary of both the 2010 Grand Final Draw and Replay passed int the lead-up to the game.

The third time that I thought, well, we should win, was Paddy’s big mark on the defensive side of the wing a few moments later. Seven minutes left. These moments were falling our way, or we were grabbing them.

Within a minute of play, Hunter had made up for his shank at the end of the third and it was back to 16 points with six minutes left. Billings couldn’t pull off a carbon copy of his late goal against the Lions hard up against the goal post, and the Dogs again took the ball straight up the end, but Dunkley just missed another shot.

No-one wanted to make the mistake. The movement was gone. Ryder got the clearance, roving his own ruck contest. Yet again the loose ball went the Dogs’ way. Caleb Daniel dived across Coffield’s boot. Wilkie’s next chance at a clearance went out on the full, Wallis drew the free kick. He missed – nine points now – but the next scoring shot wasn’t going to be ours. English took the mark, and Caleb Daniel went low and drew another free from Wilkie. Coffield, Long and and Seb Ross all cracked the shits and yelled at the umpire. Geary left the scene. Hunter Clark slumped to the ground in dismay. Caleb wasn’t going to miss this one.

***

Two minutes and five seconds left. Was 26 going to become the new 37 or 31? Was this how the season started and ended?

A Sinclair clearance and mark to Membrey helped eat up time, but as Membrey sent the ball forward out wide, Abbey Holmes announced Ryder had gone to the bench. Keath took the mark where he would have been. Duryea’s kick into attack was thumped down by Paton, who’d decided to leave his man in Wallis. Bruce grabbed Coffield high. 46 seconds. Marshall marked the perfectly-placed wide kick. Keath played for a soft free and got it at half-back for the Dogs, Steele tempted fate by not giving the ball back straight away. Paton was again there to meet it as the siren sounded.

Elimination Finals for St Kilda have marked the end of an era. After the 2004 and 2005 runs, the difficult 2006 season spluttered at the MCG on a Friday night, ending GT’s run. Similarly, the 2011 Elimination Final marked the end of Ross the Boss, bringing to a close a dark and depressed year after failed Grand Final attempts. This was a move forward, into a new era.

We’re not used to these kinds of scenes in recent history featuring St Kilda jumpers. And now, we have the footage and images of Jack Billings celebrating a finals win. Seb Ross celebrating a finals win. Tim Membrey celebrating a finals win. Already, Ben Long, Hunter Clark, Nick Coffield, Ben Paton and Max King celebrating a finals win. The Fable Singers thundered through the broadcast as the Saints players celebrated (and no, there is nothing quite like that). How I dearly would have loved to have been there, and to have the Channel 7 audio roar of an MCG crowd of 70,000-plus for the siren, with The Fable Singers playing the as the crowd and players celebrated, to have to watch it all back.

There was the Bulldogs players slumped together on the grass. Paddy Ryder with a towel over his teared face. Paddy fucking Ryder, best on ground for St Kilda in a final. Paddy fucking Ryder, in tears, in a St Kilda jumper. The legitimacy of this season has been questioned. Yes, this matters.

A knockout blow had never arrived. Or rather, it wasn’t the Saints that delivered one. It was simply time passing. Too much time, not enough time, just enough time. A year that has been longer than any other has given us the gift of another week.

Seen it on the news

by Tom Briglia

Round 18, 2020
St Kilda 3.3, 5.5, 8.9. 12.10 (82)
GWS Giants 1.5, 3.8, 3.10, 3.12 (30)
Crowd: Some humans at the Gabba, Friday, September 18th at 7.50pm

This time of year is usually the beginning of Grand Final Week. Enjoy the weather. Relax. The hard work is done. Reminisce during a week that is often about reflection and places in history, made or to be made. During the eight days between the loss to West Coast and Friday night, my body clock (calendar) said to me, well, St Kilda isn’t usually playing at this time of year, and it would therefore follow that we would lose to GWS, Melbourne would make up the necessary margin against a floundering Essendon, before the in-form Bulldogs disposed of Fremantle on the Sunday night. A magic three-step process over three magical Melbourne spring days.

You’d be right to have been worried about a GWS loss and Melbourne catapulting themselves in with a hefty win over the Bombers. We’d done a similar job on Essendon in the final home and away game of 2008 to fly into fourth after a string of other results that weekend went our way. There had hardly been – if at all – a sustained period within a game since the Gold Coast win during which we’d had the game on our terms, or were at our most efficient, or at our boldest and best. During which we played how we want to play. With every uncertain movement forward, with every high dump kick into the forward line and rushed shot at goal from an unfamiliarly wide angle, those secret thoughts of “What if?” gave way bit by bit to missing the finals – including the mechanisms required over the last round – feeling right and normal. But fuck a duck, it’s a long way from second on the ladder after Round 10.

