If you have not already done so, please check out the previous three instalments of Tim’s monstrous piece. He’s going to write a book one day, and you’ll be able to say you were there at the beginning!

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And now… on with the show

 


 

 

2007-2011: It Can’t End Like This, Can It?

 

Ross Lyon’s first season as St Kilda coach started in the same manner as Malcolm Blight and Grant Thomas’ first full year in charge – with a win. The Saints vanquished the team that had eliminated them from the finals race the year before, the Melbourne Demons. With still young players like Nick Dal Santo, Leigh Montagna, Luke Ball and Brendon Goddard now having 50 or more games under their belt, there was reason for Saints fans to feel cautiously optimistic about their 2007 fate. Maybe the key to unlocking this group’s potential did lay in the hands of a new coach after all?

A pre-season hamstring injury to superstar Nick Riewoldt would see him miss the opening fortnight of the season, but his return in round three (following a round two loss to Brisbane) saw the Saints show positive signs that the exciting offence that had operated under Thomas had started to return. They broke the 100-point barrier for the first time of the season, on the back of Riewoldt’s four goals. Sadly, the good offensive form wouldn’t continue for the Saints. Nor, indeed, would there be much great defence on offer either, as they hit the mid-season break with a sorry 4-7 record.

Amidst the chaos and frenzy of a football season, it can be very difficult for players and coaches to find space to breathe and begin trying to recalibrate a year that threatens to go off the rails. Too often the week-by-week cycle of football forces clubs to continually focus on the next battle, rather than reflecting on and fully processing what has just occurred. For the 2007 Saints, that week off in the middle of June must have felt like a godsend. Across the previous four home-and-away seasons, the Saints had averaged more than 100 points a game, however by midway through ’07, they were averaging just 74 points. Their big four-goal scorers – Riewoldt, Fraser Gehrig, Stephen Milne and Justin Koschitzke – had combined for just 63 goals over the first half of the season, an average of about a goal and a half each. Goddard’s torn ACL in round seven robbed their midfield of some much-needed dash and dare, while experienced mids Lenny Hayes and Robert Harvey also missed time in the first half of the season due to injury.

The St Kilda team that exited the mid-season break bore little resemblance to that which had entered. Yes, the names and faces were much the same, but there was a renewed sense of confidence amongst the group, almost as if the poor first half of the season had provided them the opportunity to release the shackles and play football with some attack and venom once again. Faced with the prospect of missing finals for the first time in four seasons, the Saints quickly re-found their mojo.

It couldn’t have come at a better time, either. The first game out of the mid-season break just happened to be Harvey’s 350th match. As the Saints jetted over west to take on the reigning premiers, West Coast, they did so with a mission to make the game one the club legend would never forget. The first quarter was evenly matched, with the Eagles holding a slender one-point lead, before the Saints put their foot down, kicking seven goals in the second quarter to take a 37-point halftime lead. The third quarter would see the Eagles return the favour, pulling the margin back to 12 points, and by the 12-minute mark of the last quarter, had pulled it back further to be just four points adrift of the Saints. With just a few minutes remaining, an attacking chain of possessions, fittingly started via a loose ball gather on half-back from Harvey, ended with a running goal to Dal Santo, all but snuffing out any chance of a West Coast comeback. Subsequent goals to Riewoldt and Montagna were icing on a very special cake for the Saints. In his milestone match, Harvey did what he had done far too many times to mention since his debut as a 16 year-old in round 19, 1988 – he ran his heart out. Along the way, he collected 30 disposals to go with four clearances and five inside-50’s. He would later receive one Brownlow medal vote for the game.

The Saints positive form would continue throughout July, and they would enter a round 18 clash against the Western Bulldogs with a 9-8 record, just percentage keeping them out of the top eight. The prospect of finals had seemed remote at best seven weeks ago, but with their recent run of wins, fans started to believe again.

As is so often, though, in the story of the St Kilda football club, their best hopes would be dashed in a heartbreaking manner. At three-quarter time, the Saints led the Bulldogs by 17 points, with a win and a potential finals berth seeming more likely with every passing minute. A goal off the boot of Riewoldt ten minutes into the last quarter seemed to ice the game, putting the Saints up by 23 points. But the Bulldogs wouldn’t say die. Goals to Daniel Giansiracusa, Matthew Boyd and Andrejs Everitt would bring the margin back to within a goal, before unlikely hero Wayde Skipper ventured forward to mark and goal, and then into the backline to get a finger-tip on the potential match-winning goal from Riewoldt, forcing a rushed behind and scores to level with just a few seconds remaining.

