Jack Billings Posts

Troubling use of the air conveyance

Round 9, 2018
St Kilda  3.5, 7.7, 9.9, 10.12 (72)
Collingwood 3.3, 7.6, 14.7, 15.10 (100)
Crowd: 33,994 at Etihad Stadium, Saturday, May 19th at 7.20pm

Script writers couldn’t have done it any better: one Rex Hunt was calling his final game on 3AW on Saturday night for St Kilda versus Collingwood. Rex has always been one to embellish and underline the weird, wonderful and pitiful in the game, and boy did he have some material to work with on Saturday night.

I believe he described people “playing chess at Pentridge” as having more fun than watching this game.

Having been there myself, yes it was darn ugly at times; and again highlighted the Saints plight. St Kilda continues to self sabotage it’s season via a thousand cuts in the form of woeful skills, spurned opportunities and half-baked contests.

Yet this was all set in motion at the selection table. Carlisle would be missing (concussion), McCartin wouldn’t be returning yet, Acres groin was worse than the original soreness diagnosis and so on, and so forth. So, to recap: that’s the runaway leader in the Trevor Barker Medal right now, the other bookend of the side and the Media’s selected darling all consigned to the medical room. And the injury list already had some noteworthy names mind you: Long, Gilbert, Bruce and medical room Gold Platinum Ultimate Elite member Nathan Freeman. In a nutshell, this was to be the weakest, most vulnerable Saints 22 put on the park in probably 3 years. 5 players with 10 games or less in experience, including newly minted debutant Bailey Rice.

And yet that didn’t stop them being ahead at the main break at Corporate Stadium.

Lonie and Newnes were spearheading a re-jigged, makeshift forward line – alongside Rohan Marshall. Little Jack kicked the first two – yet was a missing person thereafter – whilst Newnes finished the night with 7 shots on goal (4 converted).

Let me repeat that: Lonie and Newnes – alongside Marshall in his 6th game – spearheaded a the forward line. Lonie and Newnes. Welcome to 2018. Welcome to the End of The Road to 2018.

That’s not to give the players an out as such, and to be fair Newnes took the forward challenge head on. He was sharp in front of goal and made the most of a lot of one-on-one opportunities to notch up 4 majors. Up the other end Jimmy Webster was at his swashbuckling, decisive best and had ample help from the slick Hunter Clark and the zealous – yet naive – Coffield and debutant Bailey Rice. Dare I say it, the rearguard looked fluid and precise for stretches, particularly through the first half; even Nathan Brown was having a throwback performance, showing a steeliness that seemed to have pass him by. Yes they were aided by the fact that the Pies were sticking to their one tall forward structure, but for long periods they not only stood firm but also initiated a lot of great transition play for the side.

In the first half in particular, the makeshift nature of St Kilda’s forward setup seemed to almost force the players to lower their eyes and attempt to pick out realistic options, rather than blaze away to points on the oval that had been burnt into their retinas via numerous whiteboard sessions. Marshall epitomized this when he picked out Newnes with a lovely 20 meter pass in the first quarter; a complete departure from the panicked, crazed nature of our typical forays forward. And to go with this, Gresham and the reinstated Sinclair had the midfield humming with a bit more pizazz and verve. A team that was coming off of totals of 9.13 and 8.11 in it’s last two games, all of a sudden was chirping along with 7.7 at half time.

Unfortunately, the list of games in 2018 when the Saints had been able to sustain four quarters of effort and intensity is this: . And so when the game was opened up, and was played on more one-on-one terms in the second half, Collingwood seemed so much more at home. The Pies seemed to relish the extra running required; it cajoled them to life. The likes of Varcoe, Wells, Stephenson, Phillips et al had clear air to run into more often and they lapped it up like a dog hanging it’s head out the window. Suddenly, the Saints defenders were on the their heels on the regular.

To make matters much worse, Nathan Brown went off with a knee injury in the third term and subsequent the shuffling of the deck only accentuated the frayed nature with which the Saints tried to move the ball. With Marshall having been deployed to defence, the much needed escape valve ‘down the line’ was not there for the defenders, and so the Saints kept trying to play that bit faster, which seemed to buoy the Pies further.

That third term proved to be decisive. Frayed structure or not, Jordan De Goey was the biggest thorn in Richo’s side. The power, straight line speed and incisiveness was all on display and he again underscored what hot property he will be this off-season. He was pivotal in the Pies’ surging seven goal third quarter – to go with the 3 snags he snagged in the second term. Despite nimble backs in the ranks, Richo’s men had no answer for him. All of Coffield, Rice, Geary, and Webster only succeeded in providing life size training cones for him.

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Like I mentioned earlier, the state of the 22 is vulnerable to put it nicely right now. Granted, this is accentuated by the team’s collective confidence being lower than a snakes belly. Nine rounds in, and blind Freddy can tell you that the anointed Next Generation aren’t ready to shoulder the weight of leading The Club forward. The plight of the side has been deepened and accelerated though by the amount of inexperienced players that are a regular part of the team this year too.

Funnily enough, those newbies were have provided some of our brighter moments in the last couple of weeks. Hunter Clark played his best game for the Club, whilst second gamer Ed Phillips continued where he left off against the Dockers the week before. Bailey Rice certainly looked confident enough; Coffield had a tough night defensively yet still was a clear thinker with ball in hand. The youngest bunch are doing their bit; Clark and Coffield in particular allow us to dare to believe that we’re not a Bermuda Triangle for budding stars.

At the other end of the spectrum, the side continues to be plagued by a raft of players that are non-contributing zeroes right now. Billings, Armo, and Savage are the ones that immediately come to mind. Mav too had a stinker. Lonie only cemented his burgeoning reputation as a player almost too good for the VFL and nothing more. In this day and age of footy, it’s very difficult to carry such a number of these players.

Billings has been a repeat offender this year. The coaching staff’s latest ploy was to have him sit slightly behind the ball as a loose man for most of the first half. 21 disposals was his final tally for the day, yet it’s the stuff in between all his touches that seems to irk me most. Firstly, he looks completely off the pace fitness and intensity wise. It’s one thing to be out of form, but intensity, desire, supreme competitiveness – these are things that can’t waiver; they’re must haves. And they’re something that should have been pummeled into Billings by now.