The games had become smaller. The upside was less remarkable. From a top of the table challenge on a Monday night against Geelong, to a top four battle against Brisbane, to an unimpressive finals-critical game against Melbourne, a finals confirmation test blown against the Eagles, and now, judging on both the Giants’ and our own recent form, a finals participation award on the line. GWS weren’t the shadows formed over the MCG by their 2019 selves 50 weeks and six days earlier. We hadn’t been convincing since getting light-headed while sitting up at second on the ladder. Who wants to draw out this long year even further?

*** 

For all the ongoing Max King missed shots and the threat of a Jeremy Cameron return to form, the game’s setting never really deviated from the start. The Giants’ ball movement was uneasy, and their goal kicking was our Richo-era levels of poor. Another un-St Kilda-like tactical in-game win, this time Josh Battle blanketing Haynes, took away one of their weapons to go with Battle’s incredibly slick goal on the run from 50, the kind that good players in good teams in important games pull off. Lonie fell into a mark while in the hands of a trainer, and after a difficult last quarter in which he spurned a potentially match-sealing chance and then had ignominy of giving away a free kick in front of goal on the siren and having the Eagles players pile on in front of him, Brad Hill took the tight set shot kick and made no mistake.

We’d forgotten what it’s like to ask the question, “What if we win?” Our history doesn’t encourage it. Since 2011 we haven’t really been in a position to ask it at all. In a game between two teams playing in which they both must win, there is something irrepressible about a team making a match-defining break in the third quarter. This time, it was us.

Paddy Ryder back-heeled a hit-out to set up Marshall for a (questionable) mark in front of goal, and kick starting his huge third quarter. Turnovers across the middle third of the ground became expected. The confidence of a steady St Kilda hand about to appear on-screen returned. Howard got caught in a manic forward-50 sprint to the goal line for the second consecutive week and won. Coniglio was swamped near goal and caught holding the ball. Clark confidently wheeled around going forward and Butler tapping onto Lonie running into goal. Billings pinched the ball off hands at the top of the goal square. Max King broke his run of behinds. Ryder casually and confidently took the advantage off the ground after a huge Lonie tackle. Jack Steele had minted three Brownlow votes, the Trevor Barker Award and possibly the captaincy with another huge performance and a great long-range snap goal, and capped it off with a second from close range in the final minutes. His celebration was big and brash; the kind the players introduced at the beginning of 2019. Now they meant something. They were being used in a must-win game, and these players were wearing St Kilda jumpers.

***

The scenes at the end of the game were of celebration, and were as big as you could get in a time in which no one apart from the players, coaches and core staff are allowed in the rooms. They were as much a celebration of creating a new period for the club as relief that we are no longer in the shadow of the GT and Ross eras. A new coach, a return to Moorabbin christened at the beginning of the year, the weight of expectation and responsibility on different players, almost all of them young or new recruits.

Making the finals doesn’t mean the past is wiped and all sins are forgiven, of course. Brett Ratten quickly and rightly went out of his way to say this is not the destination. Part of why we celebrate is because we do very much remember and still feel the weight of Grand Finals lost and drawn, of promises all but made, but never kept. This is a long game. As the 10-year anniversary of the Draw ticks by this week, we may finally be starting to live a real chance to make some of those demons go away (or least find some new ones). 

St Kilda supporters are used to barnstorming entries into finals series and nearly-fairytale runs. A fourth-place finish in 1991. The dizzying 1997 run. The peak of the GT era began with a pre-season premiership and 10 wins to start the year, and a one goal loss in an all-timer Preliminary Final. Ross Lyon’s maiden finals appearance followed a pre-season premiership, fourth-place and another Preliminary Final. These haven’t been done in half-measures. Chances are this won’t quite be those. There is something a litlte terrifying about sustained mid-table mediocrity, as Demonblog so excellently describes it. We hope that the 2020 appearance in the finals, however long or short, is a Bulldogs 2015 Elimination Final appearance, or a Hawthorn’s 2007 Semi-Final foray, or Sydney’s Semi-Finals of 2010 and 2011, rather than the fleeting Essendon 2009, 2011, 2014 and 2019 or Carlton’s 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013 appearance that yielded Semi Final losses for an entire generation of players at best.

