Saints deja-boo 1999

Sunday morning. Grey. It’s summer in London.

A hostel-quality fry-up at the Hampstead Heath YHA sits comfortably in my belly. It’s about to hit checkout time, and the hallways are thick with typical backpacker buzz. The forwarding destinations will be varied. Some are Paris-bound on the Eurostar, some the ferry to Calais, others are off to Stonehenge, or back home to New York, Krakow, Tokyo, Auckland. Wherever.

For myself, and some newfound Aussie ratbag chums, my destination is just down the road, St Johns Wood NW8.

The date is June 20th 1999. I’m gearing up for the World Cup cricket final at Lord’s. Australia will be squaring off with Pakistan.

I’ve personally taken credit for our stunning mid-tournament recovery. In typically arctic Mancunian conditions, my solo Cricktiki tour had launched at Old Trafford v the Windies. Australia couldn’t afford to lose another game at that point, and six games later, they hadn’t.

My hair, an impenetrable wall of sans-shampoo authority (ahh, memories), is sprayed half-green, half-gold. A tacky five quid “Wombats Next 10km” street sign, a recent Australiana shop purchase, is at the ready. The other boys have blow-up kangaroos and Wallaby jerseys. The Latvian backpackers alongside at the hostel are clearly bemused by our antics, it’s understandable.

Though pyjama-game glory awaits, the Saints are never far from mind during my travels. My current St Kilda jumper, the anchor design circa 1997 GF, sports a now-peeling #22 (Matty Lappin). It has featured prominently on tour. During the infamous tied semi-final at Edgbaston, my fellow Sainter S.K. Warne (10-4-29-4) is fielding at Long On. It’s a rare and brief stint on the fence, he’s right in front of me. My Protea “mates” are directing their renowned South African wit toward him. Their ringleader is every inch not the comic genius. Prior to Lance Klusener teeing off, the St Kilda jumper appears from my bag. My apprentice bullfighter impression is in full flight as I wave it about hysterically. Warney finally spots it. He gives me the thumbs up. You beauty.

Minutes later, after Lance makes it interesting (to say the least), D.W. Fleming rolls the ball down the pitch to run out Allan Donald. It is I laughing last, and loudest.

It doesn’t get much better than this. I’m a 21 year old sporting tragic abroad, having the absolute time of life.

With time to kill in Hampstead before boarding a red double-decker to Lord’s, I’m anxious to learn how the Saints fared the day prior against Hawthorn. The internet may be in its mainstream infancy, but already proves a life-line for travellers. Remarkably, the AFL website is swifter at the turn of the century from a London hostel dial-up, than a present day cable connection in Melbourne.

When the clunky suspense-building webpage ticks over, the result is confronting.

St Kilda, after leading the Hawks by 57 points in the second quarter, have lost. Lost! To that stage, the greatest turnaround in VFL/AFL history.

I continue reading the match report in stunned silence. I’m astounded. Blood rushes to my head, my temples are itchy. The YHA’s patented watered-down orange juice no longer sits well.  Soon thereafter, predictably, the obscenities fly. My Baltic friends are worried. They suspect there’s trouble back home – they’re on the money.

The result has far reaching consequences. This one match ultimately destroyed St Kilda’s on-field belief for half a decade. We’d seen it all before, but it sticks in the guts of Saints fans to this day.

From then on, the beltings became the norm (again). The wooden spoon arrived the next year (again).

Timmy departs.

Malcolm arrives.

….and Malcolm departs.

There’d be rumblings of tanking if the Saints weren’t actually so rubbish. They were starting over from absolute scratch, and defeat could be snatched from the jaws of victory like no other. Opponents knew the Saints lacked belief. No matter the start given, they would just roll over them in the final quarter.

And it can all be traced back to Waverley, and the June 1999 Hawthorn disaster.

On Sunday at the MCG, events unfold in eerily similar fashion. Hawthorn. Decisive early lead gobbled up. Lack of spirit, lack of fight, lack of conviction, lack of purpose. Crashing before our very eyes. The belief and respect, built over an eight year period, withering away again. And still, no flag. No f***ing flag to show for any of it.

The closest we’ve rejoiced in pure football nirvana is Goddard’s speccy on Harry O’Brien’s head – yes, this is the lot of a Saint. Everyone has their special footy moments, but for the successful clubs, these moments are contained within special results. Sainters just hang on to those special moments. The ultimate special result just doesn’t exist.

The fourth quarter at the ‘G descends into disarray. Franklin and Roughead are cha-cha-cha’ing around the witches hats. Somehow the scoreboard is not reporting a clobbering, but it may as well. I’m as good as reading that clunky webpage back at Hampstead Heath, and scratching those itchy temples, all over again. Empty. Despondent. Where to from here Saints?

In 1999 however, there was no time for footy moping at the internet desk that Sunday. The home of cricket provides the solace.

