by Tom Briglia
Round 23, 2018
St Kilda 3.3, 6.4, 11.6, 14.10 (94)
North Melbourne 6.7, 11.9, 14.11, 17.15 (117)
Crowd: 19,866 at Etihad Stadium, Sunday, August 26th at 4.40pm
At last, this shitbox of a season is over. It was a sickly, extended march through weekly public humiliation rituals that after two months had simply blurred into each other. We can now turn to watching the club raze the place and start again, again.
Maybe the whole thing went too fast, but given the club was supposedly in a different place this is the kind of season that feels like the six months we see and engage with more publicly as supporters and members was a waste; like it sIipped right through our hands and we’re not particularly sure why.
I was listening to Maggie Rogers on the 58 tram on the way in to the city and it registered that this was it. Sitting at home super sick with with bottles of Gatorade and large packets of Kettle chips watching the Geelong game in my giant dressing gown didn’t seem so long ago. Trying to arrest this slump and salvage something from this year doesn’t seem so long ago.
If the rumours about player departures are true then this club will be unrecognisable next year. Two years ago every one of our young guys was untouchable. This year I haven’t felt so alienated by and disconnected from the club. On the field it looked like the players that did care weren’t given a game plan that was able to let them show it. Off the field things have descended to the point where I sympathise profusely with Dunstan and Acres for (allegedly) wanting to get the fuck out of there. This decade will be synonymous with the fallout of the Grand Finals, which nearly spanned the end of the aughts and the start of this decade (the “Twenty Tens”? “Teens”?).
It was nice of the AFL to draw this out as long as possible; to really soak up a quintessentially St Kilda season and schedule this for Sunday twilight, literally the last game of the home and away season. Ben Brown needed seven to take out the Coleman alongside Jack Riewoldt, and who else better to come up against in the final round of the season?
The Roos got the jump (hehe), which wasn’t a surprise given the team probably squeezed any decent quality juice left in this year out of themselves against the Hawks. Gilbert’s early goal was followed by the celebration of a retiring player and his teammates. I was thinking during the game if this was the final time we’d see him – a lot of people must have, because when he found the ball couple of times, a small applause and cheer broke out in the members. For all the frustration I’ve had with him over the year(s), part of me really did think it would be a shame if he didn’t get a publicly acknowledged farewell match, and to enjoy the game with his teammates and fans, and being able to soak that up. It’s part of the hangover of the Riewoldt generation (to steal Jake Niall’s term), but he’s the last remaining player on our list that ran out in any of the 2009 and 2010 Grand Finals and probably represents more of our personal histories as supporters than we acknowledge.
There’s an uneasy feeling about the last game of the season. Last year was such a sad event. The pressure of the several weeks leading up to it, knowing that Roo would be retiring and our chance for a finals spot slipping away by the week was a dour time. In the moments afterwards we needed to come to terms with his career ending, and what he meant to the club and how he represented it, and what it meant for us to have watched that go by without a second premiership.
In the Concrete TV Set you don’t quite feel the changes of the season; you don’t see the sun set at a different angle, you don’t see the shadows fall in a different way, you don’t quite feel the air in the same way as you might as finals approach. In a few days’ time it becomes a Disney-owned shop where football is played. The ground announcer (he’s been there for a decade now and I don’t know his name) took it on himself to get in a last-minute audition before the changeover, taking it on himself to take control of Jarrad Waite’s final moments on a footy field as a player, talking over the North Melbourne song (The Fable Singers version, in all its excellence), and try and give a “three cheers” that wasn’t just unnecessary, but also complete fucking shit. That’s a moment for the player, their teammates and the fans.
The final siren sounded with ball in Waite’s hands, and the game safely in place of North’s. Any chance of being raised beyond a sleepy slump in the padded seats of level two, trying to hear myself hate everything through the kids going bonkers in the row behind us, was knocked out with Gresham’s kick from the pocket cannoning into the post to bring us within two goals in the third quarter, much in the same way his snap late last week to put us ahead cannoned into the crowd in the forward pocket.