Front page on the Herald Sun, owning the back page of The Age, Off the Bench opening with the St Kilda song (The Fable Singers’ version, of course), goodwill overflowing across the media and football world for Brett Ratten over the entire weekend. Double-page spread on celebrity Saints fans talking about St Kilda returning to the finals. What life was like when the Saints won a premiership. St Kilda, for a few days at least, is fashionable again.

***

I spent the last quarter very quietly enjoying what was happening. A St Kilda team had handsomely risen to a challenge with the weight of history against it. A team that had been rightly criticised for not putting the foot to the throat of its opponents smothered last year’s Grand Finalists.

There was quiet relief. The spectre of the GT and Ross eras will remain, but we hail a new era. Quiet sadness, too. Footy has almost become an island in the pandemic. But not quite entirely. For all the bluster at the beginning of the season around what footy meant to people during wars the Great Depression, we were only going to become attached to this season as a journey and narrative developed. Empty seats and novelty venues have reinforced the extraordinary nature of the situation. Moments like Friday were what we’d seek throughout a year, perhaps a decade. Sharing the same space and atmosphere with people close to us. But they did it all on TV! They didn’t need us to be there! This is a whole lot of things co-existing. We were different people nine years ago, and we were different people nine months ago. If a pandemic wasn’t enough, yes, this is a different time.

Just asking

by Tom Briglia

Round 17, 2020
St Kilda 3.5, 3.5, 3.9, 6.14 (50)
West Coast Eagles 2.1, 5.6, 5.9, 9.11 (65)
Crowd: At least several humans at the Gabba, Thursday, September 10th at 7.10pm

Even at this very, very late stage of a lengthened season, St Kilda is creating new and horrifying novelty ways to lose games. In the newest, most 2020-flavoured edition, we get run over by a wildly depleted team playing its 5th game in 19 days, one of their few remaining top-line players injured, and on a ground at least two states and/or territories away from both sides.

Need to create some heroes? Create your own legends? The St Kilda Football Club is your canvas. The St Kilda Football Club is the centre of our footballing world, but when you see even just a few seconds of Adam Simpson’s press conference we’re reminded that we’re just the jumper in the background of players and teams celebrating big moments. Simpson said it was one of the best wins in his time at the club; this is a team that was made two Grand Finals and won a premiership in that period.

This one had the same formula as most games following the Gold Coast win. Maximum effort for little reward. Hurried, anxious ball movement forward, few shots at goal in time or space, or from close range. At one stage we led 2.3 to 0.0, and aside from the early final quarter flurry, West Coast’s moments against the weight of momentum were more damaging. No Shuey, Yeo, Redden, or Sheed, and down McGovern. They always had an extra gear to go to. You need to repeat it to make you’re feeling the magnitude of the opportunity spurned. Maybe we’re tired. We’re definitely not good enough. This year has been long and exhausting. We don’t need 28 games next year.

***

At the final change, some of our bellwethers had made little impact. Butler had five touches in his Brent Guerra 2004 season, Marshall had his moments but just seven touches as the ruck battle truly has handed over to Nic Nat and Paddy (The Age already used up the names in the rhyme during the week), Battle had three, although twice putting his body on the line on the wing were among the best St Kilda moments of the game.

Really, that was the problem – not Battle so much, but that so rarely in the past several games have we had extended periods in which we play the we clearly want to, i.e. those irresistible patches up. Moments are sticking out just a little too much. There’s too much weight on them. They have to be right. We can’t rely on Lonie having to go a rushed banana on his left (in my head I’d already screamed “get a right”), Membrey missing the mark, Barrass missing the ball and Butler missing the kick on the line (BT during the review: “The guy in the goal square”, to go with “Jack Zones” and, after several months of calling St Kilda games, “Ben Payton”).

The rain came, but it didn’t really matter. Our turn in the third quarter lasted all of a couple of minutes – Hunter flunked a shot on the run, and then with a nearly calamitous turnover Battle gave us a Flyin’ Ryan vs Dougal Howard dash that echoed Eric Mackenzie vs Beau Maister in the dying minutes of a very dark 2013 afternoon.

From the beginning of the final term Sinclair added to an already creative with a mark going back with the flight. Steele’s kick to a Membrey lead was good, Sinclair at the fall of the ball at that next ball, and his quick kick forward was expertly crumbed by Ross. Two minutes later Butler took a touch in the goal square and soccered another through. The rush had started. The Eagles looked tired. The weight of five games in 19 days and losing one of their most important players was going to be the difference. A first finals appearance in nine years.

