How I want to be somewhere else

By Tom Briglia

Round 10, 2018
Richmond  3.3, 6.4, 10.9, 15.15 (105)
St Kilda 2.0, 4.3, 9.5, 12.5 (77)
Crowd: 48,850 at the MCG, Saturday, May 26th at 1.45pm

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This has been the first year I haven’t overly enjoyed going to the footy. That is almost entirely to do with the “fan engagement” “initiatives” at the concrete TV set that is our home ground, which were introduced by the club without consulting anyone – certainly not fans or members – and sucking out the atmosphere during the game by playing music after goals (and comically for too long and too loudly). The club still had the fucking guile to post an article to its website talking about the atmosphere created by the fans during the GWS match. All of that came on top of trashing of the team’s song (again, without asking anyone) into something far more outdated than the Fable Singers will ever be, and which has sapped the moment of the team running out or, after Round 1 anyway, enjoying the win in quite the same way afterwards.

I don’t like writing about this, and I hate feeling it, and that dismay I feel around it has zero things to do with how the team is going, otherwise I would have turfed this blog and said I specifically don’t like going to the footy at some point in the depths of winter in 2014. But, despite being the most toothless team in the competition coming up against the reigning premier, this was a Saturday afternoon game at an actual football ground that doesn’t have a roof, with actual weather, and it’s not a TV set or a Disney store – I hadn’t been so keen to go to a game footy this year. I remember a May Saturday afternoon in Richo’s first season when Hawthorn beat us 175 to 30 in the fucking wet, and even if a similar result wouldn’t be so surprising I could at least walk away having been at the footy, at a footy ground, and had taken in the atmosphere and experience of going to the footy.

I’ll quickly get this one out of the way, too. I’m not sure how else to say this about the Richmond song, and I bring this up with extra dismay because St Kilda was one of only three clubs to take on the AFL’s re-recorded versions of the songs alongside Richmond and Sydney – keeping in mind the rest, including ours, were redone as an afterthought after Richmond wanted theirs changed. This was the first time I’d heard the Tigers’ new version at the ground, and…what a fuck-up. It sounds flat, and it actually dragged down the crowd reaction and atmosphere after a game with it. The Tigers’ song, for all their low points over the recent decades, has retained an element of the club’s historic arrogance and Us vs Them mentality that has brought some sense of threat in going to their games. I went to each of their Victorian finals (last year’s Grand Final aside) in the past several years, and the team running out to the song was incredible, particularly for last year’s Preliminary Final. Watching the broadcast, it sounds so dramatic after the siren of last year’s Grand Final, it marks the re-emergence of a club that had been the laughing stock of the league for so long, but had barrelled its way to a premiership with the echo of its 20th Century arrogance and toughness . The argument for the change has been that it was re-recorded to make sure the “shin”/”skin” wording error was corrected, but I would happily bet any of my few material possessions that the difference between those words – either of which retain the intent of the line – means nothing compared the nostalgia, the brashness, the threat, or the celebration that Fable Singers’ version not just represents, but reflects before and after a match. After the game, it felt dull. It dragged the crowd’s reaction and atmosphere down with it. The competition is better when Richmond is a power, and their song has been synonymous with not just the prospect but the reality of that.

