It’s 2:30 pm, Saturday, September 25, 2010. St. Kilda, having qualified for their second consecutive Grand Final, are set to do battle with the only club they have ever beaten on the last Saturday in September – the Collingwood Football Club. The Saints have dealt with plenty of adversity throughout the 2010 season, including a long-term injury to their superstar Nick Riewoldt and consistent criticism from the media about the club’s perceived lack of interest to engage outside of the ‘St Kilda bubble’.

Looking at their history, you could be fooled into thinking that simply making the Grand Final should be enough of a prize for the Saints. But following a heart-breaking twelve-point loss in the previous season’s decider, these Saints have learnt one unavoidable truth – there are no prizes for second place. As umpire Brett Rosebury bounced the ball to start the game, many Saints supporters could have been excused for reflecting on history and sensed that this may be the last time, for a long time, that the club they loved stood at the precipice of immortality.

 

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A Very Brief History of Nearly Everything at the St Kilda Football Club

 

The story of the St Kilda football club is one that almost defies understanding. Officially formed in 1873, they initially competed in the Victorian Football Association (VFA) before being invited to join seven other clubs (Collingwood, South Melbourne, Essendon, Melbourne, Geelong, Fitzroy and Carlton) to form the breakaway Victorian Football League (VFL) ahead of the 1897 season. Of their early seasons, The Australasian newspaper would famously opine that 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.” Their early history in the nascent VFL would give more than enough proof for this statement to be true – it would take until the first game of their fourth season before the Saints would taste the sweet nectar of victory; a one-point triumph over Melbourne. In fact, the story of the Saints first win deserves a deep dive of it’s own. The match was ruled a win some six days after the game following a Saints appeal against the initial drawn result – Melbourne player Dick Wardill’s mark and resulting behind were eventually deemed to have occurred after the siren for three-quarter time, not before it. But, that’s a story for another day.

It would take until the 11th season of the VFL (1907) for the Saints to play their first final – an eventual 56 point loss to Carlton. They would make it to the post-season again the next year, before being beaten by the same foe, this time by 58 points. In amidst a six-season sabbatical from September action, the Saints would create history, though not in a way they would wish. The 1911 season saw levels of internal squabbling that are unfathomable by today’s standards. With senior St Kilda players threatening to strike over pay, the club committee felt they had no choice but to suspend the ‘troublemakers’. A newspaper report of one of St Kilda’s strike-affected games describes a scene of almost complete embarrassment.  “A depleted St Kilda side, fielding only seven regular senior players, was thrashed by Essendon … so dominant were Essendon that for them the match was rarely more than a practice run.” The 125-point drubbing at the hands of the Bombers followed a 114-point obliteration by Carlton the week before. The only upside, the same newspaper report would note, of St Kilda’s strike affected season was the “form of younger players like Roy Cazaly” (yes, that Cazaly), who it was hoped would carry the club to a period of success.

That hope would bear some fruit two years later when St Kilda finally banished their September hoodoo, winning two finals on their way to a club-first grand final against Fitzroy. Despite taking until the third quarter to kick their first goal, the Saints managed to cut the margin to just two points with a couple of minutes remaining. A mark taken within scoring range by Saints rover, Des Baird, looked destined to put the club on the doorstep of winning a premiership. However, in an action The Age would later charitably describe as “muddled”, Baird played on, trying to handball to teammate George Morrissey, not noticing that Morrissey was surrounded by opponents. If this were not St Kilda, Morrissey may have found a way to kick the goal, giving Saints supporters a great story to tell for years to come. But, as history will outline, good things seldom happen to the Saints.

Morrissey, pressured by opponents, missed the shot at goal, cutting the margin back to one-point. And that would be all she wrote for the Saints. Fitzroy’s two late goals blew the margin out to 13 points, and St Kilda were left with one of the great ‘what-ifs. What if Baird had gone back and kicked the goal? What if Morrissey had managed to kick the goal? Questions like these can loom over a club, become embedded in its psyche. A quick glance at American sports shows us countless teams who claim the forces of nature conspire against them. But this is not the way for St Kilda. They keep showing up, again and again, hoping that this year, maybe, things would be different. Everyone deserves a happy ending, right?

