Seen it on the news

By Tom Briglia

Round 18, 2020
St Kilda 3.3, 5.5, 8.9. 12.10 (82)
GWS Giants 1.5, 3.8, 3.10, 3.12 (30)
Crowd: Some humans at the Gabba, Friday, September 18th at 7.50pm

This time of year is usually the beginning of Grand Final Week. Enjoy the weather. Relax. The hard work is done. Reminisce during a week that is often about reflection and places in history, made or to be made. During the eight days between the loss to West Coast and Friday night, my body clock (calendar) said to me, well, St Kilda isn’t usually playing at this time of year, and it would therefore follow that we would lose to GWS, Melbourne would make up the necessary margin against a floundering Essendon, before the in-form Bulldogs disposed of Fremantle on the Sunday night. A magic three-step process over three magical Melbourne spring days.

You’d be right to have been worried about a GWS loss and Melbourne catapulting themselves in with a hefty win over the Bombers. We’d done a similar job on Essendon in the final home and away game of 2008 to fly into fourth after a string of other results that weekend went our way. There had hardly been – if at all – a sustained period within a game since the Gold Coast win during which we’d had the game on our terms, or were at our most efficient, or at our boldest and best. During which we played how we want to play. With every uncertain movement forward, with every high dump kick into the forward line and rushed shot at goal from an unfamiliarly wide angle, those secret thoughts of “What if?” gave way bit by bit to missing the finals – including the mechanisms required over the last round – feeling right and normal. But fuck a duck, it’s a long way from second on the ladder after Round 10.

The games had become smaller. The upside was less remarkable. From a top of the table challenge on a Monday night against Geelong, to a top four battle against Brisbane, to an unimpressive finals-critical game against Melbourne, a finals confirmation test blown against the Eagles, and now, judging on both the Giants’ and our own recent form, a finals participation award on the line. GWS weren’t the shadows formed over the MCG by their 2019 selves 50 weeks and six days earlier. We hadn’t been convincing since getting light-headed while sitting up at second on the ladder. Who wants to draw out this long year even further?

*** 

For all the ongoing Max King missed shots and the threat of a Jeremy Cameron return to form, the game’s setting never really deviated from the start. The Giants’ ball movement was uneasy, and their goal kicking was our Richo-era levels of poor. Another un-St Kilda-like tactical in-game win, this time Josh Battle blanketing Haynes, took away one of their weapons to go with Battle’s incredibly slick goal on the run from 50, the kind that good players in good teams in important games pull off. Lonie fell into a mark while in the hands of a trainer, and after a difficult last quarter in which he spurned a potentially match-sealing chance and then had ignominy of giving away a free kick in front of goal on the siren and having the Eagles players pile on in front of him, Brad Hill took the tight set shot kick and made no mistake.

We’d forgotten what it’s like to ask the question, “What if we win?” Our history doesn’t encourage it. Since 2011 we haven’t really been in a position to ask it at all. In a game between two teams playing in which they both must win, there is something irrepressible about a team making a match-defining break in the third quarter. This time, it was us.

Paddy Ryder back-heeled a hit-out to set up Marshall for a (questionable) mark in front of goal, and kick starting his huge third quarter. Turnovers across the middle third of the ground became expected. The confidence of a steady St Kilda hand about to appear on-screen returned. Howard got caught in a manic forward-50 sprint to the goal line for the second consecutive week and won. Coniglio was swamped near goal and caught holding the ball. Clark confidently wheeled around going forward and Butler tapping onto Lonie running into goal. Billings pinched the ball off hands at the top of the goal square. Max King broke his run of behinds. Ryder casually and confidently took the advantage off the ground after a huge Lonie tackle. Jack Steele had minted three Brownlow votes, the Trevor Barker Award and possibly the captaincy with another huge performance and a great long-range snap goal, and capped it off with a second from close range in the final minutes. His celebration was big and brash; the kind the players introduced at the beginning of 2019. Now they meant something. They were being used in a must-win game, and these players were wearing St Kilda jumpers.

***

The scenes at the end of the game were of celebration, and were as big as you could get in a time in which no one apart from the players, coaches and core staff are allowed in the rooms. They were as much a celebration of creating a new period for the club as relief that we are no longer in the shadow of the GT and Ross eras. A new coach, a return to Moorabbin christened at the beginning of the year, the weight of expectation and responsibility on different players, almost all of them young or new recruits.

Making the finals doesn’t mean the past is wiped and all sins are forgiven, of course. Brett Ratten quickly and rightly went out of his way to say this is not the destination. Part of why we celebrate is because we do very much remember and still feel the weight of Grand Finals lost and drawn, of promises all but made, but never kept. This is a long game. As the 10-year anniversary of the Draw ticks by this week, we may finally be starting to live a real chance to make some of those demons go away (or least find some new ones). 

St Kilda supporters are used to barnstorming entries into finals series and nearly-fairytale runs. A fourth-place finish in 1991. The dizzying 1997 run. The peak of the GT era began with a pre-season premiership and 10 wins to start the year, and a one goal loss in an all-timer Preliminary Final. Ross Lyon’s maiden finals appearance followed a pre-season premiership, fourth-place and another Preliminary Final. These haven’t been done in half-measures. Chances are this won’t quite be those. There is something a litlte terrifying about sustained mid-table mediocrity, as Demonblog so excellently describes it. We hope that the 2020 appearance in the finals, however long or short, is a Bulldogs 2015 Elimination Final appearance, or a Hawthorn’s 2007 Semi-Final foray, or Sydney’s Semi-Finals of 2010 and 2011, rather than the fleeting Essendon 2009, 2011, 2014 and 2019 or Carlton’s 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013 appearance that yielded Semi Final losses for an entire generation of players at best.

Front page on the Herald Sun, owning the back page of The Age, Off the Bench opening with the St Kilda song (The Fable Singers’ version, of course), goodwill overflowing across the media and football world for Brett Ratten over the entire weekend. Double-page spread on celebrity Saints fans talking about St Kilda returning to the finals. What life was like when the Saints won a premiership. St Kilda, for a few days at least, is fashionable again.

***

I spent the last quarter very quietly enjoying what was happening. A St Kilda team had handsomely risen to a challenge with the weight of history against it. A team that had been rightly criticised for not putting the foot to the throat of its opponents smothered last year’s Grand Finalists.

There was quiet relief. The spectre of the GT and Ross eras will remain, but we hail a new era. Quiet sadness, too. Footy has almost become an island in the pandemic. But not quite entirely. For all the bluster at the beginning of the season around what footy meant to people during wars the Great Depression, we were only going to become attached to this season as a journey and narrative developed. Empty seats and novelty venues have reinforced the extraordinary nature of the situation. Moments like Friday were what we’d seek throughout a year, perhaps a decade. Sharing the same space and atmosphere with people close to us. But they did it all on TV! They didn’t need us to be there! This is a whole lot of things co-existing. We were different people nine years ago, and we were different people nine months ago. If a pandemic wasn’t enough, yes, this is a different time.