As I may have mentioned before, I believe it’s oh so wrong for the coaching staff to repeatedly try and massage the structure of the side to get Billings some cheap touches. Nine games in and he’s played in every part of the ground. This proclivity to throw him around seems like a cop-out; Billings’ lack of work rate and intensity is going to undermine him wherever he’s plonked.

The boy they call Latte, of course, isn’t the only one who should be in the gun. One thing that’s quite common amongst all our Next Generation players is that generally speaking they’re soft. Acres, Billings and Gresham don’t strike fear into any opponent. All like to get on the end of the play rather than generate it themselves. And most would agree that they would look a million bucks in a well-coached, well-oiled system. That’s all well and good, but it speaks to the type of players and personalities that they’re not.

One player who over the journey has indeed carried himself as an alpha-dog is David Armitage. Armo had 8 disposals, five of which were clangers. Enough said. Sav too had 5 clangers – and he’s meant to be our version of Silk.

*****

What’s more worrying to me than the on-field results right now, is the kind of comments that are coming out of from the people that matter within the Club’s hierarchy right now. President Peter Summers and Simon Lethlean, have both in their own roundabout ways come out in the recent days to say that The Club:

  • Did not overestimate the list
  • Thinks the list is more than capable but is underperforming
  • Wholeheartedly believes that Alan Richardson is the man for the coaching job
  • Believes that the beginning to this season on-field has been completely unacceptable

Now. At least two of these points are completely wrong and/or at odds with the other points. I’ll let you connect those dots for yourself.

Though, while I’m at it, let me hone in on one thing. Why did the Club’s hierarchy believe we were so capable of reaching the finals this year? Apparently, it’s largely because of our victories over Richmond and GWS in 2017. Don’t get me wrong, they were enjoyable results. The Giants one did carry some weight, as not only was it a scalp, but it was under the bright lights of Friday night and it helped propel us forward towards the halfway point of the year. The Richmond result, was not a glitch, but anyone who saw the game objectively would acknowledge that the Tigers were not themselves that day. Indeed, Richo mentioned it clearly in the post-match press conference.

All that aside, it is utterly baffling and worrying that The Club can isolate two games and base their whole opinion of a list’s maturity, capabilities and readiness off of two games in a vacuum. That’s utterly absurd and speaks to a complete lack of insight and preparedness to judge the list as a whole. Were they not there to see the team get bent over by the other Grand Finalist again? Did they have memory loss regarding another systematic thumping at the hands of the Swans? Did they completely ignore the way the team folded like a pack of cards when the season was on the line against the Demons?

The examples of when the side has wilted in the face of any noteworthy pressure and intensity is extensive. We’ve seen the Saints lack of skill under pressure all through 2018. Yet it’s not a cold that the team just caught this winter; those symptoms have been at the surface for a good couple of years prior.

 

 

Thin line from here to here

AFLX 2018

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It’s not an ordinary pre-season when Jack Billings becomes the AFL’s poster boy for anything, really.

The prologue to the post-Nick Riewoldt era also featured a helicopter for some reason, proof of Ed Phillips’ existence, “Timmy and Jimmy”, “Saint Kilda’s Paddy McCartin” in the Financial Review, and something that wasn’t actually Australian Rules football.

Billings found himself alongside North Melbourne’s Shaun Atley as the faces of said-sport, which was described more often as a “concept” than anything else. Outside of the St Kilda fanbase, Latte’s meteoric rise from “improving young player set to fulfill his potential” to “AFL (well, X) headline act” was probably baffling to the wider footy community, who would still primarily identify him as The Guy We Picked Instead of Bont.

He looked and sounded like he’d spent most of the pre-season doing media training. He’s literally toned up, a far cry from the shy 18-year old with outdated hair we drafted in 2013 (or even the shy 22-year old with outdated we played in 2017).The announcement of Geary as captain (again) and the leadership group was baffling, with extra ignominy added for the video production, sunglasses and stage management of having him and Roberton, Ross, Newnes and Stuv all stepping off and walking across the Moorabbin turf to waiting media/St Kilda social media staff.

Are we back to the 1980s and the boorish days private ownership and the Swanettes? I was looking for the branding tie-in with the chopper. It would have made more sense if they did the reveal by the leaders one-by-one bursting out of the tubs of Dare bottles they hand out before games.

Josh Bruce, Mav and Armo were cut from the leadership group, which was probably a surprise to no-one. Armo has entered Hamill 2007 territory, while the confirmation by Richo that Mav struggled with “a very bad ankle injury” through 2017 was probably an indictment on the coaching and medical stuff as much as Mav himself. Mav’s slimmed down from 91kg to 83kg apparently. Josh Bruce, well…yeah. I (and a few others would have) said last year that if everyone showed the effort he did last year we’d be a much better team, but he’s a long way off being a “leader” given his ultimate output on the field, and that he lacks the vocal and organisational aggression. Let’s hope Ben Dixon’s goalkicking nous extends to shots from general play, too.

So we’re left with Dylan Roberton, who theoretically could actually get better this year after starting his career as another nondescript guy at the Dockers with a slightly odd name. Then there’s Seb Ross, our raining best and fairest but not necessarily the most outwardly vocal or physical guy; Jack Newnes, who has an excellent head for the marketers to work with and is Mr. Consistent, but I’m Mr. Consistent with these posts dragging on too much. Jack Steven still comes across as a 16 year-old boy. As Dad said, “it’s missing a certain factor”, let alone X.

The publicity stunt worked in so far as it earned the lead article on the back page of The Age. In true St Kilda fashion, we followed that up with the revelation that we’d been given $20.6 million from the AFL last year, which most of may or may not have been directed to Jack Billings’ media training.

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Billings wouldn’t even make it to the shitshow that was AFLX . The club canning the intra-club event in lieu of “match simulation” the week before suggested that two bruise-free glorified training drills was enough to cover it, and Latte apparently pulled up with “hamstring soreness”.

The monotony of the gameplay proved the “concept” to be a different sport entirely. It would actually look more interesting where it is intended for use – at the junior level (i.e. the AFL talking about difficulty accessing grounds in Sydney), and internationally – levels and locations where professional Australian Rules football players aren’t found.