The Great War would impact the Saints in a relatively unique way. The 1914 season would see them miss finals, following close losses to Richmond, Carlton and Fitzroy, while in the 1915 season, the Saints decided to change the colours of their uniform – their traditional red, white and black happened to match the colours used by the Germans! In a move of great patriotism, the Saints changed their playing strip to red, yellow and black, colours which matched those of ally Belgium. The change in colours was largely irrelevant, though, as the Saints joined several fellow competitors in sitting out the 1916 and 1917 seasons, saying that to continue playing would represent a dereliction of national duty. Their return in 1918 would also see them return to September action, ultimately losing their semi-final match up with Collingwood by nine points.

The following years would see a talented squad torn apart by internal divisions both on and off the field as threats of strikes by the senior players loomed as an almost weekly occurrence. At one point, things got so bad at the club that players would need to be held back by the opposition lest a brawl break out between teammates. In fact, this would be how the next few decades largely played out for the Saints – brief appearances in September before a fall back down the ladder, internal squabbles and divisions, and then another brief appearance in September. Rinse and repeat.

Until the end of the 1960 season, that is. After a campaign that saw the Saints end with a respectable 9-9 record, coach Jim Francis, believing that he was about to be sacked, complained publicly that “certain players preferred to drink beer rather than train”, and attacked club President Graham Huggins. Unsurprisingly, Huggins sacked Francis days later. The man he instilled as Francis’s replacement would rebuild the tarnished image of the Saints, helping to deliver their only piece of (regular season) silverware – former St Kilda player Allan Jeans. Over the next five seasons, the Saints would make three finals series while debuting players like Ross Smith, Darryl Baldock, Carl Ditterich, Ian Stewart, Barry Breen and Kevin ‘Cowboy’ Neale, all of whom would become legends at the club.

We’ve now reached a period (the first of two that could be deemed a ‘golden period’) of St Kilda’s history where it is only fair to address a misunderstanding that most of the above has probably helped to cultivate. To say that the Saints have had no success would be wholly inaccurate and dismissive of their 1966 premiership triumph over Collingwood. Coupled with this triumph were individual honours – champion on-baller Ian Stewart won the 1965 and 1966 Brownlow medals, while the reliable Ross Smith would make it a hat-trick for the club, taking out the 1967 honour. Couched within the Saints first golden age – running from 1961 to 1973 – a wobbly behind off the boot of Barry Breen would give the Saints a one-point lead over the Pies on the last Saturday of September, 1966 ensuring the club’s first and only ascent to September glory. There would be other grand finals made during this period – 1965 and 1971 – but both would ultimately end in losses. The 1965 decider would end in a 35 point loss to Essendon, while the 1971 finale would see the Saints go down by seven points to Hawthorn.

While I could go on for an age about this period, and other events that occurred within it (and might in a later piece now that I think of it), it’s beyond the focus of this piece. Suffice to say that following their appearance in the 1973 finals (resulting in an eventual semi-final exit at the hands of Richmond), the Saints would endure a near twenty-season long finals drought. This would be broken by return appearances in 1991 (a seven point elimination final loss to Geelong) and 1992 (a 29-point semi-final loss to Footscray), before another, albeit shorter, drought would ensue.

I want to stress that this article is not designed to poke fun at St Kilda and their supporters, and I would hate for that impression to be given. Instead, it’s designed to celebrate them. This is a club, probably more than any other in Australian sport, which typifies the Australian spirit. It’s an honest battler, a tragic hero, constantly falling one step short of greatness. If we don’t celebrate these heroes, we risk missing out on an important lesson – it is the journey itself, not the destination, which deserves commemoration.