The resulting draw seemed to rob St Kilda of the momentum that they had been building since the bye. The next week, they travelled to Sydney to take on the seventh-placed Swans (a team they were just half a game behind), and once again faded in the last quarter to lose by 17 points, leaving them with three games remaining in the season and an uphill battle to qualify for finals. Though the Saints would win two of their last three (over Fremantle and Richmond), they would finish half a game (and decent percentage) out of the eight.

The end of the 2007 season also brought with it the retirement of the highly respected teammate Aaron Hamill. Traded to St Kilda when they were nearing their lowest point, Hamill provided great leadership and set uncompromising standards of excellence for the next crop of stars at the club. His influence was such that he was named captain for the 2003 season, but as time wore on, the toll of his crash-and-bash style of play wore on his body, forcing him to miss the entire 2007 season with career-ending hip, shoulder and knee injuries.

In one of the stranger stories of the ’07 off-season (already one of the more colourful of AFL off-season periods), Fraser Gehrig, who had initially announced his retirement prior to St Kilda’s final home-and-away game in 2007 – a ten-point win over Richmond in which he kicked five goals to finish with 59 for the season – changed his mind prior to the draft, deciding that he wanted to continue his career for one more year. The Saints would re-draft Gehrig with a fourth-round selection (pick 57), but the move would prove to be ill-fated. Gehrig would add just five more games (and nine more goals) to his career tally, before revealing that he had painful arthritis which would require surgery, forcing him into retirement for good.

The ’07 off-season wasn’t all about good-bye’s for the Saints, though. At the trade table, they would send their second-round draft selection (pick 26) to Sydney in exchange for the Swans premiership pair Sean Dempster and Adam Schneider, while they would also send football’s equivalent of steak knives (pick 90) to Geelong for premiership ruckman Steven King and forward Charlie Gardiner. At the draft the Saints would add to their big-man stocks, using their first selection (pick nine) to take Ben McEvoy – passing up on talented youngster Patrick Dangerfield, who would go to the Crows with the next selection – while they would take midfielder Jack Steven with pick 42.

After a promising, if not ultimately disappointing, end to the 2007 season, the Saints started ’08 confident of achieving greater things. Indeed, it would start off as well as it could, with the Saints defeating Adelaide in the grand final of the pre-season competition, and taking this form into the opening fortnight of the season, defeating Sydney in round one by two points, and Carlton the next week by 40 points. Unfortunately, the Saints would struggle to gather much momentum in the opening half of the season, ending round 12 with an underwhelming 5-7 record. But like with 07, the Saints built their momentum through the second half of the season, though this time it was led by their defence, not attack. Over the remaining ten games of the ’08 home-and-away season, the Saints defence conceded almost four fewer goals a game than they had over the first 12 weeks, while their offence contributed an extra goal and a half a game.

With one round remaining, the Saints had a 12-9 record, with only percentage keeping them out of the top four. About 4.7%, to be exact. Following an Adelaide victory over the Bulldogs on the final Saturday of the season, the Saints were presented with a relatively daunting task – beat (the admittedly very beatable) Essendon by about 100 points on the final Sunday of the season, and they would leapfrog the Crows into fourth place. St Kilda had only won one game by more than eight goals all season, so one can only imagine the relative comfort the Crows players, coaches and fans felt knowing that their place in the top four was all but sewn up. Nothing they can do now except put their feet up and get some rest ahead of an away qualifying final the next week…

 

Wait, how much did St Kilda beat Essendon by? 108 points? This can’t be happening. Good things don’t happen to the Saints. They’re the club that the footy gods love to torture. Maybe the tide is beginning to turn?

