It’s a little bit lonelier

By Tom Briglia

Round 6, 2018
Hawthorn 3.7, 4.9, 7.9, 13.11 (89)
St Kilda 0.4, 3.7, 5.10, 7.12 (54)
Crowd: 15,721 at Aurora Stadium, Saturday, April 28th at 7.10pm

After last week’s incredible high of not losing, we were tucked away in Tasmania on a cold Saturday night for our several still-interested fans to take a breather. It’s the kind of week that puts some distance between yourself and the club, and maybe subconsciously you have your expectations recalibrated.

We found ourselves flying back across Bass Strait with the message from Richo that we “we might have to take a risk” in getting “enough skill work in” during training this week. That we’re lacking in the Australian Rules football skills department isn’t news to us and given how shilpit this was overall, the performance against GWS has quickly become an outlier and enough comedy errors slapped together to form a statistically significant sample size, i.e. we can be confident that right now this is a fucking mess.

That we and the club went the fap over the draw before accepting Saturday night as normal shows how our expectations of this club have been slowly but consistently driven face-first into mud, and forced deeper and deeper with each missed shot at goal until said face is being scraped back and forth over hard layers of sedimentary rock.

I’ve never officially been a staff member of a professional Australian Rules football club, and zero football clubs have taken notice of anything anyone has said in their weekly shitting of grievances via blog, so I can only say that I assume that handling and disposal of the Australian Rules football itself would be a given. Obviously some teams are better than others than this, and obviously it matters, even in an age dominated by sports science. But there’s something increasingly absurd about this situation, and it’s something a blanket of Launceston mist can’t cover for.

It’s difficult to really pick out specific errors from Saturday night as they nauseatingly blur into each other as the weeks go by. The breakdowns, structural or skill, are so comprehensive it’s hard to not talk in generalities, or ask otherwise stupid questions like, “Are the players in the right positions across the field?” “Is that exactly where they should be, or should be running to?”

What’s the point of the pre-season, other than the club shitting out puff pieces about about Ed Phillips and “what the boys have been up to” over the Christmas break? What’s training for during the week? What has been going on since the 2014 pre-season? We shouldn’t be talking about any of these things the way we are after Round 6 with one win and a draw, four years after our 27th wooden spoon, and in the fifth year of a coach’s tenure. This a professional Australian Rules football club that is fielding a team that isn’t very good at Australian Rules football. It’s like watching an Under 14s team when a few of the guys are aware of vague structural concepts but it still ends up being a bunch of awkward kicks around the ground.

***

I don’t think anyone was expecting an overly slick game of footy from two sides, and certainly not once the ground had been drenched by the dew. Either way, we haven’t played with any more apparent purpose or skill than we had under the roof or in decent conditions at Corporate Dome. What’s changed? We still had Billings missing shots early, we still crawled to a air-swing 0.4 at quarter time. Hawthorn themselves had 3.6, but despite us grinding them down to our level over for much of the next two-and-a-bit quarters they still kicked 10.4 after another miss early in the second.

This time last year, the footy world was finding itself increasingly bemused by Hawthorn’s aggressive trading for O’Meara and Tom Mitchell. We’d belted them to a 0-6 start at this ground, and Josh Bruce’s infamous goalsquare poster was still only categorised as “funny”, and hadn’t yet become considered evidence of a very, very contagious infection. Six days later we knocked off GWS and were primed for a top-two pick in the draft, and our own 2017 looked like it could be anything (at half-time nine weeks later, we were sitting in the top four).

Almost a year to that day in Launceston – 364 days, in fact – eerily, awfully, deflatingly, we had Membrey up the other end of the ground run into an open goal and instead of kicking our first, he dribbled the ball into the post. Nowhere is safe on the ground. No passage of play can be accepted as merely decent until the umpire has bounced the ball in the middle, confirming that the mandatory review didn’t at least graze the kicker’s own face on the way through.

Like Steven and Carlisle messing up the final moments of the previous week, Membrey’s miss was a neat encapsulation of an ongoing problem that simply won’t go away and has genuinely cost us for more than two seasons now. It will probably be the only thing this game is really remembered for, otherwise it would be Isaac Smith’s classy game that included four goals. This dynamic seems familiar.

At 0.7 well into the second quarter, we looked as if we didn’t want to kick a goal, let alone likely to kick a goal. To Membrey’s credit, sort of, but not really given he gets paid hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to do this, he presented for a mark inside 50 just moments afterwards and nailed the set shot.

That sparked the kind of period of dominance we’ve become accustomed to – grinding down another team and working really hard for fuck-all reward, occasionally leaking out easy goals. Between the first and final changes it only returned 5.6, while the Hawks kicked 4.2, and we were still 10 points down at three-quarter time.