 

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Now the real story. The Saints return to finals action in 1997 would see them qualify for a grand final, and set the team on a path to their second golden age – running from 1997-2011. This fifteen season span sees the Saints make the finals nine times, the grand final three times, but ultimately add no silverware to that lone 1966 triumph. In typical St Kilda fashion, the peaks are incredibly high, and the troughs are extremely low. The aim of this piece is to chart the Saints course in this period, and see how they built, from the ground up, a side that could be described as ‘the best there nearly was’. 

 

1997-1998 A Shot at The Title

 

The 1997 season started badly for the Saints. Under head coach Stan Alves, the Saints had been slowly building into a genuine finals competitor, finishing the previous season just outside the eight. Boasting the likes of Robert Harvey, Nathan Burke, Stewart Loewe and Nicky Winmar, the Saints were expected to be going far better than their one win, four loss record after five games. It would be a match-up with cellar-dwellers Melbourne at Waverley that would see the Saints start to find some of the form that had been missing over the opening month and a half of the season. An 86 point victory, led by co-captain Loewe (five goals) and midfield dynamo Harvey (25 touches) started the Saints on a run six wins from seven starts, leaving them with an admirable seven and five record after 12 rounds – the second-best in the competition.

A four week run in the middle of the season must have bought great hope to any Saints fan. Starting in Perth with a 16 point victory over the premiers of 1994 (West Coast), the ’97 Saints continued to build their finals credentials with a 31 point win over the premiers of 1995 (Carlton) before finally completing a trio of wins over the last three premiers with a 54 point thumping of the champions of 1996 – North Melbourne. One of the more promising aspects of these wins was the form of secondary stars Peter Everitt (who averaged 19 touches and 22 hit-outs a game across these three wins) and Jason Heatley (who averaged five goals a game through this span), taking considerable pressure off the often too heavily relied upon Harvey, Loewe and Nathan Burke. Of course, this isn’t to say that Harvey, Loewe and Burke were down in these weeks – far from it. Rather it seemed to instil in the team an acknowledgement that, in order to be the best, they would need to be firing on all cylinders.

A ten-point loss to third-placed Adelaide at Football Park the following week did little to quell the confidence that had started to build. Everitt battled manfully against the Crows ruck duo of David Pittman and Shaun Rehn, Heatley, on a tough night for forwards, kicked two goals, and players like Joel Smith and Austin Jones continued to provide great run on the outside. Oh yeah, and Harvey had 43 touches and kicked two goals – not a bad night at the office! After fifteen rounds, the Saints found themselves with an eight and seven record, the same as five other teams, and battling for a spot in the top four.

As a fan, there are certain characteristics that you want to see from a team before you allow yourself to get carried away with thoughts of September glory – let’s call them the ‘premiership characteristics’. The first of these is the ability to win when not playing your best football. Maybe a star or two is out, some other important players are just a bit down for a game, but your lesser lights lift and drag your club over the line for a win. The second premiership characteristic you want is a backs-against-the-wall, come-from-behind win. These are really important as they can galvanise a playing group, providing the hard-nosed, never-say-die edge that all great team possess. The third characteristic, and perhaps the most important of them all, is you want a streak of victories. It doesn’t really matter when this streak happens, be it the start, middle or end, but it needs to happen. A winning culture, creating the expectation of a win before a game is even played, is so often the missing ingredient in nearly great teams. Without exception, great teams play with an expectation that every game will be a win and anything less is unacceptable.

Following their loss to the Crows in Round 15, the Saints went through the remainder of the home and away season undefeated, taking their record from one that was jostling for a spot in the top four to one that finished as minor premiers. Along the way, they ticked off each of the three ‘premiership characteristics’, starting with unfashionable, yet important victories over Hawthorn and Brisbane – both at Waverley Park – before an impressive win over finals aspirant Collingwood at the MCG. This set the third-placed Saints up with a mouth-watering round 19 clash against the fourth-placed Sydney Swans at the SCG. Sydney came into the game not having lost at the SCG in 20 matches. Midway through the second quarter, this match looked as though it would be 21, as the Swans led by 38 points. Late goals to the Saints cut the margin to 15 points at the long break. The third quarter was an ebb-and-flow contest, as the Saints tried to close the margin, while the Swans shut the door once and for all. A 16 point deficit at the final change could have disheartened the Saints. Instead, they believed. With a five-goal to one final quarter, the Saints ran over the top of the Swans, winning by nine points and solidifying their spot in the top three.

