For this week at least, St Kilda fans have been able to feel a little vindicated by Ross the ex-Boss’s decision to leave the club for the Purple Haze at the end of last season.
The Dockers have been universally criticised for their smashing at the hands of the Eagles on Sunday, having kicked only five goals in the process. They’ve indeed had Ross’s defensive blueprint stamped on them, which has riled some Freo fans and those who haven’t been a fan of his style of footy since he took up senior coaching.
As for the Saints, another barnstorming, entertaining win against good opposition with young, exciting guys at the fore has players and fans optimistic after the dark age that was season 2011. On Saintsational forums everywhere, Twitter and Facebook many in red, white and black have been quick and keen to criticise Ross.
But it all sits uneasily with me. I’m certainly not the only one, but judging by the reception the Dockers and Ross received when they defeated the Saints several weeks ago I’d be in a small minority.
It was different when GT’s tenure finished.
Having taken over the coaching job in the same year that Roo, Kosi, Milne and Hamill played their first games for the club (via different pathways), and bringing in Dal, Joey, BJ, Goose, X Clarke and others that seemed set to take this club to glory through the aughts – and as a former player himself – GT felt like a part of the furniture. His close relationship with the players made me feel like there was a real presence in the coaches’ box from our members’ seats on level 2, like there was another player in there (regardless of what we thought about his capacity for effective match day moves). Indeed, his close relationships extended the other way too; he was close friend of then-President Rod Butterss.
So when GT got sacked by his now ex-friend Butterss it felt like the club had kicked out one of its own. A shocked GT wearing a shirt unadorned with the St Kilda logo and sponsors at the press conference was a strange sight.
Once a club can no longer win a premiership, there’s little point trying to hang on. If you’re not part of the birth of the next team, then you’ll be the death of the current one. The Saints have their youth academy and, having embarked on a rebuild, must be willing also to reallocate talent – removing some from the present – to the future.
It’s not quite panic stations yet after a narrow Round One loss (well, it is for some), and I don’t think last Sunday’s performance should justify Niall’s ideas in The Age last Saturday any more or less.
That said, if the Saints had come out and played the way did in the second quarter throughout the match and trounced the Power we’d have been sitting here this past week with the idea of trading a big name – as recommended by Niall – far from our minds.
The Saints lost though, and so for many it at least brought a drop down the ladder and the need for further rejuvenation of the playing list a step closer. The place in the 22 of players such as Blake, Peake, Ray (overshadowed by sub counterpart David Rodan), Jones and perhaps Polo and Armitage were called into question for various reasons. Calls like that are easy to make, particularly when you’ve got young players like Ledger, Siposs, Ross, Newnes, Saad, Simpkin and rookies in Curren and Dunell impressing at Sandy.
What’s not so easy is looking at players such as BJ, Dal, Fisher and Montagna, who would attract great attention if available for trade or via free agency, and whether or not they have a place not just in the 22, but at the club at all.
Under Ross the ex-Boss we grew accustomed to winning interstate; obviously for much of 2009 and 2010 the Saints were winning anywhere anyway.
So it meant a period of time (albeit brief, in the scheme of things) where we lived the dream of strong, cohesive performances interstate. The comedy hour displays that were a firm fixture in their own right- up until the players got out of the clown car to take on the struggling West Coast late in 2008 with a finals spot on the line – were shoved into Room 101. The hope was they’d stay there, with a premiership tempering any pain we would feel after slapstick efforts for another decade at least, in Victoria or interstate.
Those interstate performances gave us some memorable moments of skill, luck and controversy (most of those involving Fremantle), just to remind us all that at least if the Saints aren’t winning premierships, they’ll be providing genuine flashes of skill in vain, or be in the news for just about everything else.
But we enter a new era on Sunday, and for however many new eras this club should have had since 1991 where the laughing stock shackles were to be broken off once and for all (or at least for another few decades), there’ll be almost certainly teething problems as the players adapt to a new coach and game plan and the club adapts to new personnel. Comedy hour might well be making a triumphant return.
Playing Port Adelaide in front of a few fans and more tarpaulin could be just as much of a psychological challenge as playing in front of a packed house wearing purple at Subiaco/Corporate Name Stadium. The locals are just as unwelcoming, the tarpaulin indifferent to any of your heroic feats at the home of the enemy. Also, you’re St Kilda, and when things aren’t expected to go well in general they’re expected to go much worse interstate.
All of that said, St Kilda should win. Port had a pretty decent pre-season and the Saints didn’t as far as on-field performances went, but we all saw what happened at the MCG between Carlton and Richmond; if the Saints are good enough, they’ll switch on when the real stuff begins.
Their best is certainly better than this bottomed-out Port side, but with new personnel and a new game plan it might not click straight away. There’s a number of inexperienced or new faces in the line-up, with Ledger and Stanley certain starters and Siposs, Cripps and new boys Milera and Wilkes named on the extended bench. It probably won’t end up that way, but that’s potentially six players with 43 games’ experience between them.
Already injuries have come calling (losing Misson might be proving costly already), with Schneider and Gram to miss. Schneider’s absence opens the door for Milera to roam around half-forward – although I’d assume he’d be used as the sub if selected – or perhaps even Siposs after playing higher up the ground through the pre-season (although apparently his dad has said he’ll be playing for Sandy. Via Facebook of course, or so the story goes).
With development the order of the year, I suspect Cripps is only a slim chance to reprise his 2011 role of pinch-hitting forward (which he did with great effect) should he be selected, in favour of his more natural role of running through the middle from half-back.