***

The week saw AFL journos with MH370 theories, and Etihad Stadium being renamed by Disney and effectively becoming a tiny Disney Land. The St Kilda Football Club is a strange place anyway, and we saluted by taking D Mac and his new hair out of the Moorabbin cryogenic freezer, while Darragh Joyce was named emergency and was Logan Austin being concussed during his jumper presentation away from making his debut. Now that Carlisle’s out for as much as two weeks, if we’re not careful then Freeman will be playing whether he’s injured or not. We found out by Richo’s own admission at the Friday press conference that his love affair with “Dave” Armitage saw Armo being played with an hamstring tendon injury for a month. What did we learn from playing Mav with an ankle injury through all of last year? Fuck all, apparently. Yes, Richo also said it’s something rest wouldn’t fix, but if he’s unable to get from contest to contest or get to a low ball (Richo’s words) at AFL level then I don’t know if his physicality/seniority on the field at AFL level offsets that. Given he collected 40 touches for Sandy I’m sure Dave will be rushed back into the side, but that no-fucking-shit gulf is the reason why in back-to-back weeks he couldn’t get down to the footy and than ate up 40-plus touches. All of this ended with pre-match team meeting out on the ground, with all the staff, and I’m sure it was after Round 10 of 2001 that Malcolm Blight brought the players back onto the ground for a warm down and odd chat. The Demons cropped up a few times this weekend.

***

By the time Gresham had snuck out the back and put us in front in the third quarter I was pleasantly reminded what shitting myself at the footy felt like. I don’t think I genuinely felt at any point we were run away with it, but things looked far more purposeful and – I shit you not – were occasionally working. Newnes’ miss kind of sits as a sliding doors moment on reflection, but it wouldn’t have made much different to our season given Richmond ran away quite comfortably with the game, and with 30 to 17 scoring shots, despite only really playing a quarter and a half anywhere close to their better footy and being down to two rotations for most of the game.

How much is it the “vast expanses” of the MCG? How much is it 10 weeks we’ve not had to sort our shit out? How much is it that we’re playing new, young guys that are following up their work and showing a bit more skill and composure? Perched up in the MCC by myself, the movement across the ground certainly looked like the dimensions of the ground were a factor, but that alone doesn’t make them work harder, and it certainly doesn’t make them faster individually, or able to get some sort of separation on their opponent.

Either way, let’s deal with what happened – the pressure really was up for the first two and a bit quarters, and it allowed far more purposeful movement ahead of the ball, which meant options in space to kick to. Once we were able to force turnovers, I still do think there was harder and smarter work ahead of the ball.

One thing that has stuck out so often through this pretty terrible year – whatever we’re doing across the ground, however we’re setting up, however we’re presenting, however we’re shanking kicks, it has sterilised the games of Billings and Gresham in particular – the two guys who have offered the most class and creativity.

Gresham was obviously the headline human of the day for the Saints. I remember watching his fifth goal go through after the siren of the last game last year, as Nick Riewoldt made it his final act on the field to be near the line for the kick. What I hoped it represented in that moment certainly hasn’t materialised yet, but on Saturday we got the echo we’d been looking for on an individual level. He kicked six goals; the class, awareness and composure we haven’t been able to look to an individual for this year, really, with Carlisle probably the only exception – the pairing we got from that infamous trade. Carlisle was the accidental enforcer at the other end, an apologetic Lazar Vidovic.He was booed by the 40,000 Richmond fans (8,000 or so St Kilda fans still seems like a cheeky stretch) every time he got the ball but he and Webster, who was busy and dangerous and creative off half-back, and helped by the constant follow-up of Phillips, Rice and Clark made this team look more dynamic than it has all year.

Gresh’s career trajectory, for slightly differing reasons, is still following that of Jack Steven’s – thrown into the front half of the ground before an inevitable migration into the middle, where he played the footy that got him drafted. A rare day this year that we could snatch a few moments to feel good about a player’s future.