One thing the Saints had proven across these four wins was that they had a very potent forward line. Though they had been inaccurate, they’d created 147 scoring shots across four games – good enough for nearly 37 a game. Imagine that in today’s footy! When you have a forward line that boasts the likes of Loewe, Jason Heatley, Matthew Lappin, and Nicky Winmar, you don’t want to waste a second getting the ball down there. Throw in goal-kicking ruckman Peter Everitt and mids like Harvey and Jones, and you have a team that almost can’t help but score. Wins over Fremantle, Melbourne and Port Adelaide would take the Saints winning streak to seven, solidifying a first-place finish at the end of the home-and-away season, and setting up a home final against eighth-placed Brisbane in week one of the postseason (this was before the AFL decided to revamp the finals structure).

The Saints would eventually grind out a 46 point victory, sending them through to the preliminary finals for the first time since 1972, but the elation that should have been felt was tempered somewhat. Their first-picked ruckman, Peter Everitt – averaging 15 touches, 13 hit-outs and nearly two goals a game – broke his collarbone in the win and missed the rest of the finals, while their surprise packet of a full-forward, Jason Heatley, whose combination with Loewe and Everitt helped to produce one of the more fearsome tall attacks in football, hurt his ankle, casting doubt over his availability for the remaining games. To cap it off, Harvey, their superstar midfielder, looked to be carrying a back injury that threatened his availability – not that it impacted his game too much as he collected 33 touches and kicked a goal.

The week off would provide enough time for Heatley and Harvey to recover, and a shuffling around of resources would see Brett Cook take on the role as lead ruckman, while young key forward Barry Hall would be expected to provide the offensive impetus the Saints would miss with Everitt out of the team.

 

The ‘big stage’ is a fluid concept in football. Depending on the argument being made, it can be used to fit whatever purpose the argue-er chooses. Is it the number of people in the stands? Is it the number of people watching on television? Is it the time of year? Is it the opponent? The definition is not clear-cut. However, if we were to try and settle on a definition for ‘big stage’ we would surely have to include preliminary finals. Particularly one played between a club that hadn’t been there for 26 seasons and one that was in process of putting a mortgage on the fixture. Particularly one that was played in front of a crowd bigger than either team had seen that season.

On a wet Melbourne night in September, the Saints would find themselves up against a team whose finals credentials were nearly unimpeachable – North Melbourne. This would be the fourth season in a row that the Kangaroos had managed to make ti to the third week of finals, and with the 1996 premiership in the bag, they were considered by some almost un-backable favourites. Given St Kilda’s inexperience in September and playing in big matches with high stakes, the Saints, these people argued, would be overawed by the history of the occasion. The Kangaroos experience and professionalism was expected to prove too much.

At half time in the preliminary final, the match was in the balance. The Saints led by ten points, but had kicked five of the first six goals of the game, and had led by 22 points more than halfway through the second quarter. Based on everything outlined above, it wouldn’t have been a shock if the Roos overran the Saints in the second half. But this was a Saints team for the future, not the past. They out-ran, out-tackled, and out-hunted North Melbourne. In wet and greasy conditions, Heatley put on a masterful display, kicking three third-quarter goals (seven for the match), while Loewe led in typical Loewe fashion, taking 12 marks on a night where even the great Wayne Carey could only manage six. Harvey would do as he had done all season long, collecting 34 disposals and kicking a goal while his trusted counterpart Burke would collect 29 of his own. The Saints, powered by a third quarter of dominance that would have their fans dancing in the aisles, won the match by 31 points, qualifying for the clubs first grand final since their seven-point loss to Hawthorn back in 1971’s decider.

