The Pressure

By Tom Briglia

Round 20, 2017
St Kilda 3.2, 7.5, 10.7. 15.13 (103)
West Coast Eagles 3.5, 7.8, 10.10, 14.11 (95)
Crowd: 22,688 at Etihad Stadium, Sunday, August 7th at 1.10pm

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Filthy

On Sunday morning I sent out a text to our group chat on Messenger, asking if anyone was actually coming to the footy. I was a definite starter, but after what had happened the previous weekend I was expecting the afternoon to crescendo at smattered applause echoing throughout the Concrete Dome, as per our lowest depths of 2014 and 2015. After the ignominy of what had happened the previous Saturday night, I secretly hoped no-one was going to turn up.

Not even the mega-PR smackdown of announcing Roo’s retirement on the Monday was going to completely bring us supporters out of our daze and dishevelment, of the anger and humiliation flowing from the Port finish. This was before the last passage was played on loop across all footy talk shows during the week, combined with endless analysis (of which I tried my own amateur, 0 AFL games-played hand at). Regardless of how we lost, we lost, and it felt as though the season was over. The month-long farewell tour of My Favourite Hair in the AFL was set to be a string of feel-good, cash-cow Association Football Star Testimonials, featuring some veterans to remind us of the good old days (Joey, maybe Gilbert; Nathan Brown on the same team as a nice twist), and use it as an opportunity for the kids to get some game time (White, and pretty much almost everyone else).

The replaying of Roo’s better moments in his career on said shows – not least the incredible mark in Round 11 of 2004 against the Swans at the SCG – off the back of the Port Adelaide result seemed to compound the situation. The person who for all intents and purposes would be the one to lift up the St Kilda Football Club’s second premiership cup on Grand Final Day never quite would be; and we only have a short time to celebrate his longevity and somehow make all those better moments feel somewhat relevant and have currency for as long as we’re mathematically capable of a top eight finish.

Unless we pull off a premiership that would be more ridiculous and bemusing than fairytale, it’s only going to get sadder over the coming weeks. Perversely, there’s a slight chance that we might now know at the end of the Richmond match in Round 23 if it is indeed his last game, depending on West Coast’s fortunes and the outcome of their game against Adelaide, which finishes a little more than an hour after our own.

Sunday, 12.45pm – Life Choices Consideration

I felt like the past week had been an instructive one as a St Kilda supporter. As I walked up the steps at Bourke Street to hit the bridge I think for the first time I genuinely questioned why I was going to the footy to watch St Kilda play. It’s the closest I could have come to really empathise with people who just sometimes can’t be fucked going to watch this club. It wasn’t the biting breeze and the rain falling at an increasing angle – I was about to going inside to the artificially heated set of a TV program anyway. I was still so furious about the week before. I’d been thinking about what long-term supporters have seen and experienced in return for those moments, that would make those kinds of demons go away. The answer is nothing if you’re about 55 years old or under, because even if you were alive at the time you sure as hell weren’t old enough to comprehend 1966, but you sure were able to take in 1971, 1997, 1998, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011, etc. Those have been amongst our best years, and I doubt they make you feel purely warm and fuzzy thinking bank on them.

The anomaly of St Kilda, above its one premiership in 144 years, and its 27 bottom of the ladder finishes the VFL/AFL, is that it still survives. How much longer can that last? The Road to 2018 plan had 50,000 members in Australia and 10,000 in New Zealand. How much of our current financial shortfall is owing to those ridiculous overreaches? The lack of young player development this year has surely made further ill of the on-field elements. What if we’re garbage next year?

But a number of things happened between crossing that bridge (literally) and about 4pm that showed we’re might be at least reaching out a hand to the throat of some of those demons, whether they’re one week old or 51 years old. Hell, or 144 years old.