Despite us becoming the first club to ever get bottled up in a game of AFLX, broadly speaking this was circle-work played by people that are too highly skilled for any human element or drama to be allowed in, not to mention the short span of the game. Goals were meaningless; not only was there no chance to celebrate, there was no point because the other team was always within two kicks of scoring, and without needing to be in their half of the field, either. Games of footy turn because someone puts their body on the line, a whole team lifts and answers the call of something bigger than themselves. They will themselves to a pack, to take the hit after running harder than would seems physically feasible in that moment. There was no chance for that, and there was no real chance for a game to turn on willpower, or wanting to lift 21 teammates with something that might not be in your own best interest. And certainly no reason for it. Three “Grand Finals” over three nights; how dare they even try. One end of the turf is reserved for kids sitting on bean bags for fuck’s sake.

Actually being at the ground was dour. Fucking music and literally flashing lights and smoke machines going off every time someone kicked a Zooper goal didn’t need to prompt the question of “why are we here?”. I went because I’m tied to the St Kilda football club and it needed a $20.6 million hand-out last year. I left the ground wondering if Zooper Doopers will ever be mentioned as much in the space of 72 hours again. What if they didn’t sponsor the “concept”? I can only guess the AFL approached them because the brand name sounds like “super”. You can’t really call them JLT goals; I don’t think James Brayshaw screaming that a player can “GO JLT” quite works. But it didn’t quite work or matter once Mark Blicavs was having a ZOOPER shot literally within five seconds of the “tip-off” with the ill-fated silver ball. The at-the-ground commentator that came through like a racecaller on the Thursday night broadcast was just extra noise at the ground; they’d obviously been told to not be too excitable. Just a little excitable. They had bean bags and 40-metre arcs for that.

What to take from a St Kilda perspective? That’s why I write this blog, but this concept lends itself to nothing in particular for form guide purposes. In 40 minutes of footy – no time-on – I remember Coffield and Hunter Clark both putting on some big tackles. I remember Dunstan looking like he was relishing being captain in the first game; Jack Lonie was busier in several minutes with some nice goals and an assist than he would be over 120; and Ben Long kicked a nice goal before going for the OPEN ZOOPER at the beginning of the second half and missing. Seeing Ray Connellan in a St Kilda jumper was nice, seeing Ed Phillips in human anywhere was interesting. Rowan Marshall was in turbo Rhys Stanley mode, making every contest with ease and looming as something of a behemoth that couldn’t take most marks with the first grab. The first level of Corporate Dome brought in was nice, but as an old friend once said to me, “biscuits are nice”.

The way Gil spoke on the Thursday night broadcast about potential for international teams and competitions played in the future, IPL/Big Bash style, and across different leagues was just as terrifying as the experience I had at the ground. Is the AFL trying to create a future where this is what the game ultimately represents? Is this what they want to the game day experience to be? Did they ever ask anyone this? This is the beginning; they’re not ditching this anytime soon. The idea overall isn’t new, but they gave themselves to turbo-charge a lot of things they’ve been doing on regular match days. I was looking at a game in which the focus is forced towards multiple trophies being handed out to placate everyone – who knows, maybe one of the three clubs you follow won one of them – which is played at all times of year, with more noise and default music than required anywhere, literally while you’re sitting in a beanbag. One thing the AFL has done incredibly well is keep winning a premiership and Grand Final Day as sacrosanct – it is all tied to the one season, with no players switching clubs halfway through; it is the last footy played for the year (in a country that general day-to-day life is heavily tied to calendar years); it is the only competition that matters; it is a life event for people. I’m here because one day I want to see a St Kilda premiership, and I don’t want to have waited a lifetime for some DJ to quickly blast a shitbox U2 song and fireworks to go off when the final siren goes as kids and corporates sitting on beanbags clap politely or get up and leave immediately because what does it matter? They paid for a ticket, they were vaguely entertained enough to maybe do it again some time, maybe for whatever bullshit competition with “retired stars” is happening next month, and that’s enough.

It was far, far too early in the season to be questioning these things.

And then there was one

Round 22
St Kilda 4.3, 8.14, 14.17, 18.19 (127)
North Melbourne 5.2, 6.3, 8.5, 12.6 (78)
Crowd: 29,126 at Etihad Stadium, Sunday, August 20th at 3.20pm

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It’s hard to write much about the game itself. It was probably the most accurate encapsulation of a rather odd season in one game – plenty of missed chances at goal, fluffed opportunities from the goal square, a demonstration of the gap between ourselves and the lower teams, a lot of Seb Ross and Jack Steven, some Hotline and Gresham, the looming presence of My Favourite Hair in the AFL and his future, not much Mav Weller, absolutely no David Armitage.

There was also eight marks taken and two goals kicked by said My Favourite Hair. After almost a full season of chatter about whether or not he’d play on in 2018, a few weeks ago we officially got our answer. Sunday was the kind of day that seemed unfathomable for so long, and for how sad his lap of honour in front of a St Kilda home crowd was, this Sunday afternoon will be very difficult.

All of a sudden this has become more real. Given the ridiculous moments and lapses that underpinned the Port Adelaide and Melbourne matches in recent weeks we now have an almost certain end date. This was a dry run for Sunday, but even then there plenty of tears around the stadium after the match.

It was a borderline dead rubber and realistically was played in that manner. Plenty of open play, a lack of real urgency that you can sense when a season is still to be played for, and some comical errors. The Acres to Sinclair to Dunstan slapstick was the headline act; the Gilbert banana goal overturned for a throw to him, and then Gresham’s sneaky pounce goal from the resulting North free kick was a close second.

The lack of urgency was something you could sense from the start. North’s win-loss record belies how competitive they’ve been this year and after the disappointment of the previous week I wasn’t going to be surprised if we were a little flat and caught off our guard. If Brown hadn’t have hit the post they would have had six goals for the opening term, including two goals in last 26 seconds.