In a ruthless display, the Saints piled on seven goals and six behinds to the Bombers’ solitary behind, taking a 61-point three-quarter time lead out to an eventual 108 point victory margin, booking themselves a ticket to the top four for the first time since 2005. So what if that ticket meant that they had to face a side who had only lost one game all home-and-away season. The Saints know very well not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Though they would go down to Geelong in week one of the finals – by 58 points – the double chance that the Saints had earned meant there would be at least another week in their 2008 campaign. Their opponents, Collingwood (who had, ironically, eliminated the fifth-placed Adelaide the week before) proved to be no match for the Saints as they controlled the ball taking 159 marks for the game, while Riewoldt, Milne and Koschitzke combined for 11 goals up forward, and Sam Fisher and Max Hudghton proved to be rocks in defence. A 12 goal to two burst from the opening minutes of the second quarter to the ten-minute mark of the last quarter put Collingwood to sleep, taking a five-point deficit and turning it into an unassailable 45-point lead.

Unfortunately for the Saints, their appearance in the preliminary final only served to prove the gulf that existed between the two best teams in the competition – Geelong and Hawthorn – and the rest. The unsociable Hawks would effectively control the game from go-to-woe, as the famed ‘Clarko’s cluster’ stymied the Saints ball movement, robbing them of any momentum that they may have been able to generate. The resulting margin – 54 points – showed that though the Saints were close to the top, it was that last climb to the apex of a mountain that’s always the toughest.

The end of the ’08 season would also signal the end of the road for one of the greatest ever to pull on a Saints jumper – Robert Harvey. After 21 seasons, a club-record 383 games, eight All-Australian selections, four club best-and-fairest awards, two Brownlow medals and nearly 10,000 disposals, the legendary Saint had come to the end of his playing journey. For a player who always seemed like he had so much time, who possessed the ability to slide through tackles like a hot knife through butter, who more than any other player in the history of the game made the game itself look almost effortless, it is truly unfair that he would retire without having tasted premiership success.

But that’s just how it goes sometimes. Thieves get rich and saints get shot. God don’t answer prayers a lot.

 

The Saints had either made or barely missed finals for each of the past five seasons. However, they boasted a 3-6 record against the best teams in the post-season, suggesting that there was something missing. In the forward line, they boasted a once-in-a-generation talent in Riewoldt, while their midfield batted deeper than most with names like Dal Santo, Montagna, Hayes and Goddard. Their defence, as well, was more than sturdy, with Hudghton and Fisher holding down the key posts, while the likes of Jason Gram and Sam Gilbert provided penetrating run and carry off half-back. Nevertheless, with the retirement of Harvey and the acquisition of Western Bulldogs wingman Farren Ray being the only change of note in the ’08 off-season, it was tough to see where the Saints would get their improvement from in order to bridge the gap between themselves and the top teams.

While seasons ’07 and ’08 took the Saints half a year to get their act into gear, season ’09 took less than half a game. Their round one opponent – Sydney – kicked the first four goals of the match, and when Adam Goodes goaled late in the first quarter, the Swans held a 27 point lead. It’s tough to adequately describe what happened next, but I’ll try. Over the next 70 or so minutes of football, the Swans would register just two more scores – both rushed behinds – while the Saints would pile on ten goals and six behinds, to take a 37 point lead in the early stages of the last quarter. The Swans would ultimately kick the final four goals of the game, bringing the final margin back to 15 points, but a clear message had been sent to those watching – to take on the Saints, of ‘09 you had to be willing and able to defend better for longer.

Here seems as good a point as any to say a few words about Ross Lyon. As a coach, Lyon is often derided for being too defensive-minded. While it is true that the Saints in ’09 were about as complete defensively as any team in the history of the game, it doesn’t tell the whole story. The Saints would also finish the season ranked in the top four for offence, scoring more than 100 points on 12 occasions, including six weeks in a row from rounds two to seven. Five Saints would kick 20 or more goals in 2009, led by Riewoldt’s 78, and they would trail only the Cats and the Bulldogs for total inside-50 entries for the season.

As I said, though, their defence was about as good as it gets. Looking back, it’s not hard to see why they put such an emphasis on their backline. Their finals losses the previous year (against the Cats in week one and the Hawks in week three) had been at the hands of teams whose offence the Saints had allowed to score too freely. Only once was a team able to score more than 100 points against the Saints in ’09, this compared to six in ’07 and eight in ’08. An off-season, off-field acquisition of Geelong assistant coach Leigh Tudor, installed as the Saints forwards coach for 2009, inspired the forward line to a level of defensive pressure that had not been seen before in the AFL – the Saints forwards seemed to treat an opposition team exiting defensive-50 as a personal insult so grave as to warrant the demanding of satisfaction. The Saints would break all sorts of tackle records in 2009, unleashing on the competition a brutal, attritional game style that hassled sides into submission. The lethal mix of full-ground pressure overwhelmed teams, as the Saints embarked on a club-record 19 straight wins to start the season.