The next day would provide the Saints with their opponent, as the Western Bulldogs did battle with the Adelaide Crows. Though their kicking at goal was poor (and following a behind of the Bulldogs own that Tony Liberatore to this day will argue was a goal) the Crows were victorious, vanquishing demons of their own dating back to a second half capitulation against Essendon in the 1993 preliminary final. And thus the date was set – St Kilda in their first grand final in over a quarter of a century up against Adelaide in the first of their history.

If preliminary finals can be difficult to negotiate, they are nothing in comparison to grand final week. The week, as has been customary for some time, starts with the Brownlow Medal count on Monday night. In a rather controversial count, the Saints Robert Harvey would emerge victorious, polling 26 votes. The controversy comes in the figure of Chris Grant – the champion Western Bulldog had polled one more vote than Harvey, but due to a one-match suspension for striking Hawthorn’s Nick Holland, he was deemed ineligible. Upon accepting the award, Harvey was his usual humble, team-focused self, baulking at the opportunity to laude his own achievements, instead saying “I really hope that we finish it off on Saturday. That’s [winning the premiership] the main thing.”

Following the Brownlow Medal, the next focus of grand final week is to ensure that the playing groups gets through training without incurring any injuries. With some 13,000 in attendance for the open training session at Moorabbin, coach Alves decided to lighten up the session, getting his players to don headbands and do a ‘haka-like’ dance he called the ‘quarter eagle’. As the crowd cheered along, journalists remarked how much they wished St Kilda would win, if only because it may encourage more teams to lighten up what is normally an almost solemn training session. Unfortunately, things would soon take a solemn note for the Saints.

Nicky Winmar, an enigmatic but beloved figure at the club, would play the biggest game of his life shrouded in sadness. Following their qualifying final victory over Brisbane, Winmar had flown back home to Perth to be with his ill father, Neil. Returning to Melbourne in time for the preliminary final, Winmar performed incredibly, gathering 15 disposals to go with his three goals. The night before the grand final, Neil Winmar died, succumbing to the ravages of cancer. Members of St Kilda’s match committee would debate whether Winmar should play, believing the emotional toll of his father’s death may be too great to overcome. Eventually, the decision was made to leave the team as selected. Compounding Winmar’s tragedy was a family tragedy of Stewart Loewe’s. Having already lost Everitt in the qualifying final, the Saints would now play in its biggest game in more than a quarter of a century with three of its top four goal scorers injured either physically or emotionally.

With this in mind, it’s understandable if St Kilda supporters were to start believing in curses. That their team was beset by some other-worldly forces working against them, ensuring that they would suffer as many times as possible before achieving the ultimate success. Indeed, we may all wish that there was fairness, equity, even logic in the universe. That concepts like karma and retribution would be meted out in proportionate measures. The unfortunate and sometimes painful fact is that they are not. The universe is a random, unfeeling, unthinking entity. There are no grand conspiracies, there was no second shooter on the grassy knoll, and St Kilda lost the ’97 grand final.

To limit their grand final performance to just a few words, though, is a little harsh. At half-time, in fact, it looked as though the Saints may have risen above all of their pre-match setbacks to record a drought-breaking premiership. They led by 13 points at the long break, and history tells us that the side that leads the grand final at half-time generally goes onto be crowned premiers. Harvey and Burke were gathering the ball seemingly at will, and while a few of their key players forward of the ball (namely Winmar and Loewe) look a bit down on form and impact, others like Heatley and Barry Hall were ably filling the void. Unfortunately, things would soon change.

A second half for the ages from the Crows enigmatic Darren Jarman would prove to be the arrow in the heart of all Saints supporters. The Saints defence that had been led so stoutly by Jamie Shanahan, Darryl Wakelin and Justin Peckett seemed bereft of answers on how they could stop the Adelaide dynamo. The speed of the Crows ball movement consistently found Jarman one-out against a Saints defender which on grand final day in 1997 was just about the worst place in the world to be. Jarman’s five second half goals alone would nearly outscore the Saints for the rest of the game, with the Crows piling on 14 goals to six to run away 31 point victors.