The match day entertainment again fell a little flat on quarter time owing again to some, uh, Jake Carlisle-based issues after all the faux-drama of his pre-match. The club obviously doesn’t and shouldn’t take into account scuffles on flowing beyond the siren of any quarter, but for the second time this year Emma Davenport has been put into the position that she has to bring a family friendly and/or feel-good segment to the crowd on the big-screen when everyone’s wound up (or whatever the equivalent was for Sunday) and absolutely not in the headspace. It happened on three-quarter time of the infamous Blues match earlier this year when she had to bring us “Saints in the Seats” after Murphy had a crack at Jake Carlisle who was lying on the ground after being smacked in the nuts, following everything else that had been yelled about between players during the game. The mood was heated, Carlton had frustrated the Saints (except for Hotline) all day, and I ended up screaming at him that he was a “fucking dog” and “weak prick” immediately afterwards (with a small child directly in front of our membership seats), and sending out an ill-informed tweet that I deleted later. Carlisle was involved this time too, but much more actively in that moment. He managed to get reported twice after almost not making it out there. His back seized up in the pre, pre-match warm-up and it looked like Brandon White was going to come in (he shouldn’t have come out in the first place, really). But the big screen cut to the rooms just minutes before they ran out and he was doing whatever handball drill they were doing, and then bizarrely he ran out by himself – again, wonderfully, in the long-sleeves – for a quick kick-to-kick with a trainer before running back in, and then running back out with everyone else. He was still reaching for his back as the team came out from the banner and was clearly in no shape to do the bullshit mini-sprint drill. Whilst whatever jab he’d probably received eventually kicked in, he wasn’t able to take Brown, so Brown was on Brown, and Brown would have had a much dirtier day if Brown had kicked straight, because Brown just couldn’t keep up with him on the lead nor compete with Brown in the air. For as long as North were taking it up to our mids, Brown was looming as a key player and it was looking like the Coleman Medal might have “Brown” etched on it soon. Brown had to stay on Brown for the entire match. That’s about how many times I heard that line used during the game from someone in the crowd, to go with the constant high decibels emitted from the mouthy kids that sit directly behind my eardrums.

Billings and Gresham’s polished finishes in the opening term at the Riewoldt end be damned, we were going to send Roo off from the stadium the best way this team knows how – by missing goal after goal after goal. The aforementioned Blacres/Sinclair/Dunstan job was obviously the highlight, which shows just how bad it was given it was competing for a spot amongst the plethora of entries in a season-reflecting, season-beating 4.11 for the quarter. That included 15 consecutive forward-50 entries for the return of 3.11, and keep in mind Sav kicked a goal from a set shot after the siren.

Josh Bruce kicked things off of course; Jack Steven ensured he still incredibly has not kicked a goal from a set shot this season, Dunstan missed a set shot, Billings missed a snap around the corner from deep in the pocket, Blacres and Seb missed too.

Jack Steven picked up 40 touches but in a year that he obviously struggled for attention I think we’re mostly over what his ceiling is. His kicking can be haphazard and he’s kicked 6.15 this year. He’s obviously not the only one afflicted with the team-wide illness and perhaps that’s something that might be contained to 2017, but that’s still what he’s bringing to the team right now. A particularly soft effort in front of the members in the last quarter had me rushing to “Nick Riewoldt would never do that” thoughts, but with the improvement of Seb Ross, the form of Luke Dunstan in the five games since returning to the team and the development left in Jack Steele and Blacres it’s the depth and to a certain point the versatility that those on the list currently will bring. Armo may or may not exist anymore, Gresham and Billings are better suited to the “high half-forward” roles, Sinclair and Newnes are different types of wings, Koby Stevens has probably shown his best (not such a bad thing) and Freeman may not even get out there. The list is still incomplete, which is right now is an exciting thing.

The real X-factor in that list is Blacres, who brings speed, acceleration and size in a way the others don’t to what still looks like a blue-collar side. He’s one of the few guys in the team that are willing, let alone able, to break through traffic and create new angles on the line of play, as well as releasing and bringing other teammates into the game and affecting movement in the process. His disposal still needs work and he still comes across as an airhead at times, but I still think his progression and style is a this-decade version of BJ. He’s also got the size to go into attack and play as a lead-up forward, and his set shot kicking is much better than most – his goal from the pocket was very, very nice. Maybe the calamity that was the Port finish is slowly fading (maybe), and Blacres played arguably the key role in that. So when he kicks into the man on the mark just outside the 50 metre arc late in the game and then runs over and pushes the guy over, gets the ball and gives it off to a player running past (Sav) for a goal, that shows development and certainly makes us a feel a little better (for the moment).

Blue-collar tag perhaps, but as Billings, Gresham, Sinclair and Acres all become more prominent those small spikes of class are showing through. Billings’ and Gresham’s goals were a tease for what this year could have brought more often but also for the wait over the off-season ahead, and does anyone dare say that Sinclair’s finesse in dancing around his opponent and kicking that third quarter goal was…Harvey-esque? It’s much easier to bring in the comparison given he’s wearing 35, but even his hair is getting gradually suspiciously bigger as he gets better.

One thing that might have popped out of Richo’s post-match press conference was how unequivocal Richo was about Gilbert playing next year. Brandon White was dropped which was strange, but who else do you take out when you’ve gotta play Nick? He’s obviously not in danger or losing a place on the list or anything, and he’s one of the most promising guys we’ve drafted over the past decade going on their first handful of games. But next year will be different, and if surely we couldn’t play both Joey and Gilbert the entire year, although that’s more of a Joey conversation than Gilbert conversation. Gilbert has shown more intent than many of his teammates throughout the year, and no one would deny him that. If anything his game has actually improved, but is that at the cost (potentially) of developing White and D-Mac and Rice? Will there be enough improvement from the younger guys across the rest of the team that would justify playing a guy who’s turning 32 (albeit towards the end of the season – he just turned 31 last week) in the side?

That only 29,000 turned up is a blight on the wider St Kilda fanbase. I found it strange Richo and Jack Steven (i.e. the club) went out of their way to point out what a great turnout it was. The club has more than 42,000 members, and it was almost embarrassing when the crowd number went up on the screen. Not just that the number itself was low, but because looking around the ground fuck me if there was actually anywhere near 29,000 there. What else does it take to get Saints fans to turn up? It’s a beautiful day and the Corporate Dome still has a closed roof for our “comfort” (i.e. enhancement of match day garbage), but since that long ago time in which we were a competitive side, we’ve gone from not turning up at the open MCG under any circumstances to not turning up to an historical home match with all components of a TV studio.

Conversely, I’ve really started challenging what I expect and should want to get from this football club for a host of reasons. Its incompetence has an almost unblemished record of more than 14 decades to point to as a get-out clause for fans, who most recently got to see the club piss away more than a decade despite having the biggest non-AFL gifted armoury of top draft picks. But this is the legacy of this particular one individual that the club – which has had to celebrate individuals in lieu of its own success – will need build on if it wants find the promised land. Turn up.

