The Saints 2002 season would, in many ways, prove to be an essential one. Yes, they would win only five games (and draw another). Yes, their average losing margin was nearly seven goals. And yes, they would finish second last on the ladder. But they put more than enough games into future stars Nick Riewoldt, Stephen Milne, Nick Dal Santo and Lenny Hayes to give their supporter base a glimpse at a more than promising future.
A Round 10 victory over eventual finalists,West Coast would showcase just what these new, young Saints were capable of. With Nathan Burke missing with a knee injury, and Robert Harvey injured early in the game, the responsibility fell to aspiring leaders Hayes, Dal Santo, Stephen Baker and Andrew Thompson to step up in the midfield and ensure the Saints would not be dominated. With boom recruit, Aaron Hamill controlling the half-forward line, and small forward Milne proving to be more than a handful for the Eagles small defenders, the Saints got off to a fast start and were never challenged. The resulting 50-point victory proved to supporters and players alike that though their time may not be now, it would be soon and they were capable of greatness.
In an almost symbolic changing of the guard, the trio who had nearly taken St Kilda to the promised land a few years earlier would see the end of their journey approaching quickly. A Round 3 knee injury for Burke would rule him out for the remainder of the season, and an injury-riddled year would see Harvey ruled out for the rest of the year following a Round 15 loss to Adelaide, while the 2002 campaign would prove to be the last for Stewart Loewe. A true great of the football club, Loewe’s influence had proven instrumental in many great St Kilda wins but the time had come for a new generation to write their own story.
The 2002 AFL draft would once again see St Kilda claim the first pick in the draft, courtesy of the salary cap-related sanctions imposed on the Carlton football club (don’t worry, Carlton fans, I am going to work on a piece about this too). Like in 2000, the Saints got the perfect player to fit their needs, drafting midfielder Brendan Goddard to add to their mouth-watering stable of elite young talent. In the trade period, the Saints would say goodbye to talented ruck-forward Peter Everitt, sending him to Hawthorn in exchange for picks 6 and 22. They would then on-trade pick 6 (and pick 31) to Port Adelaide for the versatile but ultimately disappointing Barry Brooks.
Through 2000-2002, the Saints win-loss record was sitting at an unenviable 11-53, with two draws. Where earlier this may have been a reason for doom and gloom amongst Saints fans, the ’03 season bought with it a sense of optimism. Outside of winning and contending for premierships, this must be the most fun time to be with a club – expectations are low, there are more freakishly talented youngsters on the playing list than you can poke a stick at, and even the older players are starting to find an extra skip in their step. With his ascension to senior coach, Grant Thomas had become the fourth man to lead St Kilda since their grand final appearance in 1997. Though his record was not all too dissimilar to the two sacked coaches before him, there was a sense of positivity and cohesion amongst players and coaches that had been missing prior to Thomas.
The 2003 season would start to reflect this on-field, as the Saints finished 11th with an even 11 win and 11 loss record. The season wasn’t without its disappointments, however, as at the halfway point of the season, the Saints certainly had a top-eight finish in their sights. Their Round 11 five-point victory over dual reigning premiers Brisbane showcased just how dangerous a team the ’03 Saints were. Riewoldt, by now establishing himself as an elite AFL talent, took 14 marks to go along with his four goals, while Hayes had 35 disposals, five tackles and six clearances to lead a midfield brimming with both experienced talent (Harvey gathered 28 disposals and seven inside-50s) and inexperienced talent (Goddard had 20 touches and four clearances).
Anyone who has ever watched a young team win a game they weren’t expected to win will know what’s coming next. Hell, anyone who has watched St Kilda over just about any four-week period in their history will know what’s coming next. That’s right, a losing streak. At the conclusion of Round 11, the Saints were only out of the eight on percentage, and a return to September looked a distinct possibility. But they lost their next four matches by an average of just over 50 points, extinguishing any hopes of a return to September action.
