All you got to do is say it

By Tom Briglia

Round 18, 2019
St Kilda 6.5, 11.6, 13.9, 17.14 (116)
Western Bulldogs 1.0, 4.5, 10.5, 14.5 (89)
Crowd: 21,705 at Docklands, Sunday, July 21st at 4.40pm

 

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“I got friends in Kansas City with a motherfucking futon couch,
If that’s how you want to play it.”

 ***

Appearances in the spotlight have been rare in the past six years. Occasional excitement about Billings and Gresham, the landmark events that were the retirements of Lenny Hayes and Nick Riewoldt, but that’s mostly been it. This week we were confronted with mattering again, if only to a news cycle and viewer numbers and journos one-upping. We were reminded of what it’s like when cameras and media bother hanging out in the Moorabbin car park waiting for players in non-St Kilda merch to emerge. This had been reserved for the peak of the GT and Ross eras, a team of glamour boys in 2004 and 2005 that matured into a machine in 2009 and 2010.

Last Tuesday confirmed we had gone from The Age’s “story of the year” in April to simply one of the stories that will make up the year that was. Once it actually happened it wasn’t overly sensational. Probably expected, and a dignified exit in keeping with the humility of Richo’s tenure was hardly clickbait fodder.

***

What does it feel like when your season is over and you get to 4.40pm on the Sunday of Round 18? Faux new era feeling or not, the echoes of the crowd ring out around the Concrete Disney Store for longer and with a hollower tone. Everyone’s a mathematical chance by some string of freak occurrences; the Dogs had and still do have realistic finals prospects, but we’d turbo charged our “relaxed day at the footy as social outing to watch the Saints because none of this matters”.

This one had a lot more optimism, sure, with more kids doing things we hadn’t seen them do before. The weight of the recent past had been lifted, however temporarily before the anxiety begins again. Where are all the New Zealand members? Where’s the free agency big fish? All of those hot flushes thinking of wasted years will come back eventually. But on Sunday we had one day, and we now have this small window of several weeks, to exist outside of the throes and ups and downs and vigorous side to sides a that the length of an entire live season gives us, if we can ever remember what that’s like.

We don’t have a coach, maybe not officially anyway, but maybe the future does look bright, maybe this list is ok, and we can get to watch these kids run around with a clear freedom, with their dragon haircuts and sleeve tattoos and Jill’s blue boots and relatively accurate goal kicking. There is nothing yet tainting where this could be going.

The strange sensation of surety when the Coff was near the ball, the surprise aggression and progression of Hunter Clark, Doulton Langlands literally standing up to take a mark under heat from two opponents in the middle of the ground. It was all working. Even Jack Bytel got more mentions on Tuesday alone than he had in his entire time at the club.

***

Hunter was given “the next Bont” treatment by the AFL site, and since Brent Guerra’s feature in The Age after Round 9, 2004, and The Age’s 2009 August 9th and of course the infamous April 27th headline that was, uh, also in The Age, we’d be right to be terrified of any positive media coverage, ever. I don’t know what the hell happened between the time he was last dropped and recalled for the Gold Coast game. All of a sudden we have a new, other best player alongside Best Player in the AFL Since Round 11 Rowan Marshall. I keep saying it, this team has played bored and anxious footy for basically two years, but somehow we now have Hunter Clark acting as if he’s got time and space on both sides of his body, and then actually doing stuff with it. The exclamation point this week was his two goals. A set shot from 50 metres and then a wicked snap out of a stoppage, in one movement across his body from 40 metres out, which soared as high as any of Kosi’s set shots. Sometimes moments in play feel like they occur in a specific part of the ground just so you can experience them more lucidly from wherever you happen to be sitting. Watching the ball blasted from his boot, curl and then hold his line was one for Aisle 33 (and most of the members probably, but you know what I mean).

***

It actually felt like we didn’t have a coach. Like the box was empty and some veteran staff had just turned up on the day to boost morale and let the players know when it was time to run out for the game. “Just enjoy yourselves, guys”, or whatever people say.

