by Tom Briglia
“Hometown goes wherever you go”
– Haley Bonar
For the first time, anyone in my generation lived the existence of those St Kilda supporters that had come before us. Following a club that failed to build on the greats before it and make something of itself, instead collapsing into the joke that had been the subject of well-worn gags since its disastrous entry into the VFL. Hell, since 1873.
That identity that made our experiences as young supporters during 1997 that much more pronounced, surrounded by parents or relatives or family friends and public sentiment who we could sense were experiencing something that didn’t just happen at St Kilda. It was hard to ignore the historical weight behind that entire season, even as a nine-year-old. Even accounting for the 1998 and 1999 collapses and 2000 wooden spoon, the arrival of Riewoldt and Koschitzke, Malcolm Blight and an aggressive recruiting drive set up the next 1+10 seasons (five for each of GT and Ross), meant my generation had lived a life of heavily weighted hope, expectation, and not-quite-success.
By quirk of our arbitrary time measurements and cultural reference points, the final year of the decade marked the 10 year anniversary of the 2009 season and its sad and wasteful end, while also being well as the closing year of the decade that began with 2010, a season that would ultimately revolve around the Qualifying Final win and then the Grand Final Draw.
This decade was supposed to start with a premiership defence, if not for bizarrely poor kicking on that Grand Final day in 2009. The gateways that appeared open in that moment of Round 19 in August of that year – everything that was written for us, the path paved – should have meant were celebrating a 10th anniversary this year, not mourning one. Eight top line players were missing in Launceston, Max Hudghton was captain, and 10 players with 51 games of experience or less took the field, and held off the reigning premiers to go 19-0 with teams outside of the eight to come in the last three matches of the home and away season. The Age certainly believed, beckoning fate on the club’s behalf by splashing a scrappy win on the front page of the Sunday sport section with a headline that was terrifying to us because, in that moment, quietly, what it was suggesting was probable. We didn’t know what that felt like. The 1966 premiership team had gathered for a reunion at the Launceston ground that day, and watched the 2009 Saints kick 10.14 (74), the same scoreline as that of the 1966 Grand Final.
Instead, the 2010s began with a dour, torrid redemption effort that so very nearly worked. For the first time perhaps in St Kilda history, the club was fielding a team that was good enough to win at will. Some fans still complained as unfashionable, uninspiring wins piled up. The Ross era was a template copy of the GT era, down to the 2004 and 2009 starts with late-season stumbles and the close losses at the end, to the wild, terrible and fantastical follow-ups in 2005 and 2010, right down to Lenny Hayes knee injuries in the comedown throes of 2006 and 2011.
The theme of reflection might serve to tie up a decade that has essentially been one of footy grieving. Those Grand Finals were a decade in the making – with Preliminary Finals and rightful premiership expectation throughout – and the cold comedown has lasted just as long. Part of me thinks we are still hold some disbelief.
The Road to 2018
The 2009 headline in The Age wasn’t their only misstep in talking up the Saints. On the Saturday morning of Round 6 this year, the front page of the sport section declared us “the story of the year”. Indeed, for five weeks at the beginning of this year, it looked like the Road to 2018 worked. We were on top of the ladder on the Saturday night of Round 5. We celebrated goal loudly, we hit bodies hard. Within three months, Alan Richardson was sacked.
Cliché yes, but still truthfully, St Kilda sells itself on hope. What else is left? Even that is in short supply after the GT and Ross eras. Going to the footy in anticipation of seeing a brick that could become part of the club’s next premiership is a forgotten experience, giving way to simply supporting St Kilda as a lifestyle choice. “Where were you?” turned into “where was I?” as in, I actually can’t remember that nondescript, inconsequential few hours at an empty Concrete Dome in artificial light that brought the weekend to a close by two in the afternoon.
This has become a chaotic swamp of boredom and anxiety we hadn’t lived for a sustained period of time, never mind the heartbreak of literally everything that happened from 2002 to 2011, never mind the humiliation of everything that didn’t happen from 2002 to 2011.