If you paid any attention at all to St Kilda in this period, you would know there was one name that rose above all others. He was strong, scary, had a mullet that made women swoon, and his name, like Dirk Diggler before it, was just so bright and powerful that it threatened to explode any scoreboard which allowed it. Fraser Gehrig. Even writing it now makes me a little uneasy, lest my computer spontaneously combust – if you’re reading this, I will assume that it hasn’t and will continue to operate. In his time at West Coast, Gehrig had a tendency to be inconsistent, if not under-used, and was one of those players whose own supporter base loves to hate. Despite an All-Australian selection (as a half-forward flank) in 1997, Gehrig’s talent always seemed to be far greater than what he delivered, and whether it was opportunity, position or even coach’s preference, Gehrig’s trade at the end of the 2000 season seemed almost inevitable.
As much as it wants to be, the AFL is not yet like an American sporting competition, where players are treated like little more than chattel, traded as easily as Pokemon cards in my year seven classroom. The lack of private ownership in the AFL may have something to do with this, as may the underlying decision to treat players like human beings. Gehrig would be traded to West Coast in exchange for David Sierakowski and pick 18 in the 2000 draft (West Coast would eventually select Daniel Kerr with this pick).
Following his move to St Kilda, Gehrig was trialled in a few different positions (including full-back) before ultimately finding a home as one of the most fearsome full-forwards in the league. Working in concert with youngsters Nick Riewoldt, Stephen Milne and Justin Koschitzke, as well as the experienced Aaron Hamill, the Saints forward line combined to become one of the most dangerous in the comp. Quickly, the Saints went from averaging scores in the 80s over the previous three seasons (2000-2002), to an average of over 100 points per game in the next three seasons (2003-2005). Their Round 16 match in the ’03 season would give the long-suffering Saints fans a glimpse into this future.
At 6-9 and playing eighth-placed North Melbourne, the Saints weren’t given much of a chance. Their season looked stalled as significant lapses in games, often a recurring issue for young sides, continued to come back to haunt them. However, if it’s true that the lapses hurt them, then so is it true that their own runs of goals consistently put them in positions where winning was a distinct possibility. At quarter-time against the Roos, that’s exactly where the Saints found themselves again, as the full extent of the power of their burgeoning forward line was on display. The Saints led by seven goals, having opened the match with a 10 goal to three onslaught, Gehrig having contributed four of those 10.
By 12 minutes into the second quarter, Saints supporters must have been dancing in the aisles as Hamill slammed home his first to put his team ahead by a match-high eight goals. But as if in a case of ‘carrot and stick’, Saints fans got a glimpse of the stick (phrasing) as the Roos turned the game on its head, kicking 15 of the next 22 goals, to put themselves seven points clear of the Saints entering time-on in the last quarter. Just as a familiar sense of disappointment started to descend upon Saints supporters, a long kick from Jones found Gehrig in the forward pocket. The mullet-having cult hero kicked truly for his eighth to cut the margin back to just one point with a little over five minutes remaining. A flying shot from an inside-50 stoppage off the boot of Dal Santo would level the score moments later.
A rushed behind for North Melbourne with a little over a minute to play left the Saints one point in arrears, and when the resulting kick-in led to Jason Blake kicking the ball out on the full on the half-back line, the game looked all but over. But David King’s rushed bomb back inside North’s attacking 50m gave the Saints a second chance to win the game, and they weren’t going to squander this one. A series of possessions ended with Robert Harvey running free through the middle of Docklands Stadium, and kicking a long ball inside the Saints forward 50m that was marked 20m out by… Fraser Gehrig, of course! With seconds left on the clock, Gehrig’s goal, his ninth for the game, put the Saints back in front by five points. The Saints’ mids then did their job for the final 30 or so seconds, not letting North get a centre clearance, and as the siren sounded, against their better judgement – a judgement built on years of heartbreak – Saints supporters started to believe. Believe that this team was capable of something great, something transcendent, and though finals were unlikely for season 2003, they started to believe that this team was capable of something that had eluded them since 1966 – premiership glory.
The Saints would get on a run to finish the year, winning four of their last five games to finish with an even 11-11 record. In the trade period, the Saints would sure up their outside run, trading their second and third round selections to Brisbane and Port Adelaide respectively for Jason Gram and Brent Guerra. In one of the most bleak drafts in recent history, the Saints would select Raphael Clarke, the younger brother of fellow first-round draftee from 2001, Xavier. Their fourth-round selection would prove to be a masterstroke as they took the versatile Sam Fisher with pick 55.