 

If you know anything about the 2009 home-and-away season, you will know about the round 14 clash between the last remaining unbeaten sides, St Kilda and Geelong. An AFL record 54,444 fans packed into the then-Etihad Stadium to watch probably the best game of football (excluding finals) that you could ever wish to see. I’m serious, if you haven’t watched this game before, then you haven’t seen Shakespeare the way it is meant to be done. Don’t believe me? Well, let me run through some names for you. For the Saints, we have in-their-prime stars like Dal Santo, Goddard, Hayes, Montagna, Koschitzke, Milne and Riewoldt, while for the Cats we have Gary Ablett Jnr., Jimmy Bartel, Joel Corey, Paul Chapman, James Kelly, Joel Selwood, Harry Taylor (and a young Tom Hawkins).

The Saints burst out of the blocks, kicking the first five goals of the match, with their tackling pressure forcing the Cats into uncharacteristic errors. It wasn’t until Ablett took a great mark across half-forward and received a fortunate 50m penalty, that the Cats finally registered their first goal – more than 25 minutes into the first quarter. As the game went on, however, the Saints pressure around the ball fell slightly and Geelong were able to claw their way back into the game. By midway through the third quarter, following three goals in quick succession from Andrew Mackie, Cameron Mooney and Selwood, the Saints lead had been reduced to just three-points.

For any of you non-believers, let me assure you that there is a reason this game is one of the best home-and-away games of all time. Following a great defensive mark by Jason Blake, and a daring run down the wing by Goddard, a long kick found Riewoldt at half-forward who elected to play on, baulked around a Geelong opponent and kicked a thundering goal from outside 50m, putting the Saints back out by 10-points with just over a minute left in the third. This is how the game would go for the rest of the afternoon. The Cats would do something incredible, and then the Saints would raise the bar. Geelong would raise it again. The Saints would match it. On and on, and back and forward, until a Matthew Stokes goal in the waning minutes of the game levelled the scores. For a moment, it seemed like this would be a fitting end. Both teams entered the match undefeated, and both teams could exit the match undefeated. After two hours of the most exhilarating footy you could hope to watch, it almost felt inevitable.

But like Thanos a decade later, Michael Gardiner was inevitable. Following an eventful career at West Coast that had seen him play 129 games in the blue and gold, making the 2003 All-Australian team, a combination of injuries and off-field issues saw him traded to the Saints at the end of 2006. He didn’t manage a game in his first year with the Saints, as he battled more injuries, and had played just nine in his second year for the same reason. This meant that Gardiner entered 2009 having played just 27 games across the previous five seasons (all since his All-Australian selection), and with his 30th birthday approaching, he must have conceded that this year was probably his last shot. Fortunately, his body had held up and he had only missed one game to this point in the season – the Saints round 11 victory over North – establishing himself as the number one ruck in the side. So far, this game had already been his best for the year and if he did nothing else, would probably rank in the top two or three of his career – he had kicked three goals to go with his 12 disposals, six marks and 20 hit outs.

With less than 100 seconds left, Luke Ball received a pass from Montagna, ran to half-forward and kicked long to the top of the goal square. From nowhere, Gardiner flew across the pack and took a fantastic mark. He had always been destined for greatness after being taken with the first selection in the 1996 AFL draft, but whenever it appeared as though he would finally achieve it, something would get in the way. Whether it be an injury or an off-field issue, before today, Gardiner, like St Kilda, appeared cursed with the worst type of luck. The kind of luck that shows you how good things can be, how enjoyable and life-altering something like winning a premiership can be, before whisking it away from your grasp. Today, Gardiner and the Saints would touch, ever so briefly, ever so quickly, immortality. With just over a minute remaining, Gardiner would kick the goal that would keep the St Kilda’s unbeaten record alive, consign the Cats to a 13-1 record, and give long-suffering Saints fans as strong a belief as they had ever had that maybe this year would end differently.

