General Footy Writing: Some of my best friends are Saints (really)

By John Butler

Consider these the observations of a sinner amongst Sainters. The thoughts of one who chose a different tribe, yet has many fond memories of a Moorabbin childhood.

My Blues kindly relieved me of any finals expectations on the weekend, causing thoughts to turn towards my many long-suffering friends of the St Kilda persuasion. A Preliminary Final berth has been claimed, and I can feel the anxiety rising around me.

I grew up in a family with no prior Australian football affiliations. The son of a “ten pound pom” father and ballroom-dancing mother, I was free to choose my own religion. Despite living within easy walking distance of Linton Street, it was the magic of Jezza which won me to the Navy Blue cause. Rarely do we fully understand the implications of such early decisions.

This choice placed me in a distinct minority at Worthing Road Primary School; just across the Nepean Highway from the Saints’ lair. One of my earliest football memories is the pall which descended upon the schoolyard the Monday after the 1971 Grand Final. This was a time before team merchandise was quite as prevalent, so with a bit of discretion, rival affiliations needn’t be too confronting at painful moments. By and large, the factions co-existed in harmony. Besides, the bogeymen from Richmond soon loomed larger on my personal horizon.

Owing to its proximity, the Moorabbin ground is home to most of my early live football experiences. I can vividly recall Wayne Harmes vainly holding out against the ferocious Saint onslaught which robbed us of the double chance in ’78. A skinny, teenage Chris Grant showed what was to come one blustery day; winning the ball with seeming ease, then spraying shots at goal with the extravagance of a drunken Buddy. Simon Beasley’s shot to win a game that resolutely stayed one foot the wrong side of the post its entire journey. A young Plugger kicking 10 on an even younger SOS. Tellingly, Saints triumphs stand out from the norm.

During these years, the differing world views of various tribes became ever apparent. The ’70s and ’80s were a golden age for Carlton folk. If a given season didn’t work out, there was the reassurance that another chance would soon present itself. Retrospectively, the seeds of a future complacency were being sown.

For the Saints, the world was a less promising place. It seemed to be an article of faith that forces unspecified were conspiring against them. The umps had it in for them. The footballing gods had cursed them. Even when Jezza came to the fold his magic deserted him.

Eighteen long seasons passed without a finals appearance. When hope momentarily beckoned, a way was found to let the chance slip. I was at Moorabbin the day a Mike Patterson-coached side derailed its season with a particularly brutal display against the Bombers. Amid subsequent suspensions and recriminations, another season was wasted. The howls from the Animal Enclosure that day seemed to demand justice for perceived wrongs both past and coming.

Only individual efforts seemed to give consolation to the faithful. When discussion turned to games, results seemed incidental; the talk was of a Bark’s hanger or Plugger, always Plugger.  Sometimes it seemed that the club should be renamed Plugger.

Eventually the move to Arctic Park was made, but outlooks seemed hardly sunnier. Things even threatened to look up on the field, but this was to be eyed with suspicion. The crushed dreams of ’97 became proof of how foolhardy it was to trust in false hope. I began to wonder if my friends weren’t perversely comfortable with their self-appointed lot in life. Maybe the role of perpetual underdog was somehow a badge of honour? More probably, it was what was required to survive the disappointment.

An awful lot has changed in the past decade. Carlton people have experienced a crash course in humility if ever there was. In contrast, the Saints have entered a period to rival the heydays of Doc and Big Carl. I have Sainter friends whose sons only know Carlton as easy-beats. It would be fair to say some of the Carlton brethren haven’t held up as well during the last eight years as many Sainters I’ve known.

Yet I doubt much has really changed in the underlying psychology of the two groups. When the Blues proclaimed “They know we’re coming”, it was easy to brand it arrogant. Certainly it is still a touch premature. But I would hope it is more than that. That it’s a sign of fundamental belief. We may have lost the plot for a time, but we are determined to find a way back. Only future seasons can prove that particular case.