If the end to the 2003 season had built belief amongst the Saints that this team was capable of greatness, then the start to the 2004 season must have felt like long overdue justification. The 10 straight wins to open their ’04 campaign would break the club record for consecutive wins, and announce themselves as early premiership favourites. It wasn’t even that they were stringing so many wins together, but the way in which they won that would have warmed the cockles of supporters’ hearts. Only one of their first 10 wins was by less than 15 points (a one-point thriller over the Brisbane Lions in Round Six in front of 52,539 fans at Docklands), and seven of their wins were by more than five goals. The last two wins in their streak would show just how hungry this team was, beating the Eagles in Round Nine by 101 points, and following that up with a 31 goal effort over the Blues, winning by 108 points.
By the end of Round 10, Fraser Gehrig, the eventual 2004 Coleman medallist, had kicked 50 goals, while his counterpart Nick Riewoldt had registered 19 of his own on the way to the first of five All-Australian selections. This turnaround in performance on-field had off-field effects too, as the Saints posted record membership and attendance figures, with the number of members for the first time in their history passing 30,000. What goes up, however, must inevitably come back down, a concept that the Saints are all too familiar with. From their 10-0 start, putting them three games clear of second-place leading into round 11, the Saints would go 6-6 through the remaining 12 rounds, finishing with a respectable if not slightly disappointing 16-6 record, good enough for third place on the ladder.
If the finish to the season for the Saints was below expectations, it may have been because there were matters off-field that were starting to draw focus away from the task on-field. In May of 2004, Stephen Milne and Leigh Montagna would be accused of sexual assault and rape. The allegations, the Sydney Morning Herald noted, “related to alleged events [that occurred] after the AFL club’s annual family day involving two women.” Though the DPP at the time would eventually decide not to lay charges citing a lack of sufficient evidence, Milne would plead guilty to the lesser charge of indecent assault a decade later and was fined $15,000.
The Saints first finals series of the new millennium began in just about the worst way they could envision – a road trip to take on triple premiers Brisbane Lions at the Gabba. The task became all the more difficult by half time as the Saints faced a 46-point deficit. With Milne missing the game, the Saints forward line looked too one-dimensional in their reliance on their usually trustworthy tall forwards Nick Riewoldt and Fraser Gehrig. The second half would be much the same, as the Lions cruised to their fourth consecutive preliminary final. Only a late quartet of goals from Gehrig, Heath Black, Steven Baker and Brent Guerra would save the Saints some face, with the final margin reduced from 100 to 80-points. For fans that had waited six long seasons to see their side return to September, this result would have all but destroyed any hope they would have had of a premiership.
Probably the biggest benefit of finishing top four is that those who lose in the first week have a second chance, and thus the ability to redeem themselves, something the Saints would have been most thankful for. This time matched up against the Swans, the team that had broken the Saints ten-game winning streak with a 36-point upset victory at the SCG, and with Milne back in the team, the Saints looked like their old selves again. Gehrig (six goals) and Milne (four goals) controlled the forward line deep, Riewoldt played the type of game he turned out just about every week of the ’04 season, gathering 21 disposals and taking 12 marks, and Jones provided important run out of the back half. The Saints controlled the game from the first bounce, eventually pulling away in the second half and ultimately winning by 51 points.
While St Kilda were at the start of their finals journey, having qualified for the first time in six seasons, their opponents in the preliminary final were the complete opposite. Over the prior three finals series, Port Adelaide had developed a reputation for going missing in big moments. Despite boasting the best home-and-away record in seasons 2002 and 2003, the Power had been unable to make it to either grand final, losing both years in the first week of the finals, and falling short at the preliminary final hurdle. This year, the story had started the same for the Power, as they finished atop the home-and-away standings and for the third time would host a team in the first week of finals. In a sign of the changing tide, however, the Power defeated Geelong by 55 points, ensuring a week off before a home preliminary final.
