Zero?

By Tom Briglia

Round 23, 2016
St Kilda 5.5, 11.7, 17.8, 25.11 (161)
Brisbane Lions 3.4, 6.8, 9.11, 15.13 (103)
Crowd: “19,000 approx” at Etihad Stadium, Sunday, August 28th at 1.10pm

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Nostalgia plays a varying but key role in our individual relationships with footy and the clubs we support. It follows that the warming weather of August is unmistakably tied to all that goes with final stages of a footy season.

Chances are you’ve seen enough complete seasons in which the milder temperatures and later sunsets either represented the impending breather you could take after the home-and-away season, or it beckoned you to run further into it and see your club achieve something that you may not be sure you’ll see again – or, for St Kilda fans, get painfully close to achieving something that they may not ever actually achieve in your time. The first drought was 93 years; this one is 50 and counting.

Regardless of how your season is placed at this point of year, there is always some sense of looking forward and some sense of reflection. How, and why, are we here? Where are we going? (And, if you’re lucky enough – is this it?)

Of course, seasons like the one we’ve enjoyed in 2016 aren’t looked back on in true favour until we know that it led to something positive. The 2003 season we look at now with positivity because it was the stepping stone out of the dark ages of the 1997 Grand Final fallout and Tim Watson era, and into the heady days of 2004-onwards in which the eve of every season felt like the eve of a potential premiership tilt. Some proved to be more so than others.

By the end of Sunday the season would become the the third out of 10 we’d finished ninth; all that was left to be revealed was if it was by percentage or by a game. Hindsight’s 20/20 but given we know now it was percentage, the results of the Hawthorn, (first) North Melbourne and Gold Coast games all become that much more poignant.

Nevertheless, it was important that we end the season on a positive note. Plenty of goodwill had been created a on Saturday at the Captain’s Run at Moorabbin, with a massive turnout that demonstrated the growing sense of anticipation at the club and amongst its players generated through this year

Matt, Evan and I were queued up at the Saints Shop sale so we could make our annual purchase of player issue jumpers; we just ended up getting a whole lot more than usual to add to our growing collections. Tim Membrey clash, Seb Ross home and Blacres NAB Cup for me; Paddy clash and Gresh home for Matt, D-Mac home for dad, Josh Bruce clash for Rich, and Mav clash for Evan and David Armitage clash for his brother James.

Dad is a huge fan of D-Mac’s and so for an early Fathers’ Day present we grabbed his player issue home jumper and shoved a bunch of kids on the fence out of the way to make sure we got pole position on the fence to get it signed for him. D-Mac was one of the first players over to the crowd on the fence but quickly realised no one was actually jostling for his signature (unlike Jade Gresham, Josh Bruce and Mav nearby who saluted for Matt, Rich and Evan respectively) and looked a bit flat and was about to walk further along the boundary for someone to recognise who he actually was. However, I chimed in with bloke-ised “Oi, D-Mac” his face lit up. I asked if he could make it out to to my Dad and he very kindly (and neatly) made it out to him with the “Go Saints!” tag as well, and his signature at the top of white panel. Matt and I couldn’t give it to Dad quickly enough afterwards and I’d like to think, ignoring D-Mac’s clear development over the past few weeks anyway, that my visible desperation to get his signature only further boosted his ego and carried him to one of this best matches in his early career on Sunday, and set him on the path for a long, fruitful career at the Saints.

Everyone would have been pretty flat if we dropped this one to arguably the most irrelevant team in the competition. The “Bad News Bears” was one thing but the current version, having a three-peat in its cabinet, is now just a large mess that represents an expansion club from a tacky city that for no particular reason over one the competition’s oldest and historical clubs in Fitzroy, and is slowly taking the Lion down with it.

A pretty free-flowing game – 24 goals to 15, with 14 goals kicked in the last quarter – would prove to be Leppitsch’s last game, but it was probably always going to be no matter the result. It also happened to be the same game that his cousin Brandon White debuted in, and against the side he grew up supporting.

Following the respective trouncings the previous day of fellow also-rans Melbourne and Richmond when the Lions booted two quick early goals you might have thought we were in for a real raffle, with all prior form truly out the door. But the pressure eventually lifted and matched the intent that the pictures from the rooms before the game indicated – each player embracing one another individually, and all players linked together in a circle for some final words from Richo.

Slowly the tide shifted but it wasn’t until My Favourite Hair in the AFL’s brilliant second quarter did we look absolutely sure things.