The Membrey poster could have been the kind of thing that was a neat tie-up of a nightmare in the front half, undoing the curse or whatever the hell this goalkicking thing is. But no, it’s much more ingrained that that, and the misses kept coming. Billings charged to 0.3 in the first half for the second week in a row. Set shot misses from Sinclair and Gresham either side of the final change and a rushed Seb Ross snap were the last gasps of a thrashing, floundering performance that was sunk by a string of quality goals to Gunston, Howe and Smith, with the last of those probably summing up the night best; the foray through the middle, the clumsy breakdown, and Smith charged through and ran away with the ball and the game.

***

Richo’s line “you wouldn’t want to be a forward in front of the ball” in the post-match presser was a sharp turn from the “our forwards didn’t work” but no fucking shit. To argue against my own point, I present Tim Membrey, and Jack Billings, and Richo had gone back to the “disconnect between the kickers and the catchers” line by last night’s 360/now-weekly Robbo grilling. But those catchers have an out for the most part if they’re not able to get the ball in the first place.

St Kilda’s scores since the 16.11 in Round 1 read as follows: 5.13, 7.13, 7.14, 10.13, and 7.12, for a total of 36.65 and an average of 7.2 goals and 13 behinds. It said too much when the other TV at the North Melbourne pub I was watching at cut to CentreBet spruiker and part-time St Kilda training merchandise-wearer Ben Dixon doing the boundary for Fox Footy at the Adelaide Oval whilst Billings, Membrey, Gresham, et al were blazing away.

Maybe it’s the pressure of being the Hat model, but Billings has really stepped up into the role of poster boy for the goal missing. He’d shanked his way to another bag of three behinds before kicking a nice goal in the last to vaguely enhancing his year’s return to 4.11. I’m not sure I’m going to quite articulate this next bit properly but I’ll have a crack – when he was lining up for goal in the last quarter, I looked at his face when the broadcast cut to a close-up of him and I…felt sorry for him? That’s a pretty base expression, I know. There was something about him that looked flat, or that he didn’t really want to be there. I don’t know. He doesn’t come across as an aggressive or overly arrogant human. Like Membrey, he also gets paid lots of money (not that that’s the be all and all but it’s something pretty decent). Maybe it’s because he naturally has a rather soft resting expression. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. A part of supporting a club is projection, and like the club representing much than the sum of its parts, the human beings that play the game become something a little bit more when combined with the way they play their football, or what they promise, or their part in a club’s narrative, or what they eventually achieve.

***

While last week quickly became the outlier rather than the turnaround, Paddy and Long still managed to back up their performances on another night. Paddy presented well for most of the night and did well at ground level, and his mark and goal in the third quarter showed what can happen if his teammates gave him even part of a decent look.

Long provided one of the cleaner pieces of play, put in a big aerial contest at half-back and then found the ball on the ground to get the rebound going – by the time the ball had come through Paddy’s strong hands and found Jack Sinclair, he was running by the ball carrier for the shepherd and telling him to kick the goal. The cynical sentence that follows says enjoy it while you can; like Gresham and Billings before him, I won’t be surprised if the team’s style also drains his game of any instinctive creativity and class.

***

“Sam Gilbert” will be the answer to a small piece of trivia for St Kilda fans – Who was the last remaining Saint that played in the 2009 and 2010 Grand Finals? BJ’s career will probably outlast Gilbert’s, but at a different club. That it would be Gilbert makes a little bit of sense given his relatively young age in those teams, but it makes a lot less sense if you’d seen some of his Australian Rules football over the past few years. He has gone under the radar for some time, playing a rather thankless Jason Blake-style role in a team that didn’t get the attention or kudos that Blake’s did. His work with the Pride game and as an advocate for and ally of the LGBTIQ+ community has been ahead of nearly all others that have played or been involved with this game at this level.

Although it would give way to three shanked shots early in the Replay, his goal in the third quarter of the Grand Final Draw was a pivotal moment in the game and a stirring moment for the club. By chance, he was the first St Kilda player I saw following the siren of the Grand Final, after lifting my head out of my hands; it was Gilbert dropping to the ground that will be imprinted in my mind as clearly as the Geelong song blasted across the MCG that made real what would become of that season.

It’s easy to forget how important he was over those two years, and that he finished third in the Best and Fairest in 2010 – appropriately, alongside Goddard.

***

When we’ve looked “good” this year, it’s basically just been a more manic version of the majority of footy we’ve played – maybe more tackling, maybe quicker disposal, but not necessarily cleaner and certainly not necessarily more effective. How many times can the players go through this pattern before you just give up? At what point is this incredibly inefficient and wayward, frustrating game style stop encouraging you to keep doing whatever it is you’re doing?

