On the eve of its 150th anniversary, St Kilda Football Club has sacked another coach and appears to be battling an identity crisis.
Club president Andrew Bassett said in mid-2021 the club’s “genuine window” for a premiership would “more likely star in 2022 than 2021.”
On Wednesday, as the trade deadline loomed and the Saints had brought in just one player – unrestricted free agent Zaine Cordy from the Western Bulldogs – list manager James Gallagher was asked about those very comments.
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“I‘m not a (premiership) window sort of guy,” he said.
“All I know is we’ve got a number of good players that we didn’t get a lot out of in 2022, primarily through injury, that are going to come back into our side in 2023. There’s a lot of growth there.
“We played some pretty good footy in the first half of the year, we played some pretty ordinary footy in the second half of the year. Where you finish at the end of the year, that’s where you deserve to finish. We’re not miles off.”
There’s a fascination in Gallagher’s comments.
Some would argue the Saints aren’t miles off, but they most likely find themselves in the minority.
The Saints sell clarity in their vision, yet they noticeably erred before ultimately extending Brett Ratten’s contract three months ago and have now stunningly sacked him in mid-October.
Such polar opposites in messaging are reflected in the side’s on-field performance.
This season was as good a sign as any of the club’s fluctuating fortunes, with an 8-3 start to the season followed by a 3-8 finish.
It left the Saints in 10th position on the ladder, nearly smack bang in the middle of the competition.
Ratten could well feel hard done by, having now had his second senior coaching stint ended prematurely by a club that is facing problems that go beyond just the senior coach.
Whoever the next coach is, they must demand a clarity of vision that simply does not exist at the club as things stand.
Geoff Walsh will commence as football manager on November 1, but put into stark focus the issue St Kilda currently faces.
“This might sound abrasive and the Saints fans might get upset, but one of the things that I think when asked about how I see St Kilda, I think the competition would say there’s been a degree of irrelevance,” he told SEN this month.
“That should be abrasive, that should sort of choke down peoples’ throats, and I hope moving forward that I can contribute to a profile that gives the Saints the due respect that they crave.”
The Saints broke a nine-year finals drought in the covid-impacted 2020 season under Ratten, but Basset said in 2021: “Reflecting now, we can appreciate that the circumstances of the previous season impacted us favourably. We had a good run with injury until later in the year and adapted to hub life better than some others.”
Even on Friday, with Bassett and CEO Simon Lethlean looking to project a united front, there was still some perceived misunderstanding.
“We’ve made significant changes to our list since 2018, including utilising the trade period in 2019 and 20’ to add and make our list competitive,” Lethlean said, while adding “there’s a fair bit of upside in performance” on the list.
“We’ve just won 11 games this season. We are not bottom of the table. We acknowledged last year that we can’t just keep going to trade, we need to invest in our youth … we’re going to do so again and we’re going to keep targeting free agents and out of contract players as we go, but you can’t necessarily do both at once.
“We’ve certainly got our list to a really competitive spot.”
Lethlean’s comments suggest the Saints would be adding to an already competitive squad, which the club tried to do in its rabid pursuit of Jordan De Goey’s signature before he eventually re-signed with Collingwood.
St Kilda’s problem, however, is shown in Lethlean boasting of the club’s draft hand only one minute earlier in the press conference.
“I think you would’ve seen from the 2021 draft, we’ve got three or four young players coming through making an impact. We see the trajectory of this group, we don’t shy away from the fact we’re going to add to that group,” he said.
“We’ll go to the draft in a month’s time with a full hand of three picks inside 32 and look to find that young talent again.”
You cannot insist the club is hellbent on bringing in young talent via the draft while at the same time pursuing a restricted free agent who would’ve commanded at the very least St Kilda’s pick No.9 at the trade table, let alone other selections mentioned by Lethlean.
Later in the press conference, Bassett painted a less rosy picture of St Kilda’s immediate future.
“At our best we’re a pretty good team. At the same time, to be frank, we feel this football club needs to perhaps have a stronger crack at getting the foundations right,” he said.
“The desperation of our members to success can sometimes lead you down the path of impatience, can sometimes lead you down the path of focusing on outputs, which is winning games rather than the process that leads to winning games.
“We want the new coach to be set up to build the foundations right, to get the process right.
“If that takes us backwards before it takes us forwards – we hope it does not – but if it does, we’ll cop it and we’ll maintain the courage of our convictions.”
Whether intentional or not, Gallagher appeared to point to the last three seasons as an example of what to avoid rather than pursue.
“There’s a real sense of urgency at our footy club to get better and go up the ladder, but we’re not trying to go up the ladder to finish sixth,” he said on Wednesday.
“We want to be a club and we want to be a team that plays at the real pointy end of the year. If that takes a year longer, that’s okay.
“Our supporters, they’re unbelievably patient, they’re passionate, they are loyal, but they are patient. I don’t reckon they want us throwing draft picks out and throwing money out just to finish sixth.
“They want us to have a crack at it.”
The supporters may be extraordinarily patient, but the club itself is not. Only one coach in St Kilda’s 149-year history has coached six seasons or more: Allan Jeans, the club’s sole premiership coach.
By Bassett’s reckoning, the desperation of fans has led to impatience within the club, and the decision has been made to stand firm and commit to the foundations first before anything else.
By Gallagher’s reckoning, the patience of fans means they don’t have to throw draft picks and money out the window, yet the club went after De Goey hammer-and-tong at the likely expense of cap space and draft capital.
Somewhere within the club, these messages point to a fundamental lack of clarity.
It’s easier to have patience on a journey if there is clarity on the destination and the progress being made towards it.
At the moment, St Kilda is a club driving aimlessly through the middle of nowhere, with no true map to guide it.
The club cannot hope to break through the mire by solely changing the driver yet again.