Marshall bobbed up with a typically calm head, taking the extra second and small piece of space he knew had parted around him to balance himself and snap the goal. We had the game on our terms and were vaguely playing how we wanted to play, but the entries forward were taken for granted. Still high, still manic, and for all the good forward pressure the cluttered defence meant any half-shots were just that. There were just more of them. Max King had made almost every contest he could during the night but had barely held one. He missed twice in a minute, including a set shot, taking his tally for the night 0.4. They took the margin to six points, and then seven. The margin should have been taken beyond two goals. Hill ran in with a hurried banana shot from close range and missed. Brett Ratten said in the press conference that that would probably have been the game. When BT said the Eagles didn’t look like getting it to their end from the resulting kick out you knew it was coming.

Some deft knock-ons had the ball race down the other end to Kennedy, who no one had bothered to pick up, and despite looking sore still made sure to take the opportunity. West Coast’s leaders stepped up. Nic Nat engineered the clearance, and Kelly made up for the one he missed before half-time. Just like that, the Eagles were back in front. They never really looked challenged from that points. Where did it go?

***

The inability to close out close games says more about the mechanics of the team rather than “if only x had happened”, in this case “if only Brad Hill had kicked the goal”. The sample size is much, much too big now. Repeated high dump kicks are rarely going to be a substitute for the quicker, slicker ball movement that allowed the talls and smalls just that little more space to work with earlier in the season. Max King had kicked 15.5 at the end of the Gold Coast game, when we sat second on the ladder. He’s kicked 4.9 since, which probably says more about the rushed high dump kicks forward. Across that same six-week block, we have kicked 4.10, 10.8, 6.14, 7.7, 11.14 and 6.14. At no point in those consecutive close losses to Brisbane and Melbourne did it feel as though we had real control of the game for that reason.

For a few moments this looked like it could be a repeat of the Port Adelaide finish, but it ended up being a horrible child produced by the St Kilda teams that played against Geelong and then Brisbane. Shown up when a top class team stepped up and showed off what they do, and heavily wasteful and anxiety-ridden when we had the glut of possession.

As usual, the joke’s on us. The tacky 1980s US hyper-capitalist Rock and Roll and Sport and Major Events aesthetic hangover that is the West Coast Eagles, complete with their college jocks line-up and WTF song had the last laugh. A massive pile-on with the boys, celebrating a goal on the siren from an arsey Perth Home Town Whistle-style free kick.

One more shot.

Scattered in the mud

by Tom Briglia

Round 16, 2020
St Kilda 4.4, 5.8, 7.13, 11.14 (80)
Hawthorn 5.1, 5.5, 6.6, 9.12 (66)
Crowd: Some humans at Metricon Stadium, Sunday, September 6th at 1.05pm

Daniel Cherny was absolutely not thinking about me when he noted that there were fans of then-second-placed St Kilda who were worried about how they might physically make it to the Grand Final given Victoria and state border restrictions ahead of a towelling to Geelong on a Monday night. However, I was absolutely feeling a small pang of cheeky guilt. This is St Kilda, and the most St Kilda thing possible would be to win a second premiership this year. Today, we learned that we might not even be allowed to watch the month-delayed Grand Final with more than one other human.

No matter. In the time following those heady few days and a string of Channel 7 games, the Travelling Dan Butler, Max King, Hunter Clark, and High Kickin’ Tim Membrey Show had conked out and disappeared from cultural reference points in a fast-deeping bog of slow ball movement, poor forward line entries, shots at goal from wide angles and close losses. A Soft 1998, if you will, the Saints falling from grace with some anxiety induced footy and a barrage of awkward losses interstate, except this one is (theoretically for now) at the beginning of this team’s arc, a marker of development and the development required, rather than marking the beginning of the end. We hope this is more of a return to brief anonymity than anything else.

Back to the depths of Fox Footy for a Round 16 game that meant no more and no less than fuck all to one participating team and to most neutrals. Harder to engage than most pandemic-era matches given the Dan Andrews press conference immediately before. Many St Kilda fans wouldn’t have noted we actually managed to sneak in a bye during the week. Anonymously anonymous.

***

I’m a sucker for novelty stats, scores and so on and Hawthorn really let down bored freaks like myself by allowing the Crows the chance to keep Fitzroy’s 1964 the most recent instance of a winless season. The Saints are probably the ideal team to make amends against, of course.

So maybe it wasn’t wildly horrifying that the first three goals went the Hawks’ way. This was going to be a long afternoon of shanked kicks forward and not much coherent footy, probably about as long as Metricon was playing music for after goals. “Get Lucky” after Jack Gunston blasted through Hawthorn’s second felt wildly out of place given most fans of the two Victorian teams had just been told they were going nowhere fast and facing a greater chance of psychological and financial trauma.

