Remember feeling OKish?

By Tom Briglia

Round 5, 2015
St Kilda 2.6, 6.7, 10.10, 11.14 (80)
Essendon 3.2, 6.6, 9.11, 11.16 (82)
Crowd: 29,869 at Etihad Stadium, Sunday, May 3rd at 3.20pm

It was the corresponding round last year in which we beat the Bombers on a Saturday to go three wins from five. My overriding thought that night was that maybe – just maybe – we’d escaped an extended bottoming out and could at least be competitive as we rebuilt.

Of course, that didn’t eventuate. We threw away that 4-2 start that beckoned against the winless Lions in New Zealand the following week, and it would be three months until our next (very unexpected and bizarre) win.

So perhaps it’s strange that I walk away from this one feeling better than last year, as Rich aptly noted on our way out of the stadium. Not just that it was a loss, but that a) it was against Essendon, and b) it was a close loss against Essendon. It would be too easy to throw in “c) Schneider”, but I’ll get to that later.

For some reason Hulk Hogan was at Seaford this week, and I dare say being in Melbourne proper to begin with was a stretch for context for him. The Saints have a number of celebrity fans including the other type of Hulk, Erica Bana (who happened to be at Seaford himself last week), the guy next to him at the 2010 Grand Final Draw, AKA Michael Klim, Molly Meldrum, Peter Hitchener, Sandy Roberts, Shane Warne (if ex-players of sorts count), and a host of other (Tracey Grimshaw was sporting a Saints beanie on A Current Affair last night also). Hulk (Hogan), however, belongs more to the once-off line of celebrity supporters, infamously and awkwardly boasting Elle MacPherson.

The Hulk (the, uh, real not real one) was at least vaguely more animated than the life-size cardboard cut-outs of Delaney, Steven et al in the bemusingly recurring “feature” Battle Talk on the club site. Battle Talk ok, but they’re rarely going to say anything different about whoever they’re playing that week, and by that I mean they’re rarely going to read anything different off the autocue about whoever they’re playing that week.

Following the last fortnight a number of people would have thought Essendon would cruise through this one based on St Kilda’s form alone. The fact that the Bombers had beaten Hawthorn but hadn’t really shown much otherwise might have led a few (myself included) to think they were due to right the ship, and given the attacking footy they’re capable who better to that against, and via a very, very big margin?

A last minute call-up to the Medallion Club with very old family friend Andrew, his partner Emily and Rich was an appropriate way for myself to mark the 10-year anniversary of my first venture into the overrated section (specifically in the way it’s run, the ticketing and it’s thirst for actually being the MCC). That night, the second Fridaynight  of the split Round 13, suitably saw a lowly Essendon pull out an arsey win against us to leave us outside the top eight at 6-7. It was also the catalyst for the dramatic turnaround that at least should have seen us playing in the Grand Final; interestingly the following week we played the Bulldogs – as we do this week – and that match was the start of the career-best form of Kosi.

To further mark some arbitrary Essendon-St Kilda dates, 20 years ago saw the Bombers smack us by 116 points and then 76 points in our two meetings that season, and of course this is the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Grand Final, in which the Bombers came from 4th place to to beat us in the Grand Final after we finished on top of the ladder, something we’d repeat the next time we finished above the rest in 1997.

The Medallion Club also happened to be the site that Rich and I spent arguably the two darkest days of last year in. Losses to West Coast in Round 14 on the Sunday and then Richmond the following Saturday afternoon weren’t the biggest we had, but came after respective 86, 70 and 96-point losses. Billings may have christened himself Mr. 100% against the Eagles, but this pair of games were probably when we felt the heavy weight of the past had taken us as low as it could. This was the new normal, the cavernous Corporate Stadium playing host to not much in front of not many. The fact the roof is closed messes with my melatonin levels and it’s hard to not be extra depressed about everything once you enter the stadium at 2.30pm and your day is essentially over.

I’m not going to get carried away and say “and then on Sunday we were there for the turnaround”, but I really do hope we can look back on this as one of the first times this group really showed that it had a future together. But let’s go easy. Like it does within matches, more obviously we’ll swing from side to side between weeks, and there will certainly be repeats this year of the aforementioned drubbings.

The intent was really good from the start, and that loose sense of rejuvenation following a dog’s balls fortnight was heightened by Tom Hickey and debutant D-Mac getting involved early.

Hickey provided one of the biggest structural takeaways of the day (/night), playing essentially the Nick Riewoldt roaming role across half forward as the tall target. Given his size and that he was coming back from injury I assumed he’d spend a lot more time closer to goal, but instead he was pushing up to the wing within minutes to provide the kind of option we’d so painfully lacked in the absence of My Favourite Hair in the AFL. He was far more mobile than I thought he’d be, and perhaps more so than the three goals he kicked in Round 2 last year against GW$ his performance gave us the best example yet of why we were so keen to get him.

In fact he played so (relatively) athletically and nearly completely as a forward it swiftly put to rest for the time being whether we could carry two ruckmen in the same side. Whilst Billy Longer had a decent impact across the ground against the Blues the previous week as the sole really big guy – so much so the club put him on media duty for the first time ever – he only gathered six possessions in this one as his focus was more so to get to the stoppages and get the hit-out. Hickey, on the flipside, recorded only six hit-outs.

