The ladder ain’t Lyon

Stu O'Brien
September 6, 2023
Screenshot 2023 09 06 At 10.01.40 Am

St Kilda are not a finals team.

Saints fans, we’ve heard this all year. From salty opposition fans, from anonymous social media accounts, and from AFL journalists, commentators and supposed experts. Yet for a team that is not good enough for finals, here we are, days away from running out on the MCG in September.

Even this week, not many are giving us a chance. Saints are not a finals team, worst team to ever make finals, won’t beat the Giants, on and on it goes. In 2023 there have been only three teams in the 8 all year, St Kilda, Melbourne and Collingwood. Our 6-1 start was written off as a new coach bounce, and we were reminded that flags are not won in April. Yet as teams like the Bulldogs and Dockers have since discovered, wins in March and April are still worth four points. Our mid-season slump saw the naysayers choking on their own bath water, Saints are done, I told you so, watch them slide out of the 8. Yet as other teams, all apparently better than us, lost games they were expected to win, we slid merely from 5th to 6th and then back again. For a team that’s no good, and not a finals team, we remained remarkably consistent in 2023.

The major factor in this transformation, and our return to finals, is the homecoming of senior coach Ross Lyon, and his band of merry men in Harvey, Hayes and Enright. The events surrounding Lyon’s return to Moorabbin need no further discussion, having been exhumed at every opportunity by journalists with a St Kilda grudge (those same journos who rarely mention Ben Rutten’s sacking when speaking about Essendon).

Lyon’s second coming at Moorabbin has been similarly lambasted, much like our supposed finals worth. From the moment he was appointed, the decision has been described as risky, a gamble, and even delusional. Those tired Ross Lyon cliches have also been dragged out. He’s too defensive and his teams are boring to watch. That’s true, we do have the no.1 defence in the AFL, in front of Melbourne and Collingwood for points against. Yet how many Saints fans have been bored watching Wilkie, Sinclair, and Wanganeen-Milera in 2023? Who has fallen asleep watching Zaine Cordy and Josh Battle and Dougal Howard? Ok, but Ross Lyon cannot develop youth. Mitch Owens, third in this year’s Rising Star Award, and Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera are two of the brightest young stars of the competition. Mattaes Phillipou, the youngest player in the league, played every game in 2023. Anthony Caminiti, plucked from obscurity in the pre-season, finished the year with a goal a game average. Marcus Windhager racked up another 18 games and has now solidified his place in the team. Are they the youth Ross cannot develop?

They seem to be developing alright. Ok, but the Saints have no A-graders, no genuine stars. Jack Sinclair backed up his breakout 2022 with another All-Australian blazer this year and was accompanied by one of the game’s best intercept defenders in Callum Wilkie. Alongside Jack Steele in 2020 & 21 we now have our most All Australian representatives since Lyon’s last coaching stint. We also have Rowan Marshall, named in the AA squad and unlucky to miss the team, Mitch Owens and Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera representing the Saints in the All Australian under 22 team, and Max King, one of the most exciting tall forwards in the game. For a team that has no stars we sure do shine brightly.

At the beginning of the year, Ross Lyon described 2023 as a year of exploration. It was a fantastically brilliant line that removed all expectations for the season. It allowed us to enjoy the ride through year 150, and we have shared some truly memorable moments – beating Essendon on the G, spoiling Buddy’s 350th celebrations, and downing the Cats as we marched into the finals.

Our year of exploration is now leading us to the MCG on Saturday afternoon, in an elimination final against GWS. The MCG in September is a destination few of us considered six months ago. Sure, we all hoped to be there. We all dreamed that in our sesquicentennial year a finals berth would eventuate. As the wins ticker over, our belief grew, and what began as a dream became an expectation. Now we are here.

Not since 2011 have the Saints faithful had the chance to attend a final in Melbourne, and not since 2010, at the MCG. So, it’s now up to us Saints fans. Get yourself there on Saturday afternoon and paint the MCG in red, white and black. Embrace this rare opportunity to outnumber a team in finals. Get there by car, by train, by tram, by whatever means necessary, just get there – and make a big, big sound! After all, this is your first chance since 2013 to see a non-finals team playing finals.

Up the mighty Saints!