Billings returned to his role as an option across high-half forward, and it probably confirmed that he’s the type of player that required the rest of the team to be doing the right thing to bring the best out of him. I’m not sure how other people saw but despite his 18 touches and 1.1, I thought it was his best game of the year. My first reaction typing that is, “what the fuck has happened this year”, but here for the role he played and the way he played it, this is his best use. He was back to providing a target across half-forward and higher, and the role allowed him to use the ball in the manner that we used pick 3 on him for. Typically, the best and worst of his game were shots at goal, outside of two excellent passes from high up the ground to Gresham and Membrey to set up goals. His own third-quarter goal represented what should be by now almost vintage Billings, but right now stands for what we’ve missed out on so far – on the run inside 50, on an awkward angle and off-balance with pressure coming from the side, in a big moment in the game and the finish was silk. That was more than undone in the opening seconds of the final term, though. The margin was still just 10 points and a circuit-breaker was needed as Richmond were charging, and in between Dusty’s two excellent finishes Paddy’s contest and handball released Billings. By himself, 30 metres out, and perhaps a bit too confident on the right foot after last week’s goal, he shat himself royally kicked it out on the full. It wasn’t even a slice, it was just a fuckin’ fuck up in a big moment.

***

Paddy’s game was another one of those holding pattern types, but let’s address the helmet. Perhaps instructive that the last St Kilda player to wear a helmet was Kosi, and I say that as a sadly terrified St Kilda supporter. I think just about every time I mention him I go out of my way to point out how few games he’s played, and this was just number 30 (I’m acutely aware Petracca and helmet-ally Brayshaw played very, very handy games in a 91-point win the following day for the team that is currently sitting third on the ladder).

Like the GWS game, Paddy looked his best close to goal. His competing and leading from within 50 set up Newnes for our first, and then in the third had an impact on several goal chains; he rewarded an excellent Logan Austin effort low on half-back by presenting up the ground, took the Rowan Marshall centring option, and D Mac and his hair avoided got it forward for the Jack Lonie crumb; he brought the ball to ground in for Gresham to put us in front and earned the free kick that Gresh ran onto the spillage of and bumbled it through.

Unfortunately for him, he was the one who let his own efforts down – a handy mark in front of goal in the second quarter was sliced to the right, as all of our shots at goal are now (see Membrey; Hickey; Newnes), and then from a totally not impossible spot soon after, maybe 40 out and slightly more acute than a 45-degree angle, instead of kicking a normal drop-punt he went the Cora Staunton but got nowhere near it.

By half-time the numbers looked OK. We were up in disposals 230 to 192, 31 to 27 inside 50s, clearances 20 to 7, tackles 30 to 19. But for all the pressure that was allowing such nicer movement with the ball, we still had Paddy missing from in front and clearly bereft of confidence in his set shot routine, Savage kicking it long to nothing, Lonie blazing away from 50 to fuck knows what, Hickey not making the distance (ironically by backing his set shot routine), and Hunter Clark getting excited and having a shot from nearly 50 out when he had Billings on his own closer to goal over the top. That all culminated in St Kilda Football Club Captain, Jarryn Geary delivering arguably the worst post-siren long-range shot at goal. Of course no-one, including himself, was expecting to kick it. But this is the captain. I laughed loudly.

***

Caddy kicked six in a role that Jack Newnes was hoping he’d play today after last week Newnes could have made an impact after apparently finding a suitable role for him over the past six quarter, but borderline-bizarrely went missing. He kicked the first goal and in a shallow field this year was all of a sudden looking a chance to bring a late charge for the goalkicking award in a role that had suited him for the past six quarter. The miss was the clear demarcation point for the game, and began a key period that was bookended by Dusty’s two goals either side of three-quarter time, which themselves sandwiched the worst of salamis from Billings.

Richmond immediately lifted the several gears they’d been purring around with up their sleeve all day when Newnes missed. The free-kick he got was dodgy to begin with – he’d already dropped the ball in the tackle before being landed on – but if you’re good enough those things don’t matter by the end of the day. You take the opportunities you earn or are spuriously gifted, or individual moments that might go against you are swallowed en masse by class and hard work. He missed the set shot, and head knock in the last or not he finished with 1.1 and eight touches.