Pakistan bundled out for 130-odd. Warney turning it on again, seizing the big moments. Gilly top-edges Shoaib for six into the Edrich stand. It’s done and dusted at half time – perhaps this was the forerunner to 20-20 cricket.

Thankfully the St Kilda curse hadn’t followed me to the ground. To the roars of us yobs below, S.R. Waugh hoists the trophy on the balcony, a former knockabout PM later joins him, playing it up to the masses. It’s an easy crowd. I kiss the Lords turf, ripping out a few tufts for prosperity (I still have them). There’s a photo with Boof Lehmann, and a vox-pop interview on ABC radio. What a day. I call Dad from a public phone box soon after. He’ll listen out for me on the 6am ABC news. We decide to not talk Saints.

Festivities kick on at the Walkabout pub in Covent Garden (we didn’t know any better). Prince – aka “formerly” aka Symbol aka Love Symbol aka Love Symbol #2, once sang of partying like 1999. His wise counsel, indeed, was heeded that night.

Last Sunday however, there is no similar avenue of sporting relief. And no Lenny Hayes. The Prince playlist has moved depressingly on to When Doves Cry. Lionel Richie is still probably floating around here somewhere too – that Collingwood celebrating bastard. Later that night, Azerbaijan’s victory in Eurovision couldn’t quite hit the mark either – although Sam Pang’s work from the booth was sublime.

The Cricktiki tour in ‘99 was my post-degree “gap year”, of sorts. Everyone should have a gap year. St Kilda, especially, need one right now. I’ve bleated it repeatedly:

“St Kilda need the whole year off. Period”.

Players, coaches, supporters. Scrap the bye, let the Saints recover, renew and refresh. They’ve been through enough. Pre-season palaver – not a great help. Hit the YHA circuit boys, backpack Europe in the Summer. It’s magic. Or work a shitty 9-5 existence, regain some fire in the guts, and a love for the game.

Time can heal all wounds. Then again, time can also catch you up, pass you by. Bugger.

It’s an elephant in the room that Ross Lyon, publicly at least, perhaps won’t address – now convincing the players of the worth of providing the supreme effort. It has only led to heartbreak. The players may be “well paid professional athletes”, but they are emotional human beasts like the rest of us. It is what it is. They have a case of the sooks. We all do. When your whole existence becomes about reaching a now unachievable goal, after nearly a decade of genuine challenge – then where do you go?

And the Saints are now playing accordingly.

I should be proud of my team, and their gallant tilt under duress, particularly last year. And I am. But there is lingering heartbreak, it’s hard to shake it off. Unfortunately St Kilda’s pioneering  game-plan will ultimately reward others who have copied it, and bettered it, with more nimble and fresher resources at their disposal. Told constantly they were possessive of a “shit list”, bar a handful of superstars at the pointy end, the Saints have clearly punched above their weight. It wasn’t pretty at times, but they deserve respect and praise for their efforts and guile.

But footy, and life, move on quickly. There’s no trophy in the cupboard to cure what ails us. The professional grave-dancers now queue up to stick the fork in.

If football was solely about premierships, we’d have packed it in long ago. The goal-posts of expectation have already moved, but we’re still trapped in “flag or nothing” mode. St Kilda’s 2011 was always going to be wait-and-see. And now we see. The club, and the supporters, are still adjusting, catching up with reality. Corporate psycho-babble would deem it a “re-calibration”.

In the coming weeks, we will see further. There will be no miraculous St Kilda mid-season turnaround – a la the Aussie cricketers in 1999. The Saints seem more Protea-like anyways. A complete bottoming-out, as kick-started by the Hawthorn debacle back then, is not worth contemplating in the current landscape.

We do know that players will retire, others will be moved on, perhaps a star or two will be traded, or they’ll simply want out by then.

Ross is right, “it’s not the same”.

My English World Cup travels had it all – at every turn a special moment, and eventually the special result. I wouldn’t swap the experience for all the pudding in Yorkshire – save of course for that St Kilda premiership. But I might have to accept the memories of the former will be as good as it gets.

Comments

  1. John Butler says:

    DD

    I grew up among these same sentiments, although I wasn’t directly a party to them. This almost makes me want to cry (in a completely manly way of course).

  2. “Many of the great achievements of the world were accomplished by tired and discouraged men who kept on working.”

    Not sure where that comes from?

  3. Andrew Fithall says:

    Great story DD, but no fairytail ending. However, if you reckon you are getting any sympathy from me, you may have to wait a while…

  4. Peter Flynn says:

    Thanks DD,

    Enjoyed reading it.

    I reckon I was sitting in the Compton Stand (2001) when word spread that Blighty had been given the lemon and sars.

