Australian Football Celebrating the history of the great Australian game


St. Kilda

When Darrel Baldock held the Victorian Football League premiership cup aloft at the Melbourne Cricket Ground late on the afternoon of September 1966 it represented the culmination of almost a century's worth of effort, dedication, determination and despair - mostly despair. For if the history of the St. Kilda Football Club is illustrative of anything it is the fact that triumphant achievement in sport represents only a part - and as often as not a very small part - of the whole story. St Kilda's dramatic single point win over Collingwood on that 'one day' in 1966 stands out like a beacon over a predominantly dour and gloomy terrain, and yet, in spite of repeated lack of success, the club todayremains a key player on the national stage. Why?

It has become something of a truism to maintain that Aussies love an honest battler, as epitomised during the first world wqar by the tragic heroism of the defeated Australian forces at Gallipoli. In the sometimes equally fraught environment of Australian football, no club typifies the Gallipoli spirit better than St. Kilda. Where other clubs boast of premierships the Saints can point to an unparalleled collection of wooden spoons (twenty-seven in total). Where a club like Essendon or Hawthorn would tend to panic on missing the finals for more than a couple of seasons in succession, St. Kilda have contested a finals series on only twenty-six occasions during a history lasting more than one and a quarter centuries. Nevertheless, the club continues to prove popular and, arguably, to capture the imagination and engage the emotions like no other.

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in the beginning...

Officially formed in April 1873 as a junior club, the side enjoyed immediate success with a 2 goals to nothing victory over Carlton Seconds in its first ever official fixture on 31st May. The remainder of the season showed that this was far from being beginners' luck as St. Kilda proved capable of matching it with all but the very best, and in 1874 the club was almost universally considered to be of senior status, along with Carlton, Melbourne, Albert Park, North Melbourne and Geelong. [1] Sadly, however, the side's on field performances failed to match this new found standing and only 2 wins were achieved all season.

This lack of success had an immediate and quite drastic effect on morale, with players losing interest and the club being forced into a temporary merger with University in 1875 in order to maintain some form of continued existence.

The 1876 season saw St. Kilda re-emerge as a discrete club and sufficient improvement was shown for it to be accorded first class status (along with seven others) when the Victorian Football Association was formed in 1877.

By 1879, however, the club was in dire straits with repeated poor performances on the field causing the cancellation of the final few fixtures of the season. Between 1880 and 1885 the precise history of the club is difficult to trace, although it is clear that for at least some of that period St Kilda competed in junior ranks. By 1886, however, the club had consolidated, and was re-admitted to the VFA with full senior status. Home games took place at the newly fenced St. Kilda Cricket Ground and the 'Saints', as they began to be known at around this time, were competitive but not outstanding, winning 6 and drawing 2 of their 18 matches for the year to finish twelfth out of fifteen clubs.

A prime ongoing source of controversy during this period was the question of whether St. Kilda and nearby fellow VFA club Prahran should merge. Many felt that having two comparatively weak clubs based in the same general area was inimical to the well-being of the VFA; it would make infinitely more sense for the two clubs to combine forces, thereby hopefully fuelling a realistic challenge to the competition's leading lights of the period, such as Geelong, Carlton and South Melbourne. At the same time, this could logically be expected to have a positive side effect in terms of raising the overall standard of football being played, with the result that attendances would be likely to increase, and the image of the sport would be correspondingly enhanced.

A merger of sorts eventually went through in 1888. However, it is clear that those associated with St. Kilda had considerably more reason for satisfaction than their Prahran counterparts, as just about the only aspect of Prahran's identity which was preserved in the new set up was the inclusion of blue knickerbockers in the club's official uniform. Based at the St. Kilda Cricket Ground the new club was known as St. Kilda and wore playing jerseys of red, white and black. In time, the Prahran connection would be all but forgotten.

The merger produced a certain amount of stability at St. Kilda but did not give rise to the hoped for on field improvement. In 1896, the year before the inception of the Victorian Football League, St. Kilda managed just 6 wins and a draw from 18 matches to finish ninth out of thirteen clubs. A contemporary review of the season indicated that:

St. Kilda......maintained its reputation for playing the game on its merits as a pastime. They never make a business of it. They have the knack of rising to the big occasion and they invariably afford gratifying and sportsmanlike entertainment. [^2]

Despite a perennially modest on field record St. Kilda was one of eight clubs to form the breakaway VFL, which saw itself as an 'elite' competition, in 1897. The prime reason for St. Kilda's inclusion was the central location of the Junction Oval which could be expected to attract large crowds. In 1898 and 1899 the ground was used by the league to host finals matches.