They had stars in Cotchin and Martin lift when the game required it, while Martin’s goal came when our possible next captain Seb Ross dropped an easy mark 35 metres in front of Richmond’s goal, in the path of minimal pressure, and Dusty mopped it up. Just before the Tigers began their run, Hickey (yes, Hickey) was leading the clearances with six, and then several players, Cotchin among them, were next in line with three. By the time Richmond had well and truly taken the game back, Cotchin was up to nine, and Hickey was second, still with six. And that ran down right through their team – Vlastuin was moved forward and kicked three goals from set shots (looking at Newnes) after kicking 7.4 in his past 71 games.

As the momentum shifted, and under the more heated pressure from the Tigers, we lost our composure, the presentation dropped off, the skill errors returned and silly mistakes were made. I didn’t mind the fact that it looked like we were trying to not become too conservative with ball movement, something that made us look really bad in 2016 and 2017 particularly. A dropped intercept mark in defence from Webster coming third-up – something that had been shut down all day – ended with one of Vlastuin’s goals; a poor kick-out looking for Billings out the back of two Tigers opponents outside 50 fell short and ended up with a strong Caddy mark and his fourth goal, and Dunstan played for the high tackle free kick near Richmond’s goal and got rightly punished for holding the ball.

None of this is to say that Newnes missing cost us the game, it’s more to say this was an excellent demonstration of what we’re lacking and what other teams have. It’s once you start adding things like that the 12.5 seems just as Richo described it – “a step in the right direction” – and not much more. After the Billings shank early in the last, Seb dropped an easy mark in front of the Richmond’s goal and that’s what led to Dusty kicking his second. That was the gulf in class. But I liked that Bailey Rice went inboard to Billings to set up Membrey’s goal late in the game having earlier in the quarter done something very similar, but which went straight to a Richmond player for a goal. I like that Hunter Clark and Ed Phillips kept following up their work; Phillips has already shown a lot, Clark is more prone a few scuffs and is taking a suspiciously large amount of cues from the Blake Acres Guide to Leaning Back Slightly When You’re Kicking on the Run.

Similarly to Round 1 – the last time we kicked more goals than points, and the last time we kicked more than 10 goals – a lot of our shots came from close to goal. But even those included chances and opportunities to maximise the shots we were having (see the second quarter cluster). Again, the trend that was momentarily turfed last week is back up this week. The opposition slowly get away as was burn some opportunities and work too hard for little reward, we get a run-on through the third quarter, and then the opposition gets away from us. Richmond finished the game with 63 to 48 inside 50s, despite the possession count being 440 to 365 in our favour. We laid just one tackle inside 50.

***

This was by far my favourite day at the footy all year. But it reinforced just how much our “home” ground – more specifically, the club’s use and abuse of it – is testing my love of going to the footy. Not even love; I’ve just turned 30 and it’s something instinctive and that has a so much tradition and heritage and shared experience and personal experience. It’s something that had never been threatened before, and I will argue with anyone who says there is anything necessary behind the moves the club has made regards to that. There was a reason I was there by myself on Saturday – the TV set atmosphere of Etihad/Marvel had worn down my Dad and my brother and Rich. It’s been trashed. But the MCG is a place to go watch the footy. There are people kicking the footy around outside the ground, not office buildings, and the names and statues outside and throughout the ground’s interior mean something to us, not to Marvel fans exclusively. The MCG is where so much has happened, and it’s where we want to be when, if, the Saints go marching in. There is a dignity to not just the MCG itself, but the space around it.

Yes, of course winning or losing or where we are in our development perspective matters, but that is part of supporting your team – feeling hurt, and feeling hopeful. It’s not about having it tainted by music that demands you feel a certain way after a goal is scored, no matter where the team is that quarter, that day, that year or indeed that decade (or that rebuild). Richmond song aside (and our loose association with its machinations), this was the first time I didn’t have to personally battle with whether I wanted to be at the footy or not. I could afford myself to step back into those worries about win and loss and development. And after the unthinkable premierships of the Bulldogs and Richmond over the past two seasons, the spectre of the Demons, too, getting there ahead of us became harder to ignore.