Conveniently, it was exactly those from the last 59 seconds of the previous weekend at the Adelaide Oval that we were placed in a position to exorcise (for now). This club likes to do things in extremes. Necessarily, it was players like Acres, Billings, Steele, Sinclair and Steven who played chief roles in casting them out; players that in varying degrees contributed to or represented a famous win being dissolved via scattered thoughts and barely a whimper.

Special Bulletin

It’s worth keeping in mind that the Port Adelaide result in isolation isn’t necessarily what will keep us out of the eight by season’s end. It certainly could on a micro level, and those four points are worth the exact same as valuable as any other four points. But think of how large our losses have typically been – of our nine losses, seven of them have been by 30, 38, 40, 57, 61 and 42 points. Our kicking at goal (in wins and losses) has seen 13.19, 14.23, 9.15, 19.16, 12.13, 12.17, 14.19, 12.17 again, 7.15 and 8.13. Our 21.12 against Richmond masked the fact the score was 92-10 at half-time, and that we didn’t even end up doubling their score – but Essendon more than doubled ours just one week later. The point being, not only have we blown games owing to poor kicking, but we’ve also sat our arses firmly on our percentage. Didn’t anyone remember how important that was last season? The club decided to extend the tease early on Sunday by posting shots of Bruce shitting out snaps from the pocket in the warm-up.

Things felt like they’d picked up where they’d fallen apart completely late the weekend before. Carlisle was back in the long sleeves – this time in home jumper, which again looked sensational – and was again a rock in defence. He didn’t quite have the same presence as last week but this game was played differently, and he still proved himself to be one of the better and more considered field kicks in the team. His bullet out of the goal square at full-back in the first quarter, after Roo did a reverse Roo in the first quarter, was so good it caught Dunstan unaware, and by the time the latter had realised he was running directly through the centre square with space in front of him the moment had got to him.

Up the other end, Whipping Human of the Week Blacres gave nothing away that he was about to put in one of his best performances in his short career. No presence in a one-on-one close to goal in the opening minutes and zero follow-up once the ball hit the deck, and then an ok aerial contest presenting near the 50-metre arc was backed up by a feeble tackle attempt.

His game started to building when he actually caught someone holding the footy, but a triple treat of slop in the shadows of three-quarter time him teetering on the edge of the Blacres that we all came to know so well with 19 seconds remaining against Port. Out on the rebound he managed to fumble the footy on his own, fumbled again at half-forward, only to, uh, fumble again at half-forward and a huge Roberton mark at centre half-back might have been the only thing between him and a plane ticket back to Perth with the Eagles that night.

For his occasional air-headedness, he really does change the game around when he’s switched on. He knows how to use his speed and size to open the field up and get some movement happening, and again he moved forward to good effect. It looked like the team was intent on making that a constant element of the game throughout the afternoon. As pissed off as I was with him and the team a few days ago, one week is a long time in footy. So is 19 seconds.

I didn’t give Acres nearly enough credit watching the game live. He was also responsible for a turnover in the second quarter that led to a Kennedy goal and put them out by 16 points. That would soon stretch further out to 22, and West Coast simply seemed to just have things working a little more smoothly. Mitchell was able to poke the ball forward off the ground out of the middle in traffic and whilst the ball ended up with Sheed out wider he still went back and kicked a huge goal from the meeting of the 50 arc and the boundary.

In a similar way the GWS win was engineered by a spread of players taking responsibility to step up at different times, Jack Sinclair took it on himself at with a string of clever and classy moments to steady things well before his good mate Jack would finish them off.

It began pretty simply – he worked his way to a dangerous spot in the goal square and was in the right place after consecutive efforts from Membrey and Billings to a long kick-in for the goal on the line. Again, he put himself in the right spot a couple of minutes later, sprinting past an aerial contest out wide on the 50, took the ball cleanly and cut in to spear the ball to Roo in front of goal. It was the kind of thing that we’ve seen barely enough of this year.