St.. Kilda originally indicated to the league that its official playing uniform would be:

Jersey - red, white and black Knickers - white Stockings - red and black

However, prior to the start of the season the club gave notice that it would be retaining the blue knickers worn since the amalgamation with Prahran in 1888 "on account of the cost". [3]

... a sequence of failure which remains unparalleled to this day

The Saints' first VFL fixture resulted in a fighting 25-point loss to reigning VFA premiers Collingwood, but this proved to be arguably the highlight of a miserable season which yielded no victories whatsoever. Indeed, on three occasions, against South Melbourne in rounds three and ten, and against eventual premiers Essendon in round twelve, the Saints failed to register a single goal.

Things did not improve during either of the subsequent two seasons and St. Kilda entered the twentieth century without having achieved a single VFL win (or even a draw) from 48 consecutive matches, [4] a sequence of failure which remains unparalleled to this day.

The breakthrough finally arrived, in somewhat controversial fashion, in the opening round of the 1900 season against Melbourne. The game ended with the scores level at St. Kilda 10.8 (68) to Melbourne 9.14 (68) but St. Kilda protested to the league that one of Melbourne's behinds ought not to have been counted as it had come from a mark taken after the three quarter time bell had rung. Sensationally, the VFL endorsed the protest, and the official scores of the match were amended to show St. Kilda as the winners by the narrowest of margins.

Success disappeared as swiftly and almost as comprehensively as it had emerged with the Saints failing to achieve any further wins all year. The 1901 season brought a similar story, with the only victory for the year - an undisputed one, this time - being at the expense of Carlton.

a cavalcade of stars

Prominent players to wear the red, white and black during the early VFL years included ruckman James Smith (130 games between 1899 and 1909), wingman Howard Smith - no relation - (95 games from 1898-1904), forward Charlie Baker (122 goals in 76 games between 1902 and 1906) and defender Joe Hogan (91 games from 1897-1900 and 1902-06). However, arguably the first St. Kilda player genuinely to warrant the 'champion' tag was Harry 'Vic' Cumberland, who played 126 games for the Saints in four separate stints (1903-04, 1907-08, 1912-15 and 1920). Short for a ruckman at just under six foot (180 cm) Cumberland compensated for this by a combination of shrewdness and strength. Such indeed was the nature of Cumberland's prowess that supporters even felt inspired to celebrate their feelings about it in verse:

The finest player of them all, we've seen what he can do 

He's the greatest champion on the ball St. Kilda ever knew 

When from the ruck he brings it out, or taps it with his hand 

ou'll hear the old familiar shout of "Good boy, Cumberland!" [5]

The second St. Kilda player to whom the label 'champion' could justifiably be affixed was Dave McNamara, who made his league debut in 1905. Best remembered for his almost unequalled kicking ability McNamara was also a fine mark and had exceptional ball handling skills.

With players of this calibre in the side St. Kilda's escape from the doldrums was assured. The 1907 season saw the side qualify for the VFL finals for the first time, but reigning premiers Carlton proved too strong in a semi final to the tune of 56 points. It was a similar story a year later against the same opposition, although the margin this time was 2 points narrower.

As if embarrassed by this newly acquired credibility St. Kilda plummeted back to the bottom of the pile in 1909 and showed little improvement during any of the next three years.

Two champions to make their debuts during this period were Wells Eicke, who began while still a schoolboy in 1909, and Roy Cazaly, who took his bow a year later. Eicke went on to play 197 VFL games for the Saints and later served the club as both coach and committeeman. He also played 21 VFL games for North Melbourne. Cazaly's name has become almost synonymous with Australian football, the player's aerial exploits giving rise to the popular catch cry "Up there, Cazaly!" which was utilised in various theatres of war by Australian troops going into battle during world war two. Roy Cazaly played 99 games for St Kilda between 1911 and 1920 before going on to make a further 99 appearances for South Melbourne where, if anything, he became even better known.