The sadness of the moment post-match probably caught a lot of people off-guard. Yes, this had definitely become a real thing. It was hard to not tear up (if you hadn’t already) as Roo ran the final lap in front of the home fans. The future might be a very uncertain place without him, and for as long as he was around there was a link to the teams of 2004-05 and those that came so close to a premiership. For as long as he was around those heights seemed maybe not so far away. Once he’s gone we’re going to be looking to a lot of difference faces and a lot of different people. There might be an element of fear in that for supporters. I certainly feel it. I certainly shed a few tears as I crossed the Bourke Street bridge and headed for the tram. This is an event for St Kilda, and for St Kilda supporters.

Barring the kind of miracle in the final round of 2008 that gave us a slim chance of a premiership for Sir Robert (of course it didn’t eventuate), this Sunday will be the last time Saint Nick runs out in a St Kilda jumper. Embrace it, enjoy it, appreciate it.

Hour after hour

Round 21, 2017
Melbourne 6.3, 9.6, 10.9, 14.12 (96)
St Kilda 1.1, 4.4, 8.11, 10.12 (72)
Crowd: 53,115 at the MCG, Sunday, August 13th at 1.10pm

Early this year Richo said development for this team in 2017 might not necessarily be reflected in a better win-loss ratio than 2016. Some key elements the group needed to improve on included consistency, the gap between best and our worst, and performances on the road in particular.

It seems like we’re forever playing whack-a-mole at Saints for problems (i.e. excuses), whether it’s over an extended period or on a certain day. Too many injuries throughout 2004, 2005 and 2006, adjusting to a new coach in 2007 and 2008, can’t kick straight on Grand Final Day in 2009. And so on.

But when we look at the record books (i.e. AFL Tables, FootyWire, etc.), they will show that for much of this season our own worst enemy was ourselves. For as long as football is played, sure, goalkicking will remain something of an issue. Somewhere between the insane pressure of being out on the ground and in the game, and having to get your body up for another effort after a raised period of intensity and adrenalin in the moment preceding it, players will struggle to get everything right. How much is too much? Grand Final Day 2009 was too much, and this year was too much.

How fitting it was that our goalkicking proved to be a major undoing on the day that our season effectively ended, after months of frustration and post-match press conferences of Richo saying the players “are working on it”.

That’s not to take anything away from Melbourne, by the way. For most of the day they worked harder to provide numbers for each other in tight and across the ground, to provide movement, were simply cleaner with their ball use and for the most part took their chance. They were good enough to keep their heads when faced with giving away a 40-point lead in time-on of the second quarter, and keep attacking after the newly-haired Membrey put us within a goal early in the last quarter.

Even on our winning days this year, kicking straight would cost us percentage that right now is the exclamation point on our inferior win-loss record. Never mind kicking ourselves out of the West Coast game. Want a maiden win over the wooden spooners to be? Have 14.23. Dominant win over the Pies? Enjoy 9.15. We all laughed when Josh Bruce ran into goal and hit the post – we’d coasted to 19.16 and a 75-point win over a broken Hawthorn. Not only had we wrenched back our season, but were looking sure things for a top-couple pick in the draft.

A few months and 12.13, 12.17, 14.19, 12.17 again, 7.15, and 8.13 and Robbie Gray later, here we are. Josh Bruce missing very close shots at goal twice, shanking a big set shot and losing the ball from his bounce as he ran into goal in the last minutes was the Champs-Élysées stage of our relevance to the 2017 season.

We will bemoan giving away a hefty lead early yet again, but inaccuracy and its podium-placed teammate Kicking Into Attack again proved far too telling far again.

There was also the lack of DARE® Iced Coffee that has underpinned so many of our poor starts, but that might not have looked so bad but for some awful entries going forward. We’d already hit the Down the Line button within the opening minutes but a few times we caught them on the break, only for Weller, Sav, Ross and Dunstan to not be able to kick it to the advantage of Gresham – Dunstan’s kick across the square was particularly awful – Sinclair and Membrey (or in Weller’s case, just the goals themselves). We’re not even talking hitting up leads here, simply goalside would have been enough, but the trend was to have the ball fall short each time. There’s the good kind of consistency and the bad kind of consistency.

A turnover from a bemusing-at-best Bruce handball (after a questionable mark from a questionable Seb Ross kick) the finished with a goal to Pedersen summed things up for the quarter, but it was just a taste of things to come from Bruce. This was before the third quarter onslaught of Gresham, Billings, Membrey et al. missing shots.

Seb Ross had had 14 touches at quarter time but it felt like several too many. Maybe he was feeling for Jobe, and he was working hard but an inexperienced James Harmes reflected the intent and composure that Melbourne brought by kicking three goals himself and honouring the hard work higher up. There is a tipping point at which having a whole bunch of looks forward doesn’t matter if you’re not going to kick straight or use the ball properly.

Since the Port Adelaide game particularly, but built on a solid base of uncompleted marks throughout the year, I think Bruce has come to represent working incredibly hard for little reward. The Port game was a great example – wet conditions, tough for a tall forward, interstate and a hostile crowd, and formidable opposition for a St Kilda-style dramatic finish (i.e. heartbreaking loss). but he gave contest after contest even though the delivery wasn’t great (also ran into the post taking a mark and Membrey kicked the goal from the spill). However, he finished with 0.3 in a game that we were 2.12 when the three-quarter time siren went, and still 8.13 by the end.

The Hawthorn miss will be played for years to come, and the mood was positive enough for Richo to crack a gag in the post-match following the Richmond game about him inventing ways to miss goals. His 2.5 was comical for the close-to goal shots that he missed, but from that point it’s just become tiring, so much so that the whole thing bent back on itself and became funny in a because-we-hate-everything-and-ourselves way when he fluffed the bounce running into goal in that late play. Because last week he missed the set shot from in front when the game was there to be won, and today he missed another in the third quarter, alongside a kick out of mid-air within a metre or two of the goal-line that went across the face rather than directly into the goalmouth and was instead fired into a Melbourne defender’s hand. They were sandwiched between a poke from a couple of metres out in the pocket in the second quarter that went across the face, and the bounce later on. The moment had well and truly come and gone by then.