Our Very Own Stephen Merchant could have held on to a few more marks – he only took four for the day but seemed more capable in the air as the game progressed – but not only did he provide a contest coming out of defence, his 19 possessions reflected how hard and effectively he worked down low once the ball came off hands (often his own).

Richo didn’t have Hickey a certainty to play this week given Roo is coming back in (as is Joey), which would be astounding but when My Second Favourite Hair in the AFL Josh Bruce is also the Second Leading Goalkicker in the Competition and clearly has a better output when a tall target is playing higher up then perhaps it’s Membrey who comes out this week. He wasn’t given the most enthusiastic response by Richo but it’s folly for anyone to think that coaches aren’t going to send messages to their own players when speaking publicly about them, and further folly to think they exactly what that means. Given Hickey’s own game and the structure he allowed for Bruce to take advantage of, Membrey would seem to be most likely. Hickey is also ready for game time and getting some momentum into his career, whilst Membrey is still 20 and has played a grand total of six games – and five of those were in the last five weeks. He’s probably due for a spell with the Zebras just to get his head around a few things.

D-Mac looked very comfortable for a debutant, and probably started stronger than he finished. He registered a couple of smothers and was backing himself to go up in a few marking contests. He’s only 183cm but deceptively quick for his frame, which combined with his not-quite-on-trend hair and slightly slouch makes him look more like your St. Paul’s reserves forward lumbering around the 7-11 end of McKinnon Oval. With Joey returning you’d expect it’s him or perhaps Sinclair of the lighter brigade to come out, but given D-Mac showed more than enough intent and Sinclair might be experiencing a little wear (like Membrey), the latter might be due for a spell in the Peter Jackson.

The first quarter was defined by two things – Jack Lonie and inaccuracy, and unfortunately they’d be intertwined to Schneideresque proportions by game’s end. Whatever Schneider’s been doing in his mentoring role has worked almost too well, because he’s been able to convey just about everything of his game over to Lonie. I don’t know about you but I reckon Lonie plays his position just about more effectively than anyone else in our side at the moment. He set up Bruce with a great push and turn followed by a pinpoint left-foot pass to the top of the square, but then ended a chain of three gettable shots at goal from Roberton, Billings and himself with a wayward snap, leaving us at 1.5 to 1.0. That Essendon goal, by the way, echoed the worst of our leaky pressure from the previous two matches, and foreshadowed the two vital goals the Bombers would score in the final quarter.

Lonie, like he had in previous weeks, had a very strong reaction to missing the kind of shot at goal made for players like him but didn’t drop his head. In fact he probably held it too high if anything because he pushed right up the ground soon after and on the spread took on Fletcher and was completely monstered by him. Another behind soon after undid Jack Steven’s hard running and Dare Iced Coffee higher up. It was tempered by another left footer, Jimmy Webster, showing off his silky field kicking skills and hitting Dunstan in space close to goal after Dunstan was at risk of being ignored completely despite having the proverbial around him just 30 out from goal.

So some frustrations, but overall the effort, intent, whatever was all there. Of course, in the last two matches we’d kicked 6.3 in the first and led by 26 points during the second respectively, and gone on to lose by a combined 114 points. This week seemed a lot more cohesive though, and it proved to be such.

When I’d hit the top of the Bourke Street stairs (ok I took the escalator) just under an hour out from the game there was an actual crowd on the footbridge and I was genuinely taken aback. We’ve become accustomed to some woeful crowd numbers over the last couple of years, and whilst a lot of those there were Essendon fans (likewise most of the anticipation belonged to them), it was still strange for there to be some interest in a game involving ourselves. That said, the final crowd didn’t even hit 30,000 so the fact it felt that “full” probably shows just our far we’ve fallen. But don’t worry, now we’ve also got that MAKE SOME NOISE thing which is essentially a weird, ill-toned noise and big-screen graphic that comes on slightly too long after a goal and breaks up the organic anticipation of the resulting centre bounce (particularly when there’s some momentum our way). But for fuck’s sake why would we be at the footy then. A goal apparently doesn’t get us excited enough anymore. My suggestion is don’t feed it but perhaps people are getting more stupid and important people will tell us that they’ll have to find a way to make SOME MORE NOISE and en masse we won’t notice.

Very rarely do I have to deal with the Medallion Club amenities and shithead staff (that neutrally dark suit jacket will never be the MCC red, white and blue stripe standard, I’m sorry) but any danger of having more than one bar? Having queues out into the walkway as the next quarter is beginning is a mess. Fortunately, not that many more people would turn up in the section even to a sold out (“sold out”) game at that Concrete Dome so I guess it only gets so bad there.

