Wind on tin

by Tom Briglia

Round 1, 2020
North Melbourne 1.1, 2.2, 6.7, 8.8 (56)
St Kilda 3.3, 6.7, 6.11, 7.12 (54)
Crowd: 0, Docklands, March 22nd at 1.05pm

This is genuinely a paragraph I had written in my notes (pre-pandemic) in the lead up to the season:

“The last few seasons at this point in time, I start to think if I can get out of it. Can I send them a text? Should I send them a heads up that I’m not that keen, not today? “Hey just a heads up, I’m not feeling very well, but hopefully I’ll be able to make it!” Is it too late to send a text? Just send them a text, it’ll be fine.”

***

At this point it’s back to the men’s season as a marker of time, as a marker of the beginning of the year, of the depths of winter, of redemption for those who have earned it in the September spring sunshine.

The new decade instead threw up all sorts of Hell Bingo. Is every game going to be shootout? Is this going to be the State of Origin match all over again? The way people like Eddie and Dwayne “THAT COULD BE BALL” Russell spoke following the announcement on Wednesday night appeared to tempt fate. What if we got a Utah Jazz/OKC situation in which the teams run out, a club doctor gets word someone’s tested positive as they’re circling around back of the centre square coming into the instrumental verse of the song, and have to turn around and run straight off without breaking stride? There was certainly going to be no comfort during the week, and for all intents and purpose the ideas of “rounds” framing our weekends was going to be thrown out. Gil had already changed the phrasing to “games” and by the AFL’s own admission knew a suspension was inevitable.

***

“If you take away history, then what is the club?” – Andrew Bassat

If you take away the fans, then what is the club?

Who is there to have an attachment to carry a club’s history into the ground with them, to feel the song when they run out and the anticipation of the first bounce, to have the physical attachment, to see what no one else saw from an angle and an experience that no one else did, and to report back? The rain and the cold and darkness of an afternoon and the Fable Singers’ version of the Geelong song are the memories of the 2009 Grand Final. That’s part of the club’s history and part of our own history as supporters.

The fans’ presence reflects the club, qualitatively and quantifiably – its trajectory at any given time, within a season or a decade or a century. The same is true at home, or away at the MCG, or interstate. The opposition fans tucked at one end of the ground in hostile and foreign territory make it that, a bold smash and grab raid, taking on a history of anxiety-riddled interstate performances.

Rather than a uniting force for hope, watching any games over the weekend felt much more immobilising than I would have dared thought. People and media figures during the week talked about what the game and its heroes of the World Wars and the Great Depression meant to fans. But in those times, people gathered at the club’s ground that was another home to them – think of how Moorabbin felt – and gathered together, sharing the experience of seeing the jumper and the club your life revolves around in the flesh, being in a different space and different environment.

Nick Riewoldt spoke of “Craving something to look forward to.” Was the situation that dire already? Not even looking forward to the thing itself, just having something to look forward to? At least last week it was an unknown, or a curiosity. That thing itself was sadly, painfully a let down. Just a few minutes into the first match the respite we hoped this would be wasn’t there.

Footy on the weekend only served to reinforce that we are in isolation, and in a time of health, social and economic crisis and anxiety. We are watching hugely paid athletes given instant access to coronavirus tests playing footy and getting paid heaps and still being able to do all the things they want to do. We just had to sit there and watch it.

***

Endless advertisements from the Herald Sun kept popping up on my social media feeds during the week about fucking Supercoach. Match and player preview links and headlines chirped, “Will Sam Walsh have the second year blues?” On the Thursday, Shane Savage and Josh Battle were effectively dropped. I hardly noticed and it was harder to care.

I remember several things from the game. Max King kicked two of our seven goals and Billings kicked two excellent long goals himself. I remember Brad Hill through the middle passing to Membrey, Paddy Ryder taking a strong mark on the lead, Brad Hill to King, Razor Ray missing the trip, and sunshine and the elements at the Concrete Disney store. A whole summer and pre-season of optimism turfed in a second half of inaccuracy and indifference.

While I’m here, special mention has to go to the home jumper being worn with white shorts and with – for the first time ever – the mostly white clash socks worn since 2009. The St Kilda jumper is often at its classiest with mostly black and white and touches of red. This was effectively what the club was planning to have worn if we saluted on Grand Final Day of 2010, changing into the home jumper for the cup. I would say Richmond had planned the same in 2017, but why would you bother in the moment, but even that feels like a lifetime ago, and certainly is a world away now.

Meanwhile, Fox Footy couldn’t fucking help itself. North fans would have been holding out for that moment on the siren, to see the difference between despair and joy and own the better side of that, while their club song provided the soundtrack and minted the win. But for no decent reason other than self interest and self promotion, even in this moment, the producers at Fox Footy put their finger on the button and cued up their theme music (which they “overrate and overplay” – Sebastian Hassett) instead of letting North fans enjoy the song after a close win. To just allow them that few fucking seconds after everything that had happened over the last few weeks, and not knowing if they would hear it again this year. It might have felt like a practice match, and it’s easier to forget if you throw away a 31-point lead in a low scoring game, but that moment would have the briefest of respite for any fan. They decided to stain that moment and that footage themselves, as if they genuinely thought their Stock Uplifting Sports Strings Music_Promo.mp3 should be the soundtrack for that. How fucking dare they.

***

We didn’t know until Wednesday night whether or not the season would start. By Monday night 80% of the people who make the clubs run day-to-day without getting the airtime or public profile were gone. The players were sent home (but still wanted a bunch of money). Just like that, a pandemic had broke out, and just like that footy was done. The world doesn’t know and certainly doesn’t care that we’re here. It certainly doesn’t know and doesn’t care for St Kilda fans wanting to see a rebuild pay off and deliver, some time, that second premiership.

“Footy will find a way. It always does,” Gillon said, signing off the Monday’s press conference. It’s a line of defiance and some hope, but he said the line as put the paper he was reading from down without any bluster or gusto.

