Tigers and Saints: Bottom of the pile

Rock bottom is measured by differing standards.

Sure, Melbourne and GWS are the bedrock of the competition but after Dreamtime at the ‘G you would be hard-pressed to find a Tiger burning bright. Their rock bottom is another nightmare performance on centre-stage. The season stalling again at the most familiar of junctions.

Meanwhile, St.Kilda’s loss to the Bullies, Saturday ‘twilight, ‘felt definitive. The fall from footballing grace is complete. After last season’s unexpected contention for the raffle that is a place in the bottom of the eight, the hope of a painless new dawn has subsided. The misery that the Doggies faithful now live with has arrived in Saintland.

Strugglers have always made uneasy travelling companions. While there is a commonality born of futility, the desperadoes tend to steer clear of each others tracks. Both of us are members of the only-win-once club, which makes the ties that bind a collection of knots we fight to untie. Dogs and Saints folk will always nod at one another and acknowledge the shared beautiful struggle we commit to. We respect our divided loyalties but we don’t want to share war stories.

I find it hard to hate that the Dogs won this game, yet I know that my magnanimity would not be appreciated in the kennel.

Sympathy will always be something I detest. I dread revealing I’m a St.Kilda supporter to new company for that very reason. It has nothing to do with shame and everything to do with the look of pity. Well meaning but infuriating, the conversation is always the same- The slight groan of compassion, followed by the worst sentence any fan can hear- ‘Oh, the Saints are my second team.’ When I hear that statement I know its time to check out of the conversation. It will be followed by discussion of how they, themselves, are Hawthorn/ Carlton/Geelong supporters but that they feel your pain.

Sure, having never seen my team ever win a premiership, I can fully appreciate the irony of a Hawthorn supporter claiming to understand my plight. The problem is they never do.

When I claim to be partially glad the Saints lost to the Dogs, its based on sympathy. The, well I really you feel for them, type of backhander that kills me when I cop it. It’s comparable to Tim Watson once telling Billy Brownless that he would happily give up one of his premiership medals so Bill could have one. It’s well-meaning but at precisely the same second, deeply patronising.

All I have ever wanted is for someone, anyone, to ask me who I follow and when I announce I’m a Saints man, response with an immediate and heartfelt-‘ Oh I can’t stand them!’
Nothing says you’ve arrived as a successful club more than being hated. So by claiming a loss to the Dogs as a win for the little battler makes me a hypocritical, patronising prat by my own reckoning….

To be fair though, I have always had a soft spot for the Bullies. The reason has an exact name- Stuart Lee. In primary school in the early 80’s, it’s fair to say that the distribution of VFL allegiances was weighed severely against being a St.Kilda fan. I was alone in the schoolyard with my Saints beanie and scarf. It was 1981 and there was a sea of yellow and black, sprinkled with navy. As time moved on, the brown, gold, red and black washed in on the tide. It simply made me more determined. Observing how easily old allegiances were tossed aside, only to be replaced with the newest success story, fostered in me a deep seeded sense of loyalty. No one would ever call me a front runner, this Saint is not for turning!

Stuart Lee wore his Bulldogs scarf proudly and upon spying my Saints gear, declared that his mum supported Footscray, so he and his two brothers did too. But, and here was the kicker, his dad was a Saints man. It perhaps wouldn’t have mattered that his old man shared my pain, the bond of fellow outcasts may well have been enough but it did mean we bonded faster. Kick-to-kick in the play ground always involved Stewie and my good self over anyone else.

I do remember asking why he chose the Dogs over his dad’s side but looking back, I know I must have asked before I met his mum. Stuart’s answer included the information that his dad had tried to get all of his son’s on-side but every one of them sided with his wife instead. It was understandable. Mrs. Lee was a dynamo. The loveliest woman you would ever meet, always there for every footy game her son’s played. Stewie was our star player and it was no wonder with his mum cheering on from the sidelines. She had the passion for footy that makes you realise how important the game is. Until you are face- to-face with a true believer, a fan so immersed in their love of the club that critical opinion is not an option, you can’t fully appreciate what footy means.