Bruce finished with five marks but at what point do we hold Richo accountable for his public reasoning for dropping Bruce earlier this season? It was because he wasn’t completing his marks and not kicking goals. At what point does a player become a liability, no matter how hard they obviously work, no matter how they’re able to will themselves to the next contest even though they’re risking perhaps another missed mark or a missed shot, no matter how much it obviously affects him in the moment afterwards. I hope so, so much that he comes good and that this is part of the malady that has afflicted the wider team in season 2017. He’s not the only one guilty of missing shots at goal, but he’s certainly the best at it. If the players willed themselves at contests as much as he did we’d be much higher on the ladder right now.

One of the few highlights of the first quarter was the backline. Carlisle ran out in the long sleeves for the third week in a row, but the genuinely excellent conditions sadly saw him swap those for the short-sleeve version at half time. Either way, he was again a huge presence in defence, and as the game turned our way and we pressed higher he still remained incredibly difficult to get past, wherever he was. That we weren’t at least eight goals down at half-time said as much about how poorly we were beaten across the ground and how poor our use was generally, as much as it did about Carlisle and Roberton holding the defence together under a barrage, with White and Brown in support.

Hotline’s willingness to drop back and get involved in tight and plug space in the defensive 50 felt more like the result of his. Usually if we or him is playing well (whichever comes first) his mark count is higher because leading from the forward half to the ball, and he’s been thrown back because the coaches hasn’t quite figured out what to do with him or we needed someone who can kick an Australian Rules football competently using it off half-back because we’re on the back foot and aren’t playing with enough DARE® Iced Coffee. Rarely did we even look like wanting to try and take the ball through the middle.

It wasn’t until he was lining up for goal in the second quarter that from the broadcast side I realised his face looked, uh, different. In our frustration and disappointment – general descriptions again, but I think valid – we probably didn’t appreciate his game enough. Yes, that was made more difficult given he kicked 1.3, including hitting the post in that third quarter from a set shot, a running chance in the last quarter (a reminder of Schneider at the other end in the 2009 Grand Final) and then one completely out on the full later as the game hit Officially Dicked status, but FFS he had 30 pretty decent possessions all across the ground with one eye and a face twice the size of his regular face. Like Bruce, we can only hope this a team affliction that he’s been hit with (today Gresham was on board with them also), because he’s kicked 20.32 this year. The pick 3 that we all felt so good about using on him when the final siren went last week feels shakier right now, but at least this time he’s got a decent excuse. Here’s to another decent pre-season for him, and that hopefully someone tells his hair it’s not 2006 anymore.

What the hell else is there to say? Mav didn’t turn up in a game that was begging for someone that thinks that they’re a huge presence to make an impact. Gresham didn’t come to meet the moment when we was often has hunted it. Ross tried but just couldn’t. Gilbert battled hard. Sinclair’s reaction to his mopping up of Bruce’s mess was actually funny in a borderline pathetic moment. Of course, it was St Kilda that a team like Melbourne would meet in that situation – their biggest game for more than a decade – and win in front of their home fans. In which Cam Pedersen and James Harmes and Mitch Hannan would all have such pronounced impacts, and which Angus Brayshaw would come back and play a genuinely effective game, and be involved in head clash that took our player out for the day.

I simply could not begrudge Melbourne or their supporters anything from yesterday, or whatever positives they might get out of this season. The best of this game – and perhaps the best of humanity (broad, overreaching statement I know) – is built on empathy. For every time we acknowledge how hard or tiring or frustrating or draining or heartbreaking it is being a St Kilda person, that should give us the understanding to be able to truly revel in great moments for the game itself if we can understand and acknowledge the lean times those that also follow this game might have endured. Until last year, the Bulldogs were our closest analogue, and their achievements should have been something we could nod towards and celebrate. Melbourne has now taken that mantle. Until 1964 they were a powerhouse, but given that year saw their last premiership, not to mention how and against who; their record since then and the depths their fans have somehow made it through since 2007 have brought them more into line with our own overall. Their last win of the pre-2007 era came against us in the 2nd Elimination Final of 2006, with a scoreline of 13.12 to 10.12. Their first loss of 2007-present era was against us in that season’s opening match, and in the weekend’s quasi-Elimination Final they beat us with a score of 14.12 to 10.12. That last bit says fuck all, really. But I’m a sucker for that kind of garbage and it was on my mind at the time.

And where does having empathy leave us as a football club? Right where we fucking were. Be disappointed, be angry, be exhausted by another lost season. Next year, the club is officially on notice, from the players, to the coaches, to the board. The “Road to 2018” plan has us making the top four next year. Anything short of that has to be answered to by everyone at the club. That doesn’t make it better if St Kilda doesn’t finish in the top four, of course – it’s essentially gone unchecked for 144 years anyway. Maybe I’m feeling like I’m at a point in my life that I need to just pull the reigns on what I hope to get from this club.

I remember a chorus of Saints fans singing the club song on the bridge following the win against Richmond. We were sitting inside the four at half-time, and were only a few cheap conceded goals away by game’s end from at least being able to enjoy a spot in there that night, ahead of the Sunday games. Having already strung together several wins that had us in the same position earlier, it felt like we’d reached a new normal. That we were really challenging now. As I walked from the ground towards the city yesterday afternoon the chiming of the Federation Bells sounded “It’s A Grand Old Flag”. It wasn’t as loud as that crowd on the bridge, but it was much more poignant and definitive. We have more waiting to do.

The Pressure

Round 20, 2017
St Kilda 3.2, 7.5, 10.7. 15.13 (103)
West Coast Eagles 3.5, 7.8, 10.10, 14.11 (95)
Crowd: 22,688 at Etihad Stadium, Sunday, August 7th at 1.10pm

billings2

Filthy

On Sunday morning I sent out a text to our group chat on Messenger, asking if anyone was actually coming to the footy. I was a definite starter, but after what had happened the previous weekend I was expecting the afternoon to crescendo at smattered applause echoing throughout the Concrete Dome, as per our lowest depths of 2014 and 2015. After the ignominy of what had happened the previous Saturday night, I secretly hoped no-one was going to turn up.

Not even the mega-PR smackdown of announcing Roo’s retirement on the Monday was going to completely bring us supporters out of our daze and dishevelment, of the anger and humiliation flowing from the Port finish. This was before the last passage was played on loop across all footy talk shows during the week, combined with endless analysis (of which I tried my own amateur, 0 AFL games-played hand at). Regardless of how we lost, we lost, and it felt as though the season was over. The month-long farewell tour of My Favourite Hair in the AFL was set to be a string of feel-good, cash-cow Association Football Star Testimonials, featuring some veterans to remind us of the good old days (Joey, maybe Gilbert; Nathan Brown on the same team as a nice twist), and use it as an opportunity for the kids to get some game time (White, and pretty much almost everyone else).