 

The Saints would lose just two games by the end of the season – and both of these by less than a goal – completing one of the most dominant home-and-away seasons in recent memory. A 20-2 record is phenomenal and would fin the St Kilda qualifying first for the finals for just the second time in their history (the other time being 1997). Awaiting them in the first week of the finals was Collingwood, the team they had comfortably eliminated from finals the previous year. A dominant second quarter ensured this result would be no different. Led by a masterful performance from Riewoldt (19 disposals, 10 marks and five goals) the Saints won each of the last three quarters to run out 28-point victors, booking a spot in their fourth preliminary final in six years.

The Western Bulldogs comfortable 51-point victory in the second semi-final set them up as the Saints opponent, and the Saints had every right to feel confident leading into the match. They had played, and beaten, the Bulldogs twice already throughout the home-and-away season, with both wins being relatively comfortable – a 28-point win in round six and a 45-point win in round 17. However, they would quickly learn that finals were a different ballgame. The Dogs kicked the first two goals of the game and took a 15-point quarter-time lead. The Saints temporarily settled in the second quarter, kicking the first two goals, before the Dogs pulled away again with the next two. A goal to Lenny Hayes (and behinds both ways) saw the Dogs take a lead of seven points into the half-time break.

To this point, the Dogs defenders had done an extremely good job to keep Riewoldt goal-less. It would be fair to say that Riewoldt was in the midst of the best season of his career. The retirements over the previous few years of Hamill and Gehrig had left him the mantle of number one key forward and he had taken it with both hands. Regularly spending more than 90% of the game on the field, Riewoldt’s ability to continually run and present options for teammates exiting defence, only to appear seconds later deep in the forward line, invariably taking a mark and kicking a team-lifting goal, was becoming the stuff of legend for Saints fans, and the source of nightmares for prospective opponents. So far in the season, he had averaged more than 17 disposals, nearly ten marks (including more than two contested marks) and three-and-a-third goals a game.

As he walked into half-time, he must have felt that if the Saints were to make it to the big dance the following week, it would be on the back of him having a big second half. Well, he didn’t have a big second half. He had an enormous one. He kicked two goals at the start of the third quarter to push his team 11-points clear, and then when they needed him again, with the Bulldogs having hit the front nearing time-on in the last, Riewoldt delivered again. A long kick inside-50 from Goddard found Riewoldt leaping in front of a pack of players to take a contested mark 30m out from goal. His resulting set shot put the Saints back in front, and his fourth with just over a minute to go sealed the result. Four second-half goals and seven contested marks were the hallmarks of a game befitting the title ‘best player in the competition’. To do it in a preliminary final, with his teams’ back to the wall, showed just what a superstar he was. The Saints were through to their first grand final since 1997.

If the Saints could have chosen any weather conditions for the grand final of ‘09, I reckon they would have chosen ‘dry’. They had played 15 games under the roof at Docklands throughout the season, and indeed had beaten their grand final opponents – Geelong – there in a famous round 14 match. Though their game style was driven by pressure around the ball and an unprecedentedly stingy defence, their best chance to win was to score goals, and for this they would favour dry conditions. Waking up on grand final morning and seeing the grey clouds that greeted them, Saints fans may have felt their hopes and their hearts dip, just a fraction.

Nevertheless, despite the wet conditions, the ’09 grand final was the ultimate culmination to a season – the two best sides of the year doing battle on the last Saturday in September. Their round 14 match-up had been a perfect entree to a game that now had the ultimate prize in football on the line. Really, even counting for the highest of expectations, the grand final of 2009 exceeded it. It was the perfect combination of high pressure, intense physicality and extreme skillfulness as both teams displayed a devotion to their teammates and a desire to win that has rarely been rivalled since.

The game ebbed and flowed for three quarters, the margin never exceeding 12 points, and when a behind off the boot of Selwood levelled the scores with five minutes remaining, the same sense that a draw was the fairest result that had permeated late in their round 14 match-up, started to appear again. This time, though, for the Saints, there would be no last-minute Gardiner heroics, no match-winning charge down the wing from Goddard, no moment of brilliance from Riewoldt. This time there was only a toe-poke from the Cats defender Matthew Scarlett to Ablett Jnr. whose long kick inside-50 resulted in a Chapman snapped goal. The final margin, 12 points (the extra goal coming after the siren from Max Rooke), served as a heart-breaking reminder that margin for error in football is unfathomably small.

