Round 2, 2020
St Kilda 3.1, 7.3, 12.3, 14.4 (88)
Western Bulldogs 2.4, 3.4, 5.6, 7.7 (49)
Crowd: 0 at Marvel Stadium, Sunday, June 14th at 6.05pm
Does Gerard and Robbo talking about where clubs are at on a Monday night still matter? Can you find the Front Bar as funny when they’re all still obviously social distancing? Does a premiership matter if we can’t be there with the people we’ve shared the journey with? All those people in the seats beside us at all the empty Concrete Dome games, and the tens and hundreds of thousands that shared the lived experience? If not, what is the purpose of a season? Of following the St Kilda Football Club any time soon (even if just for the overall tease)?
Somehow the coronavirus wasn’t even the number one story of the past few weeks, but that said more about broader societal functions than it did a pandemic (which, yes, is happening right now).
At half-time of Round 1 we all roughly knew what was going to be happening to the game pretty soon, and at half-time of the mid-afternoon match it was confirmed. There was a lot of talk in the lead-up to that weekend about what footy would mean to people. There was probably some mythologising too, as well as a disconnect in the application of circumstances then and now. Footy was and is (in some parts) its own space. Turning the Concrete Disney Store into…well, a Concrete Disney Store that is more like a TV studio takes away from the notion and experience of “going to the footy”, of travelling to a place and gathering with people and experiencing first-hand a team on the field representing your club. There’s no comparison between that and a pandemic, obviously; what I’m trying to get at is that in this case, we knew we wouldn’t even be allowed to go to the footy. To be at the footy, to be in that space, to live that experience with other people, to be the home crowd, to be the away crowd, to represent and create a lived experience. The decadence our lives can afford us that footy matters, and that St Kilda matters.
We probably all knew 10 minutes into the first game of the season that footy like this was not going to be what we thought it would, at least not for some time. Some 80 days later, we were sort-of-not-really on the other side, but the “other side” means something happened and a lot of us are covered in the dust and debris and weird goopy stuff of the impact. Some of it we might not be able to brush or pick off.
Some things we’d forgotten about experiencing the footy like this. Some things looked and sounded a little off, like a glitch in the system that this whole world feels like at the moment. The crappy graphics in the crowd, the cardboard cut-outs behind the goals, the 2019 membership scarf-dominated Lockett end where the Saints cheer squad would usually be. Nib was sponsoring Richmond’s jumper twice, and Ford Geelong’s jumper thrice. Pre-match on Thursday, the echo of the siren at the MCG filled what would have otherwise been crowd noise. The canned crowd noise was ok, but ultimately a step towards Channel 9’s timelessly cynical “let’s turn up the crowd noise as the players get closer to each other” non-atmosphere inducer. Canned crowd noise can never replicate the crowd’s anticipation of a snap curling its way back towards goal, or the groan and gasp of a turnover. When we watch over any of these games in the future, we will hear crowd noise on an eerie even loop throughout most of the game, rising far too often out of context, or too late after a goal. The Showdown proved 2,000 real-life humans trumps any amount of algorithms. Final scores look like they’re from the 1930s, with your 79 vs 73s and 88 vs 49s and 36 vs 36s and whatnot, while the pandemic trend taking the footy world by storm is neat and tidy scorelines like “17.6” and “14.4”.
There was a lot less gravity watching this time around, but the uncomfortable feelings of being stuck on the couch whilst watching what is increasingly a different class of well-paid, high-profile people remained. Like the crowd noise, we could forgive it a little more this time – rather than helplessly accept it at best – because for the time being the most uncertain period has passed. I say that very cautiously.
So, what does footy mean on “this side”, whatever it is. What does St Kilda mean on this side? The suspension had already triggered an SOS campaign masked as a pledge drive, and Jeff Kennett and Peter Gordon started putting pressure from one end of the competition on others (i.e. the St Kilda Football Club) to sort their shit out. Maybe we won’t have too long to figure it out before we’re regularly booking trips to Tasmania.