For many years the 1913 season would be looked back on as the absolute pinnacle of St. Kilda's achievement as, for the first time ever - and the last until 1965 - the club took part in a premiership deciding match, in this case the challenge final. After finishing the home and away season in fourth spot with 11 wins from 18 matches the Saints overwhelmed South Melbourne by 33 points in a semi final and then caused a major upset by downing minor premiers Fitzroy 10.10 (70) to 6.9 (45) in the final. A week later, however, the Roys successfully exercised their right of challenge with a hard fought 13 point victory in front of 59,479 spectators. The final scoreboard read Fitzroy 7.14 (56) to St. Kilda 5.13 (43) with the Saints best served by centreman Billy Schmidt, full forward Ernie Sellars, wingman Ted Collins, plus, almost inevitably, Cumberland and Eicke.

Sadly the 1914 season saw St. Kilda failing to kick on, and seventh place with 9 wins and a draw was a considerable disappointment. However, the onset of war rendered all sporting matters of only peripheral concern.

In 1915 St. Kilda changed its official colours to red, yellow and black in a move allegedly designed to bolster patriotic pride given that the club's original colours of red, white and black were shared by Imperial Germany. (However, an equally plausible explanation for the change may have been that it brought the football club in line with the St. Kilda cricket club which for many years had boasted red, yellow and black as its official colours.)

The new uniform did not see much action during the war years, however, as in 1916 and 1917 the club went into recess.

... fluctuated between mediocrity and abject incompetence

On returning to the fray in 1918 the Saints exhibited promising form to reach the finals before succumbing narrowly to Collingwood. All promise of improvement evaporated the following year, however, as internal dissension had an inevitably detrimental effect on performances. In one match against Melbourne the ill feeling amongst the players was so intense that they actually retired to the changing rooms at three quarter time in an effort to resolve their differences. Several weeks later, with disharmony still rife within the club, the Saints suffered the ignominy of losing to South Melbourne by a VFL record 171 points, 2.6 (18) to 29.15 (189). South's winning margin would not be exceeded for another sixty years.

The 1920 season saw the Saints plummet to the wooden spoon with only 2 wins. The year was also notable for the return to action, at the age of forty-three, of 'Vic' Cumberland, who according to VFL coaching maestro cum journalist Jack Worrall, "remained expert to the last". Cumberland retired at the end of the 1920 season having played more than 500 games of football in Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia (where he won the 1911 Magarey Medal) and New Zealand, as well as in five European countries during world war one.

For most of the remainder of the 1920s St. Kilda fluctuated between mediocrity and abject incompetence, a mix which paradoxically seemed to endear them to the public. Towards the end of the decade there were signs of imminent improvement with the side narrowly missing the finals in 1928 after winning 11 of their 18 matches. Then, in 1929, there was a dramatic, if ultimately unsatisfying, end to the season. Prior to the year's last home and away round in which, in order to contest the finals, the Saints needed to defeat Footscray whilst simultaneously relying on Collingwood to overturn the Fuchsias, 'Chatterer', writing in the day's issue of 'Football Record', remarked:

They (St. Kilda) are saying that if they do get in the four they will win the premiership. Bravo! That's the stuff to give 'em. I say this that if the premiership goes to the seaside this season there's not a footballer or follower of the game who will not give the Tricoloured team a big cheer. [^6]

With the interjection of the word 'Victorian' in front of 'footballer or follower of the game' these were sentiments which would be mirrored almost exactly 68 seasons later prior to St. Kilda's unsuccessful grand final meeting with the Crows. In 1929, there was to be a similarly disappointing outcome. St. Kilda duly defeated Footscray, while Collingwood also did the necessary against Melbourne, but Carlton in the first semi final proved too formidable a hurdle. Moreover, hopes that the club was at least beginning to move in the right direction were quickly dashed, as the 1930s would prove to be even less rewarding than the 1920s.

Among the champions to don the St. Kilda uniform during the 1920s was the club's first Brownlow Medallist, Col Watson, a brilliant wingman, centreman and half back flanker who unfortunately only played a total of 93 games. Watson won the Brownlow in only the second year of the award in 1925.

Other prominent players included full back Bill Cubbins, who commenced his career in 1915 before going to war but subsequently returned to St. Kilda for whom he eventually played 149 League games; centremen 'Barney' Carr (130 games from 1921-9) and Billy Roberts (160 games between 1928 and 1937); wingman Rex De Garis (60 games from 1921-3 and in 1925); and centre half back Cyril Gambetta (129 games from 1922-31). The decade also saw the debut of one Wilbur 'Billy' Mohr, who would go on to become the first truly great goalkicking forward in St. Kilda's history.

