Round 17 – Melbourne v St Kilda: Demons cast out, Saints be praised

by  KEN HALEY

Ken Haley

Writer Ken Hale looking as happy as he did that saintly day in 1966.

 

 

Any mug can follow a team, but to support St Kilda F.C. across six decades requires the patience of … well, let’s just say Job of biblical fame would have considered the odd pestilence, the loss of his wealth, crops and immediate family minor irritations set beside the endless afflictions of the long-distance Sainter.

 

When my dear Dad, who had enough patience to last a lifetime, was in hospital back in autumn 2012, a senior doctor dropped by and asked what he was looking forward to. “Going home,” Dad said. “Well, you might: it depends at what rate the growth spreads,” he told him.

 

Later I caught up with that doctor in the corridor and asked whether he’d been giving Dad false hope, given how Mum and I had been told the day before that he wouldn’t be coming home. “No,” he replied. “Everything depends on the rate it spreads at. Of course it’s unrealistic to think he’ll last until Christmas.”

 

“He wouldn’t care about that,” I told the medico. “So long as he lives to see St Kilda’s next premiership.” The doctor stared at me as though I’d just emerged from a lobotomy. “Sorry, son,” he said gravely, “but nobody lives that long.”

 

Weeks later I told this anecdote at the beginning of my eulogy for Dad, but now I see who the joke was really on. My own epitaph will surely be: “I was there in ’66.” And I’m planning to be around another 30 years, mind you. …

 

Since the giddy heights of three Grand Finals in two years, the disappointments that come with following the Saints have at least decreased. Yes, decreased. After all, you can only be disappointed if you had reason to expect better. These days, to put it brutally, there isn’t a team among the 18 we can’t lose to on their day.

 

What’s really infuriating is that you never know when the bright lights will shine, for a quarter or two – when you just might beat Essendon by a record-breaking 110 points (Round 14) or when you might be 52 points astern of Richmond in the third quarter and pile on six in the last to narrow the margin to a respectable 16 points (Round 16). And that’s just July!

 

So this bitterly cold winter’s afternoon, as I and two Saints-devoted work colleagues, Larry and Rod, took up our positions at the MCG we took comfort in the fact that we had a roof – the concrete floor of the tier above us in the Great Southern Stand – so that when the predicted rain came we’d merely be freeze-dried, not drenched into the bargain.

 

I was warmed by another fact, one so exceptional given St Kilda’s mercurial performances that it beggars belief: prior to today, St Kilda had won its last eleven clashes with the Dees. To win a dozen in a row against any club would be noteworthy: to do it in seasons that bracket some of the best along with some of the most disappointing of modern times is all the more remarkable.

 

This was my first visit to the footy in ten seasons – I’m not masochistic enough to submit myself to a weekly spirit-shellacking – and the biggest differences I noticed were the reduced area given over to standing room, the prevalence of TV monitors and the superfluous flashing of the word “GOAL!” after every goal – although I acknowledge how useful this must be for even rarer visitors to the game who don’t have a clue what they’ve just seen and why everyone around them is jumping up and down squealing with excitement.

 

Neither side had the boundary lights flashing much during a lacklustre first quarter. Melbourne captain Nathan Jones goaled 11 minutes in, two minutes later, Nick Riewoldt appeared to be tripped but in desperation pushed the ball forward to Dunstan, who converted from the square unchallenged.

 

My scribbled note about the Saints’ standard of play at that point reads: “Eager to get the ball, unclear what to do with it then.” Between them, St Kilda and Melbourne created more turnovers than a Viennese strudel baker, which did nothing for the standard of play but at least kept the game’s flow unpredictable.

 

At one point I berated one of our players who’d foot-tapped the ball from the centre circle to half forward: “Kick it longer!” Rod indulgently pointed to the Record and whispered that the player I’d taken to task was No. 18, Billy Longer. (Spare my blushes: I don’t think he heard me.)