The final game of 2016 belongs to a different era now. My Favourite Hair had kicked nine goals, had 26 touches and taken 21 marks on his own, and we’d kicked 25 goals in a barnstorming finish that had us just percentage out of the eight and only two ladder positions below the premiers. The formline was neatly similar to that of the GT era going into 2004. Every one of our kids was untouchable. Don’t touch Paddy, Membrey, Bruce, Gresham, Billings, Acres, Ross, Webster, Lonie, D-Mac, Sinclair. Newnes? Next captain. Dunstan? Next, uh, co-captain. Goddard? Maybe he could be a captain too.
To finish a year that might see him win a fourth best and fairest, Jack Steven was a clear stand-out and upped his trade value nicely, depending on which BigFooty and Saintsational posters you believe. I still think he’s overrated by St Kilda fans, AND NO THAT DOES NOT MEAN I THINK HE IS BAD. I think his disposal has never been as good as many people think – it doesn’t make or break his career but the kick to Carlisle in the final seconds of the GWS match in Round 5 was a sadly excellent example. Which is why it stood out how many low, sharp drop punts he managed among his feverish skating across the Concrete TV Set’s concrete turf on Sunday. That wasn’t normal and shouldn’t be our reference point (much like the club pointed to the wins over GWS and Richmond in 2017 going into this year).
Nonetheless, his movement across the ground alone stood out particularly in a team that for a whole season has looked frustrated, sometimes forgetful, and often bored. If I point to Stuv’s GWS kick to talk down his skill, then I have to point to the final 30 seconds of the Melbourne win to talk up his work rate, and it’s safe to say he has given just about everything throughout this shitshow of a year.
Jack Steele joined Gresham, D-Mac and Webster among the very few players that could say they improved on last year (and perhaps earlier in the others’ case). His move to a tagging role didn’t represent an incredible shift in his game style – he was recruited for his tough inside work – but this role demands he be on a prime opposition ball winner and therefore around the ball all the time given he’s disciplined to stay with them. But it’s triggered something else for him, because he’s not just getting more of the ball but he’s using it better, perhaps more neatly, and he’s taking more marks and kicking more goals too. He doesn’t turn 23 until December.
One of the other 18 Jacks, Jack Lonie, didn’t quite have the same presence in a game that I don’t think cared too much for its own existence, but ended up proving one of the better surprises in a small field. His biggest impact on the game was actually when Majak Daw charging through from the opposite direction, and I’m sure everyone thought Lonie was about to evaporate, or combust, or explode into 1,000 tiny Jack Lonies. He’s not really the kind of player that’s going to have a massive pre-season and come back larger or overly fitter or whatever, but does he absolutely need to be? Yeah he actually kinda does. Part of this team’s problem is that rather than embracing what guys can bring to the team, i.e. Gresham, Billings, Long etc. (Long hasn’t been tainted by our system just yet), it’s tried to even everyone up a little too much while trying to effectively play a Richmond-style game, but without the smarts or work rate to actually have anyone in front of the ball. Otherwise we’re playing rugby poorly, so as well as playing it badly we’re ruining the game of Australian Rules as well.
Also through the forward half was the welcome presence of Ben Long, who looked a little more comfortable again at AFL level after coming back from the VFL possibly too quickly. He threatened to take mark of the year twice on either side of half-time, and a massive bump in the forward line that actually banged up a North defender was one of the best displays of aggression for the year; never mind in this two hours of forgettable curio. Should he have a decent pre-season he would be like a new player next year.
Jade Gresham had a strange game to end his season but thanks to some shanks from Tim Membrey finished on top of our goal kicking with 35. Membrey was just behind with 34, and while it’s not a Novelty Bag it’s a Novelty Goal Kicking Top Three Finish for Ol’ Four Tackles Jack Newnes, who took his banged-up shoulders to third on the list with 18 goals and 17 behinds. In a season that felt incredibly disappointing for him, he’d only played two-third of the season as a forward, something he hadn’t even done before.
There was quite understandably the risk that North would become too Ben Brown conscious in the second half, but they never really did. It says a lot about where they’re at at the moment, although I really was barracking for him to tie with Jack Riewoldt. At half-time it was looking more than likely; he had three and despite a couple of set shot misses he’d snagged a couple of very nice snaps. The borderline blow-out margin could afford the Roos to wait for the next lead from Benny when they were going forward, too. Instead it was Waite who had the bigger presence in the second half, and I don’t think anyone begrudged that. I hope Ben Brown does get another shot at it.