Tory Dickson’s opener aside, something was up. This team looked different. This was the team Matt and Rich and I went to Werribee to watch in 37 degree-heat during the pre-season. There was something bolder. There was an aggression to shape the game and make it our own. The expression was back with the ball and with the mouth, which ended up with spotfires not seen since Jack Steele went out of his way to give up 50 metres against the Bombers after Jimmy Webster got collared. Nick Hind getting stuck into Dogs players after Doulton’s goal reminded us of those heady times of three months ago (it also meant there was a push and shove group next to a first-goal celebration group). It happened during actual play, too. Parker made up for his non-paid mark (which ended up with Lonie’s banana goal) by slamming into a marking contest.

Maybe Jack Lonie was the spiritual leader of this team after all. Maybe this whole time, he was the Aaron Hamill. We’d been playing him at Sandy and then yo-yoing him in and out of and around the team in a revolving small forwards door with Minchington and Weller and Templeton and Murdoch and Wright. A 20 possession game kicking 4.3 are individual numbers reserved for excellent players of other teams. Maybe one day he’ll kick straight. Of course, it was very Jack Lonie that he would miss a relatively easy snap in space to have banked four first-quarter goals.

Watching the first quarter unfold made sad sense; we’d seen glimpses of this in the first part of the year, but whatever they’d taken this week was an optimal dose of Lovan. More movement running forward, smarter and more efficient positioning in congestion and further up the ground, handballs to guys moving forwards, i.e. guys who’d worked hard enough to be there in the first place. The anticipation of the ball sailing deep into attack to a well-positioned forward. We forgot what aggressive footy and a team wanting to actually win looked like. It was at once a reminder of St Kilda teams long ago, and also felt ultra futuristic.

***

Bruce and Sav both sliced opportunities late in the first quarter to tick the scoreboard over to seven goals to one. By quarter time we had to settle for 6.5 to 1.0. And I mean that – if you’ve had the year we’ve had, who knows where your next goal is going to come from? Nothing could have been enough.

And so we had to navigate all sorts of emotions and experience all sorts of dynamics unfold that we’d simply forgotten about, and may not have been so well equipped to handle. The natural ebbs and flows of a 21st century game of footy necessitated that the Dogs would get some traction. Watching a bunch of kids feel the pressure of an in-form team come back in the third quarter, and with no proven reference points in their short careers as to how to handle that. Coff had zero reference points for any ways of winning.

By three-quarter time there was frustration in the crowd. I punched the chair in front of me Maybe some despair. Couldn’t we just at least have this? Our wins this season have been at arm’s length. This was a different type of tension we hadn’t felt for a long time. What if we lost? Would we just waste kicking 11.6 in the first half? Would it be left to tiring young guys to fend off the Bulldogs pack? See Round 5, 2002 vs Sydney and Round 5, 2018 vs GWS.

Whichever way, it’s a very small step. We’ve been here before, of course, and the more optimistic parts of us would this is different. It might be, but it doesn’t necessarily end up with what we want. There are a lot more ways to not win a premiership then there are to actually win out. We’ve come up with more ways to not win a premiership while leading in time-on of a Grand Final than we have to win one. You get the idea.

This was an exhaustive exercise with no real known outcomes, successful or otherwise, to be evident for some time. Perhaps not clear until the 2030s and we’re sitting around doing whatever people do that are nearly 15 or 20ish years older than our current age, discussing what became of the St Kilda team of the 2020s. We’ve watched eras come and go, never mind single weeks of dips and peaks in form. Next year will mark the beginning of first era for this club that has real separation from the GT and Ross era (the birth and peak of the Riewoldt generation).

Maybe there were some lessons or opportunities during the week that we could take. Time to reflect on the good and the bad, and that all of those can and do co-exist. A lesson in humility, in empathy, in sympathy, in that there are no guarantees, in that not winning three Preliminary Finals and then not winning any of three Grand Finals does not mint a new standard at the football club, and does not mean your next rebuild will come off. One hell of a fucking exhaustive exercise indeed, if only to end up with Doulton Langlands on the front page of The Age.