 

We all agreed late in the quarter that what the Saints lacked was system. At one point, one of those who when we finally go marching in would hope to “be in that number” hesitated in mid-field, looking backwards and forwards before disposing of the ball. Behind us a well-meaning barracker hollered: “You’re kicking this way, you idiot!”

 

Just before half-time, when it was obvious we lacked a bit of punch, the message flashed all around the boundary: “George Foreman!” When you’re struggling to establish a lead the way we were, you can’t be fussy about who’s on the interchange. A 66-year-old retired heavyweight boxer and barbecue grill-booster? Bring him on!

 

In a game that seldom reached great heights, we hit a purple patch halfway through the last quarter. Two goals within three minutes by Riewoldt – who put in four typical Riewoldtian quarters and may have sustained a cork thigh for his trouble – were followed up by the play of the day, when young Shane Savage, a superstar in the making, roared out of the centre, bounced once, bounced twice, and shot the ball to another young buck, Maverick Weller, for a goal.

 

We all remarked on the fact that this goalfest coincided with the heaviest cloudburst of the day, with all these successful passages of play taking place under drifts of heavy rain that drove hundreds of supporters from the outer to seek shelter under the concrete with us.

 

At this time, with the Saints five goals up, I ventured to music-loving Larry that I thought we could start humming Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints at this point, as they’d clearly got into it.

 

Larry, who’s seen the Saints manage to lose from further ahead than this, didn’t seem so sure, muttering: “Still a long way from Graceland, but.”

 

Just into time-on, as if to confirm his judgment, the Demons managed to show some silky skills of their own. Melbourne dynamo Jeff Garlett shocked the red-and-blue brigade by missing a set shot from 20 metres in front, only to lollop one through on the bounce from a 50-degree angle a minute later.

 

Throughout the latter half of this affair between two sides without any finals prospects but both looking to glory days later in the decade, St Kilda kept running, tackling, and contesting every ball (except when they weren’t minding their man, an all-too-typical fault in an inexperienced squad).

 

But, hey, we’re not the pushovers we were last year. We have a keen green crew – the likes of Savage, Weller, Jack Steven, Luke Dunstan, Sean Dempster and Josh Bruce – some slightly more experienced players – the two Sams (Gilbert and Fisher) and the previously unheralded Paddy McCartin.

 

And, while they are the future, Riewoldt has clearly recovered the goal-kicking mojo that deserted him last year.

 

One revealing measure of our improvement is that, six weeks after snatching one of the most improbable victories against Melbourne with a goal in the last 20 seconds of the game, we nearly doubled their score this time, and that on a day when the weather gods were angry.

 

Last year, even the Saints faithful were reduced to shaking their heads and voicing the epithet “hopeless”. Yesterday, the colours that quickened my childish heart in this same sacred space 49 years ago gave me back hope.

 

We cannot yet be confident of winning any game in this comp but, by golly, the way our boys dismantled the Dees before marching into the dressing-room triumphant this arvo at least made you want to be with St Kilda when they ultimately do.

 

 

 

Melbourne       1.2               3.6               5.9           6.10 (46)

 

St Kilda             4.4               4.7               10.8         12.11 (83)

 

Crowd: 22,945.

 

3   N. Riewoldt   (St K)

2   S. Savage     (St K)

1. J. Viney       (Melb.)

 

Comments

  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Welcome aboard Ken, a good read.

    That inadvertent Longer shout was gold. Reminds me of the old Kickett Long Twomey gag.

    “there isn’t a team among the 18 we can’t lose to on their day” – including yourselves I gather.

    Don’t wait another ten years.

  2. Peter Fuller says:

    Ken,
    This was a joy to read. Way back in the 20th century, a Carlton supporter would have found it difficult to relate to your gallows humour – at least in its football context. After Friday night we know all too well that no matter how bad our team may be travelling, it can only get worse.

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