Port Adelaide 2.1, 4.4, 6.6, 6.8, (44)
St Kilda 1.1, 5.1, 7.1, 12.1 (73)
Crowd: 20-something thousand-ish at the Adelaide Oval, Saturday, July 25th at 7.40pm EST
Up against the team on the top of the ladder, the club had gone all out with Max King as the promo human on their social media match day graphic. Appearances on Channel 7 increasingly are a mark of faith from the AFL and marketing people that you are worth the general public’s time, and Channel 7 had gone all out for Port. Where Fox Footy had skipped from Tony Lockett in a home and away match to Darren Jarman in a Grand Final on the Monday, I’d turned on the TV just in time for 7 to deep dive into the 2004 Preliminary Final with Gavin Wanganeen. This was a Port Adelaide homecoming event. In Grand Final broadcast-style, they covered the Power’s entrance onto the ground with the club song patched into the audio (as they usually do after the final siren), as they ran out to a genuine home crowd for the first time this year.
Also quickly apparent was that only eight people had responded to the Channel 7 FanZone email that went out to the members, and I’d only not seen the quote filled once or twice and I was sure that was because a fans had pulled the equivalent of leaving early, but in the comfort of their own home.
Throughout the 2010s we completely forgot what genuinely good players look like, and what it looks like for two good teams to be going head to head. This game felt like it was being played at an intensity that we hadn’t needed to bother even worrying about, really, since 2010. The (more so) inexperienced guys looked like they were feeling it. King shanked a banana in front of a fan who came down to the fence with his beer to say things vaguely in his direction, and then shakily fresh aired a kick off the ground in the goal square (taking me back to a dark last quarter moment playing for St Paul’s at East Brighton in the Under 13s), and Parker royally shanked a set shot, while at the other end Wilkie was feeling the heat in front of the home fans. Gresham and Coffield were hardly sighted. How the hell were we going to last the distance? Maybe it’s the ingrained St Kilda pessimism, but at no point until the final quarter did it feel like we were going to be the ones to break it open. Much the opposite.
Three breaths as a team at quarter time was a neat hint that the players were a whole lot calmer than I was, quietly losing my shit on the Brunswick West couch. Some things had gone our way – free kicks to Marshall, Ryder and Hind during the half ended with goal – and King and Parker aligned their only real shining moments by the major break to contribute a huge mark and spearing kick on the rebound to set up Butler’s set shot. When the momentum in the game shifted and goals started slipping through we still found ourselves ahead, and even that had happened as Port looked like they might be starting to build a gap. Ryder and Jones combined for a rare example of a genuinely good tap ruckman linking with a spirited midfielder, both in St Kilda jumpers, to take the ball forward for the first of Membrey’s hands-free majors from the goal square.
Jones and Steele had held up the workmanlike aspect in a very contested game. Boak was slowly being edged out of the game. Coffield was quiet but Ben Paton was just as subtly picking up the slack. Ryder and Marshall were slowly imposing themselves on the game, both slowly building a case as individuals and as a pair in showing their importance to the team. Clark was back to his smooth best, and on his way to probably being the classiest player in a heated duel.
When was the last time the octane was this high? It was amazing getting to half-time still in it. I thought I was heading for a quieter Saturday night.
Charlie Dixon had been held quiet until the first several seconds of the third quarter. The extended half-time break allowed any and all sorts of fantasies of the rest of the game to play out whilst we waited to stumble back into reality. Again, the nerves began to show. After Dixon had finally got one on him, Dougal dropped a mark and hurried a kick out on the full, and Dougal was joined by Wilkie and even Hunter in fumbling the ball down back. The top team in the league was back in front of its home crowd, who had been waiting until the end of July to welcome their team they had to watch rise on the television.
A little curiously, they kept missing shots. Hunter almost created the breakthrough up the other end himself with a gather and move through traffic in which he appeared to bend the space around him, and control the drop onto his boot enough to chip the ball to Sinclair. Membrey couldn’t complete the mark, and at that point the sinking inevitability of a St Kilda interstate foray began to materialise in a slight flushing of the cheeks. They got me again.
It took another Hunter effort on the rebound that ended up with King and Parker going down before Kent strolled into goal – it was 6.1 to 5.6 – and the tease was strung out just a little further. I don’t think enough credit or attention has been paid in the post-match to the Ryder double-tap to Gresham from a throw-in at half-forward, and Gresham’s excellent pass to Marshall on the lead. The storm had been weathered. The countdown to the next one began. It came straight away and the fucking archery gimmick came out.
James Brayshaw politely pointed out that the only game this year in which a team came from behind at three quarter time to win was…North over St Kilda in Round 1. That’s the kind of history St Kilda likes to echo, and we held a one-point lead with a fun, accurate scoreline of 7.1.