St. Kilda were far from disgraced

For most of the 1930s, St. Kilda were at best a middle-of-the-road side, never ending up with the wooden spoon, but only twice prior to 1939 managing what the Americans would term 'winning' seasons. Then, in 1939, the side once again gave the definite impression that it was on the verge of significant achievement, recording one of the best home and away seasons in the club's history up to that point. Unfortunately for the Saints, three other clubs did even better, but with 13 wins and only 5 losses going into the first semi final against Richmond there was felt to be substantial ground for optimism. St. Kilda had not been victorious in a finals match for twenty-six years (not that they had engaged in all that many finals matches during that time) but for once the optimism was not misplaced as the Saints raced to a comfortable 30 point win, 10.12 (72) to 6.6 (42).

The preliminary final against Collingwood was a vastly different, free-scoring affair, but although the Saints managed to keep in close touch for most of the game the Magpies ultimately broke clear to record a 29 point triumph, 20.14 (134) to 15.15 (105). St. Kilda were far from disgraced, however, and yet again it appeared that the club had turned the corner. However, the outbreak of what was to become a second global conflict in September 1939 rendered any long term prospects of consolidation and improvement problematic. That said, few could have predicted just how dire and soul-destroying the next twenty or so years were to prove.

Before leaving the 1930s, however, mention should be made of some of the prominent players to wear the red, white and black during that decade; of men like long kicking full back Arthur Robertson (74 games between 1936 and 1942), dashing South Australian back pocket Clarrie Curyer (104 games from 1935-41), tenacious defender Stan Lloyd (117 games from 1934-42), vibrant wingman Doug Rayment (100 games between 1934 and 1940), and stalwart half back flanker and centreman Bill Roberts (160 games from 1928-37).

Easily the club's most noteworthy performer of the 1930s, however, was champion full forward Bill Mohr, who until the arrival of Tony Lockett half a century or so later was by some measure the most prolific goalkicker in St. Kilda's history. When Mohr retired in 1941 he had totalled 735 goals from 195 games over thirteen seasons. Perhaps the most persuasive evidence of his greatness is afforded by the fact that he represented Victoria 18 times during an era which boasted contemporary goalsneaks of the calibre of Gordon Coventry (Collingwood), Jack Titus (Richmond), 'Soapy' Vallence (Carlton), George Moloney (Geelong), Bob Pratt (South Melbourne) and Ron Todd (Collingwood). Mohr headed St Kilda's goalkicking list for twelve consecutive years and topped the VFL list in 1936 with 101 goals. He is perhaps best remembered for his unerring accuracy when kicking for goal, whether from set shots or in open play from almost any angle a la Peter Daicos.

... only twice finished outside the bottom two

St. Kilda's fortunes took a rapid nose-dive in 1940 and thereafter the club continued to struggle. Indeed, it is doubtful if the club has ever experienced a worse decade than the 1940s which yielded only 34 wins and 4 draws from 174 matches for a paltry success rate of just over 20%. During the entire decade the Saints (or the 'Panthers' as they were briefly known at around this time) only twice finished outside the bottom two, and never once achieved as many wins in a season as defeats.

Despite this, St. Kilda was still home to a succession of highly accomplished players, including the likes of full back Keith Drinan (135 games from 1946-57), forward Jack McDonald (113 games between 1948 and 1956), utility Ken Walker (109 games from 1938-45), rover Keith Rosewarne (92 games from 1946-51), and former rugby and soccer playing follower Reg Garvin (130 games between 1937 and 1946). Another player of note who impressed greatly during two all too brief stints at the club was Keith Miller (50 games from 1940-42 and in 1946), who later went on to even greater sporting achievement as one of Test cricket's finest ever all rounders.

The 1950s brought improvement of sorts, at least when compared to the 1940s, but St. Kilda could still hardly be regarded as a glamorous club. The finals remained very much an elusive pipedream, and the decade's only real highlights were Brownlow Medals to Brian Gleeson (in 1957) and Neil Roberts (1958) and the club's first - and, until 1996, only - night premiership in 1958. [7]

The start of St. Kilda's emergence as a VFL force can be traced to the appointment in 1956 of Alan Killigrew, a former rover with the club, as coach. Killigrew's coaching style was characterised by a fierce determination to succeed which manifested itself in intense, impassioned oratory more typical of an evangelical preacher than a football coach. However, Killigrew's impact on the team went much deeper than this. Under Killigrew, St. Kilda played a fast, run-on style of football in which handball as an offensive tool featured prominently; in many ways, it was ahead of its time, a fact which was brought into stark relief when, under Killigrew's successor as coach, Jim Francis, the Saints reverted to the staccato, 'prop and kick' style which was more representative of the period.

