Isn’t it a miracle

By Tom Briglia

Round 12, 2020
St Kilda 4.4, 7.5, 9.5, 10.8 (68)
Essendon 1.0, 2.0, 4.1, 5.3 (33)
Crowd: Some? at the Gabba on Sunday, August 16th at 3.35pm

Each time this 2020 team has been handed a loss, it has been quick to make amends. The Round 3 loss against Collingwood was an outlier until last Monday, when an upstart team was exposed by a team en route to establishing themselves as a genuine premiership contender.

Our four-day turnaround could offer some blame for the performance. Maybe the young guys were finding it hard to get back up, having never been acclimatised to the paces of an AFL season, let alone this one. But Geelong had their own four-day break and on Friday knocked off the top team on the ladder. Like our own, the Bombers had gone all the way with Gold Coast before having to quickly butter up for a Sunday afternoon against St Kilda at *checks notes* the Gabba.

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We might be only be 12 rounds in to this era but there is an established formula. Start strong, peak with a moment of Butler magic, maybe or maybe not weather a comeback during the third quarter.

The dominance in the first quarter looked borderline arrogant by early in third. Max King appearing on the field in a St Kilda jumper still remains a weird luxury (as does anyone that is genuinely good or genuinely promising, but boy oh boy). He kicked the first two but then entered Nick Riewoldt areas by taking a(nother) strong mark at the top of the goal square, playing on and getting caught, whilst also entering the Paddy McCartin 2 Goal Limit areas that he’s struggled to stray outside of himself. As soon as it happened it looked like that would be the momentum shift. All that was missing was Gerard Healy and Brad Johnson coaxing fate and still saying that this would be the day he’d kick six.

Even this year a quarter-time lead of 22 points isn’t overly sizeable. Not for us anyway. We’d done very well to bottle up Essendon when they had the play – which ended up feeling like most of the second term – and forcing them to repeatedly go short and wide, and then drive an inoffensive long ball forward. Fortuitous moments had gone our way to keep the scoreboard pressure on. Josh Battle was mopping up in most places and found himself in the right spot from a wayward Begley kick across goal. Membrey milked everything he could from the kind of holding the man free kick only paid in contests close to goal. Otherwise, it looked like we were happy to just shut down the Bombers and not expend too much energy the other way until a real break was made. Coffield and Battle and Howard and Wilkie and Clark seemed to be holding up fine (even without Carlisle, although given some of the entries I think I might have taken one).

Fantastically and also ominously, Butler popped up for a classy running goal to finish up some neat teamwork. Butler has strayed in Brent Guerra 2004 territory after the footy world fawned over his Far Too Professional and Slick for a St Kilda Jumper performance against Gold Coast. A double-page spread on Guerra in The Age by Robert Walls followed a demolition of West Coast in Round 9 in which he’s kicked seven goals, taking his season total to 22.2 from six games. He kicked 7.3 for the rest of the year. Everyone was down against the Cats last Monday, granted, but Butler had been near unsighted for nearly six quarters and I was, uh, starting to worry. Good news for fans of St Kilda’s very-short-term future arrived, terrible news for omen watchers and Anxiety Havers. A free kick to Long at half-back broke the flow of play and a slick transition featuring Geary (twice, including a dropped mark), Jones (twice, and who again showed how important he is to this team) and Bytel (the best 0 kicks 13 handballs game you’ll ever see), and Butler from the BUTLER BUTLER BUTLER position took the margin out to 47 to 6.

There was only one way it would go from there. Cue three goals to Essendon at half-time, cue the sinking feeling of another potential Max King breakout game being scuppered and Essendon fans en masse talking like they’d personally taken the field to see to it St Kilda stayed in its place. Who would be more appropriate than the Bombers to join North and Fremantle in the Comeback Club this year? We weren’t going to be able to gloat that King had taken a bag. Begley kicked one just before half-time to turn things and we couldn’t even go to half-time with the opposition at a novelty score of 1.0.

There is no opposition team to St Kilda quite the Bombers. A menacing red and black jumper (good luck catching anything that happened out there with that jumper match-up, though), the (equal-)most premierships, expectations, arrogance, aggression and confidence. St Kilda has been a consistent source of good times and laughter for them, even in times during which we’ve been up and they’ve been down. Nothing terrifies me more than the prospect of a roaring Essendon crowd and slick Bombers side bearing down on a vulnerable St Kilda team in a close game, and Essendon has played in a suspicious amount of close games this year. Saad and Townsend kicked the first two goals of the third quarter. The ball was moving around. We’d wasted another chance to put the foot on the throat. Was 41 going to join 31 and 37?

Weathering the storm against the Swans and seeing the team over the Suns was brought to you by players producing big moments when it was required of them. Leadership has been an awkward spot for this team, although in a Phantom GT Rotational Policy that does put a good kind of pressure on players to take responsibility between weeks and within games. Who stands up this week? What does leadership look like? This week it was Paddy fucking Ryder, wearing a fucking St Kilda jumper. I remember in Round 8 of 2010 a young ruckman/forward in the Essendon jumper athletically kicking three goals to back up the Bombers’ ending of our 2009 run, and taking our redemption-attempt season from 4-0 to 5-3 with a very heavy sinking feeling. I also remember him playing a pivotal role in the Robbie Gray goal at the Adelaide Oval in 2017 that sank the Richo era. He always seemed just a little too fantastic for St Kilda. This is a different time indeed. First, a vital mark from high kick out of defence, which meant the ball could move to our forward half for a chance slow the game to a stop and ice any Essendon movement. But the Bombers were the momentum incumbents and we’d gone arse-up from this position before. The ball was forced out wide again and from a hurried Parish kick, and Paddy he took another tall mark, almost in the same position. The ball found its way into attack via Hill taking on the game and a good grab by Membrey. It never got out. Membrey’s weighted kick was too cute and the ball came back but from the throw-in, Paddy roved his own ruck contest and won the clearance, driving the ball forward again, and from another pressured rebound took the intercept mark. On an afternoon when goalkicking accuracy wasn’t quite what it has been on better days – we didn’t have shots close to goal on tap this week – his kick from 50 metres sailed through.

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King eventually got his third goal in the final minutes, also throwing in a low pick-up, spin and clean hands on the wing during the last quarter. (Many and profuse thanks to the Gabba for playing The Fable Singers versions of all club songs.) The storm had been weathered, and the margin had only ever been cut back to 23 points. It’s rare that a St Kilda team genuinely gets hold of any Bombers outfit. Never without a struggle or a scare. Even in victory we just want a quick and quiet exit. We’re not after any trouble. Maybe it was all a lot louder in our heads, i.e. maybe it was a lot louder in my head. Maybe I should tap into this breathing business the team was running with again, this after a late arrival to the ground. There may be a pandemic, but it’s almost a relief that being stuck in traffic and St Kilda playing against Essendon can still be stressful.