Saints Go Marching Home.

St.Kilda are not going to make the finals. That is  now official. After a season where we, the huddled masses, watched with a head filled with rationale- We monster the sides below us but we just can’t step up for the big guns. And a heart filled with hope- Geez, Carlton lost to Gold Coast…..and if Freo collapse over the next fortnight we might sneak this; the end has come.

Is it wrong of me to be relieved?

Seriously. It feels like I’ve been holding my breath held for  the best part of five years. Will we? Won’t we? How agonisingly close can you get and still not get over the line?

It’s hard for me to gain sympathy from other supporters, I know. We’ve all been there. We’ve all felt the abject emptiness of losing a Grand Final. Perhaps only the Footscray supporters amongst us have not been touched by the empty well of sadness that is watching a team hold that beautiful, simple cup, aloft in triumph,  knowing that your warriors are slumped on the turf with red eyes. The image of Peter Moore throwing the runner-up medal in the mud conjures up all the emotion you need to understand  about how badly it hurts….And I just watch it unfold. I’m not in amongst the fire of battle, desperately trying to find a way to make the inevitable go away. I’ve heard commentators talk of the blow-out result being ‘less’ painful. The theory being that by the time you hear the final siren you have already mourned the loss. Tell that to the Melbourne players in ’88 and 2000. A once proud club, a club that the rest modelled itself upon in its glory days, has made two Grand Finals in recent history and been smashed in both.

That pain isn’t any easier knowing it was over at quarter-time.

2009 was the most excruciating experience of my life. It was the very definition of the cliche- Chinese Water Torture.

Literally, given the horrid conditions. Every kick, every moment was magnified ten-fold. Everything mattered. The legend of the flukey kick off Scarlett’s shin,  into the waiting arms of the one man on the field with the ability to will anything into being through sheer talent, settled the issue. Abletts’ know what to do in the clinch. I don’t but Gary Snr’s MIA record in the big game as anything other than a man trying too hard. It’s just lazy to claim he went missing when you know that 1989 was one of the greatest Grand Final performances ever. He was never the same after that and nor were his teams. Something broke inside them after that epic performance that short-circuited all their talent on the last of September for the rest of the decade. The Geelong teams of the Nineties are easily the most talented sides I have ever seen that did not win it all.

I sense the same of this St.Kilda side. I am the firmest of believers in the premiership clock. You get that victory  before midnight or you ride the pumpkin home. Those Geelong sides of the 90’s deserved a cup, but that isn’t how sport works. St.Kilda have faced the inevitable too. If they are to get anything from this generation it will  be through experience passed on to up and coming talent. The game that mattered got away from them, thrice. Moments that change the course of history haunt the vanquished but it doesn’t bring other chances. When the moment arrives you know.

There are few players in the game you fear with ball in hand and goals in range. In recent memory there is a list that begins with Paul Chapman. He was never going to miss in 2009. That goal is up there with Akermanis in ’02. You just knew, given the situation, given the importance- that was their moment. They were never going to miss. Milne chasing down Hayes’ wobbly punt in ’10? You can chase that forever and never catch it. There is no luck, just the ability to play the percentages and the ability to be clutch. Milne never gets there. It is not about clutch, had the ball popped up for him he kicks that goal but the percentages of that play working? Its low. Too low to obsess over endlessly.

Paul Hudson loose on fifty- Never in doubt, give him the ball. Craig Bradley on the burst- I don’t care if its centre wing, the footy goes to him. There are moments that are too easy to predict you needn’t bother. I bet my life savings (figuratively on the spur-of the moment of course) on Plugger to score in the ’96 Prelim.  He didn’t even need to kick the goal, just make the distance. It was easy money. My Sydney supporting mate couldn’t watch. He was new to the Lockett genius. I’d seen it all before. Truth is he didn’t try with that kick, he just swung through it and made sure it cleared the goal line. I would have bet on him actually kicking the goal if he needed to. He was always that good. The percentage play is a bloke with ball in hand with the game on the line.

Truth is, watch enough footy and you get a sixth sense. You can see the result before it happens. I was at Waverley with Hawthorn mates the day the Saints surrendered a 40+ point lead at half-time to lose. The Hawks surged in the third and we looked shot.  Sitting behind the goals at the scoreboard end, I saw the Hawks pump the ball into the goal square looking for their first lead of the day in the fourth term and knew it was over. There was a phalanx of players in the square and my good mate swears he thought the kick was too long and was going to get punched through. What I saw, and I see it vividly to this day, was Wakelin caught too far forward of the drop, the help defender, Shanahan flailing from the side and hopelessly out of position and Nick Holland in the box seat behind the pack. It has gone down in legend that as the ball fell to earth, I muttered- ‘Holland,’ with such resignation, a good two seconds before it fell, untouched into his welcome hands and was caressed to his chest. I just knew. I saw it in slow motion and I knew that was the game right there. Hawks took the lead and we were gone.