I’ve said on this thing a few times that a lot of the talk in these reviews isn’t so much focused on the better players. In the past Lenny, Dal and Joey never got a lot of airtime here, and right now our better players are probably getting a bit more of a mention than usual because it’s someone like Blacres or Ross that have shown quite pronounced development or improvement, and it’s a talking point amongst Saints fans. There’s not so much of a point to saying “oh and Nick Riewoldt played well” because no shit, of course he did. I must say, Riewoldt has been mentioned here often so I can just say “My Favourite Hair in the AFL” and because he does so much stuff in general, and this year may be a bit more than usual given his value to the team in his new role. But all those mentions, throughout this year and previous seasons certainly belie what he brings to this club.

I spend far more time talking about Gresh or Ross or Blacres or Membrey than the guy who has effectively led this team from 2005 (2006 under Luke Ball was quite forgettable) and probably has worked harder to develop his game year-on-year than anyone else. And so after a season in which he dropped a bunch of kilos for so he could preserve his knee and play a new role up and around the ground to allow Bruce, Membrey and Paddy to develop their own games, in the final game he pulled out a nine-goal, 26 possession, 21-mark effort. On what was a really relaxed day out at the footy only he could somehow manage to spark a sense of urgency around the ground – the one figure synonymous with the extremes of what should have been a premiership era – the last couple of minutes had the ground wanting goal number 10, but it was fitting that Armo in his 150th would take his shot late when he had it within range and kicked the goal (cheeky smile aside after he took the mark, which had us half-expecting him to pop it over the top to Roo). What will we do without him? We’re not quite ready for him to go – I mean that from a football sense; we’re a better team developmentally with him out there and we’re a better team overall with him out there.

There was a bit of party atmosphere by the end the match. It wasn’t quite the same as 2013, which was tinged with a bit of sadness in what was Milne, Kosi and Jason Blake’s farewell games. I bring that up because the focus was on three guys whose careers we had ridden from start to finish, and for all intents and purposes should have been part of the group that delivered the club its second premiership. However, on that day – against a Fremantle team of mostly second-rate part-timers we recorded the most ever disposals by a team and players lined up for shots at goal at will (Kosi four times after coming on as the sub), with Milne and Blake’s late goals genuinely nice moments (as was Kosi’s poster, which as he revealed recently was known to be a poster only by him and the umpire upstairs before it was overturned).

But on Sunday, Riewoldt’s nine goals was a (rather large) microcosm of the mix of reflection and forward-looking of the day. Assuming his body can hold up, then surely there’s two years left in him. It was somewhere between a reminder of what he’s done for this club – and perhaps what his standing would be had we won a premiership in his time – but also that he’s not done yet. And that was just a starting point to what else Sunday offered – what might be in store longer-term for this club as the younger guys continue their development.

So this was ultimately a party of optimism, knowing that we could bank today and Riewoldt’s nine goals and the performances of Seb Ross, Blake Acres, D-Mac, Jack Newnes and even Brandon White – and everything else that had happened in the last two-thirds of the season – and have the entire off-season rest up and think about all the things that could be in the coming years. We might need that rest, too, because if things develop as we hope they do than at this time next year, and hopefully for a number of years afterwards, we’re gonna be very anxious a lot of the time because we might be nearing something big, or something heartbreaking. The 2004-2011 period, for all sorts of reasons, were nothing if not exhausting.

That said, there’s an energy around the club at the moment. We’re ready to go again. You can see it on the field in the way the players all went to Brandon White after he kicked his goal, you can see it in D-Mac and Blacres naturally finding themselves exactly where they need to be, you can see it in the follow-up work of Membrey and Bruce and even Paddy when he’s out there. You can see it in Jade Gresham dancing through traffic. We don’t know how it all ends for this team, but right now we are at the point of richest optimism, youth and hope before – if plans come to fruition – the future we’ve been waiting for becomes the now.

It’s quite accurate in 2016 to say “Morrissey says a lot of things”. But once he said, “Six months is a long time” (yes, I’m about to relate a Smiths quote to footy). Every season, even if part of a broader journey, is its own story.

Of course, seasons like this aren’t looked back on favour until we know that it led to something positive. The 2003 season we look at now with some positivity because it was the stepping stone out of the dark ages of the 1997 Grand Final fallout and into the heady days of 2004-onwards, in which every season until after the Grand Final Replay represented a potential premiership tilt. Some proved to be more so than others.

Even the heartbreak of 2009 isn’t contextually complete without knowing and acknowledging what happened the following year, and then the difficulties of 2011 onwards – right up until this day, thinking about what happened over the past weekend and thinking about Carlisle returning, thinking about how the young guys will go next year and thinking about what will happen over the trade and draft periods.

We won’t know what all of this counts for a while. But right now – as strange as it feels to say it – feels good. It feels like we’re about to start something.