On paper, the match-up between Port Adelaide and St Kilda was mouth-watering. Port Adelaide’s hard-nosed style typified by the likes of Byron Pickett, Damien Hardwick and Josh Carr melded beautifully with the style and class of the Burgoyne brothers (Peter and Shaun) and Gavin Wanganeen. Up forward they had one of the two best centre half-forwards in the game in Warren Tredrea, while down back the likes of Darryl Wakelin and Chad Cornes controlled the game, seldom allowing their opponents any space or time. On the flip side, the Saints midfield was headlined by the exquisite talents of Harvey, Hayes and Dal Santo, while their back-line was commandeered by the inspirational Max Hudghton, the sort of player who would rather endure great physical pain than let his player kick a goal. The Saints forward-line, though, was the jewel in their crown, boasting the best goal scoring trio for 2004 in Gehrig, Milne and Riewoldt. It promised to be a heavyweight battle, the likes that promoters dream of.
We’ve all experienced those games that are billed to within an inch of their lives, reaching fever pitch at the first bounce, only for the game itself to be an absolute fizzer. This wasn’t one of those games. With most the season in the rear-view and the prospect of a grand final on the line, this game lived up to its blockbuster billing and then some. The Saints kicked the first two goals of the game to lead by 14 points at the ten-minute mark (Gehrig kicking his 100th goal for the season with his second major for the day), before Port Adelaide responded with two quick goals of their own. From this point, the game would only see margin in double figures once more – in the third quarter following a goal from Tredrea – and then only for five minutes. A goal off the boot of Luke Ball at the 18-minute mark of the last quarter levelled the scores until, with just under seven minutes to go, Gavin Wanganeen did what he had done to oppositions all throughout his career – he reached into his deep bag of tricks, won a clearance inside attacking 50, ran towards the boundary line and screwed a kick back across his body that sailed through for a legendary goal.
In short, Wanganeen ripped the heart out of every Saints coach, player and supporter, putting the Power six points clear. Though St Kilda would mount a challenge over the remaining minutes, the Wanganeen goal would prove to be the final scoring shot in an incredible, pulsating final. It would be the Power, not the Saints, who cleared the final hurdle and make an AFL grand final. The Power would eventually defeat three-time premiers Brisbane, winning the club’s first (and currently only) AFL premiership. For the Saints, while the loss was disappointing, it continued affirming the belief that this side was on the cusp of greatness. They were young and hungry – yes, they had faulted this time, but there was little doubt that they would be back next year, bigger and better than their 2004 iteration.
The Saints 2005 season effectively operates as one of those ‘images you can hear’ memes. The image is Nick Riewoldt in tears on the bench following a brutal clash that left him with broken ribs, and several Brisbane Lions ‘tough guys’ ensuring they got their faces on camera by bumping him as he tried to make his way from the field. The thing that could be heard was swathes of St Kilda fans sighing with a familiar resignation, believing that with their best player missing, their plans for a premiership were put on hold.
A Round 13 loss to Essendon left the Saints sitting outside the eight with a 6-7 record. Their chance at finals football, let alone having an impact in September, were diminishing. The first 13 weeks of the season seemed to indicate that the Saints had slid backwards towards mediocrity. They averaged a humble 88 points for, while conceding 81. Though they had household names all over the park, their defence was shaky, conceding more than 100 points on six occasions; their midfield group struggled to maintain control, and their forward line didn’t seem to be gelling in the way that they had the previous year. Looking at what comes next for the Saints leaves me struggling for words. The sheer enormity of the offensive onslaught is unfathomable for the modern game.
The Saints would win eight of their last nine games, jumping from outside of the eight to finish fourth at the end of the home and away season. Their defence finally clicked into gear, not allowing any team to score more than 100 points again, while at the opposite end of the field, their forward line obliterated defences, averaging 140 points through the last nine games, kicking more than 20 goals in a match on four separate occasions. This was a completely different Saints outfit to the first 13 weeks. This Saints team was nasty. They showed no signs of mercy, continually running up huge winning margins (their average margin over the last nine weeks was almost ten goals), displaying a level of hunger that can only come with nearly four decades of missing out on the top prize.
