Part two of four. Please find the first instalment here.

The Best There Nearly Was – St Kilda 1997-2011 (Part One)

 

The second quarter had been a brutal contest, with the Pies midfield completely dominating the Saints. The pressure from the Pies half-backs, namely Heath Shaw, Heritier Lumumba and Nick Maxwell was becoming overbearing, as even quality ball users like Brendan Goddard were being forced into errors. If this was to become a game of rushed ball movement out of the back half, the Saints would surely lose. To make matters worse, Travis Cloke, the jewel in Collingwood’s forward-line crown, was starting to dominate his opponent, Zak Dawson, leaving the Saints vulnerable on turnover and requiring their midfielders to perform a double duty of competing for the ball and trying to defend.

Though the margin at half time was only four goals, it felt a lot worse. Collingwood had taken 15 shots at goal, and with a dominant Cloke coupled with a controlling midfield group led by Dale Thomas, Dane Swan and Scott Pendlebury, a Collingwood victory looked likely, even if some simple misses by the Pies left the door ever so slightly ajar.

 

1999 – 2001 What Goes Up Must Come Down

 

The Saints ’99 season started as a carbon copy of their ’98 campaign. At the conclusion of Round 10, the Saints were on a five game winning streak and had a 7-3 record – level with Essendon and North Melbourne as the second-best in the competition. Spirits were high with the belief that, under new coach Tim Watson, they could contend once more for the premiership. Robert Harvey and Nathan Burke showed that they had not lost the form of the previous year, Andrew Thompson and Matthew Young were constantly improving, and Barry Hall was having his best season in a Saints jumper.

This run, however, was largely due to the form of the Saints inspirational leader, Stewart Loewe. When non-St Kilda people talk about great Saints players of the past, Loewe is often one that’s forgotten over the likes of Nick Riewoldt, Lenny Hayes and Robert Harvey. The first half of the ’99 season shows exactly why this shouldn’t be the case. At times forced into the role of ruckman, Loewe was phenomenal, putting up numbers that are just absurd. Let’s look at the stats line for the Saints Round Two win over Melbourne. Loewe, splitting time between centre half-forward and ruck, gathered 27 disposals and took 18 marks – six of which were contested. Not impressed enough, yet? Well, let’s skip a few weeks forward to a Round Six clash against Carlton where Loewe gathered 18 touches, had 31 hit-outs, and took 10 marks – five contested. Still not convinced? The next week against West Coast he had 21 touches, 12 hit-outs, kicked a goal and took 13 marks – seven were contested. Across the first ten games, Loewe had averaged almost 20 touches, 14 hit-outs, one goal and 10 marks a game – almost three and a half of these were contested. If you’re not convinced that he was elite now, you never will be.

Unfortunately, for both Loewe and St Kilda, his impact would decrease throughout the second half of the year, as the Saints’ promising start was squandered. A Round 12 game against Hawthorn was about as indicative of what was to come over the next two and a half years as anything that had occurred so far that season. Following a 29-point loss to Sydney the week prior, coach Tim Watson had branded his team as “lazy”. It was a loss that had snapped a five game winning streak, robbing the Saints of the momentum that was being built. Five minutes into the second quarter against Hawthorn, Watson had fair reason to believe the players had positively responded as a Loewe goal extended their lead to 63 points.

And here is where it all fell apart.

Hawthorn started their fight back by kicking three goals to end the second quarter, reducing the margin at the half time break to 44 points. The Herald Sun would later report that “what happened after the main break was simply extraordinary, as Hawthorn piled on 10 goals in the third term, including a goal to Nick Holland on the three-quarter time siren to get the Hawks within three points.” From there, it must have felt like a procession for Saints supporters, with the Hawks kicking three last-quarter goals to St Kilda’s seven behinds. The result, a 13-point loss, after what had started so encouragingly, cut the Saints season off at the knees and arguably started the end of Watson’s career as an AFL coach. The Saints would win just three of the remaining 10 games for the season to finish with a 10 win and 12 loss record, and 10th place on the ladder.

In the 2000s, the Saints would prove to be gifted when it came to drafting and trading for needs. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the 2000s for another six weeks or so. After priority picks had been assigned to both Fremantle and Collingwood, St Kilda would have pick 9 in a draft where players like Joel Corey, Luke McPharlin, Darren Glass and Robert Murphy would all be selected within five picks of the Saints first selection. Of course, none of these players would represent St Kilda. Instead, they would overlook at least three of those stars to take Caidyn Beetham. If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard that name, it would be because he retired after the 2002 season following a meeting with club officials where Beetham arrived “sporting a black eye, a broken nose and a stomp mark on his head – all courtesy of a disagreement the night before at a pub.”

It’s often said in football that if you’re going to have a bad season, you’re better off making it really bad, ensuring that you finish amongst the bottom two or three clubs rather than the dreaded 9th-13th region where you are not playing finals, nor competing for premierships, nor able to access top-tier draft talent. Really bad seasons can be achieved in many different ways and depending on who you speak to can be an example of anything from poor sportsmanship to great list management. In the official history of the AFL, only one team has been found guilty of ‘tanking’ – Melbourne in 2009, though precisely what definition of tanking was used by the AFL during their investigation is still unclear. It appears that football fans have become, if not comfortable, at least willing to accept versions of tanking to be committed by their team if it can ensure future success. Sending senior players in for surgery before it would normally be warranted, playing younger players for longer than would normally be required and trialling players in different positions are all examples of tanking that fans are happy to deem as good list management. Though wins may not be achieved in the short term, it is accepted that the above policies are conducive to long term wins and a content fanbase.