He’d then engineered a kick out of defence after Longer went down back and took a mark (seriously), that saw two big kicks across the ground in a bold switch that ended with Bruce hitting the post. That was made up for (sort of) by a smother and clever turn off of his opponent just on the 50 as the Eagles looked to rebound. Another neat kick to Roo probably should have been a free kick, but Billings reacted quickly at the fall and cannoned the footy out to Blacres closer to goal.

Sinclair isn’t necessarily the fastest player but he’s consistently proven this year to be agile, quick thinking and smart. Of course we need speed, but the mind needs to work pretty quickly in the moment too.

For all of Josh Bruce’s brave hard work the week before he again displayed some serious yips. The chain of long kicks that broke open the field and ended with his poster from a set shot deserved more, and whilst he did kick two his miss at the end could have become the stuff of St Kilda legend if we weren’t able to shut down the Eagles’ final switch into the middle. The way the crowd went up when he took the mark suggested we thought the game was done, which was dangerous to begin with even if he did kick it. But it set things up for Billings to step up in a big moment.

The Pressure

Someone once said to me, “All you want to see in sport is justice”. Jack Billings wasn’t nearly our best player last week, but he didn’t deserve to be the one with the best view of Robbie Gray’s kick other than Robbie Gray, and the one that replays will show he was the closest in his failed attempt to shut him down. So I don’t know if it’s quite justice that Billings was able to produce the two huge moments in the last quarter to go with and a handy game, but to St Kilda supporters I think it felt right. That he was so emotional when he kicked the sealer should say something to us about the pressure he must have felt in that moment, and how he must have felt every time he’d missed another shot at goal during the season. Before he decided to fly backwards in the goal square for the mark with in the last quarter, he’d kicked 17.28 for the season, including 0.2 so far that night, with another behind to come. Keep in mind 5.0 of that had been kicked on one day.

And this was exactly why we’d drafted him with pick 3. To back himself and take a huge contested mark when the game was on the line, and the be the one to react quickly and run at full tilt with one minute left to open up space and provide an option as soon the ball was turned over with two points separating the sides. And then, most importantly, kick the goal. Not just after the day he’d had in front of the sticks, but the year, and the pressure of almost four full seasons as he saw the player taken one pick after him rise and become a best and fairest winner in their club’s premiership year.

Billings on Sunday also did something we probably hadn’t seen him do before – an intercept on the wing, sprint, give-off and get back and a handsome delivery to Membrey on the lead.

For a game that was played at a pretty consistent tempo and featured 29 goals, individual moments still punctuated the contest. For the Saints, it was Roo’s confused shot running into goal that barrelled into Gresham, rather than put us up by nine points with momentum in the last quarter. Dunstan’s haphazard dribble kick attempt from the boundary early in the last ricocheted of an Eagle’s boot and went out on the full, and Dunstan again stepped up in front of goal in a big moment as had the week before. Roo gave up his game to force a one-on-one contest at a key moment late. Newnes and Bruce hit the post in the second quarter, and Gresham, Savage and Bruce all missed shots in 15 minutes between Steele putting us in front with a superb solo effort from a stoppage, and Kennedy setting up what we all feared we’d face all too soon after the previous week. For all the play we had in that final term, the 5.6 registered could have looked incredibly ugly.

Steele’s game overall was simply built on hard work and like Acres’ was arguably his best in his also brief career to date. Of his 26 possessions, 20 were contested but he showed off class to go with his strength, taking a strong contested mark and goaling on quarter time to go with his one-armed grab and goal in the last quarter.

The introduction of Steele and Koby Stevens has also allowed Dunstan to play less as a purely inside midfielder and it’s been to his benefit. It’s not purely the presence of Steele and Stevens doing, because Dunstan has had to improve and change his game in the same way that Seb Ross has been able to do (he’s not quite at Seb’s level yet, obviously). He’s also done it under the magnified pressure of having been dropped three times in the one year; he’d never been dropped from the team before this season. I thought he was our lead candidate for trade bait but he’s come back to be our best or in our best in his three games.