Footy can present you with a nice bit of karmic symmetry, sometimes, and if the football Gods have often been accused of deserting St Kilda in their times of need, they went some way towards making up for it with the Saints final home-and-away match of 2005. In round one, the Brisbane Lions, fresh off their fourth grand final appearance in a row (as well as their first losing attempt for September silverware) brutalised the Saints in a way that they were completely unprepared for. However, by Round 22 things had changed. The Lions were limping towards the end of the season, having well and truly said goodbye to their era of dominance, while for the Saints, their time in the sun had only just begun. In an act of revenge almost unparalleled in AFL history, the Saints hammered the Lions to the point that the game should have come with an advisory warning. Milne kicked a career-high 11 goals straight, while Riewoldt would chime in with six of his own, blowing the margin out to a whopping 139 points. The match still stands as the Lions highest score conceded, as well as their biggest losing margin, while for the Saints their final score of 28.18.186 sits as their third-highest score of all time, as well as their greatest winning margin.
In terms of ways that a team can warm up for finals, I reckon a game like this would have to be up there!
What was that I was saying about footy and karmic symmetry? The Saints appeared to be in line for a second helping in week one of the finals, as they travelled to Football Park in South Australia to take on their 1997 vanquishers, the Adelaide Crows. They had lost their last final there almost exactly 12 months before, bested by the Crows cross-town rivals Port Adelaide, but this year felt different. Last year was their first finals appearance in six seasons, meaning that many players hadn’t been exposed to the tempo of finals footy. 12 months on, their squad were now finals hardened and had some reasons to feel like there was unfinished business in September.
Harvey would kick the first goal of the game, sneaking forward and marking a nice pass from Hamill before kicking truly from 35m out. But then, a man with a name most football supporters won’t have heard mentioned since about 2007, Ken McGregor, asserted himself on the game, kicking the next three goals as the Crows appeared to settle the better of the two teams, taking a 15 point lead into the first break. The second quarter, though, saw the Saints kick five goals in fifteen minutes, turning this 15 point deficit into a sixteen point half-time lead. Both Riewoldt and Harvey had two each, and it appeared the Saints midfield run and plentiful options forward of the ball had started to overwhelm the Crows.
By the end of the third quarter, most neutral judges would agree that the Saints were about one goal away from icing the game. They traded blows with the Crows early in the third term, before a late goal from Jason Blake took the margin out to 20 points. A good guide for whether a team can stage a comeback is to compare the number of goals they trail by and the number of goals they have scored. Through the first three quarters, the Crows had kicked just five goals, and faced with a 20 point deficit, were looking at an almost insurmountable task to come from behind and win.
Football, of course, loves nothing more than proving impossible is just a state of mind. Within the first ten minutes of the last quarter, the Crows kicked three goals and brought the margin back to just one point. The Saints were looking like they were already thinking about the week off and had been given a rude shock. Determined not to let another trip to Adelaide result in a finals loss, however, they started to wrestle back control, and with about six minutes remaining found what they had been desperately in search of – a relieving goal. A short pass from Dal Santo found Harvey in the pocket. His resulting goal put the Saints in front by six points. As the minutes, and then seconds, ran down, the Saints managed two more behinds to eventually run out winners by eight points, booking themselves a spot in a preliminary final for the second year in a row. Harvey, in typical Harvey fashion, finished with 31 touches and three goals, showing that even though he had celebrated 34 birthdays (and played over 300 games), he was still amongst the best players in the league.
The preliminary final found the Saints playing in front of their biggest crowd since the 1998 semi-final against Melbourne. Their opponent for the night, the Sydney Swans, were coming off a heart-breaking qualifying final loss to West Coast in Perth, and then a Nick Davis-inspired three point win over Geelong the week before, and had fair reason to be a bit worried facing the Saints – their only match up in 2005 had resulted in a Saints win by 43 points, Gehrig the main culprit kicking seven goals. The Saints must have approached the game feeling that the longer it went, the greater their chance of winning became.
The Swans started to game like a bullet out of a gun, kicking five of the first seven goals to take an 18 point lead at the 21-minute mark of the first quarter. But, just like they had done against the Crows two weeks earlier, the Saints wrestled back control, and by half time had bought the margin back to within a goal. The start of the second half was an almost exact opposite of the first half, as the Saints came out from the long break full of vim and vigour, kicking four of the first five goals to take a 15-point lead 18-minutes into the third quarter. Tim Lane, the venerable sporting commentator, made the point that “[the Swans] are coming off two finals that must have felt like ten quarters of football. And right now, might feel like a big bear on their back.” But of course, he doesn’t know what we know, does he? That, when presented with glory, the Saints have an almost unparalleled ability to fall agonisingly short.
