You were the only one

By Tom Briglia

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“Hopefully I wake up back in the normal universe we used to know.”
– Matt, facetiously texting me last night

Over the long weekend my brother Matt, housemate Emma and I went to Wagga Wagga to watch Jess captain the GWS AFLW team. Last year we’d driven to Morwell to watch her in the Giants’ only Victorian appearance, and in 2020 their only Melbourne game was fixtured for the last round against the Bulldogs. A road trip and night away for a game in the early evening sun with a beautiful backdrop – and while finals were still very much a possibility for the Giants – was a long weekend well-spent. Standing on the hill in the sunshine and treating myself to a beer with Matt and Emma, watching Jess lead the Giants, the thought ran through my head, “Where else would you rather be?”

Pre-Season

February and early March were once the domain watching the intra-club at Moorabbin in the summer twilight, reacquainting ourselves with the flow of the game and the smell of the grass and the beer, and then the pre-season proper; hearing the commentators’ voices, and depending on where the first game was or if you made it far enough, the layout and smells of Telstra Dome/Etihad Stadium. This was our first glimpse of a team that was often rightfully expected to challenge for the top four and maybe something greater, and one that might pick up from pre-season silverware along the way.

For the first time, the AFL boys didn’t have sole ownership of that spotlight. When they ran onto Moorabbin against the Hawks on a Thursday night, they were the kick-ons of a Linton Street celebration brought to you by the fantastic, fantastical debut of the AFLW team on a breezy summer afternoon four days earlier. No Disney product placement required, nor night-time slot for optimal fireworks viewing, nor “state-of-the-art training facility”, nor tacky plastic cover version of the club song that no-one asked for. Moorabbin, in the afternoon elements, with a St Kilda team running out to a club song that was the soundtrack to so many joyous moments, to teams that ran out for Grand Finals. The place, and the sight of a full crowd at Moorabbin, and all of those sounds mattered.

There is the novelty of passages of play involving no shortage of unfamiliar names in unfamiliar chains. Combinations of any and all of Brad Hill, Paddy Ryder, Dan Hannebery, Max King, Zak Jones, Dougal Howard, Dean Kent and Dan Butler, and the increased likelihood of those passages finishing with Jack Lonie kicking accurately. But mostly bruise-free games and an apologetic professional empathy between players mean there will never be pride nor the prestige that was on the line the Wizard Cup battle of 2004, nor could they contribute to that rivalry and storyline that effectively ran until Grand Final Day of 2011.

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Pre-Coronavirus outbreak paragraph, which I still stand by:
“Most importantly, the new clash jumper – a bold, traditional design – looks fucking great. The glorious Fable Singers version of the club song was seemingly returned, and at Morwell – via the iPad connected to the car speakers on the drive home from Wagga on Sunday evening – were replaced just as quickly.” The Fable Singers were indeed returned as the AFLW team ran onto Moorabbin, and were kept the for men’s a few days later, but was replaced by the weird cover version for the AFLW match in Adelaide and the men’s in Morwell.

The club minted its return to Moorabbin, or what is really “RSEA Park”, because you wouldn’t know there was a St Kilda Football Club based there if you drove down Linton Street. The giant RSEA Park logo looks over the street where the club’s own once did. I would say “yeah but it’s better that it’s looking over Linton Street than the Hobart wharf”, but that’s how they get you, isn’t it? That’s how we become the first club to have an iced coffee brand logo prominently placed on the jumper where other teams would have the jumper manufacturer’s.

The club’s logo on the jumper itself is slowly being replaced too; the Deliveroo logo is arguably the most prominent logo on any jumper in the league, and has outright replaced the square that used to house the club crest, which has become smaller and less noticeable since 1994. We are almost at the point in which the Deliveroo Turquoise is not far away from becoming a clash jumper colour, given its prominence on the back of the otherwise fantastic clash jumper. Should the choice of song bewilderingly remain with the new version, we’re close to becoming an aesthetic curio. And you know what? Yeah, there’s some fucked up shit going on at the moment. Andrew Bassat said in an SEN interview in a vaguely more normal time, i.e. a few weeks ago, “If you take away history, then what is the club?” These are the things that make following St Kilda and our own history as supporters what it is. What has tied us and takes us back to moments. Whenever it may be that both St Kilda teams can compete in earnest, in an uncompromised competition – and even between now and then – we’re going to be looking for and needing those things.

***

The club has done everything it could over several years to make sure we were as disengaged as possible before this pre-season, from bored and anxious footy played by bored anxious players. Who the hell were they? No home ground we could care for. Where did The Road to 2018 go? They stripped everything away, all the way down to the club song, for fuck’s sake, and offered no reason (nor response). And at the start of 2019, they still dared to ask supporters “What will do when you’re called upon?”, as if we were the ones who needed to pick up our shit (they also threw in the line, “will you stand with us, and sing our song?”).

By the end of last year, I wasn’t enjoying writing this. I’d learned that I could hate the St Kilda Football Club. I learned that I hated being so attached to it. I hate that the club plays in artificial lighting every week at a Concrete Disney store. I felt more disengaged than I ever had before. And I definitely didn’t like writing 2,200 words or so about it every week. I needed the time off. Throughout the summer and the pre-season I tested myself. What if I didn’t write match reviews for the AFLW? What if I didn’t write about the pre-season matches?