That we were down by 22 points during the second quarter and then 14 points in the last and able to win is something of great magnitude at this point in development. It said a lot about Richo and the coaches, their coaching, and the players that when faced with a nauseatingly similar, pressure-filled circumstance after last week – both within the game and within the season – that they were able to defend when they needed to, and continue attacking in those final moments when we still needed to score and really put the game away.

St Kilda History

When Robert Harvey announced his retirement ahead of Round 18 in 2008 the club was ninth, at the bottom of a logjam of teams separated only on percentage. A winning streak had been formulated in the previous weeks, and it was the springboard to honouring Harvey with a sensational top four finish, and a Preliminary Final appearance that gave us all a week to dream that Sir Robert might make another appearance on Grand Final Day.

Strangely, that Round 18 match was against Port Adelaide, the week after we’d lost to West Coast on the road. It also saw Harvey taken off after hit to the head – topically, his head hit the Docklands turf in a tackle, but he came back on – and we won by eight points with a scoreline of 101 to 93 in front of 22,878, as opposed to Sunday’s scoreline of 103 to 95 in front 22,688.

Going into early Sunday afternoon, we found ourselves in a vaguely similar but tougher situation with the ladder to that team of 2008. The dynamics of this team are obviously much different (I still think that if the players had got their heads around Ross’s style and plan a little quicker we might have been able to give 2008 a more serious shake – although at best that would basically have meant finishing second to Geelong on the ladder and hoping to ambush them on Grand Final Day a la Hawthorn). Roo’s announcement came less than 48 hours after Acres, Billy, Dunstan, et. al. combined for create one of the iconic moments of a truly amazing season (for the opposition), and I felt the combination of events shut down our season. As the weather warmed and made its first turns for spring earlier this week, and even on the colder days the sun shone a little longer in the late afternoon, it was that familiar feeling of the pending chance for some rest as others vied to write history.

There’s still next to no margin for error over the next few weeks, but how different we feel about this team. Ultimate redemption in football terms is something most of us – and after 51 years, all of us, really – are still searching for. But along the way you need to understand and deliver on the idea of redeeming yourself. As fans we’re obviously not the ones out there making the mistakes or kicking the clutch goals, but of course still feel them. We didn’t feel the effort or development last week, but on Sunday we would be able to feel that reward as players, coaches, and a club, and as members and supporters.

  • Campbell

    Nice write up Tom. It was fantastic to see Hotline really deliver at the game’s crescendo. He does so much right and yet we all seem to vividly recall his litany of errors. But I think that’s down to the fact that hes so highly skilled that simple skill errors just stand out so much. I don’t know if it is me but he seemed to be more aggressive ‘at the contest’ which I loved. How on earth we jagged Sincs as a rookie is beyond me. The game was drifting out of reach until he threw us on his back and dragged us back into the game in Q2. I sincerely hope Brando is kept in our team. We are simply so much more dangerous with him and Savage bringing the ball out of defence.

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

    Surely, Tom, in terms of ‘The Pressure’ there was a lot of it on Richo coming into and during this game.

    Like you said, last week threatened to be the defining point of our year and the fact it happened from a stoppage (stop play?) reflects really badly on the coach. We know they spend so much time, on setups and who stands where when and guy’s pointing at guys.

    On top of this, from a person following the game from the other side of the world, if we hadn’t had taken the choccies then it would’ve been a serious red mark against Richo – because statiscally the last quarter was domination. The last quarter threatened To be the crystallization of the St Kilda 2017 team. All guts, no cutting edge; inability to “maximise” etc

    Sure, Dunstan seems to have lifted but is it too little too late? It’s common knowledge that we need more outside polish in our midfield. If Ross, Steven, Steele are playing – do we need Dunstan? I’m not sure Dunstan is a guy who is going to scare teams with his outside work.

  • Harry

    Thanks for the review Tom; well said. And congratulations on your new job at St K F C as Assistant Coach for Blake Acres Motivation.