Now look at the Saints of 2009. Few sides have put together as impressive a first 14 weeks as they did. Even beyond this, the wins kept coming. Finally, the intensity slackened a little and a couple of games of no real import were narrowly lost. According to many, you would have thought the team bus had driven over a cliff. Even before the losses, I only had to tease my friends in terms of the flag being “an historical and statistical certainty” to see them react as if they believed in voodoo curses.

They now await their next opponent. Another two wins and they finally have something to replace Barry Breen’s kick in conversation. A million doomsday scenarios no doubt bubble just beneath the conscious surface. Certainly the Cats and Dogs will feel they still have some claims. At the risk of tempting fate, I think it will finally be the Saints’ year. This current group seems to have an evenness of temper and singularity of purpose which will be very tough to break.

But as my friends will quickly point out, I would say that; I’m a Carlton supporter.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World’s Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has been a Carlton member for more than 30 years.

Comments

  1. John,

    Love the piece. Very thoughtful, especially considering it’s about a bunch of ratbags.

    I have a similar tale – to a point. I grew up in the heart of Essendon’s suburban area while barracking for Richmond. As a kid my brothers and I were the only Richmond fans we knew.

    The difference is that Essendon fans share none of the anxiety that seems to be the lot of a Saints fan. They’re a righteous lot. They expect to win. There is nothing more pathetic than an Essendon fan sooking about some perceived injustice, poor soul.

  2. Peter Mangold says:

    Ahhh the memories. The “bloodbath” against Essendon where Terry Cahill almost died on the field after swallowing his tongue. Sidebottom got 4 weeks for belting someone, but Ditterich was cleared (for the first of 3 occasions that season he was reported and cleared for punches that would have received 8 weeks in 2009). I was sitting behind the goals in the last game that season when we thrashed Carlton to give ourselves a chance at the “5”. Wayne Harmes’ effort in the back pocket was one of the great unheralded individual “against the tide” efforts in living memory. Unfortunately Geelong beat Fitzroy that day to deny the Saints a place in the finals. I remember waiting with baited breath for the scores each quarter to be revealed on the old Moorabbin scoreboard. The next season, the normal order of things was restored. The Saints (after beating the reigning premiers, Hawthorn, in round one) again finished at the foot of the ladder.

    As one of those whose sons have grown up in an entirely different era of relative succes, how do I explain to my boys the significance of 19 straight wins and premiership favouritism? As another Moorabbin resident, my regular Saturday afternoon excursions to Linton St began in 1976. It wasn’t until 1992 – following the entire career of the late and truly great Trevor Barker – that I witnessed the Saints in a final: a hard fought loss against the Cats with Lockett and Brownless putting on a show of their own at either end of the ground.

    How do I enable my boys to really appreciate that the moment may well have arrived after so many false dawns? The anxiety is most definitely rising, but along with it some hope and optimism after so many years of darkness and despair. The Blues may be coming, but it appears that the Saints may have finally arrived!

  3. Peter,

    Is that Carlton and St Kilda game that you’ve mentioned the one in which Robbie Muir laid out Dennis Collins on the wing?

    It’s an indelible image from my Big Replay-watching days as a boy far from Moorabbin.

  4. John Butler says:

    Paul,

    That is precisely the game in which that incident occured. It happened right near the final siren. From memory, Muir had just been reported for hitting someone else and, in one of the dumbest acts I’ve seen on a football field, Collins tried to rub it in. Don’t poke the bear indeed.

    For good measure, Muir then had a crack at someone in the crowd. Imagine how many acre feet of print such goings on would attract today? When Mr Muir lost it, he didn’t muck around.

    Peter, I’m pretty sure the “someone” Sidebottom belted was Alan Ezard (it was certainly one of the Bomber small fleet). How Big Carl escaped with only one report that day was a miracle in itself, let alone getting cleared at the tribunal. I presume the testimony would have given the Bothers Grimm a run for their money.