Supposedly, this was the beginning after a rebuild spluttered and collapsed over a period of three seasons. Two matches in the space of five days at Moorabbin reinvigorated the club, stamping the change in mood brought on by a new coach, a new heir to the throne, and some very good new recruits on and off the field. Would we have it in us to start all over again, only to have it collapse in time-on of consecutive Grand Finals? Or not even work at all?

All the while, a new disease was spreading its way across the world. “Coronavirus” and “COVID-19” are still new terms, but they’re the only terms that matter right now. “Together We Rise” is the membership slogan. Some people are going to ask for refunds to their memberships this year. Some won’t, and want to see it as a donation to a club in a relatively precarious position. Some won’t have the choice.

From packed grounds at Moorabbin and Wagga, and listening to the Fox Footy commentary of the Morwell match driving home to Melbourne, and now to the lounge room to watch activity at the empty Concrete Disney Store, with no one to purchase Disney products, or climb the Peter Parker Wall, or just be vaguely near the Thor statue thing inside Gate 3.

A Pandemic Arrived

What will footy mean to us this year? How will we mark the seasons? The time of year?

There will be so many people that register the magnitude of this pandemic through the impact it has on the AFL season and the AFL ecosystem. In any other year we’d be talking about Max King’s debut and where Josh Battle might play. Instead, Bob and Andy were taking talkback calls about government closures of schools, and Andy musing considerations of accrued annual leave. Robbo asking Gerard outright, “Are you scared?” and Gerard giving a heartfelt answer. Broad reminiscing of seasons past in what would normally be a time of looking forward felt trite. What was the point of it anyway? The past didn’t deliver a premiership and it certainly didn’t ward off a pandemic. There is a bigger disconnect to those times now, neatly framed by the beginning of the new decade. There is a reset button looming and it’s getting big.

There has been something oddly bullish about the AFL going ahead with all of this, while it seems every other sport is shutting down. Perhaps Gil and the commission see it as a chance to secure their legacy, overseeing a bulletproof league pull off an entire season that crowns a legitimate premier in a time of pandemic. This season won’t be about the club’s direction in the way that it was just a few weeks ago. Max King’s debut and Brad Hill and Dan Butler haven’t been at the front of my mind. Is this season compromised? Or will it be the ultimate footy war of attrition, the most famous season in history?

People are anxious and people are tense and people are angry. People with lots of money in charge of lots of people’s lives are getting bailed out. People who worked and allowed these companies to exist are worried about losing their jobs with no safety net. They don’t have another board position to move on to. Other people are anxious because people are clearing supermarket shelves for no real definable reason. People are anxious because they know people in high-risk categories: people who are elderly, people who are immunocompromised and don’t fit the subconscious expectations we have of victims of a pandemic in the 21st century.

Growing up, footy in wartime and in the Great Depression belonged to footy history books of different time documenting a different world. Black and white and yellowed photos with mysterious jumper designs and outfits and mysterious backdrops in mysterious times. What is the empty stadium aspect equivalent to? Is it Geelong not being able to travel because of wartime restrictions? Will suburban grounds be used in the way they were in 1942? Fitzroy winning the 1916 premiership from the bottom of the ladder? University always struggled, but it ultimately disbanded due to World War 1.

The VFL/AFL was always the constant. Nothing has ever been big enough to knock it down, not entirely. Not World War 1, not the Great Depression, not World War 2, not the Cold War, nor any other kind of event that white middle class people born into late 20th century decadence in Melbourne couldn’t even name, let alone conceive of.

Every year footy came back. The season reflects the year. Returning as we all come back from the summer slumber. Refreshed and ready to go in early in the year, when anything and everything could happen. The depths of the season arrive with the depths of winter, the uncertainty of where the season might go if you think it might be the year, where the idea of the season being a marathon really begins to take its toll. The furthest point between the early year optimism and the sunshine of spring; the sunshine that emerges for those good enough and who worked hard enough, beckoning what truly would be a “before and after” life event for St Kilda supporters.

Gil phrased it during Wednesday night’s press conference very specifically. A 17-round season becomes a 153-game journey. Day-by-day. The anticipation as the sun sets on a Friday night won’t be the same, the tram ride to the concrete Disney store won’t exist for some time. The concept of a weekend being built around when the Saints are playing will have an underlying tension. Games are going to be played at weird times with no rhythm. We can’t guarantee any game will actually go ahead until the first siren sounds. For all we know we could be having a Grand Final at the Concrete Disney Store in November, and even that won’t be settled until the anthem is played and the ball is bounced.

The heroes that people looked to in times of hardship will be written into history just as the Colliers and Coventrys of Collingwood were, and the Richmond, South Melbourne and Geelong teams that also challenged and succeeded during Great Depression. Our experiences and relationship with our teams will become its own arc of that same history.

In footy, we find parallels to our own lives; our club’s fortunes, its misfortunes, its successes, its failures, promises made and promises never quite kept. But we’re finding that days aren’t any longer because shit needs to be sorted. Time doesn’t wait for any of this. Footy is going to change this year. How we engage with the game and our clubs will change, and so will how we see ourselves.