Of course, Saints fans don’t need reminding of this. They, more than any other group of football fans, if not sports fans in general, are acutely aware that the difference between winning and losing can be so small as to require a magnifying glass to see. In his book on the Saints 2010 season, The Bubble: Inside the Saints in 2010, St Kilda’s Head of Conditioning, David Misson described the scenes in the room after the game – “Some players were crying in their families’ arms; others sitting in corners, heads buried in hands, or sporting 1000-yard stares. Doors crashing, heads shaking, boots and equipment flying. But mostly, an exhibition of raw, utter, devastating loss.”

 

It’s often said in the AFL that there is a premiership hangover – that is, that the premiership team struggles to replicate their efforts from the previous season as a result of being too content with winning the flag. While this is undoubtedly true, considering the scene described above by Misson, one can only imagine the difficulty in attempting to start again the next season, having been so close to achieving something special the year before. The knowledge that the Saints needed to improve if they were going to win the premiership must have felt like a slap in the face to a playing group that had won 22 out of 25 games in 2009. Hadn’t they all just had personal best years? How could they get better?

But that’s the unfortunate reality in football. In all sport, in fact. If you don’t improve everyday, you’re essentially going backwards. As season 2010 dawned, the Saints faced the unenviable, if not inevitable, question that each team faces at the start of every year – how hard are you willing to work to achieve ultimate success?

But before that, there was a trade period and a national draft to negotiate. There was one area of their team that St Kilda hierarchy had identified as a weakness – outside run and carry. While they had been served very well by the likes of Jason Gram (who only finished second to Paul Chapman in the ’09 Norm Smith Medal voting via a countback) and Farren Ray, their lack of depth at the position was a cause for concern. They would use their first and third-round selections at the 2009 draft as a way of addressing this need, sending pick 16 to Essendon for fleet-footed midfielder Andrew Lovett, and trading pick 48 to Fremantle for speedy wingman Brett Peake. There was another player as well, whose cause formed an important story of St Kilda’s 2009 off-season – Luke Ball.

Ball had been selected by the Saints with pick 2 of the ’01 ‘super-draft’ and had quickly established himself as a hard-nosed, team-first midfielder with neat skills and an elite desire to hunt the football. He made the All-Australian team in 2005, also winning the club best and fairest award and captained St Kilda through 2006 and 2007. However, his future as a Saint under coach Ross Lyon was cast into doubt when Lyon dropped him back to the reserves following their round 15 victory over West Coast in 2009. Though he would be recalled for their round 19 win over Hawthorn, he was dropped after the next game (one of only two losses for the Saints in the ’09 home-and-away season – a 2-point loss to Essendon) and recalled again for the finals. It wasn’t just being selected in the team, however, that caused friction. Ball would only play 46% of game time in the grand final against Geelong (collecting 22 disposals, seven clearances and laying seven tackles) and was benched for almost the entirety of the second half. If Lyon and the coaches played their hand in the grand final, Luke Ball played his in trade week.

Ball requested a trade and nominated Collingwood as his destination of choice. This was a logical decision – Collingwood were a good team but looked like they were probably one midfielder short of being a great one. The only problem was that they had already traded their first and third round selections in the ’09 draft (picks 14 and 46) to Sydney in exchange for ruckman Darren Jolly. Unless they were willing to offer a player, which they weren’t, the only thing they could trade was a second round pick (pick 30), an offer the Saints almost immediately rejected. The AFL would be forced to step in and offer mediation, but neither side would back down and as trade period ended, St Kilda faced an almost certain result of losing an experienced midfielder in the prime of his career, for nothing.

By the time of the draft, Collingwood would use their second round pick – pick 30 – to select former St Kilda skipper Luke Ball. Two picks later, the Saints would make their first selection, taking Nicholas Winmar, the second cousin of club great Nicky Winmar. I’m sure that St Kilda’s recruiter at the time hasn’t spent a second thinking about the players who were drafted within the next ten selections – players like Max Gawn, David Astbury, Sam Reid, Allen Christensen and Nathan Vardy.

Regardless of what they had lost, the Saints now had to turn their focus to the 2010 season. But before they could get there, they would have a few issues to deal with first. As Misson writes in his book, “picking up the Sunday Herald Sun the day before out first intra-club session, the paper ran a story on page 3 about our new recruit, Andrew Lovett, being taken into custody by police at 6:15am on the Saturday morning after verbally abusing two police officers who had been called to quieten down a party Lovett was attending. He was put in the holding cells until being released at 10:30am.” This wouldn’t be the end of Lovett’s troubles with the law at the end of 2009.