  5. It is indeed a lamentable time. My other team is going worse, and until last week Collingwood were winning too.

    Difficult to believe the loss of one man, Lenny Hayes, could make that much difference physcally on the ground, perhaps the ‘heart beat’ of the club is gone. There just doesn’t seem to be anyone else able to get the ball out of congestion. Did he make others look better than they really are/were?

    My affinity for the Suns, despite their pathetic moniker, is growing.

  6. David Downer says:

    Thank you gentlemen.

    JB, I know you are perplexed by the continual despondency of Saints fans, but it’s something we just can’t impart to others!

    Dips – I like. A search of my own has revealed the author of this quote to be, er, “Unknown”. Gee he’s coined some good stuff. Someone should have claimed it. I’m sure the literary historians among us would know the real answer.

    AF – I felt sympathy for you last Friday night …nah, that’s not true at all. If Klusener tickled a single around the corner at Edgbaston instead of the calamitous Donald Duck mix-up, I reckon I’d have gleaned just a skeric of pity from you.

    PF – Sounds about Day 4? Malcolm got the lemonade on the Monday after the Crows belted StK on the Friday night by 100+ at the Dome. It was N.Riewoldt’s first game. I did think of you when referring to “gap year” in this. I recall you’re priceless quote from the book launch last year: “Gap year? I’ve had a Gap life!”.

    Gus – preaching to the choir re Lenny as you know. But the Suns? Maaaate …wash your mouth out!

  7. Alovesupreme says:

    A further demonstration that sport is character-building, which is why Saints (fans as well as players) aren’t permitted the rest of the season off – although your suggestion is a truly excellent idea.
    One sentence in your splendid tale resonanted with me DD “There’d be rumblings of tanking if the Saints wern’t so rubbish”. I recalled the shock of some Liverpool fans when their goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar was accused of accepting bribes and throwing a few games. They assumed that Bruce was just rubbish, and couldn’t believe that he might have let in a few goals on purpose.

  8. Lovely piece David.

    As my mum was prone to saying, “David, remember that there is always someone in the world worse off than you.”

    To that point, I recommend that you think of us previously Fitzroy supporters.

    That is all
    Arma

  9. David Downer says:

    Cheers for the kind words ALS. Since reading your comment I’ve discovered a completely useless link back to the Saints …B.Grobbelaar was a Saint himself at one stage when plying his trade with Southampton.
     
    Arma, indeed. By necessity, I contemplate this sporting perspective often! But writing this did prove somewhat therapeutic. I’m actually reminded of the Roys on a daily basis. Next door to Mordialloc train station is the Fitzroy Heritage Shop (open Wednesdays 2-4 and the last Sunday of every month). I can’t explain why a Royboys museum is off Nepean Hwy on this side of town, but I’ll have to get in there for a look one day. Be interesting to see how it shapes up against, say, the Napier Hotel.

    DD

  10. Dear DD,

    the world is full of Saints supporters who can’t get away as far as they’d like to. My brother in the USA, a total fanatic for years, now watches the highlights with little interest. He’s going to be a grandfather soon, so at least he’s got a really cool distraction coming up. Maybe all the Saint supporters need to take the year off, in preparation for the next 10 years off.

    Me, my compensation is writing for the Almanac and listening to the suffering of other supporters, Saints or otherwise. I’m going to the Melbourne game today, and even then, who can guess what they will produce. But I guess that’s why we keep watching, who knows what will happen? We just don’t know but we will know soon enough.

    Enjoy your travels.

    Yvette

  11. David Downer says:

    Thanks Yvette,

    I might be trending a bit too melodramatic to say this, but “we’re all in this together”. Enjoyed reading your touching piece the other day also, the more sources of “therapy” we can bounce off each other the better!

    Those travels of mine were long ago, I’ll be at the Dome today also. At least they’ve turned the weather on for us and the roof should be open.

    I’ve been pumping up Arryn Siposs since I first saw him at Sandringham in Round 1, he’s delivering so far, we hope and pray he’s a star in the making – I think he might be, he’s certainly a beautiful kick. And N.Winmar makes his debut today.

    We have the injection of the new faces to look forward to this year …if nothing else!

    DD

  12. Alovesupreme says:

    Yvette quote:
    I’m going to the Melbourne game today, and even then, who can guess what they will produce. But I guess that’s why we keep watching, who knows what will happen? We just don’t know but we will know soon enough.

    Yvette, you’ve nailed it beautifully. Many years ago I read an account by Geoffrey Green (the Times soccer reporter) of a visit to either Madrid or Lisbon to watch a European Cup final. The night before the game he was at a reception at the British Embassy, where he encountered a ballet dancer who was also in the city for professional reasons. When Green told her the purpose of his visit, she was dismissive and patronising about “football”. He responded that football is like the ballet, only we don’t know the final step.
    That memory resonates for me this morning, after witnessing last night’s classic at Etihad. My Blues succumbed, but they kept on coming and Geelong refused to yield. It was marvellous theatre.

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