But even then, should it come back in winter, we might be at the depths of something we already just don’t have any references for. We’re left with a season that will before anything else become about off-field survival, that is, survival at all. The longest pre-season. Footy again finds a way to reflect the world around it, something about ourselves that we can find in our clubs and the opposition and the stories woven into them. So, until then, but even then.

You were the only one

by Tom Briglia

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“Hopefully I wake up back in the normal universe we used to know.”
– Matt, facetiously texting me last night

Over the long weekend my brother Matt, housemate Emma and I went to Wagga Wagga to watch Jess captain the GWS AFLW team. Last year we’d driven to Morwell to watch her in the Giants’ only Victorian appearance, and in 2020 their only Melbourne game was fixtured for the last round against the Bulldogs. A road trip and night away for a game in the early evening sun with a beautiful backdrop – and while finals were still very much a possibility for the Giants – was a long weekend well-spent. Standing on the hill in the sunshine and treating myself to a beer with Matt and Emma, watching Jess lead the Giants, the thought ran through my head, “Where else would you rather be?”

Pre-Season

February and early March were once the domain watching the intra-club at Moorabbin in the summer twilight, reacquainting ourselves with the flow of the game and the smell of the grass and the beer, and then the pre-season proper; hearing the commentators’ voices, and depending on where the first game was or if you made it far enough, the layout and smells of Telstra Dome/Etihad Stadium. This was our first glimpse of a team that was often rightfully expected to challenge for the top four and maybe something greater, and one that might pick up from pre-season silverware along the way.

For the first time, the AFL boys didn’t have sole ownership of that spotlight. When they ran onto Moorabbin against the Hawks on a Thursday night, they were the kick-ons of a Linton Street celebration brought to you by the fantastic, fantastical debut of the AFLW team on a breezy summer afternoon four days earlier. No Disney product placement required, nor night-time slot for optimal fireworks viewing, nor “state-of-the-art training facility”, nor tacky plastic cover version of the club song that no-one asked for. Moorabbin, in the afternoon elements, with a St Kilda team running out to a club song that was the soundtrack to so many joyous moments, to teams that ran out for Grand Finals. The place, and the sight of a full crowd at Moorabbin, and all of those sounds mattered.

There is the novelty of passages of play involving no shortage of unfamiliar names in unfamiliar chains. Combinations of any and all of Brad Hill, Paddy Ryder, Dan Hannebery, Max King, Zak Jones, Dougal Howard, Dean Kent and Dan Butler, and the increased likelihood of those passages finishing with Jack Lonie kicking accurately. But mostly bruise-free games and an apologetic professional empathy between players mean there will never be pride nor the prestige that was on the line the Wizard Cup battle of 2004, nor could they contribute to that rivalry and storyline that effectively ran until Grand Final Day of 2011.

***

Pre-Coronavirus outbreak paragraph, which I still stand by:
“Most importantly, the new clash jumper – a bold, traditional design – looks fucking great. The glorious Fable Singers version of the club song was seemingly returned, and at Morwell – via the iPad connected to the car speakers on the drive home from Wagga on Sunday evening – were replaced just as quickly.” The Fable Singers were indeed returned as the AFLW team ran onto Moorabbin, and were kept the for men’s a few days later, but was replaced by the weird cover version for the AFLW match in Adelaide and the men’s in Morwell.

The club minted its return to Moorabbin, or what is really “RSEA Park”, because you wouldn’t know there was a St Kilda Football Club based there if you drove down Linton Street. The giant RSEA Park logo looks over the street where the club’s own once did. I would say “yeah but it’s better that it’s looking over Linton Street than the Hobart wharf”, but that’s how they get you, isn’t it? That’s how we become the first club to have an iced coffee brand logo prominently placed on the jumper where other teams would have the jumper manufacturer’s.

The club’s logo on the jumper itself is slowly being replaced too; the Deliveroo logo is arguably the most prominent logo on any jumper in the league, and has outright replaced the square that used to house the club crest, which has become smaller and less noticeable since 1994. We are almost at the point in which the Deliveroo Turquoise is not far away from becoming a clash jumper colour, given its prominence on the back of the otherwise fantastic clash jumper. Should the choice of song bewilderingly remain with the new version, we’re close to becoming an aesthetic curio. And you know what? Yeah, there’s some fucked up shit going on at the moment. Andrew Bassat said in an SEN interview in a vaguely more normal time, i.e. a few weeks ago, “If you take away history, then what is the club?” These are the things that make following St Kilda and our own history as supporters what it is. What has tied us and takes us back to moments. Whenever it may be that both St Kilda teams can compete in earnest, in an uncompromised competition – and even between now and then – we’re going to be looking for and needing those things.

***

The club has done everything it could over several years to make sure we were as disengaged as possible before this pre-season, from bored and anxious footy played by bored anxious players. Who the hell were they? No home ground we could care for. Where did The Road to 2018 go? They stripped everything away, all the way down to the club song, for fuck’s sake, and offered no reason (nor response). And at the start of 2019, they still dared to ask supporters “What will do when you’re called upon?”, as if we were the ones who needed to pick up our shit (they also threw in the line, “will you stand with us, and sing our song?”).

By the end of last year, I wasn’t enjoying writing this. I’d learned that I could hate the St Kilda Football Club. I learned that I hated being so attached to it. I hate that the club plays in artificial lighting every week at a Concrete Disney store. I felt more disengaged than I ever had before. And I definitely didn’t like writing 2,200 words or so about it every week. I needed the time off. Throughout the summer and the pre-season I tested myself. What if I didn’t write match reviews for the AFLW? What if I didn’t write about the pre-season matches?

Supposedly, this was the beginning after a rebuild spluttered and collapsed over a period of three seasons. Two matches in the space of five days at Moorabbin reinvigorated the club, stamping the change in mood brought on by a new coach, a new heir to the throne, and some very good new recruits on and off the field. Would we have it in us to start all over again, only to have it collapse in time-on of consecutive Grand Finals? Or not even work at all?