On December 23, Lovett and new Saints teammate Gram met a woman and her friend at a bar in Richmond, before heading back to Gram’s apartment in Port Melbourne. It was there, according to one of the women, that Lovett raped her. Lovett, on the other hand, claimed the sex was consensual. Regardless of what occurred (and it is well beyond the purview of this article to either prosecute or defend a case of rape) once the allegation had been made, Lovett’s contract with the Saints was terminated.

 

Following an off-season of some disrepute, the Saints set about season 2010 trying to earn some of the lost respect back. Against traditional round one rivals Sydney (having faced them in round one each of the past two years), the Saints were victorious by eight points, but not without surviving a scare. Taking a 20 point lead into three quarter time, the Saints started the last quarter looking satisfied and content that the game was done. For anyone who has watched a game involving Sydney since about 2004, they know that an attitude like this is like a red rag to a bull. The Swans quickly piled on three goals of their own, pulling the margin back to just two points before the Saints steadied with goals to Riewoldt and Goddard. Though they won the match, they were left in no doubt that they needed to improve in order to go one step further.

Over the next few weeks it looked like that lesson had been learned as the Saints exited round four with a 4-0 record. Unfortunately, they did so without their skipper, Riewoldt, who had succumbed to a hamstring injury during their round three clash against Collingwood. The injury would see the Saints most important player miss three months of football and render their ascent to the top of the premiership mountain all that more arduous. But then something kind of crazy happened – the Saints midfielders found out that they could kick goals too!

Both Goddard and Montagna would kick their highest season tally of goals in 2010 – 24 and 18 respectively (as would Schneider with 39) – while Dal Santo would contribute 16 goals of his own. This in addition to tally’s like the 57 goals contributed by Milne and the 30 goals from Koschitzke helped to make up for the massive hole left by Riewoldt.

Of course, it wasn’t just the offence that did the heavy lifting. The Saints defence made it feel as if any goal kicked against them was an affront to their honour. Though they would allow three scores of more than 100 points in 2009 (all losses), they were still more than a goal a game stingier than any other defence in the comp. By the time that Riewoldt returned (for a round 15 game against Brisbane) finals were a mere formality. The Saints would finish the season ranked third on the ladder with a 15-1-6 record (they drew their round 17 match against the Hawks), setting up a re-match with the Cats in week one of the finals.

Like the grand final the previous year, this ’10 qualifying final was a match high in intensity and pressure, from the first bounce to the final siren. When Montagna goaled early in the third quarter, the Saints lead over the reigning premiers was 33 points. But this Geelong team knew what it took to win games of footy, particularly finals. Slowly they pegged the lead back, and when Paul Chapman kicked truly midway through the final term, the Saints lead was reduced to just six points. A potential match-winning goal, with a minute to go, to Cats tagger Cameron Ling was disallowed and the ball called back to the Saints half-back line, as the umpire adjudicated that Cameron Mooney had pushed Saints defender James Gwilt in the back. The Saints would play out the last minute, holding onto an eventual four point victory.

It would be wrong to say that the Saints beat the Cats because of an umpiring decision. Indeed, a study undertaken by data analysts at RMIT of all AFL games between 2002-2006 found that the impact of umpiring decisions on the results of matches was so small as to be statistically irrelevant. For a match where players accumulated more than 700 disposals and contributed nearly 50 scoring shots, it does appear short-sighted to apportion influence to the ‘men in white’. Nevertheless, for a team that has so often been besmirched by the gods of luck, suddenly it appeared that they were on St Kilda’s side. Maybe this would be their year?

The Saints would face the same preliminary final opponent as the previous year – the Western Bulldogs – and again were victorious. A seven goal to one blitz in the third quarter put the result beyond doubt, and by the time Koschitzke goaled early in the last quarter, the Saints were ready to put the cue in the rack. They had been to the grand final the previous year and fallen heartbreakingly short, and knew that they had bigger fish to fry than worrying about glory goals at the end of a preliminary final.