A sunny day of 24 degrees with only light winds is forecast for Adelaide on Sunday, and it’s perfect conditions to be able to judge Stanley’s performance accurately. He needs to hold on to those 50/50 marks that he spills too often and I’m really looking forward to seeing how he and Kosi goes. The Last Man to Have Captained the Saints to a Premiership of Any Kind moved incredibly well by his standards through the pre-season, and aside from the newer players selected we’ll have our eyes firmly on how he and fellow veteran Lenny perform.
Wilkes’ potential inclusion would probably see him played as a backman, although I’d probably prefer Blake if that was the case – the alternative is a far too tall forward line, regardless of how much more suited he is down there (although some would probably prefer him up forward to Rhys). The Port forward line could be rather tall at times (Butcher, Schultz and Westhoff) so another big body will be probably be needed, particularly with no Simpkin – the closest thing to a natural full-back.
With the defence looking shaky anyway, the midfield will need to reverse their leaky form of 2011. I’d personally take Hayes, Dal, BJ, Joey, Steven, CJ and Ledger over Cassisi, Ebert, McCarthy, Boak, Pearce and Rodan (a monty to give us grief if selected) but McEvoy, Kosi and Stanley will have to do the right thing by them too, not to mention that Lenny hasn’t played for 51 weeks. This is where the class of the Saints’ top players will need to really come through – as unhealthy the reliance is on the top several, that’s where this game will probably be won. Port will be introducing several new players themselves so that could be two teams out there on Sunday trying to find their way around things and putting on a good stage show.
As much as I like to laugh, I’m hoping the Saints keep as filled with resolve and hopes for the future rather than fodder for Monday’s weekend wrap-up. Either way, CJ will be playing, so there’ll be some character-based comedy on show at the very least.
For about the seventh time this off-season, we declare the beginning of a new era. This is really “it”, though. The new coach announcement, the draft(s), the captaincy announcement, the pre-season competition – they all ultimately lead to the season proper, and us finally being able to declare this moment “it”.
Like the most sane of supporters, I’m not bullish about our flag chances. It’s a tough position to be in after all the hopes we’ve had over the last decade. But there are a number of reasons why I and the football world in general would think that a premiership is beyond the club this year – most of them obvious and reasonable; anything else would be the arrogant ramblings of opposition supporters that can lay claim to having witnessed their team winning a premiership in recent times. Whatever.
Getting used to a tinkered game plan will take time, something we saw at the beginning of Ross the ex-Boss’s tenure. It’s an oft-cited example with plenty of merit, though the hope for us Saints is that the ex-Boss’s game will prove to have taken a greater learning curve to master. It relied on fanatical commitment to the most dour of styles, and it meant a season-and-a-half of one of the most attacking and entertaining teams in the competition coming to terms with the idea of relentless accountability and pressure on the opposition after seasons of wielding pace, muscle and slick skills alone as weapons in a premiership assault.
As we saw in the pre-season matches, Swat’s game plan relies a little more on the natural instinct to get the footy and move. Though the focus on defence and pressing will still be top priority, he’ll be using players that are now wired for that kind of requirement (as all players now need to be) and allow them to be let loose and be creative going forward. In theory, this should be an easier transition.
As per usual for a pre-season match, unsuitable warmth and a relative lack of club colours made up the scenery on Friday night.
Many were sensibly eschewing their scarves for the lighter, brighter-coloured summer wear as the atmosphere did its best to blast Melbourne with one more heat wave before the close of summer.
The fall-out of the game was as expected – excitement about the X-factor potential of Saad and Milera, the future of Tom Ledger, the seeming maturity of Sebastian Ross and Roo’s return to the Hitler Youth-tastic undercut. It’s not quite a red, yellow and black jumper but it’s a German association that’s a step in the right direction (at least for those of us that can’t get enough of St Kilda jumpers circa 1915 to 1922, anyway).
There was the game plan itself of course – something that will need tinkering over the next few weeks (at least) as it seemed the players couldn’t keep up with themselves. The ball was moved on quickly at every opportunity in stark contrast to a fair portion of the reign of Ross the ex-Boss, but like much of it (even during the headier times of 2010) quick counter-attacks through a higher press proved to be the side’s undoing.
Of course, the hope is that Swat’s style will take less time for the players to adapt to than what we saw with Ross’s more defensive model – it seems to be far more natural and expressive, but time will tell just how effective.
Dynamism was the attack’s real problem in 2011. The “Kick it to Roo Every Time, Even if There Are Two or Three Defenders on Him” manual never lent much great wisdom to the players, and like much of 2009 and 2010 – glaringly, particularly when Roo was out – the side was infinitely better off with shared responsibility in attack. Some bad habits lingered and a tall forward line with Roo as the focal point never quite got it together in game one. However, the second match saw Roo rested, and Milne, Saad and Milera really kept the Cats’ defenders busy and guessing, and with Siposs, Stanley and Wilkes pushing up from full-forward – Siposs particularly, who just about played a midfielder’s role – forays up forward were far more potent.
This whole exercise just a tease, really – we were left with more questions than when we arrived at Etihad; questions about the players, about the team itself, about the coaches, and there are three more weeks for them to pile up.
So this week the Saints are off to Wangaratta. The St Kilda Facebook page encouraged fans to book via the Wangaratta Performing Arts Centre, and there’ll be no television coverage; there’ll just be reminders like those that this is still very much the pre-season.