All the while, a new disease was spreading its way across the world. “Coronavirus” and “COVID-19” are still new terms, but they’re the only terms that matter right now. “Together We Rise” is the membership slogan. Some people are going to ask for refunds to their memberships this year. Some won’t, and want to see it as a donation to a club in a relatively precarious position. Some won’t have the choice.

From packed grounds at Moorabbin and Wagga, and listening to the Fox Footy commentary of the Morwell match driving home to Melbourne, and now to the lounge room to watch activity at the empty Concrete Disney Store, with no one to purchase Disney products, or climb the Peter Parker Wall, or just be vaguely near the Thor statue thing inside Gate 3.

A Pandemic Arrived

What will footy mean to us this year? How will we mark the seasons? The time of year?

There will be so many people that register the magnitude of this pandemic through the impact it has on the AFL season and the AFL ecosystem. In any other year we’d be talking about Max King’s debut and where Josh Battle might play. Instead, Bob and Andy were taking talkback calls about government closures of schools, and Andy musing considerations of accrued annual leave. Robbo asking Gerard outright, “Are you scared?” and Gerard giving a heartfelt answer. Broad reminiscing of seasons past in what would normally be a time of looking forward felt trite. What was the point of it anyway? The past didn’t deliver a premiership and it certainly didn’t ward off a pandemic. There is a bigger disconnect to those times now, neatly framed by the beginning of the new decade. There is a reset button looming and it’s getting big.

There has been something oddly bullish about the AFL going ahead with all of this, while it seems every other sport is shutting down. Perhaps Gil and the commission see it as a chance to secure their legacy, overseeing a bulletproof league pull off an entire season that crowns a legitimate premier in a time of pandemic. This season won’t be about the club’s direction in the way that it was just a few weeks ago. Max King’s debut and Brad Hill and Dan Butler haven’t been at the front of my mind. Is this season compromised? Or will it be the ultimate footy war of attrition, the most famous season in history?

People are anxious and people are tense and people are angry. People with lots of money in charge of lots of people’s lives are getting bailed out. People who worked and allowed these companies to exist are worried about losing their jobs with no safety net. They don’t have another board position to move on to. Other people are anxious because people are clearing supermarket shelves for no real definable reason. People are anxious because they know people in high-risk categories: people who are elderly, people who are immunocompromised and don’t fit the subconscious expectations we have of victims of a pandemic in the 21st century.

Growing up, footy in wartime and in the Great Depression belonged to footy history books of different time documenting a different world. Black and white and yellowed photos with mysterious jumper designs and outfits and mysterious backdrops in mysterious times. What is the empty stadium aspect equivalent to? Is it Geelong not being able to travel because of wartime restrictions? Will suburban grounds be used in the way they were in 1942? Fitzroy winning the 1916 premiership from the bottom of the ladder? University always struggled, but it ultimately disbanded due to World War 1.

The VFL/AFL was always the constant. Nothing has ever been big enough to knock it down, not entirely. Not World War 1, not the Great Depression, not World War 2, not the Cold War, nor any other kind of event that white middle class people born into late 20th century decadence in Melbourne couldn’t even name, let alone conceive of.

Every year footy came back. The season reflects the year. Returning as we all come back from the summer slumber. Refreshed and ready to go in early in the year, when anything and everything could happen. The depths of the season arrive with the depths of winter, the uncertainty of where the season might go if you think it might be the year, where the idea of the season being a marathon really begins to take its toll. The furthest point between the early year optimism and the sunshine of spring; the sunshine that emerges for those good enough and who worked hard enough, beckoning what truly would be a “before and after” life event for St Kilda supporters.

Gil phrased it during Wednesday night’s press conference very specifically. A 17-round season becomes a 153-game journey. Day-by-day. The anticipation as the sun sets on a Friday night won’t be the same, the tram ride to the concrete Disney store won’t exist for some time. The concept of a weekend being built around when the Saints are playing will have an underlying tension. Games are going to be played at weird times with no rhythm. We can’t guarantee any game will actually go ahead until the first siren sounds. For all we know we could be having a Grand Final at the Concrete Disney Store in November, and even that won’t be settled until the anthem is played and the ball is bounced.

The heroes that people looked to in times of hardship will be written into history just as the Colliers and Coventrys of Collingwood were, and the Richmond, South Melbourne and Geelong teams that also challenged and succeeded during Great Depression. Our experiences and relationship with our teams will become its own arc of that same history.

In footy, we find parallels to our own lives; our club’s fortunes, its misfortunes, its successes, its failures, promises made and promises never quite kept. But we’re finding that days aren’t any longer because shit needs to be sorted. Time doesn’t wait for any of this. Footy is going to change this year. How we engage with the game and our clubs will change, and so will how we see ourselves.

Hometown

by Tom Briglia

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Sunday felt more like a lucid dream than anything else, and trying to recount it feels much like the mutually mundane exercise telling someone about your own dream, and as if the conversation was happening 20 years ago. “I bought a coffee and a bottle of water and Mum and Emma and Matt and I got there at 1.30pm, but the ground didn’t open until 2pm, and it was at Moorabbin. Girls were playing and it was February.”

This was a place I knew, and had been to, and recognised. But the old stands and the scoreboard were entirely gone. I’d never been to this stadium (“stadium”) before. I’d never watched footy from this angle, from this elevation in the weird sole temporary stand set up on the forward flank, and with this backdrop to the ground. Is this what a genuine St Kilda crowd looks like? I remember exactly what Molly McDonald’s goal looked like and sounded like from where we were sitting. And so, is that what a genuine St Kilda crowd sounds like?

***

St Kilda isn’t associated with success. From the 1870s to the 2010s (who knows what magic the 2020s will bring), the club has been known as any or all of inoffensive, incompetent, inaccurate, wasteful, terrible, more concerned with the Saints Disco than the Saturday afternoon, unlucky, unfortunate, poor, poorly, wayward, bad, a joke, and absolute fucking rubbish. Ultimately, unsuccessful and heartbreaking. Over the past decade, even just the memory of hoping for a premiership again became something that belonged to another dimension. The club again became that joke.