Simply put, Mr. Lee never stood a chance. In fact Stuart told me a story years later of a family trip to Moorabbin for the Footscray clash. The Dogs got up handsomely. Poor, outnumbered Mr.Lee. Having been reminded of the result for most of the match, he promptly got into the car and without unlocking anyone else’s doors, drove off leaving his three boys and beloved in the windswept Moorabbin car park. Stuart laughed as he told me but when I asked him if his dad finally stopped the car, Stu replied that- No he hadn’t ….but that he did eventually came back for them.

That tale strangely encapsulates the dynamic between Saints and Doggies supporters more succinctly than any other analogy. While we understand the frustration of our side’s shared long term mediocrity, there is still a simmering rivalry we prefer not to speak of. I was standing watching Coburg run round with three Richmond supporters, when a bloke bedecked in a Chris Grant 300 game, commemorative Bulldog guernsey, struck up a conversation with us. It was circa 2009 and both the Dogs and Saints were favourites for the the top four. Unwittingly one of the Richmond fans suggested to the Chris Grant fan that he wouldn’t mind if either of our sides won the premiership. The Tigers were already done and dusted for the season so he had no skin in the contest. He simply ventured the opinion as a statement of solidarity that he expected both of us to be pleased to hear. I said nothing, shifted uncomfortably and hoped the conversation moved on. Both of us not draped in yellow and black knew the horrible truth but I wasn’t about to give it voice. But he Dogs man decided they needed to know our truth and declared our secret matter-of-factly- ‘I don’t want the Saints to win one before us. I can’t imagine anything worse than being the only one time winner. We have to win another one before them.’
It was exactly what I was thinking.

In the days of promise, when the footballing gods’ evil sense of humour saw us contest Prelim finals in consecutive years, the truth was too close to the surface. Don’t lose to them here, if they get past us to have a crack at the big one we might be alone in our singular triumph. The devastation Bulldogs fans have from not making a Grand Final in generations must also carry with it the frustration that in almost every year they’ve been close the Saints have gone further. All I can say to the keepers of the red, white and blue flame is this- I learnt a devastating truth in 1997. Losing a Preliminary Final is painful but the hurt of the loss is at least tempered by the thought that you were close but not quite there. The dream is deferred and next season the experience of the loss, right on the verge of the big one, invests the season with excitement. The future has yet to written, the dream is there to be chased.

Losing a Grand Final is a mourning sides never truly recover from. 1997 broke that St.Kilda side. Just as 2009 and 2010 were crushing blows that cannot be denied. I will never recover. Losing Grand Finals are a death. There is no way back. Forget the old cliche of having to lose one to win one. You lose on that one day in September and there is nothing. The emptiness is all consuming.

I am not for a second suggesting that a fan base that last saw the Dogs get to the dance in 1961 wouldn’t want to a least get a chance to be there. Certainly I would love to see that day come. But for now, we have both gone away. Our days of contention are behind us and they aren’t coming back for a few winters yet. Best to look after each other while we’re down here. After all if you walk a mile in my shoes, I’m guessing the journey is pretty similar.

Dogs and Saints alike are now haunted by the visions of grandeur unfulfilled. We have had our chance and blown it. Perhaps it is better to have loved and lost? Watching the Tigers fall again before they have ever got up makes me wince. There’s is a purgatory I cannot imagine. At least, after all the heartache I’ve been through, I can at least say we got close enough to sniff it. Richmond get patronised without ever getting that nose full. In fact I’m doing it right now…..


  1. At least the Tigers have won 10 flags though

  2. ‘There is no way back from losing a grand final.’

    Not quite true, as Geelong supporters can attest.

  3. I just want to go on record here as saying that the late 80’s-early 90’s Geelong sides were the greatest team to have never won a premiership. I appreciate how brilliant this present day Geelong side is but it frustrates me that people forget how painful ’89,’92,’94 and ’95 were.

  4. Barkly St End says

    fantastic aritcle – I think we’ve all met a Mrs Lee somewhere along the line.

    As for that unspeakable truth, yes, no matter our shared history, our deep, deep understanding of having lived a full life without tasting the ultimate victory – we’d rather go on like that forever than have the other one go ahead of your own team (similarly, none of Freo, GWS and the Suns must ever taste grand final success – ever).

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