Up until…several days ago, Adelaide Oval had done an excellent job of continuing the calamitous legacy of St Kilda team at Football Park past. Like Fremantle over time, and Essendon always, Port Adelaide has always presented issues for us, even in better times. Close losses in Adelaide in 2004, 2010, 2012 and 2017. The most we could comfort ourselves with was, well, hopefully Robbie Gray needs time to replenish his magic stores after his post-siren winner. Saturday night was four days short of three years on the button since he combined with Paddy Ryder to skewer the Richo era rebuild following a calamitous 59 seconds of football (only three weeks after the Maddie’s Match peak). I think about that, I think about Membrey’s celebration in front of the Port fans as he put us 10 points up just a couple of minutes before. I think about the long and tired car trip home from a family event in Beaumaris back to Brunswick West later that night, still rattled, missing the turn onto CityLink and ending up on the Westgate, and having to go through Spotswood and arc all the way back with those two late goals in my head. This one wasn’t over until the siren had gone, and the goal umpires confirmed the final score.
There is something irrepressible about a team making a move during a match they aren’t expected to win. Momentum in footy expresses itself in many different ways, now more so than ever. Momentum is a storm. How do you weather that? How do you clear the skies and then bring down your own thunder? What does it look like for a St Kilda team to do this in 2020? Five goals in the last quarter – 5.0, to take us to the most accurate winning score of all time of 12.1 (pipping our own 18.2 against Essendon in 1994) – is what it looks like on paper. What actually took place was a wild mix of the recruiting moves made in the off-season (the closest we’ve come to a 2000 post-season heist) and players developing in front of us each week.
Each was more fantastical than the last. Gresham’s snap was tailor-made for Gresham, and Hind was the one who pulled off the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it handball on his left from the marking contest. A stray Westhoff pass landed in the arms of Butler. Paddy Ryder’s pluck, pivot and dribble from his own marking contest from a tight angle was bettered only by the celebration. The circumstance wasn’t lost on me, but the Membrey celebration three years earlier just a few metres away was screaming at me. Not just yet.
Yet again, parallels between this game and that night in 2017 popped up. Membrey pulled off the most spectacular of goals to all but seal the game, nearly cartwheeling his way to a small place in St Kilda folklore. He didn’t even know he’d kicked it. We might have fleetingly suspected at most, and it was still only a staggered realisation of what had just happened for us at home, watching the replay, hearing the change in tone through the commentary box, hearing the ARC personnel describe what they were seeing, and then waiting for the system to officially confirm on the scoreboard it had actually seen what we’d seen. For one week, at least, these are our better stories written that we can enjoy and call on. And what sweeter icing than for the young, star tall forward, the St Kilda Messiah Complex Object Designate, wearing our greatest of all time’s number, to pull down a contested mark and kick the final goal? As Blake Acres lined up for goal on that night three years ago after the three-quarter time siren, we’d kicked 2.12, the height of an extended period of inaccuracy that had cost us so much. We’d now kicked 12.1. Josh Bruce and Tim Membrey and Luke Dunstan deserved better that night. Hunter Clark and Jack Steele and Zak Jones and Jack Billings and yes, Tim Membrey, got what they deserved on this night.
One week doesn’t wipe out 147 years, let along what happened a few rounds ago. The goodwill after wins over Richmond and Carlton were throttled on the Gold Coast against Fremantle in the Round 1 redux. Two of our three losses have come against the teams in 16th and 17th. The Swans, in 14th, are next. Whispers of a pandemic premiership are back. Garry says he can see us going all the way. “The Saints are real deal”, according to Gerard and Robbo.
Games like that of Saturday night’s forge new paths for a club. A young team and its players do things they haven’t done before. St Kilda is always prone to droughts and the bad kinds of streaks and feats. In the space of six days we won at a venue that we’d never won at before, and at which we’d racked up an average losing margin of around 49 points, beaten two teams we hadn’t beaten since a we did nine years ago, a fortnight apart. We’d only come up against and beaten the team sitting on the top of the ladder once in the past decade (but, where did that last time ultimately get us?). We’re fourth on the ladder, and are consistently fielding among the three or four youngest sides. St Kilda might slowly emerging as an example of what we hoped footy would present us in a period like this. I don’t know at what point we need to start worrying about not being at finals, or playing and winning on Channel 7 and having the shitty plastic cover version of the club song that no one asked for and sounds terrible played over the broadcast for everyone to hear. There’s not much we can take for granted at the moment. It can be really important to embrace small scratches of optimism. So, here it goes. Some good in the future, even if it is just within a game, is appearing.