You could argue that in true St Kilda fashion, any concern of success on Sunday was cast aside. That we were just happy to be there. This would certainly sell the team itself short (the tackling alone would tell you that it was playing with purpose). Many St Kilda teams – many at Moorabbin – couldn’t lay claim to so much. For one day we could forgive the L. This was about the W (maybe one day the AFL can sort itself out with the T). Sunday was the most positive St Kilda experience I’ve had for some time.

***

By Sunday morning, the constant references to “RSEA Park” had given way to “Moorabbin”. But the ground’s naming sponsor dominates the Linton Street frontage in the same elevated place the club’s logo once did; the same logo that gets smaller and smaller on the club jumper as the seasons go by. For all the changes at Moorabbin that have taken place over the years, it still felt like Moorabbin. It felt like St Kilda’s home, even if it was broken down along with the club through 2009 and 2010, and is now being slowly rebuilt and being reacquainted with the supporters. It was relief, as if the club had invited every one of its supporters to come to Moorabbin and dream of wearing the St Kilda jumper.

There was a freewheeling element to the way the team played. That can have a negative connotation – was it the carefree Saints Disco style of the 80s, or the barnstorming days in 1991 and 1992 led by Lockett and Harvey and Loewe and Winmar? Perhaps the candy striped 2004 and 2005 seasons of the GT era, when St Kilda became St Kilda again? Maybe this was more of a 2003-style performance, as the team was developing.

Indeed, it was the dashing blonde-haired player wearing number 1 who made a big impression and wrote their name into history at Moorabbin. This St Kilda jumper is familiar, too: a more prominent white panel that is more in line with the traditional and bolder version of the tri-panel, which is really black with white and a classy dash of red. The cut of the jumper means the logo is more prominent, too.

Jake Niall’s article considered what could have been. This was a genuine St Kilda crowd. What if a few different decisions had been made by the league and then by the club itself over time? The G. G. Huggins stand was gone – all of original pieces are (I managed to get the Gate 3 sign for my Dad when they were being pulled apart) – but it was still Moorabbin. Was it racking up another loss? Was it The Fable Singers? St Kilda felt like St Kilda. And for what Sunday represented for the club and beyond, we were fucking thrilled to be there.

***


It’s hard to reasonably articulate how excellent it was to have the team run out to The Fable Singers version of the club song. It was great to find afterwards that Channel 7 had patched into it in the broadcast as it was happening (usually something reserved for post-final siren scenes). How good to have that playing in that moment. I’m not 100% sure how or why the change was made, but I hope it is permanent across both St Kilda teams. The AFL’s Pine-O-Cleen version took one match in 2018 to become synonymous with a club that had lost its way on and off the field, and had lost touch with and the trust of its supporters. I’m not going to go as bonkers as I did in the moment, lest the club curiously change its mind and ditch it again, and there will be time for me to go bonkers about it and mention the state of it every week for another year. The AFLW team that ran out to The Fable Singers version of the song was running out to the same soundtrack of decades of Saints teams before them, that celebrated moments that heralded a new era, or indeed, the chance of reaching the Promised Land. It sounded like St Kilda.

***

“There are two classes of men who play football. With one the pleasure of participating is more than sufficient recompense for defeat: the other class thinks that a win is above everything else. To the first class I think those happy, genial Saints belong.”
The Australasian, 1894

St Kilda obviously didn’t come into being with the creation of the VFL, but more is known about St Kilda’s 1897 team that lost at Victoria Park in the first ever round of the competition (and then just kept on losing) than the 1873 team that played a match against Carlton’s reserves, wearing red and black hoops and a white handkerchief around their neck. But we are constantly reminded of that history. The year printed is now printed on every St Kilda jumper, and as of the year, the inside of the collar bears a short summation of the old St Kilda club’s black and white being combined with the red and white of South Yarra. No incarnation of this club was or has been successful. Few of the players of the early VFL days are household names, even for Saints fans. Bill Matthews? Joe Hogan? Tom McNamara? (No, not Dave). Fortunately, we will have a much better record audio and visual record of this day, from the moment the team ran out, Molly McDonald’s goal, and every one of Georgia Patrikios’s game-high 18 disposals.

 ***

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What does the club represent? What represents the club? Red, white and black? Moorabbin? The name “St Kilda”? The old St Kilda team that you can find made reference to in Trove articles before 1873? Once the suburb itself was a bayside getaway, home to our Junction Oval and then a bunch of loose rockers that are still broadly tied to the club’s image, all of which contributed to the club’s identity. Now it represents Port Melbourne to Portsea, or perhaps now “the South”, unless Hawthorn’s Dingley tip is predictably successful, we make some more mis-steps and “Port Melbourne to Portsea” comes to include Spirit of Tasmania’s berth at Station Pier.

Sunday represented a whole lot more than any of those things. Individuals, social progression, and names and circumstances that have taken on a belated place in history. From the women’s football match in 1921 – 99 years ago – as part of the St Kilda Football Club Carnival held at the Junction Oval (which featured players wearing the red, yellow and black V jumper worn from 1919 to 1922), covered in Table Talk under the header “Should women play football?” – to Dana De Bondt captaining a St Kilda representative side in a curtain raiser in 2017, through to Georgia Walker, the Southern Saints’ first ever captain, who was forced to retire in the team’s first season at just 19 years of age because of concussion issues.

By late Sunday afternoon, the crowd was already audibly saying “Molly!” whenever Molly McDonald went near it. There was a notable lift in noise when Georgia Patrikios was anywhere near it. People were already wise to referring to Caitlin Greiser as the G-Train. And then, in the final quarter the ultimate marker of attachment to a St Kilda team: audible exasperation and annoyance when Jess Sedunary tried one too many moves close to goal as the game slipped away and got caught holding the ball.

I grew up being told if I was good enough and worked hard enough I could play for St Kilda. Not because I showed anything in particular, but because I was a cisgender male, and white and straight to boot. So many people who have given so much to this club – and so much to the game – were never even afforded the fantasy, nor the daydreams, because they weren’t boys, because they were girls, because they were ladies, because they were women, because they were female, because for whatever reason no-one ever came up with a good explanation for, they just couldn’t and shouldn’t.