The replaying of Roo’s better moments in his career on said shows – not least the incredible mark in Round 11 of 2004 against the Swans at the SCG – off the back of the Port Adelaide result seemed to compound the situation. The person who for all intents and purposes would be the one to lift up the St Kilda Football Club’s second premiership cup on Grand Final Day never quite would be; and we only have a short time to celebrate his longevity and somehow make all those better moments feel somewhat relevant and have currency for as long as we’re mathematically capable of a top eight finish.

Unless we pull off a premiership that would be more ridiculous and bemusing than fairytale, it’s only going to get sadder over the coming weeks. Perversely, there’s a slight chance that we might now know at the end of the Richmond match in Round 23 if it is indeed his last game, depending on West Coast’s fortunes and the outcome of their game against Adelaide, which finishes a little more than an hour after our own.

Sunday, 12.45pm – Life Choices Consideration

I felt like the past week had been an instructive one as a St Kilda supporter. As I walked up the steps at Bourke Street to hit the bridge I think for the first time I genuinely questioned why I was going to the footy to watch St Kilda play. It’s the closest I could have come to really empathise with people who just sometimes can’t be fucked going to watch this club. It wasn’t the biting breeze and the rain falling at an increasing angle – I was about to going inside to the artificially heated set of a TV program anyway. I was still so furious about the week before. I’d been thinking about what long-term supporters have seen and experienced in return for those moments, that would make those kinds of demons go away. The answer is nothing if you’re about 55 years old or under, because even if you were alive at the time you sure as hell weren’t old enough to comprehend 1966, but you sure were able to take in 1971, 1997, 1998, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011, etc. Those have been amongst our best years, and I doubt they make you feel purely warm and fuzzy thinking bank on them.

The anomaly of St Kilda, above its one premiership in 144 years, and its 27 bottom of the ladder finishes the VFL/AFL, is that it still survives. How much longer can that last? The Road to 2018 plan had 50,000 members in Australia and 10,000 in New Zealand. How much of our current financial shortfall is owing to those ridiculous overreaches? The lack of young player development this year has surely made further ill of the on-field elements. What if we’re garbage next year?

But a number of things happened between crossing that bridge (literally) and about 4pm that showed we’re might be at least reaching out a hand to the throat of some of those demons, whether they’re one week old or 51 years old. Hell, or 144 years old.

Conveniently, it was exactly those from the last 59 seconds of the previous weekend at the Adelaide Oval that we were placed in a position to exorcise (for now). This club likes to do things in extremes. Necessarily, it was players like Acres, Billings, Steele, Sinclair and Steven who played chief roles in casting them out; players that in varying degrees contributed to or represented a famous win being dissolved via scattered thoughts and barely a whimper.

Special Bulletin

It’s worth keeping in mind that the Port Adelaide result in isolation isn’t necessarily what will keep us out of the eight by season’s end. It certainly could on a micro level, and those four points are worth the exact same as valuable as any other four points. But think of how large our losses have typically been – of our nine losses, seven of them have been by 30, 38, 40, 57, 61 and 42 points. Our kicking at goal (in wins and losses) has seen 13.19, 14.23, 9.15, 19.16, 12.13, 12.17, 14.19, 12.17 again, 7.15 and 8.13. Our 21.12 against Richmond masked the fact the score was 92-10 at half-time, and that we didn’t even end up doubling their score – but Essendon more than doubled ours just one week later. The point being, not only have we blown games owing to poor kicking, but we’ve also sat our arses firmly on our percentage. Didn’t anyone remember how important that was last season? The club decided to extend the tease early on Sunday by posting shots of Bruce shitting out snaps from the pocket in the warm-up.

Things felt like they’d picked up where they’d fallen apart completely late the weekend before. Carlisle was back in the long sleeves – this time in home jumper, which again looked sensational – and was again a rock in defence. He didn’t quite have the same presence as last week but this game was played differently, and he still proved himself to be one of the better and more considered field kicks in the team. His bullet out of the goal square at full-back in the first quarter, after Roo did a reverse Roo in the first quarter, was so good it caught Dunstan unaware, and by the time the latter had realised he was running directly through the centre square with space in front of him the moment had got to him.

Up the other end, Whipping Human of the Week Blacres gave nothing away that he was about to put in one of his best performances in his short career. No presence in a one-on-one close to goal in the opening minutes and zero follow-up once the ball hit the deck, and then an ok aerial contest presenting near the 50-metre arc was backed up by a feeble tackle attempt.

His game started to building when he actually caught someone holding the footy, but a triple treat of slop in the shadows of three-quarter time him teetering on the edge of the Blacres that we all came to know so well with 19 seconds remaining against Port. Out on the rebound he managed to fumble the footy on his own, fumbled again at half-forward, only to, uh, fumble again at half-forward and a huge Roberton mark at centre half-back might have been the only thing between him and a plane ticket back to Perth with the Eagles that night.

For his occasional air-headedness, he really does change the game around when he’s switched on. He knows how to use his speed and size to open the field up and get some movement happening, and again he moved forward to good effect. It looked like the team was intent on making that a constant element of the game throughout the afternoon. As pissed off as I was with him and the team a few days ago, one week is a long time in footy. So is 19 seconds.

I didn’t give Acres nearly enough credit watching the game live. He was also responsible for a turnover in the second quarter that led to a Kennedy goal and put them out by 16 points. That would soon stretch further out to 22, and West Coast simply seemed to just have things working a little more smoothly. Mitchell was able to poke the ball forward off the ground out of the middle in traffic and whilst the ball ended up with Sheed out wider he still went back and kicked a huge goal from the meeting of the 50 arc and the boundary.

In a similar way the GWS win was engineered by a spread of players taking responsibility to step up at different times, Jack Sinclair took it on himself at with a string of clever and classy moments to steady things well before his good mate Jack would finish them off.

It began pretty simply – he worked his way to a dangerous spot in the goal square and was in the right place after consecutive efforts from Membrey and Billings to a long kick-in for the goal on the line. Again, he put himself in the right spot a couple of minutes later, sprinting past an aerial contest out wide on the 50, took the ball cleanly and cut in to spear the ball to Roo in front of goal. It was the kind of thing that we’ve seen barely enough of this year.