For a period, it looked like this could end up being a reverse scoreline of our win in the final round two years before. Ziebell had three in a freewheeling first quarter and North had 6.7, but there was the old “lack of interest” from the players and increasingly the crowd as the second quarter turned into something closer to the AFLX trash that opened the season. The official crowd total of 19,866 definitely had an incorrect, extra number in there.
Someone who seems to have gone under the radar in the past several weeks is Roma. He’s been taking marks around the ground, he’s kicking goals and he’s provided an option deep too. Hopefully he stays tracking towards becoming what he hoped Rhys Stanley would be for us, because Rhys turned into an enigma and then pick 21, which we turned into another enigma in Hugh Goddard. I will write about Goddard and Freeman over the next few months in more detail as their departures become clearer in context with other changes on the list, both in and out, but I am desperately disappointed that both are gone. It feels far too recent that Hugh was taking promo shots with Paddy on the Gold Coast beach. We’ve afforded Paddy – rightfully – every chance to get himself right and we feel like he hasn’t even started. Hugh was taken 20 picks later and has had a horrible run with injuries too. Freeman earned a reputation throughout the club, from the the playing group right up to the board, for all the right reasons. Maybe this is part of the club becoming more ruthless.
I should say something about Peter Summers. A lot of people have talked about wanting he and Finnis to go along with Richo through this year. He was clearly going to go anyway given the board guidelines at the club, but I thought those calls in isolation were unfounded. History will show that the club was returned to Moorabbin within a decade of moving in his tenure. As President of the club, I found he always had time for fans, and would always engage with them and take an interest in how they feeling about the club. As he said in his press conference today as he officially announced Andrew Bassat as the next President, next year will mark his 50th consecutive year as a member. I first met him in November of 2009. Someone said to him – very tongue-in-cheek – “Have you gotten over it yet?”, and he quickly said, “I’m still getting over ‘71”. He is very much a St Kilda person, and did what he did out of what he thought was best for the club.
The weight of history has been peeling away over so much of the competition. The Lions, the Swans, Geelong and of course the Bulldogs and Richmond have won premierships this century to break longstanding droughts. With those, so have quirks of history tied to those trends been erased. The Swans won their first final at the MCG in 61 years; the Bulldogs’ premiership came with their first Grand Final appearance in 55 years; Richmond’s with their first Grand Final appearance in 35; next weekend alone we will see Richmond and Hawthorn meet in a final for the first time ever, and Richmond and Melbourne – hideous messes on and off the field as we were challenging – will play in the same finals series for the first time since 1941. The myth of 1966 grows, and the myth of the Riewoldt generation is growing far too great too quickly.
Watching the Summers and Bassat press conference on the club site, with the link sitting below the “Initial list changes” story with a picture of Freeman, as well as the mechanic “Saints secure Lade” and “Saints thank departing coaches” headlines, something felt different. Like the site and the club were in sleep mode. No interview with Michael Ryan, just the straight press conference, and a quickly edited intro video from Bassat. No article about the slenderest sliver of positivity from another droll performance, no article based on one line of “we’re looking forward to this week” from a player’s interview on SEN.
This year I didn’t enjoy going to the footy for the first time; the club trashed its own song, and played music after goals for most of the year, managing to destroy any sense of actual atmosphere of going to the footy whenever the team threatened to play half-decently (the club had the guile to publish an article on its site about how great the crowd noise was following the GWS draw). This is the most disconnected I’ve felt to the club and I have the sense that the wider supporter base feels the same.
Now, there are changes across football department, the list itself and the board. We’re probably facing the biggest club overhaul in one hit since the end of 2000. That can be scary. It might not quite be cause for optimism given we’ve just watched a rebuild break down. But there is the opportunity to take relief in no longer being caught in the awful weekly cycle of this year, as well as this period in the club’s history. In our own space, we will start learning what our relationship with this club is all over again.