This was beyond the lifestyle choice of watching a club break down over the course of a decade in the artificial lighting of the Concrete Disney store. This was a celebration of the club playing in its heartland, at its home, and a celebration of all the fantasies and daydreams to be in red, white and black.

The rest is history

by Tom Briglia

“Hometown goes wherever you go”
– Haley Bonar

 

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For the first time, anyone in my generation lived the existence of those St Kilda supporters that had come before us. Following a club that failed to build on the greats before it and make something of itself, instead collapsing into the joke that had been the subject of well-worn gags since its disastrous entry into the VFL. Hell, since 1873.

That identity that made our experiences as young supporters during 1997 that much more pronounced, surrounded by parents or relatives or family friends and public sentiment who we could sense were experiencing something that didn’t just happen at St Kilda. It was hard to ignore the historical weight behind that entire season, even as a nine-year-old. Even accounting for the 1998 and 1999 collapses and 2000 wooden spoon, the arrival of Riewoldt and Koschitzke, Malcolm Blight and an aggressive recruiting drive set up the next 1+10 seasons (five for each of GT and Ross), meant my generation had lived a life of heavily weighted hope, expectation, and not-quite-success.

By quirk of our arbitrary time measurements and cultural reference points, the final year of the decade marked the 10 year anniversary of the 2009 season and its sad and wasteful end, while also being well as the closing year of the decade that began with 2010, a season that would ultimately revolve around the Qualifying Final win and then the Grand Final Draw.

This decade was supposed to start with a premiership defence, if not for bizarrely poor kicking on that Grand Final day in 2009. The gateways that appeared open in that moment of Round 19 in August of that year – everything that was written for us, the path paved – should have meant were celebrating a 10th anniversary this year, not mourning one. Eight top line players were missing in Launceston, Max Hudghton was captain, and 10 players with 51 games of experience or less took the field, and held off the reigning premiers to go 19-0 with teams outside of the eight to come in the last three matches of the home and away season. The Age certainly believed, beckoning fate on the club’s behalf by splashing a scrappy win on the front page of the Sunday sport section with a headline that was terrifying to us because, in that moment, quietly, what it was suggesting was probable. We didn’t know what that felt like. The 1966 premiership team had gathered for a reunion at the Launceston ground that day, and watched the 2009 Saints kick 10.14 (74), the same scoreline as that of the 1966 Grand Final.

Instead, the 2010s began with a dour, torrid redemption effort that so very nearly worked. For the first time perhaps in St Kilda history, the club was fielding a team that was good enough to win at will. Some fans still complained as unfashionable, uninspiring wins piled up. The Ross era was a template copy of the GT era, down to the 2004 and 2009 starts with late-season stumbles and the close losses at the end, to the wild, terrible and fantastical follow-ups in 2005 and 2010, right down to Lenny Hayes’ knee injuries in the comedown throes of 2006 and 2011.

The theme of reflection might serve to tie up a decade that has essentially been one of footy grieving. Those Grand Finals were a decade in the making – with Preliminary Finals and rightful premiership expectation throughout – and the cold comedown has lasted just as long. Part of me thinks we are still in some disbelief.

The Road to 2018

The 2009 headline in The Age wasn’t their only misstep in talking up the Saints. On the Saturday morning of Round 6 this year, the front page of the sport section declared us “the story of the year”. Indeed, for five weeks at the beginning of this year, it looked like the Road to 2018 worked. We were on top of the ladder on the Saturday night of Round 5. We celebrated goal loudly, we hit bodies hard. Within three months, Alan Richardson was sacked.

Cliché yes, but still truthfully, St Kilda sells itself on hope. What else is left? Even that is in short supply after the GT and Ross eras. Going to the footy in anticipation of seeing a brick that could become part of the club’s next premiership is a forgotten experience, giving way to simply supporting St Kilda as a lifestyle choice. “Where were you?” turned into “where was I?” as in, I actually can’t remember that nondescript, inconsequential few hours at an empty Concrete Dome in artificial light that brought the weekend to a close by two in the afternoon.

This has become a chaotic swamp of boredom and anxiety we hadn’t lived for a sustained period of time, never mind the heartbreak of literally everything that happened from 2002 to 2011, never mind the humiliation of everything that didn’t happen from 2002 to 2011.

Really, the aughts and the 2010s are mirror images. A coach sacked and a wooden spoon in 2000 to a Grand Final in 2009, and in this decade starting with Grand Final – two of them – and a sacked coach in 2019 as the club officially acknowledged the rebuild had failed, and that the Road to 2018 never had materialised beyond a marketing stunt.

The Road to 2018 was paved with a press release for a supporter base that was depressed as fuck and hoping to hear from the club that all we had to do was draft young guys like we’d done over the 10 to 15 years earlier. In the fineprint of The Road to 2018 we will read that it actually has next year to deliver a premiership before it can be officially considered a failure. Otherwise, where are all the New Zealand members? Where are the 50,000 members in Australia? We certainly haven’t finished in the top four any time lately.

Richmond’s plan from 2009 is on course to deliver three premierships, and the 75,000 member number is now more than 100,000. We have watched them go from the laughing stock of 37 years to the greatest club in the land. Not only was there time for this in the 2010s, but Hawthorn won three premierships, the Bulldogs broke their 62-year drought, two new clubs to entered the AFL, and Collingwood has already run through their cycle between flag tilts.

The Draw

Brendon Goddard’s mark and goal in the final quarter of the 2010 Grand Final would have become one of the greatest moments in VFL/AFL history. The Milne bounce is the most oft-cited moment in that game now given the result, but the ball could just as likely have bounced the other way – back towards open play – or bounced up for him, or have bounced on straight through for a freak Lenny Hayes goal. There was still plenty of time left in the game. Worth reminding ourselves that between BJ’s mark and the bounce, Collingwood had grabbed back the lead, and then had a set shot to extend the margin beyond that one point.