Maybe the club knew what was coming. Sort-of conspiracy theory – If the board was expecting it, and were therefore comfortable with the contract extension, then we might be in a position in which Richo is actually quite sage. We’re playing more inexperienced guys, so the incumbent pressure on the coach(es) to maintain a high(er) standard throughout the year, certainly in this moment, might have shifted over to whether or there is something more sustainable evident in how the young players are developing, and the way they’re playing together. That might be a little bit different at the moment.

***

We’re sitting at Round 6, one and a half wins, averaging effectively 7.13 a game for more than a month now. Whether it was linear or exponential, this team’s development curve has sagged – apparently all part of the Altered Road to 2018 plan – and really now this is just a lifestyle. This is what the club does, and we watch it. No direction on the field, no direction as a team, no direction as a club. Nathan Brown’s mostly uncontested non-spoil going back with the flight of the ball resulted immediately in a Hawks goal, and immediately afterwards he gave away a free kick to Langford. Richo put the headphones on but at that point we’ve moved from football club to comedy troupe and what’s he going to say? At that point it’s going to have as much effect as anything I whinge about on here.

Richo opted not to talk about positives in the members’ message. Yes, young guys are playing, etc., but how long does he need to be the coach for until he can implement an effective system with players that can carry it out? It’s not as if he’s still struggling with a list he just inherited that was built over a decade by and for someone else with a very specific game style.

As supporters, the messages from the coach and the club are slowly turning into a din, and gradually that noise is disappearing into the distance and over the horizon, taking another year with it.

 

  • Ted McDonnell

    Sack the coach (but put lipstick on him) ; sack the president; sack half the players …, the St Kilda School girl can play Rover to the sexual predator former coach; bring back the other convicted molester and you have the makings of a great John Waters movie but alas no premiership

  • Ted McDonnell

    Oh great review

  • Tom Briglia

    ffs Ted.

  • Alastair Pitts

    I said it on Twitter but this season is quickly heading towards being a coach-killer.

    I had a look at the fixture and you can make a strong case we will only win another 3-4 games. Effectively halving our winning rate is a sure fire way for the coach to get the sack.

    The problem I have with that though is I don’t think it’s the coaches fault. If blokes are completely fucking up basic skill execution, I don’t know what the coach is suppose to do about that (especially mid-game).

    I’ll keep listening to Richo on 360, but I’ve stopped listening to the coaches message and I don’t give a shit about anything on the club website, because it just makes it easier to process the disappointment and disillusionment.

  • Tom Briglia

    Yeah that’s right – he can’t do anything about Membrey hitting the post from the goal square, or Billings kicking 27.47 since the start of last year, or guys scrubbing kicks forward under the roof.

    And yes, totally agree. The messaging from the club is getting tiresome, or toothless, or whatever it might. Maybe it’s a part of being a more experienced supporter (lol) but it doesn’t really hold much weight when you’re in a situation that doesn’t have any clear or solid way forward.

  • Campbell

    From the top shelf Tom.

    We’re terrible. Absolutely terrible.

    Glad that our CEO has actually made a comment; (the performances have been) ‘unacceptable’ but he’s confident that Richo is the man.

    Geeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeez.

    What makes him think that? The fact that our players’ skills regress after being drafted? That we’re 5 years into his tenure and we don’t have identifiable game plan? That our players don’t know what the plan is? That the draft picks that he’s overseen are largely plodders? That Melbourne Storm score more points that us each week?

    Finnis is going to have to help me out here.

  • Harry

    Hi Tom. I feel for you having been thrown back into another dismal performance after a little bit of hope in the GWS result. I am sure that the players have the basic skills so it must be executing them under pressure; so this must come down to how they train. Do they train enough under match day pressure? Who knows.

    Of all things though, recruiting must come under the spotlight. We just don’t seem to be getting value in our recruiting. Or is it player development?

    What’s coming up this week?

  • Tom Briglia

    I…………….I don’t know. We’re a footy team that’s bad at footy. I know I said it in the piece but…I don’t know what this side turning around would actually look like. When we play “well” there’s more tackling and more possession, but efficiency or skills don’t necessarily go up. Something drastic would have to happen with Richo’s coaching, or among the coaching staff, or in the way the players train (??) for this to change course.

  • Tom Briglia

    We all blamed John Peake and his recruiting during the Ross era, and perhaps Ross’s aversion to playing too many young guys, but slowly it’s become something that takes in both recruiting and the development as well. As much as our list needs to improve, so does the coaches’ list.