There was certainly the welcome return of being able to draw a short and direct line from “anxiety” to “the Saints are about to play/playing”, rather than the existential angst that’s been carried around for the past few months and/or 32 years. At around 3pm I felt the pang of nervousness that at least partially took me out of whatever this is, and Stress Eating For St Kilda began at about 5pm. In between sappy-as-fuck Westpac and Maccas ads, hearing the Concrete Disney Store siren through the TV and feeling that anxiety that the Saints were out on the ground there was very unfamiliar. I’ve lived in Melbourne my whole life and am fortunate enough (you know what I mean) to be in a position to attend all Melbourne games. Not knowing what’s further up the ground at a St Kilda match taking place at the Concrete Disney Store or the MCG remains a strange feeling.
After Round 1, jumping out to a similar lead at a similar stage in the game felt like tempting fate. A scramble up forward in the last minute or two of the second quarter, featuring Gresham and Billings slices, couldn’t quite close the deal. I didn’t like the 45 to 22 scoreline echoing the 43 to 14 scoreline of the season opener. Dougal Howard dropped an easy rogue Dogs entry ball from a Former St Kilda Player Who Actually Played More Like A Captain In 2019 Than Most Josh Bruce kick; Bruce with a free kick resulting (he missed), Bruce getting increasingly involved, Eddie almost saying a “St Kilda win” in the third quarter and then pulling out after “w-”. All of those little synergies that we instinctively look for as St Kilda supporters that tell us a downfall is inevitably on the way, and these are things that the record will show and others can point at and laugh and say, “Who else? You could even see it coming”.
This is where the messiah complex can kick in. Just having Max King named felt like a ridiculous luxury. A fast start out of the middle that moves through Dan Butler, Bradley Hill, Jade Gresham and Jack Billings and ends with Max King roving a goal? Ending the slickest St Kilda performance in more than a year with a tall mark and set shot goal? It’s his second game and he’s 204cm and grew up supporting the club and covered more ground than he got credit for. He wears number 12. Really?
There was something a bit more concrete about this performance than Round 1. The movement across the ground was more purposeful. The players linked up more consistently. For the first time in a long time there was an underlying confidence that the players might have learned from the past (it was a relief to hear Ratten and some players actually say the Round 1 fade out was addressed at half-time). Players that need never have concerned themselves with a club like St Kilda looked like they gave a shit about St Kilda. It was definitely a luxury to have Dan Butler’s speed and general professionalism and understanding of success, of Zak Jones (another St Kilda supporter) being everywhere, Hill’s pace and Ryder’s taps; the latter so good that Gresham shat his St Kilda home shorts when he got a direct hit out from a throw-in and immediately fumbled the ball.
This marked a step back towards normalcy, but normalcy won’t be normal. This is a before and after event. Round 1 felt like the world (at least our western experience of it) was being peeled away in strips of confusion, of panic-buying, and of quietly-antagonistic-and-suspicious-of-other-shoppers shoppers at Coles.
Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have died, hundreds of millions have had their lives thrown into social and economic chaos, and the US appears to have lurched closer to a Civil War-style…well, Civil War than a lot of us might have cautiously joked about heading into 2017. St Kilda and Bulldogs players completed the round of all teams taking a knee before the match. The club offered to refund a supporter’s membership who threatened to pull it if they did.
Much more locally, the St Kilda goodwill of the pre-season – the AFLW debut, christening of the return to Moorabbin, new players, new coach, new sponsor, new manufacturer, the membership figures, AND OF COURSE THE RETURN OF THE FABLE SINGERS – had disappeared in the real-world chaos, and then officially in Round 1 when a 30-point lead over an unfancied opponent was slam-dunked into the shitter. The bowl water that splashed out had dried into our iso-wear, and the prospect of footy was largely confined to footy itself, the ultimate distraction, rather than the optimism of what St Kilda specifically might bring in 2020, the other ultimate distraction.
However, all those things that we were promised in the off-season were here. They looked real. Max King starting the game with crumbing goal and finishing with a tall mark and set shot. Butler kicking on both sides in a chain that he was involved in three times and finished with the goal. Paddy with absurdly clean ruck taps. Billings kicking three and having 24. Hunter Clark’s finesse. Zak Jones being busy. Brad Hill being slick. And, of course, Max King singing the Saints song he grew up with, with his St Kilda teammates for the first time. All of those things appeared real. We could see it all on TV and via the internet in high definition, but it’s June and this was only Round 2, and still none of this quite feels real.