Poor kicking by Collingwood had allowed us back into the game, and if not for a Travis Cloke miss before half-time we would have gone into half-time 29 points down. We simply weren’t good enough to have been as close as Geelong had kept themselves one year earlier when we were missing our own shots. Never mind the Milne bounce, the first half was our biggest problem.

There’s nothing new here. Thinking of passages of play unfolding differently still make you wince or catch on your breathing just that little bit. I still feel the exhaustion sitting on the third level of the Southern Stand one week later watching the Collingwood players walk around the ground as the sun disappeared behind the Ponsford. The Replay felt like the gateway from the GT and Ross eras to the rest of our lives.

The Irrelevance

Few St Kilda highlights beyond 2010 would feature in any “best of” packages for a given year, let alone a decade. No moments to get attached to, few games to get us attached to the players. The win over Richmond in 2017 has only become known as an aberration. We became attached to guys like Jack Newnes and Blake Acres only through attrition. They were the ones turning up in St Kilda jumpers.

None of our players would be considered for any AFL marketing or promotional material. What does a good player look like? What does a good team look like? We sought to replicate the rebuild of the 2000s and during the second of 2016 it was working. Only percentage kept us out of the eight, just two places below the eventual premiers. Gresham, Billings, McCartin, Acres, Bruce, Membrey et al were complemented by a Riewoldt hellbent on atoning for the sins of the past, and Jack Steven, David Armitage, Jarryn Geary, Mav Weller and Seb Ross were in support. Fanciful now, but for one summer it made sense. The younger guys were untradeable; by mid-2018 they were largely untraceable. Some have indeed been traded since.

The procession of players that we pinned our hopes onto in the same way we did to young Riewoldt, Kosi, Ball, Hayes, Dal Santo, Montagna, and Goddard et al is embarrassing. Jack Steven’s best and fairests didn’t mean anything for the club’s success, ultimately. Nor did Josh Bruce’s huge mark against GWS, or his 2015 season. Blake Acres, Tom Hickey, Rhys Stanley, Jack Newnes, Tom Lynch, Mark Hutchings and Jamie Cripps are all now at different clubs. Luke Ball left for nothing and won a premiership with Collingwood in 2010. Eli Templeton’s crucial goals that helped us get over the line against GWS and to go 2-0 at the start of 2014 and Spencer White’s three goals on debut later that year are trivial.

We desperately projected our desire to get out of the fresh post-2009 Grand Final and then Grand Finals hell on Arryn Siposs, Billy Longer, Tommy Walsh, Nick Winmar, Tom Lynch, Mav Weller, Cameron Shenton, Tom Lee, Terry Milera, Eli Templeton, Cameron Shenton, Nathan Wright, Jason Holmes, Tom Ledger, Ahmed Saad, Tom Simpkin, Brandon White and Nathan Freeman. Paddy McCartin and Hugh Goddard were our anchors up forward in defence for the next 12 years. Our Messiah Complex has now landed with Max King, and we’ll try and do everything we can to double that and pry his twin out of the grasp of Gold Coast and the AFL.

Drafts became less of an event as the echoes of what we were able to do over the 2000s faded. Is Chris Pelchen held responsible by anyone? Was it the club itself that couldn’t handle Hickey or Saad or Lee’s development? Was our drafting that bad? Was it the club’s development? We certainly turned the players into terrible kicks for goal, and the stain of inaccuracy on 2009 Grand Final day became a part of the team’s identity. From Ben Dixon to Billy Slater to Josh Bruce, no one knew what to do about it.

The State

We created new nightmares, leading into time-on in successive Grand Finals, with an aggregate margin of six points on the final sirens and managing to not win either. The summer following the 2010 season was headlined by the “St Kilda Schoolgirl”, and a heartbroken club was now back to being a public joke. The Stephen Milne and Andrew Lovett cases, while the incidents were nearly six years apart, still had more time to run.

On the field, the players looked like they’d rather be anywhere else. A loss in the last 20 seconds to Geelong in Round 1 after an entirely unnecessary Jason Blake turnover made sure to set off the first tremors of a comedown. The 2011 Grand Final was between the two teams that had beaten us in the Grand Finals of the two previous years.

By then, Ross had become the ex-Boss, off to the nearest thing to a joke to us in the AFL, our Bizarro rivals Fremantle. Maybe a change would give some life back to the club and the supporters. Scott Watters brought in Ahmed Saad and Terry Milera and some fast footy. In a year that felt like there was more of a future beyond it than 2011 ever did, you could make a decent case that inaccuracy proved the difference between pushing for top four and finishing ninth.

We had to face the day-to-day reality of what followed the failed premiership push in 2013. Stories floated around at the time and since about Watters’ willingness to take the captaincy of Riewoldt and install Tom Lee as co-captain, over-reaching around the club outside of his role as coach, a disconnect with senior and the coach over the team’s direction, and personality clashes. A call to SEN on the first morning of November ultimately brought the end of curious stint.

Richo, who wasn’t keen on the job two years earlier, was given the role in a scramble. Everyone else in the industry knew where they’d be in 2014. After the win over Essendon in Round 5 of Richo’s first season, we could secretly entertain the idea that we might be able to dodge the extended rebuild. Billings, Dunstan, Steven, Bruce, Newnes, Stanley, Templeton, Ross, Hickey, Armitage – maybe this could work. We lost to the winless Lions a week later in New Zealand, and for the 27th time in VFL/AFL history, we finished last.

Not until Andrew Bassat took over as president did anyone officially acknowledge the culture at the time “was a mess”. He has called out more than that, too. Bassat, Matt Finnis and Simon Lethlean have taken the club to a much different place. Brett Ratten is an exciting appointment, and having non-St Kilda people Gubby Allen, Jarryd Roughead, Brendon Lade and Billy Slater can only be a good thing. We know there are no guarantees. The last rebuild failed, and there’s no real reason why the next period should be the same, or any different.

For the first time in decades, we are left without genuine Saints taking the field. An easily traceable lineage from those that came from the Jeans era into Barker, Lockett, Frawley, Winmar, Loewe, Burke, Harvey and into Riewoldt, Hayes, Fisher, Montagna, Dal Santo et al has no heirs apparent.