  5. pauldaffey says:

    This from the AFL website:

    Essendon’s “Baby Bombers” hit a brick wall named St Kilda when they journeyed to Moorabbin in 1978.

    Under new coach Mike Patterson the Saints were a strong and combative unit, and in a tight game they put the Dons through the mincer.

    Merv Neagle was crunched in a clash with Garry Sidebottom, and in the second term Carl Ditterich crashed through an attempted shepherd by Terry Cahill and flattened the Bomber rover. When Simon Madden ran 50 metres to confront Ditterich he was flattened by a straight arm.

    Ditterich, Sidebottom and fellow ruckman Doug Booth were all reported and the Ditterich-Cahill incident was made worse by the fact that Cahill swallowed his tongue and had to be revived on the field.

    In the rooms after the game Essendon president Colin Stubbs launched a scathing attack on the Saints and gave fodder to the headline writers when he declared of St Kilda: “They were animals, nothing short of it.”

    For his part Saint coach Patterson put it succinctly: “Winners can laugh, losers can please themselves”.

    St Kilda threatened legal action against Stubbs and Essendon countered by lodging a complaint against Ditterich. The wash-up was that Ditterich was cleared of striking Madden, Sidebottom was suspended for four weeks and Booth was also cleared of his charge.

    A few days later a compromise was reached when Essendon withdrew the complaint against Ditterich in exchange for St Kilda halting legal action against Stubbs.

  6. Peter Mangold says:

    Ahhh…the good ol’ days

  7. I was there for all those events, they were great but not as great as what coming in two weeks time and the blood that will be spilled on the “G” between 3 and 5.30 Ihope it is blue blood and fur.
    without prejudice or anxiety

  8. Tribal loyalty is a tricky thing JB. Being born into the colours makes it all very easy. Having to choose is a lifetime decision that, a bit like baptism, should really be postponed until the call is made to a more mature mind. However, by then confusion drawn from knowledge could leave one wandering in the Wilderness for eternity, working the silk route of fashions and fads A Baby Bomber here, A Good Old Collingwood For Ever there. The duffel coat a kaleidoscope of Buddy badges one season; cascading with Nick Riewoldt imagery the next. Maybe ever a run with Big Bad Bustling Barry to see what a bit of rough was like. Probably better the six year old chooses last year’s premiers when the mind is free of reality and open to a romantic commitment that will carry the sprit of the child through decades of character building.

    I grew up in a Melbourne – not far from you JB, at Bentleigh – that was vastly different from what it is now. The original 12 tribes held their territories and I learnt Melbourne’s layout catching trams and trains to the various grounds. The old city had rail connexions to them all. The bus services were a new mode and came very much with the post war boom and the alienated market gardens, dairy farms and orchards of the ‘new’ suburbs. I was born into the Yellow & Black of Struggletown and actually shook Jack Dyer’s hand in the rooms while held aloft by my father for anointment.

    When I was at school, I too was a loner, a Tiger loner. These were the days of John Coleman & Ken Hands. Chooka Howell and The Twomey Brothers. Alan La Fontaine and Bernie Smith. There weren’t many Geelong supporters- that was the 1940’s equivalent of barracking for Adelaide if you lived east of the You Yangs – but I was alone amongst Melbourne, Carlton, Essendon and Collingwood supporters. I share those moments with you. It’s all part of the character building.

    As well as – during some Richmond dark years -standing in the terraces behind the South Road goals with my St Kilda mates when The Doc, Big Carl, Verdun Howell & Cowboy Neale were giving their Long Suffering Faithful some well deserved Self Belief. It was during this time that I matured into a Student of The Game. I’m still a Tiger Tragic, and Punt Road will always be my home, but don’t you just love Our Great Game? If it’s not the one they play in Heaven I’m not going.

  9. John Butler says:

    No sane man should argue with your last point JM.

    Rugby, soccer or gridiron just can’t match it.

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