“We used to have a goldfish bowl when the kids were small. At some point, one of the fish got sick, started swimming slower, and eventually died. The other two quickly followed.
Of course, being good parents, we went to a pet shop, and bought a couple of new fish. Unfortunately, they quickly died too.
OK, what to do? Obviously, we're not getting good enough fish... So we looked up the Yellow Pages, asked around, found the best pet shop in our area, and went and bought two REALLY good, REALLY expensive fish, brought them home, and whacked them into the tank. Of course, they died within a few days.
The point of the story is: it doesn't matter how many fish you get, how great the fish are, what accessories you have, what plants and decorations you put in; if the water's contaminated, the fish will die!” – Dr. Moshe Goldberg
To me, the above quote perfectly articulates the disparity between what is seen to be required to have long term success as an AFL team in the modern game and how little attention is paid to the culture and environment that is so crucial to the intended recipe.
Whilst the analogy was intended in reference to the disastrous season of the 2012 Carlton Football Club that saw them go from Premiership favourites in round 3 to not even making the finals, it remains as relevant today for the St Kilda Football Club. A common thread between the two teams being the Saints’ senior coach, Alan Richardson, who also served as director of coaching at Carlton during the 2012 season.
Although St Kilda’s inability to find less murky waters has been prevalent in the game since prior to Federation, the parallels between the two teams remain clear to me, both as a long term member of the Carlton Football Club who saw out that frustrating season, and also a member of the VFL broadcast team who have covered the home games of St Kilda’s affiliate team, Sandringham for the past two seasons.
I think back to the 22nd of May 2016 – we broadcast Sandringham’s game against Werribee from Trevor Barker Oval. I’m new to the gig, but I’ve seen enough clubs at this level to see a stark contrast. The Casey team we covered the week early saw a cavalcade of assistants in the ears of players, some Melbourne assistant coaches, some Casey development coaches, even some Melbourne senior players are having their two cents worth. To a man, the attention and respect to what is being said is given. Justin Plapp wasn’t a fire and brimstone coach, nor was he one who used two words when one would suffice, but the players hung on his word, as they did Brett Allison’s, as they did Jade Rawlings’. It was evident in the style of play and the discipline to detail.
We’re broadcasting out of the office of the President of the Club, John Mennie, who had graciously allowed us in. Despite the lack of viewpoint of one set of goals, it’s a welcome relief from the wintery conditions outside. Beyond that, it’s a different set up. You see an East and West Germany-like divide in the rooms between the players, Sandringham affiliated and St Kilda-listed. Some are listening to their headphones, others nonchalantly kicking a ball against a wall, waiting for the 2’s to get it over and done with. Despite the lack of professional approach, this is the team at the time who are favourites for the VFL Premiership, and boasting several Saints players unlucky to not be starring at AFL level instead. We notice Peta Searle on ball-bag duties. It’s not the first time we notice it over the next few seasons. It’s disrespectful to a great mind of the game to be given such a menial task. The vibe that comes to mind is that the Saints have seen the PR benefit in having the first ever female on an AFL coaching staff list, and that’s where it ends. You can tell she wants to provide the same sort of guidance that Plapp, Allison and Rawlings are afforded from the right audience.
It's informally implied that the senior coach does not want to do an interview with our boundary rider, a long term stalwart of the station, who has high functioning autism. This has led to some interesting interviews at the times, certainly never dull, his enthusiasm and knowledge of the VFL paramount in his unique questioning style. In comparison to the extra time and accommodating, almost affectionate nature that we’d see Gary Ayres afford him pre-match and post-match alike, it comes off as low and unnecessary.
We’re instead afforded the presence of one his senior lieutenants, Brendan Allen. A blessing in disguise as there aren’t better people to listen analyze game plans and structures. Not only accurate in his diagnosis, but startlingly articulate about high-level concepts that idiots like me instantly get what he’s talking about. Brendan’s beaming ear to ear today, cheerfully informing us that to the best of his knowledge, the alignment between Sandringham and St Kilda will be ending at the end of the year. Everyone’s happy as it’s what’s best for both parties.
This would be where you would add a Ron Howard Arrested Development-style voiceover into this article. Simply in that context, “it did not last”.
A month later and the alignment is deemed to continue again, much to the shock of all parties, certainly no more so than the Sandringham-aligned players. Terse words are exchanged throughout the rest of the season between the leadership group consisting of ex-AFL players such as Trent Dennis-Lane and Myke Cook, and the CEO of the club, the controversial Danny Corcoran. The players feel that they had been misled about their opportunities for better game time with the ending of the alignment. From here, the wheels fall off, a 10-1 start turns into 10-8 and a semi final exit. Lindsay Gilbee is quickly appointed senior coach. The majority of the senior players from Sandringham seek opportunities elsewhere. Not much else changes headed into season 2017.
Harkening back to season 2012 with Carlton, a common criticism as the season wore on was the lopsided list structure. Just how many half-back flankers do we need? Josh Bootsma, Paul Bower, Marcus Davies, Nick Duigan, Rhys O’Keeffe, Andrew McInnes, Simon White are just some of the less successful call backs from that era. An even greater number of small forwards such as Andrew Collins, Dylan Buckley, David Ellard, Aaron Joseph, Frazer Dale complimenting the infamous 3 Amigos.
Looking at the St Kilda list over the Richardson-era the same characteristics remain. A list chockfull of half back flankers with one particularly good to above average characteristic and small forwards who don’t have what it takes to make the jump to making an impact in the midfield. And four ruckman. Often all in the same VFL line up.
I wondered often last year as to what benefit to Bailey Rice’s development were it for him to be wandering around without an assignment or an opponent playing third man up, even moreso when an AFL quality player of that position in Shane Savage was often played out of position to accommodate it.
The destruction of any good nature in the relationship between the Saints and the Zebras often saw some ludicrous sides named on paper and subsequently take the field. It seemed to be that Sandringham did what they were told in naming as many St Kilda players as possible, without any interest in the make-up of that side. Quite often you’d see some combination of Jason Holmes, Billy Longer, Lewis Pierce, Tom Hickey, Paddy McCartin and Rowan Marshall take the field. To their credit, they’ve seen the light this year and ensured Lewis Pierce received the necessary game time in the ruck at Frankston rather than rotate amongst as many as 4 of his peers.
We’ve seen Luke Dunstan, Jack Lonie and Jade Gresham go back to the VFL without any real improvement as players. Dunstan in particular appears to have stagnated as a player under a game plan that doesn’t necessarily suit his lack of kicking accuracy or penetration. We’ve yet to see any inclination to try and reinvent players such as Daniel McKenzie, Nathan Wright and Darren Minchington from the one-dimensional players well down the pecking order that they are.
It’s this culture and lack of preparation of the necessary framework that sees St Kilda in the spot that they are in now. More time has been spent fighting with its VFL affiliate and Frankston City Council over its failed venture into Seaford than it has into the development of its mid-range players to play the game style that Alan Richardson wants, or to develop a list deep enough and capable of doing so over the course of a season.
The Moorabbin fish tank is long overdue for a cleanout.