For much of the first quarter we really only had some pressure acts by Jack Lonie to feel good about, while the Hawks had Dylan Moore pulling off a neat one-two to run in for their third. The step taken from being encouraged by efforts or moments from inexperienced or younger guys, to being encouraged by matches and wins created by inexperienced or younger guys can be long and dour. The step back can be a very quick stumble, landing weirdly on your arse, and yes, everyone did see it. The inaccuracy, the hurried kicks. Marshall broke through with a strong mark on the lead and kick around the corner, and quickly this became a high-scoring match (by 2020 standards at the very least). But only in the way that this was two teams fumbling around at a pre-season intensity.

Breust won a free kick on the siren but kicked right into the man of the mark. Paddy Ryder made sure the celebration for that alone was big and tried getting the team up. He was able to break through and turn around a broken-down game against the Bombers. It was a rare moment of intiative.

***

High-scoring, free-wheelin’ footy was absolutely not going to last beyond the coaches’ first face to face interaction with the players. Not in 2020. A modern-day tale of Tiring Young Once-Challengers against Tiring Also-Rans was unfolding. It was going to be ugly. While the Hawks were kept to 1.5 over the second and third quarters, we could only manage 3.9 in that time. No frenetic pressure, no overly slick football, just occasions in which one team was slightly quicker and a little cleaner in traffic, enough to find someone on the outside, and if it went forward there wasn’t going to be anything overly clean.

Individuals rarely stood out. During the second quarter, Brad Hill took control of how the ball was moved with more creativity. In his best moment on the broadcast side he sliced through three Hawks players on the wing and cut inside with a neat kick that quickly found Lonie for the only goal of the quarter. Dan Butler showed off some of his own hard running. Ben Long won a hard ball and a free kick, also on the wing and a few moments later, floated across a park running hard across the ground and took a delightful mark. On the day of the first absence of Max King, Marshall played as a full-forward and deserved more than 2.2 for several strong grabs in attack – the type we’re hoping Max King will be taking in due course – as  well as his work up the ground.

For all of those, we also had Jack Steele prop up a neat pass straight to James Frawley, whose quick didn’t get past Steele’s reach, and Ed Philips’ handball (shortly after his calamity squirt on the left that trickled out of bounds) meant the Hawks were away. Breust took too long on his snap and a behind was the result.

Marshall and Battle loomed as a big threats after a run of behinds that took us to 5.12, but yielded mixed results. Dodgy set shots from all angles took the posters count to four (was it five?). Billings’ comically high snap on the siren wobbled its way through. He snuck the kick in just before the siren after the umpire called play on. A critical mass of small mercies and Dan Butler sprints and Nick Coffield intercepts would be the difference.

Hawthorn’s tilt really reached its end with four spurned shots on goal early in the last quarter. Mitchell Lewis’s kick from a big mark and was flipped to a Butler-generated goal to Battle, and three quick misses from different positions ended with Rowan Marshall minting his influence with a low collect and handball, and Jonathan Marsh contributing one of the better moments of the match, a bullocking burst away from two opponents and a handball that opened up the forward line and finished with Paddy Ryder on the goal line.

***

The absence of footy’s weekly grind this year was crowned during the week with confirmation that the Gabba would be hosting the Grand Final. (Tacky lightshow enthusiasts and “Because we need to be like US sports” fetishists were given some good news and bad news, with the game not being in Perth but probably at night. People with lots of money and no care at Channel 7 will do what they can to keep it that way, no matter how it actually plays out.)

I remember the day of the Grand Final Replay. The heat. The sun shining at an angle not usually seen when Collingwood and St Kilda are on the MCG. The exhaustion, obviously – not just the week before, but the everything that had happened through the GT and Ross era. I think about Bob Murphy’s rhythm of the season. The song has stopped by then. It felt like we’d maxed out, and by “we” I mean the footy community. We shouldn’t be at the MCG watching a game of footy at that time of year.

Footy frames the calendar year. In any other year this would be the first weekend of the finals series. We still might return to the finals in 2020, but this young team is tiring. We’ve been programmed to have been done with our St Kilda duties by now. Time to get on with our lives, or whatever, but usually familiarise ourselves with what two genuinely good teams going all out looks like. High pressure, decent footy, taken in pressure-free. Maybe even watch some VFL or VFLW or local footy finals, too. Soak up the changing of seasons. The sun shining at this angle usually tells me we’ve done what we need to do. We’ve made it through winter. Spring is here. This has been a long season. A long year. And it’s going to get longer.