The Swans would kick the final eight goals of the game, leaving the Saints and their fans to ponder a question that was all too familiar. What could have been? They were nearly great, but for the second year in a row had tripped at the final hurdle, and now risked missing out on making the most of a great generation of players. The Swans, led by former Saint Barry Hall, would go on to win the premiership the next week, ending their own 72-year premiership drought.
The 2006 season was a mixed return for the Saints, following the highs of the previous two seasons. One of the more notable moments came in the Saints round five loss to Fremantle in Tasmania – a game now known by the somewhat clumsy term ‘Sirengate’. With fifty seconds remaining, and leading by seven points, Fremantle defender Daniel Gilmore decided to chip a short pass to a teammate just outside of defensive 50m. He neglected to see a lurking Lenny Hayes, who upon reading where the kick was going, ran in front of the Fremantle player, took the mark and played on, handballing to Leigh Montagna who kicked the goal to bring the margin back to one point with thirty-seven seconds remaining. After a series of rushed kicks and handpasses, the Saints forced a ball-up about 45m from their goal with just eight seconds to go. Riewoldt won the resulting tap, but Fremantle managed to bottle the ball up. If you’ve ever seen a game of football before, you would know that this should have taken us to basically siren time. In fact, according to about a dozen Freo players around the ball, the siren had gone. The resulting bounce, as the umpire weaved around protesting Fremantle players, lead to a series of handballs which ended with Steven Baker kicking a behind to level the scores – a good ten seconds after the siren had already sounded. Now is when chaos truly descended.
Over the next minute, with Fremantle players pleading with the umpires to listen to reason, the behind was awarded to the Saints and the scores were tied. But here is where the umpires truly outdid themselves. Believing that Baker was felled after he kicked the ball, he was awarded the free kick and another shot at goal. His second attempt missed to the other side, but by this point Baker’s attempts on goal had taken a back-seat to an unprecedented level of pandemonium occurring on the field. Fremantle players, coaches and officials were remonstrating with every umpire they could find, but none of them would give Freo the result they were looking for. That result would eventually come four days later (in an ironic reversal of the Saints first-ever win more than 100 years earlier). Fremantle were rightfully awarded the full four points, meaning St Kilda were stripped of the two points they had initially been awarded for the draw.
Eventually, the Saints did string some wins together throughout the ’06 season – enough, in fact, to have them finish sixth with a 14-8 record. But for a season that was little on inspiration and confidence for the Saints, their elimination final exit at the hands of Melbourne seemed fitting. Though they led at every change, including by nine points at three quarter time, the result was the same as the previous year’s preliminary final loss that had seemed to rob the playing group of that x-factor that all great teams need. The Demons piled on five goals in the last quarter to run out 18-point winners, leaving the Saints with yet another long off-season of reflection.
Off-field, however, things got pretty interesting. Depending on who you speak to, Thomas and the St Kilda football club mutually agreed to end his coaching tenure; or they sacked him. Either way, Thomas’s relationship with his former best friend, and St Kilda president, Rod Butterss, had deteriorated to the point where they were no longer on speaking terms. A list of 52 candidates was drawn up to fill the vacant senior coaching position, before the Saints hierarchy settled on the highly credentialed Sydney assistant Ross Lyon as their 43rd coach, heralding perhaps the most dominant era of the St Kilda football club.
The third quarter saw the Saints start to gain some ascendancy with Riewoldt starting to assert his authority forward of the ball. The ferociousness of the both sides in the first fifteen minutes of the quarter inspired the Saints, and a goal to Sam Gilbert 20 minutes in left them just seven points adrift. Gilbert’s job on Nick Maxwell was beginning to bear fruit, as he worked on nullifying the influence of the Collingwood skipper. At the opposite end of the ground, the Saints defenders were getting on top of the Pies forwards, holding them goal-less through the third term. And the Saints midfielders, led by Lenny Hayes and Brendon Goddard, were pressuring the Pies into uncharacteristic errors.
As the players made their way into the huddle at the three-quarter time, the margin being just eight points, Saints players were heard to remark that their opponents looked out on their feet. Having got so close to football immortality the year before, Saints players and fans alike allowed themselves, for just a second, to imagine how sweet victory would taste.