More and more, momentum is the victor. Ask any Richmond, Essendon or Carlton supporters and they will tell you. Young teams get on top for bursts, kick multiple goals and get their tails up. Then they lose concentration- Sides like Sydney, Geelong and Hawthorn feed off concentration lapses. Give them five minutes of undisciplined footy and they hand you a six goal deficient. There is nothing more exhilarating than being on the right side of a momentum swing. The other side is mind-numbing. There is no answer  and your desperation levels peak when Buddy is taking six bounces and waving Cyril off on his inside. The 2005 Preliminary Final still leaves an empty feeling inside all Saints supporters. No one saw that momentum swing coming, but from the start of the final quarter the Swans surged so devastatingly that we never stood a chance. In so many ways that loss hurts more than the season before. The goal Wanganeen kicked to win that Prelim should win any game of footy. it was that good…

But, I’m done for this finals series. I can finally put my feet up and enjoy a finals campaign like I used to be able to. I can be critical and skeptical and enjoy the drama with no fear that it all will mean something to me and my lads. Yes, I know that’s defeatist and a massive cop out for the true supporters of the club….But the truth is I suspect I care too much. I feel every moment. I want it so badly that a season’s break from the intensity of my obsession for  the premiership might do me some good. I’m not proud of my relief by any means, but I am thankful for the release from September pressure. Leave that to others for a season.

I sat in the Hawthorn parade of ’08’s Preliminary final to the bitter end because I needed to give Robert Harvey the standing ovation he deserved. It was a bitter sweet night. Harvey playing in one Grand Final. He is the greatest Saint I’ve seen play and he got duel Brownlows but he never won it all. Lockett was genius, but Harvey was otherworldly. Perhaps I  can thank the footy stars that he got to the big stage once? Skilton never did. Grant, West, Hawkins, Wallis, possibly this generation of Scraggers never did. Does a glimpse of the promised land sate some desires? Does Harvey retire knowing that in 1997 the Saints played the game of their life in the Prelim against the reigning premiers, obliterated them and perhaps peaked a glorious weekend early?

Blight’s greatest victory on the day of the big one was to bustle and harass Harvey completely out of the game. It was the old basketball coaching principle. Guard their best player. We will allow a player like Aussie Jones to take us on. Let him beat us- All we care about is that their best player will not  get the opportunity to beat us. It’s a classic numbers game. Winning means being prepared to take calculated risks. Losing is always an option, it is just that we never want to admit it.

The image that will stay with me forever is Billy Brownless crying as the siren sounded in 2007. His tears were a release, the frustration he lived with upon losing four Grand Finals still hurt so deeply that the moment became too much. I suspect I might be Billy if we ever reach that promised land. For now- the dream begins again in 2013. That sounds like a nice year to be Premiers.

Comments

  1. Lord Bogan says:

    This is a wonderful article Tom. You really capture the essence of what it means to be a fan. Those moments of agony are real, especially when you know you’re so close. The hurt doesn’t dissipate until a premiership is won and yet we continue to hope and support despite logic suggesting otherwise. Hope you get a chance to see the Saints lift the cup soon.

  2. David Downer says:

    Well done Tom, some very insightful (and horrible!) musings and memories here.

    As a fellow Sainter, I was hoping to miss the finals last year (er, take the whole season off more like it), and get there again this year. But there is a certain relaxation that comes with missing out and having a year (hopefully, just a year) off. We’ve all been through enough!

    Another year of L.Hayes and the upward curve of Stanley and Siposs et al provides the hope we’re still half a chance to reload again in 2013.

    DD

  3. Dear Tom, hung on every word of your article. Like DD said, we are with you and you describe the feelings perfectly. I too am glad to be watching the circus and not be in it and hope that we get another trot at finals next year. But so do Richmond, Carlton, and Essendon, so we are in glorious company of those who want to step it up again in 2013. We just have to take it, like we took it from Carlton. I think that’s what was learned this year. We have to get over that line and not lose anything winnable. On our best days, that’s a lot.

    I am watching Geelong with awe. I want some of their pizazz and culture and strength of mind. I want some of Hawks pressure, Collingwoods speed (on their good days), Swans determination, Dockers cheek, West Coasts confidence. I want to take what they have and make it ours, personell or not.

    Go Saints

    Yvette

  4. I forgot, I want Adelaide and Norths cheek to be up their too.

    YVette

  5. Tom – this is such a Geelong article. Geelong of old.

    When the Saints colours finally come flying out of the celebratory pipes after a Premiership in years to come it will be all worth while.

    Really good piece to read. Thanks.

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