It became apparent in the second quarter that Billings had stepped up after humming along through the first few games. He presented as a lead up forward and finished some good work from Schneider again, but I really do think his highlight was when Sean Marchetti interviewed him for the ground’s own coverage (which I’d never seen before and I don’t like the idea on networks to begin with). Billings seemed kind of frazzled by the situation himself but still interviews like a kid anyway (he still is one really), and Marchetti took the mic away from Jack’s mouth before he’d finished the answer. The finisher was the “what do we need to do in the second half” segue into everyone’s half-time, and Jack mentioned nothing more specific than maintaining effort “and we’ll see how that goes”. Uh, yeah. Terrible hair too, still. But he’s starting to show his class with the ball and off the ball he uses his body more smartly. What he could be after couple more pre-seasons is looking more and more befitting such a high pick.

The second quarter also saw a disparity between two guys at either end of the ground and at either end of their careers. For the first time, Sam Fisher is beginning to look slow. He still finished with 20 touches, a few marks and a few tackles, but there were some contests where in an attempt to apply physical pressure to a contest he looked like Josh Bruce pre-huge grab against GWS. Just vaguely there because a human body was required by laws of the game to be roughly in the vicinity. Not sure what I’m meant to be expecting from someone at that age and I’d certainly have him in the side, and ultimately there was a tinge of sadness to know that whilst he’ll still be making a decent contribution his floor might be getting a little lower a we might be seeing it more often.

And incidentally, that other player is Josh Bruce. I can’t tell you how  excited I am that someone with that hair plays for St Kilda AND is kicking a whole bunch of goals even though they look like they should be filling in for whoever’s playing against Rich and I at FutsalOz in Brunswick on a Monday night. In that sense, as a I mentioned a few weeks ago, there’s a lot of Fraser Gehrig about him. Nonchalant, very inward celebrations and a somewhat lackadaisical left-foot action and overall physical presence. With Hickey in the side Bruce was good enough to find space and then take some tough marks when required, and G-Train comparison for me was complete when he far-too-calmly wheeled around onto the left in the last quarter and off a step or two put us in front from 40 metres out on an angle.

But for the second week in a row we’d let a lead of at least 20 points slip away. Let’s cut the crap and go to Schneider. You could say this was his Daniel Wulf moment from Round 5, 2002 in the sense that he hit the post late in the game and messed up a chance to put us in front late in a match, in an era in which we’re following a bunch of kids that you simply can’t rely on to definitely do what’s required in a tight finish. Not necessarily because they’re rubbish, but because they’re kids. The pressure got to Lonie as well who appropriately sprayed a shot late as well, but he’s an 18 year-old playing his fifth game, and even then already looks to have a big future.

The problem with this one – aside from running into goal and hitting the post when you could have either kicked past the man with space to your right or just handballed to your left to Tim Membrey who’s by himself and even closer to goal – is that Schneider is specifically in the team for those moments. To guide things home cooly and calmly. Indeed, the set shot just a couple of minutes earlier with no angle could be argued to be an easier shot. You could say Lonie’s handball to him for the second kick was too heavy and he had to spend too much time getting control of the footy, but he’s an AFL footballer and that’s where it ends. A 10-point lead with a few minutes left? Nah, the ball goes straight up the other end, Travis Colyer burns everyone off from the halfway up the ground and still has the composure and class to finish from 50 metres out. A 5-point lead with two minutes left? Etc.

Sadly, like Daniel Wulf, Schneider may well be remembered for both of these moments above anything else. Added to his 2009 Grand Final performance, all of a sudden he’s a got the air of a serial offender. As much as he’s done for this team, and by all accounts continues to do off the field with the younger guys, I can certainly say the 2009 Grand Final is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of him. But this isn’t his generation, and it clearly wasn’t his day in a lot of respects. GT’s orders on that fateful Saturday night were to win at all costs following a 122-point loss at the Cattery, but obviously the über flood we served up against the Swans had nothing to do with the barnstorming style led by the G-Train, Roo, Milne, Hamill and co of 24 months later. On Sunday this team’s performance was owned by Bruce, Billings, Lonie, Steven, Armitage, Hickey et al. All these guys showed genuine promise playing their natural game and ideally will be there for the next tilt.

A narrow loss to the Bombers is one of my more intense fears as a St Kilda supporter, but I left the ground experiencing the now-foreign feeling of positivity. This is a young side and we’re going to have to some pretty off days between now and whenever it may be that we’re a threat again. But for the first time in a very long time, I can’t wait to go to the footy this week and watch the Saints.

  • Glenn H

    Nice read, Tom. We should have won but lost so it hurts a bit. We’re on the right track, undoubtedly, so that’s something to hold on to.

  • http://www.redwhiteandblack.com.au Richard Lee

    Not sure whether I’m prepared to throw myself onto the “we’re undoubtedly on the right path” wagon yet, but yesterday I think was a big tick for Richo, the recruiting stuff and how the young guys are being developed.

    Membrey needs a break in the magoos – even it is purely to give him a confidence boost or two.

    Perhaps Sinclair could use a break as well, to the benefit of Josh Saunders, whose form has been solid for Sandy.

    What happens with Longer/Hickey at the selection table will be most interesting. Richo has been pretty consistent in his want to keep the lineup as stable as possible. I think they’ll be tempted to give the dual ruckman structure one or two more goes, but what impact that has on our ability to compete with the Dogs’ run will be worth watching.