He’d then engineered a kick out of defence after Longer went down back and took a mark (seriously), that saw two big kicks across the ground in a bold switch that ended with Bruce hitting the post. That was made up for (sort of) by a smother and clever turn off of his opponent just on the 50 as the Eagles looked to rebound. Another neat kick to Roo probably should have been a free kick, but Billings reacted quickly at the fall and cannoned the footy out to Blacres closer to goal.

Sinclair isn’t necessarily the fastest player but he’s consistently proven this year to be agile, quick thinking and smart. Of course we need speed, but the mind needs to work pretty quickly in the moment too.

For all of Josh Bruce’s brave hard work the week before he again displayed some serious yips. The chain of long kicks that broke open the field and ended with his poster from a set shot deserved more, and whilst he did kick two his miss at the end could have become the stuff of St Kilda legend if we weren’t able to shut down the Eagles’ final switch into the middle. The way the crowd went up when he took the mark suggested we thought the game was done, which was dangerous to begin with even if he did kick it. But it set things up for Billings to step up in a big moment.

The Pressure

Someone once said to me, “All you want to see in sport is justice”. Jack Billings wasn’t nearly our best player last week, but he didn’t deserve to be the one with the best view of Robbie Gray’s kick other than Robbie Gray, and the one that replays will show he was the closest in his failed attempt to shut him down. So I don’t know if it’s quite justice that Billings was able to produce the two huge moments in the last quarter to go with and a handy game, but to St Kilda supporters I think it felt right. That he was so emotional when he kicked the sealer should say something to us about the pressure he must have felt in that moment, and how he must have felt every time he’d missed another shot at goal during the season. Before he decided to fly backwards in the goal square for the mark with in the last quarter, he’d kicked 17.28 for the season, including 0.2 so far that night, with another behind to come. Keep in mind 5.0 of that had been kicked on one day.

And this was exactly why we’d drafted him with pick 3. To back himself and take a huge contested mark when the game was on the line, and the be the one to react quickly and run at full tilt with one minute left to open up space and provide an option as soon the ball was turned over with two points separating the sides. And then, most importantly, kick the goal. Not just after the day he’d had in front of the sticks, but the year, and the pressure of almost four full seasons as he saw the player taken one pick after him rise and become a best and fairest winner in their club’s premiership year.

Billings on Sunday also did something we probably hadn’t seen him do before – an intercept on the wing, sprint, give-off and get back and a handsome delivery to Membrey on the lead.

For a game that was played at a pretty consistent tempo and featured 29 goals, individual moments still punctuated the contest. For the Saints, it was Roo’s confused shot running into goal that barrelled into Gresham, rather than put us up by nine points with momentum in the last quarter. Dunstan’s haphazard dribble kick attempt from the boundary early in the last ricocheted of an Eagle’s boot and went out on the full, and Dunstan again stepped up in front of goal in a big moment as had the week before. Roo gave up his game to force a one-on-one contest at a key moment late. Newnes and Bruce hit the post in the second quarter, and Gresham, Savage and Bruce all missed shots in 15 minutes between Steele putting us in front with a superb solo effort from a stoppage, and Kennedy setting up what we all feared we’d face all too soon after the previous week. For all the play we had in that final term, the 5.6 registered could have looked incredibly ugly.

Steele’s game overall was simply built on hard work and like Acres’ was arguably his best in his also brief career to date. Of his 26 possessions, 20 were contested but he showed off class to go with his strength, taking a strong contested mark and goaling on quarter time to go with his one-armed grab and goal in the last quarter.

The introduction of Steele and Koby Stevens has also allowed Dunstan to play less as a purely inside midfielder and it’s been to his benefit. It’s not purely the presence of Steele and Stevens doing, because Dunstan has had to improve and change his game in the same way that Seb Ross has been able to do (he’s not quite at Seb’s level yet, obviously). He’s also done it under the magnified pressure of having been dropped three times in the one year; he’d never been dropped from the team before this season. I thought he was our lead candidate for trade bait but he’s come back to be our best or in our best in his three games.

That we were down by 22 points during the second quarter and then 14 points in the last and able to win is something of great magnitude at this point in development. It said a lot about Richo and the coaches, their coaching, and the players that when faced with a nauseatingly similar, pressure-filled circumstance after last week – both within the game and within the season – that they were able to defend when they needed to, and continue attacking in those final moments when we still needed to score and really put the game away.

St Kilda History

When Robert Harvey announced his retirement ahead of Round 18 in 2008 the club was ninth, at the bottom of a logjam of teams separated only on percentage. A winning streak had been formulated in the previous weeks, and it was the springboard to honouring Harvey with a sensational top four finish, and a Preliminary Final appearance that gave us all a week to dream that Sir Robert might make another appearance on Grand Final Day.

Strangely, that Round 18 match was against Port Adelaide, the week after we’d lost to West Coast on the road. It also saw Harvey taken off after hit to the head – topically, his head hit the Docklands turf in a tackle, but he came back on – and we won by eight points with a scoreline of 101 to 93 in front of 22,878, as opposed to Sunday’s scoreline of 103 to 95 in front 22,688.

Going into early Sunday afternoon, we found ourselves in a vaguely similar but tougher situation with the ladder to that team of 2008. The dynamics of this team are obviously much different (I still think that if the players had got their heads around Ross’s style and plan a little quicker we might have been able to give 2008 a more serious shake – although at best that would basically have meant finishing second to Geelong on the ladder and hoping to ambush them on Grand Final Day a la Hawthorn). Roo’s announcement came less than 48 hours after Acres, Billy, Dunstan, et. al. combined for create one of the iconic moments of a truly amazing season (for the opposition), and I felt the combination of events shut down our season. As the weather warmed and made its first turns for spring earlier this week, and even on the colder days the sun shone a little longer in the late afternoon, it was that familiar feeling of the pending chance for some rest as others vied to write history.

There’s still next to no margin for error over the next few weeks, but how different we feel about this team. Ultimate redemption in football terms is something most of us – and after 51 years, all of us, really – are still searching for. But along the way you need to understand and deliver on the idea of redeeming yourself. As fans we’re obviously not the ones out there making the mistakes or kicking the clutch goals, but of course still feel them. We didn’t feel the effort or development last week, but on Sunday we would be able to feel that reward as players, coaches, and a club, and as members and supporters.