Their opponent in the 2010 grand final were a familiar adversary for the Saints. Their only premiership triumph had come at the expense of Collingwood, following a behind kicked by Barry Breen. Indeed, the Pies were not immune to grand final heart-break themselves, having earned the moniker ‘Collywobbles’ as a result of consistent grand final failings. The match itself seemed to work as an almost perfect personification of the anxieties of both supporter bases, wth Collingwood taking an early lead and St Kilda slowly chipping away. By three-quarter time, the Pies lead, which had once been as much as 24-points, had been whittled down to just seven.

 

***

 

It can’t end like this, can it? It’s not fair. Even for a club that has so regularly suffered from bad luck, this seems like a step too far. When Goddard soared above the pack and took one of the most famous marks in grand final history, before going back and calmly slotting the goal, that should have been it. Both teams were out on their feet. The game wasn’t so much a football match as a street fight at the point, with players throwing their bodies in everywhere.

With just over ninety seconds to go, Gwilt’s long kick out of defence was marked by Riewoldt, beating three Collingwood opponents. He kicked long into attack where the ball was gathered by Lenny Hayes. If ever anyone deserved to be a premiership hero, it was Lenny. His quick kick inside 50 was to a one-on-one contest – Stephen Milne on Ben Johnson. Milne does well to run Johnson past the ball, only to have the ball bounce at right angles past him. Never mind, as long as he gets a good bounce now, he’ll run into an open goal and kick the most famous goal in St Kilda’s history.

But as if controlled by a magnet behind the goals, the ball bounces at right angles again, eventually going through for a point. The scores were level. “What are you doing next week”, Bruce McAvaney would ask on the coverage. He was right. The match was a draw. Once the siren sounded and the Norm Smith Medal was awarded (to Hayes, of course), the Saints would start to make their way off the ground. Before they could, though, AFL officials would inform them that their rooms were flooded due to a sewerage leak, and they would have to go to the old rooms on the other side of the ground.

It can’t end like this, can it?

 

***

 

I’d love to tell you that the Saints came out and won the grand final replay the next week. That all their heroes stood up and they were successful in achieving what had for so long eluded them. That their players, lifted by the spirit of the Saints of the past, won the whole damn thing. I would love to tell you that. But I can’t. Collingwood won the replay by 56 points and in the process ripped out the last vestiges of hope and inspiration that this group of Saints could muster. They’d return for the 2011 season looking like a team that was jaded. They’d qualify for finals but go down to Sydney in the first week and were eliminated. At the end of the season, Ross Lyon would be announced as the new coach of the Fremantle Football Club, ending his tenure as the Saints head coach. Though he would cop some flack for the way he changed clubs, I can’t hold it against him. To have your heart broken so many times and keep trying to go back to work at the same place must be impossible.

The Saints wouldn’t play finals again until the COVID-shortened 2020 season, beating the Bulldogs in week one before going down to the eventual premiers – Richmond – in week two. They were now coached by Brett Ratten, their third coach since Ross Lyon’s departure, and contained none of the players who had done battle over a decade before. This was a new era for the Saints, the era of Jack Steele and Max King, an era which they hope, once again, can bring them premiership success.

For a club whose history spans the entire length of the VFL/AFL competition, it is almost unfathomable that they would have only one premiership to show for it. But is that a fair way to assess a club, on premierships alone? To me, it’s far too easy to try and consign a team and its players to a footnote of history just because they didn’t achieve the ultimate prize, particularly when we consider how close this Saints team came. They made a grand final in ’97, only to beset by personal tragedies to important players. Missed making another grand final in ’04 because of a freak goal. Missed other ones in ’05 and ’08 due to being a step off the pace. Then they lost a grand final in ’09 because of a toe-poke! Don’t even get me started on 2010…

But for the bounce of a ball, this team would be assured of their standing in history. Players like Lenny Hayes, Nick Riewoldt, Leigh Montagna, Stephen Milne, Nick Dal Santo and Brendan Goddard would all be introduced as ‘premiership stars’. Ross Lyon would be a premiership coach. But for the bounce of a ball, one of the greatest home-and-away teams would have fulfilled their destiny. But for the bounce of a ball, long-suffering Saints supporters could sleep at night, content that their team had ascended to the top of the mountain.

Who designed an oval-shaped ball, anyway?

 

Want more of this kind of stuff? Join The Mongrel to get it!