Really, the aughts and the 2010s are mirror images. A coach sacked and a wooden spoon in 2000 to a Grand Final in 2009, and in this decade starting with Grand Final – two of them – and a sacked coach in 2019 as the club officially acknowledged the rebuild had failed, and that the Road to 2018 never had materialised beyond a marketing stunt.
The Road to 2018 was paved with a press release for a supporter base that was depressed as fuck and hoping to hear from the club that all we had to do was draft young guys like we’d done over the 10 to 15 years earlier. In the fineprint of The Road to 2018 we will read that it actually has next year to deliver a premiership before it can be officially considered a failure. Otherwise, where are all the New Zealand members? Where are the 50,000 members in Australia? We certainly haven’t finished in the top four any time lately.
Richmond’s plan from 2009 is on course to deliver three premierships, and the 75,000 member number is now more than 100,000. We have watched them go from the laughing stock of 37 years to the greatest club in the land. Not only was there time for this in the 2010s, but Hawthorn won three premierships, the Bulldogs broke their 62-year drought, two new clubs to entered the AFL, and Collingwood has already run through their cycle between flag tilts.
Brendon Goddard’s mark and goal in the final quarter of the 2010 Grand Final would have become one of the greatest moments in VFL/AFL history. The Milne bounce is the most oft-cited moment in that game now given the result, but the ball could just as likely have bounced the other way – back towards open play – or bounced up for him, or have bounced on straight through for a freak Lenny Hayes goal. There was still plenty of time left in the game. Worth reminding ourselves that between BJ’s mark and the bounce, Collingwood had grabbed back the lead, and then had a set shot to extend the margin beyond that one point.
Poor kicking by Collingwood had allowed us back into the game, and if not for a Travis Cloke miss before half-time we would have gone into half-time 29 points down. We simply weren’t good enough to have been as close as Geelong had kept themselves one year earlier when we were missing our own shots. Never mind the Milne bounce, the first half was our biggest problem.
There’s nothing new here. Thinking of passages of play unfolding differently still make you wince or catch on your breathing just that little bit. I still feel the exhaustion sitting on the third level of the Southern Stand one week later watching the Collingwood players walk around the ground as the sun disappeared behind the Ponsford. The Replay felt like the gateway from the GT and Ross eras to the rest of our lives.
Few St Kilda highlights beyond 2010 would feature in any “best of” packages for a given year, let alone a decade. No moments to get attached to, few games to get us attached to the players. The win over Richmond in 2017 has only become known as an aberration. We became attached to guys like Jack Newnes and Blake Acres only through attrition. They were the ones turning up in St Kilda jumpers.
None of our players would be considered for any AFL marketing or promotional material. What does a good player look like? What does a good team look like? We sought to replicate the rebuild of the 2000s and during the second of 2016 it was working. Only percentage kept us out of the eight, just two places below the eventual premiers. Gresham, Billings, McCartin, Acres, Bruce, Membrey et al were complemented by a Riewoldt hellbent on atoning for the sins of the past, and Jack Steven, David Armitage, Jarryn Geary, Mav Weller and Seb Ross were in support. Fanciful now, but for one summer it made sense. The younger guys were untradeable; by mid-2018 they were largely untraceable. Some have indeed been traded since.
The procession of players that we pinned our hopes onto in the same way we did to young Riewoldt, Kosi, Ball, Hayes, Dal Santo, Montagna, and Goddard et al is embarrassing. Jack Steven’s best and fairests didn’t mean anything for the club’s success, ultimately. Nor did Josh Bruce’s huge mark against GWS, or his 2015 season. Blake Acres, Tom Hickey, Rhys Stanley, Jack Newnes, Tom Lynch, Mark Hutchings and Jamie Cripps are all now at different clubs. Luke Ball left for nothing and won a premiership with Collingwood in 2010. Eli Templeton’s crucial goals that helped us get over the line against GWS and to go 2-0 at the start of 2014 and Spencer White’s three goals on debut later that year are trivial.