Unfortunately for St Kilda’s 2000 season, their drop-off from previous years was far too severe for their fans to try and derive much hope. The team, still under the control of Watson as senior coach, seemed listless and unable to change their downward trajectory. The fall of St Kilda was complete by the end of the season and would see Watson become their 41st ex-coach, as the club slumped to the worst record in football – two wins, one draw and 19 losses. Their end to the 2000 season was particularly horrendous. Following their first win of the season – a Round 11 62-point victory over Port Adelaide – the Saints would lose ten of their last 11 games, four by more than 14 goals. For a club that had been competing for a premiership three years before, and had been in a decent position 18 months prior to have another whack at it, the fall must have been felt at warp speed.

Never mind, Rod Butterss had ascended to the role of president, and had a great person in mind to replace Watson as head coach – famed North Melbourne star and dual Adelaide premiership coach (including the ’97 title over the Saints) Malcolm Blight. And they would get him for a song too – just a million dollars a season (scrawled on a napkin, of course), and wouldn’t even need him to move down to Melbourne from his permanent retirement base in Queensland. To top it all off, the Saints would acquire the first two picks in the 2000 draft, and through some shrewd recruiting (the 2000s had now started, after all), would also add to their ranks want-away stars Aaron Hamill (from Carlton) and Fraser Gehrig (from West Coast). By the time of the draft, the Saints would select arguably the best first pick of any AFL draft in Nick Riewoldt and follow up with an almost perfect career-long partner in crime, Justin Koschitzke.

New seasons always bring with them a sense of hope that even the most pessimistic of supporters can’t help but feel. Buoyed by the hiring of a coach who had been able to find immediate success at his last two clubs, and with a group that was only three seasons off competing for a premiership, the expectations for St Kilda’s 2001 season had certainly been set high. A Round One victory went no way to limiting the belief that this team and this coach were capable of something special, as the Saints came from 23 points down in the third quarter to beat the Western Bulldogs by five points. Unfortunately, this would be the only bright spot in what would quickly become another underwhelming season. Almost immediately, the losses began piling up, as the Saints appeared unable to defend.

Admittedly, their defence had improved on the previous year, insofar as it went from non-existent to something mildly better, but still pretty bad. In 2000, the Saints had only been able to hold their opponents to less than 100 points on three occasions, while in 2001 they had improved this number to five. Victories in round six over Sydney and Round 12 over Fremantle would be the only additions for the Blight-led portion of the season. To be fair, this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Blight was a great coach at Geelong and Adelaide, but it’s fair to say that neither side were known for their elite defence.

Bad losses to Collingwood in Round Nine, where the Saints led by as much as six goals at half time before going down by three goals, and Melbourne in Round 10, where the Saints led by more than three goals at three quarter time before the Demons stormed home with a ten goal final quarter to win by 31 points, all but sealed Blight’s fate as senior coach. If the 97 point demolition at the hands of the Adelaide Crows in Round 15 didn’t prove to be the final nail in his coaching coffin, a post-game interview with the ABC certainly was.

When the interviewer asked Blight about being lured out of retirement to coach the Saints, a team that had historically under-achieved on the field (and over-achieved off it), Blight responded by slamming the club’s culture, saying that it was “500 per cent worse than I’ve seen anywhere else”, before going on to claim that he had spent “the first three months [of pre-season] … counselling … to try and help some players [overcome] some very ordinary habits.”

Just days later, at the press conference announcing Blight’s sacking, Saints president Rod Butterss, in his own inimitable style, denied that Blight’s comments on the radio were part of the reason for his departure, saying “[Blight’s comments] were nothing but a mosquito hitting the windscreen of a vehicle moving at a hundred miles an hour.” In Blight’s stead, Butterss would promote his best friend, former St Kilda player and current head of football, Grant Thomas to the role of caretaker coach. A St Kilda supporters’ comments to the ABC after Blight’s sacking seemed to perfectly sum up the combination of dejection and anger that Saints fans felt at the time. “There’s no future here”, he said, “I feel sorry for half of the players that are here. They’re playing for nothing. They’ll lose everything, this club. There’s no heart here.” Despite winning just one more game for the rest of the season, a two-point upset of eventual preliminary finalists Hawthorn, Thomas was installed as full-time coach of the Saints for the 2002 season.

As we have seen, though, the off-season is where the Saints do some of their best work and this one would prove no different. Though he had his best year in Saints colours, salary cap constraints coupled with the rises of Nick Riewoldt and Justin Koschitzke saw the Saints off-load Barry Hall to the Swans in return for picks 13, 17 and 45 in the ’01 draft. Hall, following in the footsteps of Tony Lockett before him as Saints full-forward who went north to the Swans, would eventually captain Sydney to a drought-breaking premiership in 2005.

Meanwhile, the Saints would on-trade pick 17 to Fremantle for half-back Heath Black and send pick 45 to Brisbane in exchange for young ruckman Trent Knobel, taking five picks in the first 37 to the draft. In what would eventually be a moment the Saints recruiting staff would probably want back, they selected top midfield talent Luke Ball with the second selection in the 2001 draft – Chris Judd was taken with the next pick. The later selections, though, would provide a nice salve to this wound, with the Saints taking Nick Dal Santo and Leigh Montagna with picks 13 and 27 respectively, while adding some x-factor in midfielder, Xavier Clarke at pick 5. Finally, they aimed at bolstering their key defensive stocks, taking Matt Maguire at pick 21. All five of these players would play roles of varying importance in St Kilda’s next attempted journey to the promised land.

 

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