The Experience

Large shits were taken on parts of the club’s identity and spirit. Seaford was an awful mistake before it happened, while it was happening, and will remain so. The administration’s efforts to get the club back to Moorabbin were huge.

The club song was replaced with a weak cover version for literally no given reason at the start of 2018. The club itself has bizarrely dodged what otherwise seems to be an innocuous query. Playing other songs after goals during games, however – that was deemed a pass by the marketing team, also early in 2018. Round 1 of that year was the first time I didn’t enjoy being at the footy in my life. The theatre of the game had been sucked out by event planners who don’t care for that. People in the members section became visibly and audibly annoyed by it – for some reason the club kept going with it as the margin blew out to eight goals in the final quarter of Round 3 in 2018. Another match day addition no-one asked for that was also brought in at the start of 2018 was the playing of Saintly Hymns chants over the loudspeaker. Not only does it negate and interrupt the atmosphere across the ground, it dilutes one of the few things that give a specific part of the Concrete Dome some genuine character and some semblance of asymmetry – the people behind Saintly Hyns themselves, whose chants grew organically on the level one members’ pocket.

Playing home games at the Concrete Dome turned into playing home games at a concrete Disney store. And no, it doesn’t need to be an inevitability. The weekend ends early because the stadium was suspiciously not built to the right orientation. Every game now is under lights. Every game looks the same. The 1997 Grand Final has an apocalyptic quality because of the eerie overcast conditions that took hold in the second half. Why do you remember the 2009 Grand Final so painfully? Because it physically hurt to be sitting in the wind and the sleet and the rain, and it was so cruel that the sun came out for the Cats as the siren sounded.

I’m not exactly sure what going to the footy is anymore. This isn’t worth the “it’s for the kids” weird generational disconnect argument. I watched a Carlton crowd herald the return of the Blues as a force in the AFL in the elements at the MCG late this season. The Fable Singers version of the club song, a home ground that is actually a footy ground and doesn’t have a roof, young guys playing like they give a shit. The crowd itself mattered, the footy itself mattered, given life by a context that had developed over several months and beyond. Carlton fans were queuing more than an hour before the game to get their tickets. The roar when McKay’s goal went through was the roar of a sleeping giant. No roof or changed song or Spider-Man wall needed. And you know what? That was one of the better days at the footy this year. Maybe the next division in the game is clubs who trade on playing footy, and clubs who trade a match day experiences that will be outdated by the time we leave the ground.

The Legacy

The “Riewoldt generation” is a term I happily borrow/steal from an excellent Jake Niall article written in 2012. For all intents and purposes, the Riewoldt generation was supposed to have reshaped and rebuilt this footy club. The gravitational forces around Seaford and then Moorabbin, the special unknowns that constitute “culture”, wherever St Kilda has wandered since 1873, wore it all down.

The weight of culture and history was too much. This decade was spent watching that legacy of the Riewoldt generation being dismantled. Somehow, even through the most turbulent and hopeful and terrifying and successful period, St Kilda remained more St Kilda than ever. One premiership, and finding fantastical ways to deliver hope and deliver heartbreak. The idea of the Saints reaching the summit felt daring, like it would was to do something wrong, to break the footy laws. We have been punished for even attempting to do so since.

Whose fault was all of this? Nettlefold’s? Westaway’s? Summers’s? Kim Duthie’s? Ross Lyon’s? Richo’s? Tony Elsaug’s? Jason Blake, for kicking the ball to the only spot he shouldn’t have in the final minute in that first game of 2011?

We found out what would become of the Riewoldt generation, and we lived the first distinguishable period after an era that in the early months of 2004 felt like we had forever in front of us and everything to enjoy. That is added to the decades we grew up hearing about, and that we will talk about. Stories of the great teams of the 1960s and the 1970s, of the Saints Disco and Saints Discounts of 22 cents in the dollar in the 1980s; the resurgence in the early 1990s and the singular reference only required by the phrase “1997”. They will be joined over time by stories about Riewoldt, GT and Ross eras of the 2000s, the 2010 season and Draw. And now, a long and cold comedown.

All of those history books and footy club profiles we read as kids featured the same sad note when it came to the Saints; “Premierships: 1966”. We thought there would be at least one addition to that. We had never been so close to the second coming when the siren went on Grand Final Day in 2010. At the end of 2019, the idea of a premiership is something that is on a different plane of existence. A different time, a different place, a different world altogether. Forgive any of us for wanting to go back 10 years. Of course, that’s a long time for anything, but part of us still hopes that we got it wrong, or there was a glitch, or we’re just remembering it incorrectly, and it turned out the way we thought and hoped and really wished it would.

On a Saturday afternoon in Launceston in 2009, as it turned towards September, St Kilda came the closest it ever has to invincibility; to being a sure thing. The rest is history.

Cut up the past

by Tom Briglia

Round 23, 2019
Sydney Swans 6.2, 6.3, 11.4, 17.7 (109)
St Kilda 2.5, 5.9, 7.12, 8.16 (64)
Crowd: 33,722 at the SCG, Saturday, 24th August at 1.45pm

What do we remember from dead rubber games to close out the season in the past? A comfortable last round win over Fitzroy at a drenched Western Oval in 1994. Spider Everitt forewarning the competition of what was to come with 7.7 out of 20.24 against Adelaide in 1996 (Adelaide didn’t need to provide any warning, it turned out). Geelong edging us at Kardinia Park in 2003, as that rivalry really emerged. A sunny day at the MCG against the Tigers with Fraser – retiring for the first time – kicking a goal after the siren to ice a 10-point win (Andrew Thompson retired for the first, and, to date, only time also on that day). A tight and entertaining win against the Blues on a sunny day with the Concrete Dome roof open in 2012 that was Brett Ratten’s last as Carlton coach. Lenny’s, and CJ’s and Gwilt’s, last games against the Crows in 2014. Roo kicking nine against the Lions at the end of 2016, where we appeared to be racing down the Road to 2018. Our kids were untradeable, our senior players still high performers. Fast forward two years to an echoing concrete dome, with the club beaten down and the North Melbourne end having their own party as they willed Ben Brown to the Coleman Medal sent off Jarrad Waite.