We desperately projected our desire to get out of the fresh post-2009 Grand Final and then Grand Finals hell on Arryn Siposs, Billy Longer, Tommy Walsh, Nick Winmar, Tom Lynch, Mav Weller, Cameron Shenton, Tom Lee, Terry Milera, Eli Templeton, Cameron Shenton, Nathan Wright, Jason Holmes, Tom Ledger, Ahmed Saad, Tom Simpkin, Brandon White and Nathan Freeman. Paddy McCartin and Hugh Goddard were our anchors up forward in defence for the next 12 years. Our Messiah Complex has now landed with Max King, and we’ll try and do everything we can to double that and pry his twin out of the grasp of Gold Coast and the AFL.
Drafts became less of an event as the echoes of what we were able to do over the 2000s faded. Is Chris Pelchen held responsible by anyone? Was it the club itself that couldn’t handle Hickey or Saad or Lee’s development? Was our drafting that bad? Was it the club’s development? We certainly turned the players into terrible kicks for goal, and the stain of inaccuracy on 2009 Grand Final day became a part of the team’s identity. From Ben Dixon to Billy Slater to Josh Bruce, no one knew what to do about it.
We created new nightmares, leading into time-on in successive Grand Finals, with an aggregate margin of six points on the final sirens and managing to not win either. The summer following the 2010 season was headlined by the “St Kilda Schoolgirl”, and a heartbroken club was now back to being a public joke. The Stephen Milne and Andrew Lovett cases, while the incidents were nearly six years apart, still had more time to run.
On the field, the players looked like they’d rather be anywhere else. A loss in the last 20 seconds to Geelong in Round 1 after an entirely unnecessary Jason Blake turnover made sure to set off the first tremors of a comedown. The 2011 Grand Final was between the two teams that had beaten us in the Grand Finals of the two previous years.
By then, Ross had become the ex-Boss, off to the nearest thing to a joke to us in the AFL, our Bizarro rivals Fremantle. Maybe a change would give some life back to the club and the supporters. Scott Watters brought in Ahmed Saad and Terry Milera and some fast footy. In a year that felt like there was more of a future beyond it than 2011 ever did, you could make a decent case that inaccuracy proved the difference between pushing for top four and finishing ninth.
We had to face the day-to-day reality of what followed the failed premiership push in 2013. Stories floated around at the time and since about Watters’ willingness to take the captaincy of Riewoldt and install Tom Lee as co-captain, over-reaching around the club outside of his role as coach, a disconnect with senior and the coach over the team’s direction, and personality clashes. A call to SEN on the first morning of November ultimately brought the end of curious stint.
Richo, who wasn’t keen on the job two years earlier, was given the role in a scramble. Everyone else in the industry knew where they’d be in 2014. After the win over Essendon in Round 5 of Richo’s first season, we could secretly entertain the idea that we might be able to dodge the extended rebuild. Billings, Dunstan, Steven, Bruce, Newnes, Stanley, Templeton, Ross, Hickey, Armitage – maybe this could work. We lost to the winless Lions a week later in New Zealand, and for the 27th time in VFL/AFL history, we finished last.
Not until Andrew Bassat took over as president did anyone officially acknowledge the culture at the time “was a mess”. He has called out more than that, too. Bassat, Matt Finnis and Simon Lethlean have taken the club to a much different place. Brett Ratten is an exciting appointment, and having non-St Kilda people Gubby Allen, Jarryd Roughead, Brendon Lade and Billy Slater can only be a good thing. We know there are no guarantees. The last rebuild failed, and there’s no real reason why the next period should be the same, or any different.
For the first time in decades, we are left without genuine Saints taking the field. An easily traceable lineage from those that came from the Jeans era into Barker, Lockett, Frawley, Winmar, Loewe, Burke, Harvey and into Riewoldt, Hayes, Fisher, Montagna, Dal Santo et al has no heirs apparent.
Large shits were taken on parts of the club’s identity and spirit. Seaford was an awful mistake before it happened, while it was happening, and will remain so. The administration’s efforts to get the club back to Moorabbin were huge.
