AFL Melbourne Demons v St Kilda Saints:


Jade Gresham, an important player for the Saints this season, reacts after a goal during the team’s win over Melbourne last season.Credit:AAP

Although four games is an impossibly small sample it’s worth examining the Saints’ progress since the discontent that took a grip on the club towards the end of last season and had its public genesis on Good Friday last year.

Inexplicably the AFL had taken the fledgling Easter game from the Western Bulldogs and was left to count the cost red-faced as the Saints put in a 43-point shocker, losing to North Melbourne by more than eight goals. The club had no chance of a Good Friday return bout as the season unravelled. The two-point win over the Demons in round 15 at the MCG was a rare high point.

By late winter, as the losses mounted, supporters turned away and the financial plight worsened, both coach Alan Richardson and chief executive Matt Finnis found themselves under increasing pressure — Richardson had disenchanted players and Finnis was being scrutinised by a critical AFL.

Club president Peter Summers had agreed to prematurely step aside, paving the way for a series of political manoeuvres that briefly involved both AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan and his predecessor Andrew Demetriou before Andrew Bassat ascended with the blessing of the commission.

The decision to recruit Dan Hannebery on a long-term deal currently haunts both Finnis and Simon Lethlean and raised eyebrows at the time.

But while his elevation to the leadership group with hindsight looks rushed, it’s too early to write off Hannebery who apart from his physical baggage arrived with a heavy emotional load, deeply wounded by the way in which Sydney moved him on.

And given the external heat towards the end of last season it’s little wonder the club felt committed to landing an experienced midfielder with premiership credentials. Lethlean came to the club on a second chance — like his new list management lieutenant Graeme Allan — and must be praying Hannebery does not become another in a long list of recruiting shockers that began in 2013 when the club traded Ben McEvoy to Hawthorn.

Bassat failed to end speculation regarding the coach’s future with his unconvincing first media conference in the job but since then has worked closely with Finnis in devising a blueprint for the future and simplifying the off-field strategy by focusing the club’s resources on its first home game in China and the potential benefits.

Having failed to reduce its debt last year — the number in fact swelled from $10 million to $12 million — a new debt-reduction plan is in place focusing on first eliminating the club’s multi-million -dollar debt owed to the AFL. This says something about the heavy pressure that head office is placing upon the club.

And the Saints have given Richardson every opportunity to succeed with the team assembled around him. Whether this bodes well or otherwise for the senior coach it’s interesting that almost every time an enthusiastic player is interviewed after a win this season said player enthuses about the difference Brett Ratten and Brendon Lade have made.

Whether the game plan has been simplified or modelled upon strong elements of Hawthorn via Ratten, St Kilda’s performances have been all the more remarkable given the horrendous toll of injury and illness that mounted towards the end of summer.

And to be fair Finnis was unusually bullish regarding the Saints’ 2019 potential after a transformed pre-season, which began with Richardson apologising to his players for being too negative during 2018, feedback delivered by captain Jarryn Geary.

This despite the sudden departure of Dylan Roberton, the long-term question mark over Paddy McCartin, yet another debilitating injury to Jake Carlisle, Jack Steven’s mental health problems and the failure of Hannebery to impact upon the first half of the season.

The players have fallen in love with Ratten and not only due to the intellectual property that has accompanied him from Hawthorn. And Lade, who returned to Melbourne from Port Adelaide for family reasons, has regenerated and refocused the coaches. Lethlean’s push for premiership experience, which also extended to Billy Slater and now Dermott Brereton as well as Allan, seems vindicated.

The long-term prospects for all St Kilda’s key off-field players remain uncertain but as the club prepares once again to measure its development against the Demons; the progress achieved from the Good Friday debacle of 2018 deserves recognition. And while it’s impossible to predict these things the ill-feeling of the recent past would suggest an extra spark as twilight falls on the MCG.

Caroline Wilson was previously chief football writer for The Age. She has won numerous awards, including the Melbourne Press Club’s Graham Perkin award in 2014 as Australian journalist of the year.

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