The aftermath of a grand final loss is surely one of the most depressing times to be a league footballer. Knowing that everything that you have worked so hard to achieve was right there, almost at your finger tips, before being snatched away by the better team on the day has to take a lot of time to deal with. Coupled, in the case of Loewe and Winmar, with significant personal loss, the shadow cast by the events of Saturday, September 27, 1997, looked as though it could easily overwhelm the 1998 season.

 

By the end of Round 14, 1998, this seemed anything but the case. The Saints were sitting one game clear on top of the ladder with an 11-3 record and had more weapons than most teams had hot dinners. Their triumvirate of tall goal-scorers – full-forward Heatley, ruck-forward Everitt and forward-ruck Loewe – had each kicked twenty goals or more to this point in the season, while off-season addition Gavin Mitchell had added 18 of his own. Youngsters Andrew Thompson and Jones continued where they’d left off the season before, becoming consistent contributors through the middle of the ground, while Harvey and Burke provided a level of class and polish that saw the Saints in the midst of another premiership run.

But as nicely as things had started, they soon came crashing down. The Saints would lose six of their last eight games, falling from first to sixth on the ladder. While Robert Harvey would eventually be crowned the Brownlow medallist for the second year running, his form can be seen as indicative of the Saints themselves – after 14 rounds, Harvey had polled 22 of his eventual 32 votes and had polled in each of the previous seven games. He would poll two more best-on-ground performances in the Saints only remaining wins, and poll in two other games for the remainder of the year. Despite a final where they would take the third-placed Sydney all the way at the SCG, the heartbreaking 2-point loss would be followed the next week with an elimination from the premiership race at the hands of Melbourne. Soon after their elimination, the Saints would begin making moves that were surely designed to keep them in contention, but would have the opposite effect.

Following their semi-final loss, the Saints would part ways with coach Stan Alves, believing that Alves had done as much as he could with this group of players and that a new voice would be required to take the Saints one step further. In the wake of the ’98 grand final (won again by Adelaide), the Saints announced Alves’ replacement – Essendon legend Tim Watson. There are those St Kilda people who believe that the Saints board had always wanted Watson to be their coach over Alves, but Watson’s decision to play one more season in 1994 had meant that those plans were initially shelved. By the end of ’98, the situation had changed and Watson was seen by many to be a great coach-in-waiting. Thus, Alves, after five seasons – the last two of which had seen the Saints play finals, including a drought-breaking grand final appearance – was shown the door.

Watson’s first decision was one that would strike at the heart of the St Kilda football club. The 1998 season had been a difficult one for Winmar. In the wake of his father’s passing prior to the ’97 grand final, he had struggled to re-capture his best form. An increasing lack of discipline, including not attending mandatory training sessions, would see Winmar’s contract terminated, as Watson sought to tighten the discipline amongst the playing group. A decision would also be taken to trade misfiring half-forward Matthew Lappin to Carlton, while the draft would see the Saints take Lenny Hayes at pick 11 and Steven Baker at pick 27.

 

As the siren sounded to end the first quarter of the 2010 grand final, the Saints would have felt that the game was on their terms. Though Collingwood had kicked four of the first five goals, the Saints defenders had started to get on top, and the decision by Ross Lyon and the coaches to play Sam Gilbert on ‘Pies skipper Nick Maxwell was starting to pay dividends, forcing Maxwell to defend one-on-one rather than being able to fly as the second or third defender opposed to superstar Nick Riewoldt.

 

Two late goals to Riewoldt and one to Schneider had cut a margin that was 19 points back to just six. The Saints midfield group of Dal Santo, Montagna and Hayes were pulling level with a similarly star-studded Collingwood midfield group, while Goddard was everywhere across half-back. As Lyon called his players in to address them, he (and they) must have sensed they were on the brink of something special.

 

Part Two of this Four-Part Series coming soon.

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