The club song was replaced with a weak cover version for literally no given reason at the start of 2018. The club itself has bizarrely dodged what otherwise seems to be an innocuous query. Playing other songs after goals during games, however – that was deemed a pass by the marketing team, also early in 2018. Round 1 of that year was the first time I didn’t enjoy being at the footy in my life. The theatre of the game had been sucked out by event planners who don’t care for that. People in the members section became visibly and audibly annoyed by it – for some reason the club kept going with it as the margin blew out to eight goals in the final quarter of Round 3 in 2018. Another match day addition no-one asked for that was also brought in at the start of 2018 was the playing of Saintly Hymns chants over the loudspeaker. Not only does it negate and interrupt the atmosphere across the ground, it dilutes one of the few things that give a specific part of the Concrete Dome some genuine character and some semblance of asymmetry – the people behind Saintly Hyns themselves, whose chants grew organically on the level one members’ pocket.
Playing home games at the Concrete Dome turned into playing home games at a concrete Disney store. And no, it doesn’t need to be an inevitability. The weekend ends early because the stadium was suspiciously not built to the right orientation. Every game now is under lights. Every game looks the same. The 1997 Grand Final has an apocalyptic quality because of the eerie overcast conditions that took hold in the second half. Why do you remember the 2009 Grand Final so painfully? Because it physically hurt to be sitting in the wind and the sleet and the rain, and it was so cruel that the sun came out for the Cats as the siren sounded.
I’m not exactly sure what going to the footy is anymore. This isn’t worth the “it’s for the kids” weird generational disconnect argument. I watched a Carlton crowd herald the return of the Blues as a force in the AFL in the elements at the MCG late this season. The Fable Singers version of the club song, a home ground that is actually a footy ground and doesn’t have a roof, young guys playing like they give a shit. The crowd itself mattered, the footy itself mattered, given life by a context that had developed over several months and beyond. Carlton fans were queuing more than an hour before the game to get their tickets. The roar when McKay’s goal went through was the roar of a sleeping giant. No roof or changed song or Spider-Man wall needed. And you know what? That was one of the better days at the footy this year. Maybe the next division in the game is clubs who trade on playing footy, and clubs who trade a match day experiences that will be outdated by the time we leave the ground.
The “Riewoldt generation” is a term I happily borrow/steal from an excellent Jake Niall article written in 2012. For all intents and purposes, the Riewoldt generation was supposed to have reshaped and rebuilt this footy club. The gravitational forces around Seaford and then Moorabbin, the special unknowns that constitute “culture”, wherever St Kilda has wandered since 1873, wore it all down.
The weight of culture and history was too much. This decade was spent watching that legacy of the Riewoldt generation being dismantled. Somehow, even through the most turbulent and hopeful and terrifying and successful period, St Kilda remained more St Kilda than ever. One premiership, and finding fantastical ways to deliver hope and deliver heartbreak. The idea of the Saints reaching the summit felt daring, like it would was to do something wrong, to break the footy laws. We have been punished for even attempting to do so since.
Whose fault was all of this? Nettlefold’s? Westaway’s? Summers’s? Kim Duthie’s? Ross Lyon’s? Richo’s? Tony Elsaug’s? Jason Blake, for kicking the ball to the only spot he shouldn’t have in the final minute in that first game of 2011?
We found out what would become of the Riewoldt generation, and we lived the first distinguishable period after an era that in the early months of 2004 felt like we had forever in front of us and everything to enjoy. That is added to the decades we grew up hearing about, and that we will talk about. Stories of the great teams of the 1960s and the 1970s, of the Saints Disco and Saints Discounts of 22 cents in the dollar in the 1980s; the resurgence in the early 1990s and the singular reference only required by the phrase “1997”. They will be joined over time by stories about Riewoldt, GT and Ross eras of the 2000s, the 2010 season and Draw. And now, a long and cold comedown.
All of those history books and footy club profiles we read as kids featured the same sad note when it came to the Saints; “Premierships: 1966”. We thought there would be at least one addition to that. We had never been so close to the second coming when the siren went on Grand Final Day in 2010. At the end of 2019, the idea of a premiership is something that is on a different plane of existence. A different time, a different place, a different world altogether. Forgive any of us for wanting to go back 10 years. Of course, that’s a long time for anything, but part of us still hopes that we got it wrong, or there was a glitch, or we’re just remembering it incorrectly, and it turned out the way we thought and hoped and really wished it would.
On a Saturday afternoon in Launceston in 2009, as it turned towards September, St Kilda came the closest it ever has to invincibility; to being a sure thing. The rest is history.