At the conclusion of the 2007 AFL season, Ben Cousins was a man without a football home.
No longer a West Coast Eagle, and found guilty by the AFL of bringing the game into disrepute, Cousins then spent 12 months on the sidelines, contemplating the possibility that his football career was at an end. He was and was looking for a lifeline.
I can remember the newspaper headlines at the time and the furore surrounding his return to the game. There was a fair bit of rock star about Cousins – from the swagger and charisma right down to the lifestyle. It was a lifestyle that would lead to a road he would come to regret. In late 2008, the wheels had not fallen off, but they were looking a little wonky. Still, demand for a player of Cousins’ talent was high.
Eventually, he found his way to Punt Road, where he played two more seasons before ending his career and moving into another, much less-successful phase of his life.
The current incarnation of Cousins is a far cry from the young man who was the poster boy for West Australian footy, at a time when he was collecting medals and awards like they were going out of fashion. Brownlow Medal, MVP award, Best and Fairest awards… Ben Cousins was a superb footballer – born to play the game. If you have never seen the way he played this game, go back and watch a few games from the 03-05 era. The man ran like a cheetah until he could go no further. He would stop, vomit, then run again.
He would bury taggers with a level of will and fitness that they simply couldn’t match, and if they came close to matching it, he’d be implored to run even harder. Nobody outran Ben Cousins – nobody.
It is difficult to think about the West Coast Eagles without picturing Cousins. He was their captain, and for a long period, the face of their club. Even once he was stripped of the captaincy, he was still spoken about as the “spiritual leader” of the team, and when Chris Judd stepped onto the podium to hold aloft the 2006 Premiership cup, Ben Cousins was not too far behind him.
The end of his tenure at West Coast was messy, and something that still haunts the club to this day. He was their favourite son gone awry, and in a move that tore at the hearts of Eagles supporters, the club was forced to cut him loose.
However, there was a point late in Cousins’ career where he may have made one of the most significant differences in modern AFL history. Whilst his move to Richmond was big news at the time, and his tenure there was more than serviceable, former St Kilda coach Ross Lyon stated back in 2020 that his club at the time was very interested in acquiring Cousins for the 2009 season.
More to the point, the St Kilda players were very interested in Cousins joining their playing group.
We all know the story – Cousins signed with the Tigers, looked like he hadn’t missed a beat in his first game (until his hamstring ripped) and went on to compile 32 games in yellow and black. There were no finals involved, and one cannot help but wonder how things would have been different had those in charge at St Kilda been unanimous in pursuing Cousins.
Lyon stated that he and Fraser Gehrig flew to Perth to meet with Cousins, but after doing some research of his own into drug addiction, chose to vote against the move of recruiting the former West Coast champ.
The move was squashed when both Lyon and president, Greg Westaway voted against the recruitment of the star midfielder at a board meeting – a pretty strong indication that the team did not want to upset the culture it had built. Less than a year later, the Saints would fall short against Geelong in the Grand Final. I’d like to say it was as close as they’d get, but in 2010, they went closer – as close as possible, before falling over in the Grand Final Replay.
The question needs to be asked – could Cousins have given those teams what they needed to get them over the line in 2009 or 2010?
The Saints were unsuccessful in two Grand Finals by a total margin of 12 points, and whilst Cousins would not have been expected to be THE star on those St Kilda teams, he would have been a handy third or fourth option in a midfield containing Lenny Hayes, Leigh Montagna, Luke Ball and Nick Dal Santo.
Think about that combination for a moment – Hayes, Dal Santo, Ball, Montagna… Cousins. It’s not bloody bad, is it?
Matched up in 2009 against the Cats, are they good enough to go head to head with Ablett, Selwood, Corey and Bartel? How about 2010 against Swan, Pendlebury, Dale Thomas and a young Beams/Sidebottom combination?
With no dog in the fight, I look at Cousins and wonder whether you swap him in for, say… Farren Ray in that 2009 team. Is it enough to tip the scales in the favour of the Saints? Is his gut run and brilliance the factor that gets the Saints over the line against Geelong, both breaking a drought and ruining a legacy for the Cats?
Or how about if Robert Eddy or Brett Peake are replaced in the 2010 side? Is the presence of Cousins worth one more point on Grand Final day to the Saints? Just one solitary point?
The risks of taking Cousins in that 2008 off-season were seemingly too great for the Saints, but what were the risks of not taking him? Is it too much of a Captain Hindsight move to speculate on the positive difference he could have made on the field without doing the same for what he could have meant to the team culture off it?
The Saints had already gambled on a former Cousins teammate – Michael Gardiner. Travelling to Melbourne with an already established poor reputation, Gardiner joined the Saints and made a big impact, but the possibility of re-teaming him with Cousins must have weighed heavily on Ross Lyon and his management team at the time. Could they afford to take the chance of not only recruiting someone who could be trouble, but recruiting him knowing the level of influence he’d have on Gardiner?
And what of the other young Saints? Would they be led astray by Cousins a little too easily?
At the conclusion of the 2010 AFL season, Ben Cousins retired from AFL football. He did not add any further accolades to his already impressive trophy case, but he got to play an extra two seasons of footy.
At the end of the 2010 AFL season, the Saints limped off the field after the Grand Final Replay and prepared to have another crack in 2011, but their failed finals campaign effectively closed the club’s most recent premiership window.
Was the right call made on the recruitment, or non-recruitment of Ben Cousins? Could he have made enough difference on-field to have swayed one of the two biggest results in the Saints’ history? Would the resultant impact of his presence at the club have been worth it if he did?
We will never know just what difference Cousins could have made for the Saints. The players realised the value he was capable of bringing to their team. They knew he was an on-field value-add, and with a strong resolve, they could have been a positive influence on Cousins, or at least not fallen under his influence.
Looking back now, if you’re a St Kilda fan, do you pull the trigger on this move and damn any possible consequences? Or do you trust that your club did what was best at the time? Did they do what was best at the time?
When you look back at the career of Ben Cousins, do you think the West Coast Eagles regret his time at the club? For all the issues and trouble, there he was, swinging his arm wildly in celebration, next to Chris Judd on the dais as the West Coast Eagles received the 2006 premiership cup. For all they went through, before and after, was it worth it? Would they do it again?
Jump in your time machine – if you had the final call, would you pick up Ben Cousins in 2009?
And wouldn’t that Premiership Cup look nice to the 1966 version if you said yes?