***

By quirk or by quark, or whatever, Sam Rowe played his first game for St Kilda, and his 100th and last. In an era of high production values for social media content, this was a story that told itself, and never needed to be plumped-up filler for fans in the cold June cage of a faltering season. The video made by the club during the week was neatly respectful.

He joins Mark Dwyer, Fergus Watts and Colm Begley as players in recent decades that came to St Kilda to play just one match, and adds to a longer list of players that came to St Kilda for brief and perhaps curious finishes to storied careers built elsewhere: Matthew Clarke, Sean Charles, Damian Monkhorst, Tony Francis, Brian Wilson, Jim Krakouer, Geoff Ablett.

Rowe tossed the coin. He had a couple of chances to kick a goal late in the last quarter, but hooked them both. In the final minutes he put in the hardest chase of possibly his entire career. No goal that he was so deserving of, but his presence on the ground was celebration enough of his journey.

Sydney’s own retirees saluted in the last quarter. There was a sense of inevitability once the Swans kicked the first couple of goals of the final term. On the St Kilda side, there was simply not enough to play for, apart from very unsuccessfully trying to spot up Rowe on the lead. Until that point we weren’t interested in using the ball effectively anyway, be it under pressure or not, long or short, forward or back. Like we were the opposition jumpers perched in the background of Carlton’s homecoming last week, so we were for Sydney’s big day on Saturday.

A final exhibition match, a final showcase, a final celebration of whatever this past year was. Long to kick a quality snap goal and celebrate like the season was still on the line. Lonie to squirt a set shot and fail to make the distance via his pokey set-shot kicking style, and scuff a short pass to Rowe in the final quarter. Ross twice giving off a bad handball sideways to Wilkie who was stationary. Lonie missed Hannebery on his own, the bounce missed him and then Bruce, who slipped over. This was looking like a lot of park footballers, but everyone is a park footballer on the last day of the home and away season. The umpires let go Hunter Clark getting slung after getting the footy, and then Stuv throwing Parker to the ground off the ball. It’s been a long season for them, too.

The things that made the season; they all get another run around to remind us of the dirt and gravel and dust and dried grass and the weeds that make up the bulk of a footy season, among the few things that did flower in 2019. Inaccuracy made another timely appearance. At one stage we were 4.12. Let’s take one last look at the big board:
13.7 (85)
10.16 (76)
9.12 (66)
10.14 (74)
15.5 (95)
10.8 (68)
10.10 (70)
10.10 (70)
10.11 (71)
9.14 (68)
9.15 (69)
11.14 (80)
8.11 (59)
10.10 (70)
11.7 (73)
8.9 (57)
17.14 (116)
15.14 (104)
10.10 (70)
10.12 (72)
10.8 (68)
8.16 (64) 

***

The fists are down now, if we weren’t exhausted on the ropes three months ago, or on the canvas two months ago. While the pre-season matches are exhibition shrouded in all sorts of messed up fantasies and storyline, the last round is exhibition shrouded in relief and reflection. Reflections of reflections. What happened to running teams off their feet at Marvel Stadium? What happened to Billy Slater? To the loud goal celebrations? To Jack Steele going out of his way to hit Jake Stringer and give away 50 metres after he clocked Jimmy Webster? One more time. Let’s go out and kick the footy, let’s go out and watch the footy. 

It is a lifestyle. It frames the day, it frames the week, and the season frames the year. Footy is a way of marking time. The season is a story, tied in with the calendar year. The depths of winter are framed by it. Saturday saw the completion of another season in the story of this club, and the stories of our own in supporting it. All of that goes away now – from a St Kilda perspective – and that leaves us to our own day-to-day. Something goes away. Time to sit on the grass in the sunshine and not need to think nor worry where or when we need to be this weekend.

What fucking relief. To finish off this season, we were afforded the vague luxury of not actually having to go anywhere, certainly not to outright surrender a sunny late August Saturday afternoon to the confines of the Concrete Disney Store, which on the weekend added “terrible basketball venue” to its CV. Consistently it tries to be a futuristic SPORTSBALL AND COLDPLAY stadium but has dated fucking terribly, to go with being built the wrong way. It won’t take long for the basketball court configuration alone to be looked back on as a quirk of overzealous salesmanship. Last week at the MCG was a sad reminder of what the experience of going to the footy has become with the Concrete Dome being St Kilda’s home ground. Watching the team play in the elements again on Saturday felt awfully foreign and fleeting.

Being inside all footy season is exhausting. Writing this blog is exhausting (although that one’s entirely on me). A second season of emailing the club and social media posts asking about the club for a single fucking answer about the club song that have been really weirdly dodged take their toll. Something – anything – would be nice; surely the Ultimate Membership gets me something? No? Oh, ok.

***

All the highlights of St Kilda games past don’t really mean anything over the off-season. Or for anything now. Marking the 15-year anniversary of Stephen Milne kicking 11 against the Lions on the club site and social media channels three days after the close of this season – and this decade – is sad. What the fuck is the point of that? “Remember those times, when we were good and there was a future?? Now it’s a Tuesday night three eras later and Jake Carlisle and Josh Bruce all of a sudden are on the trade table. Stuv is probably gone, Bruce was either very unconvincing or very hungover talking about his own situation on Channel 7. Is anyone that fussed? We’re going nowhere fast – certainly not because of those individuals; but from a supporter’s view a chasm lies between the heart of the club and the players on this team.

After several years of slow and staggered disconnection, the prospect of a new season is more exhausting, and the end of the footy season an increasingly bigger relief. A time to revel in the wildest, most frivolous thoughts. The knowledge that another season will inevitably come around gives us a cushion for any brazen self-dares. They’re getting wilder by the year, though. What would it be like if we followed the game but not have to deal with the Saints? What would it be like to not follow the game at all? What if we don’t need this?