Perhaps not surprisingly, under Francis the side marked time, and it was not until the appointment of Allan Jeans as Francis's successor in 1961 that the Saints' vast potential began to be realised.

... an unmistakable feeling of optimism

Initially Jeans, whose reputation as a player had been modest, was not a particularly popular appointment among either players or supporters. However, his team rapidly won the fans 'round with a series of memorable performances, in the process of which the players' morale inevitably tended to improve. Among the achievements which made people sit up and take notice were victories over both reigning premier, Melbourne, and the Demons' successors-in-waiting, Hawthorn, and a resounding 12.19 (91) to 0.8 (8) triumph over Richmond which saw the Tigers become the first VFL side in forty years to fail to kick a single goal in a match.

Off the field the club was also beginning to thrive and in 1961 it attracted an all time record 6,905 members. There was also an increased stability which would help facilitate the recruitment prior to the start of the 1962 season of Australia's most sought after footballer, Latrobe's 1961 All Australian centre half forward Darrel Baldock.

In 1961, Jeans' Saints managed 11 wins from 18 matches to finish the 'home and home' series in third place on the ladder, but then their lack of finals experience came to the fore as they allowed Footscray to jump them early in the first semi final and ultimately hold on to win by 9 points. [8] There was an unmistakable feeling of optimism at the Junction Oval, however, and Baldock's signing only served to reinforce this.

St. Kilda's eventual premiership captain made his VFL debut on Easter Monday 1962 and performed creditably in a rare 25 point victory over Collingwood at Victoria Park. Ultimately, however, this proved to be one of the season's few highlights for Saints supporters as the team put in a mediocre campaign to manage only 9 wins from 18 matches and sixth position on the premiership ladder.

The 1963 season was brighter in every respect. Three future champions in Carl Ditterich, Ian Stewart and Bob Murray took their bows, and the Saints made it to the first semi final before losing narrowly to Melbourne. Off the field, increased concern over the amount of revenue which the club was losing to its landlord, the St. Kilda Cricket Club, led to the unveiling of plans for a move to Moorabbin.

The Saints' inconsistency continued in 1964 as the side slumped to sixth and failed to achieve even the minor consolation of success in the night grand final when it succumbed to Footscray by five points.

St. Kilda received an enormous fillip when the planned move to Moorabbin Oval went through in time for the start of the 1965 season. In round one a club record 51,370 spectators attended the home game with Collingwood in which the Saints scraped home by 6 points. Thereafter, the team went from strength to strength, losing only 4 'home and home' games all season to enter the finals in pole position for the first time ever.

Significantly, however, the one team which St. Kilda had failed to beat all year was Essendon, and it was the Bombers who ultimately stood in St. Kilda's way when the Saints downed second semi final opponents Collingwood by the narrowest of margins to reach only the second grand final in the club's history. Despite having ended the home and away rounds in only fourth position Essendon had managed to untap a rich vein of form in September, and consecutive 52 and 55 point victories over Geelong and Collingwood had earned them widespread favouritism going into the grand final. Sadly for the Saints, the pre-match speculation proved to be spot on as the Bombers overcame a haphazard start to emerge 35 points to the good, 14.21 (105) to 9.16 (70). On the eve of the match Allan Jeans made what many later came to view as a major strategic error when he invited the players to his home to discuss tactics. As Darrel Baldock observed:

"We were so pumped up from that meeting that we went home ready to play the game straight away. By the time we got onto the ground we were .... mentally tired ....." [9]

Best for St. Kilda in the '65 grand final included centreman Ian Stewart, who a few weeks earlier had been a surprise winner of the Brownlow Medal, wingman Jim Read, and the half forward trio of Ian Cooper, Darrel Baldock and Des Kennedy.

the point of it all

Securely entrenched in the four for most of the 1966 season St. Kilda could ultimately have missed out on the finals had they gone down at home to Hawthorn in the last round. Normally, a win over the Hawks would almost have been a formality, but the Saints were without their inspirational ruckman 'Big Carl' Ditterich, who was suspended, while Darrel Baldock had strained his knee ligaments a fortnight earlier against South Melbourne and was rated extremely doubtful. In the end the story had something of a fairy tale resolution as Baldock, named as twentieth man, entered the fray in the third term with the Saints in serious trouble, kicked a goal almost immediately, and went on to inspire a memorable victory. When questioned about the gamble he had taken in playing Baldock, Jeans said; "It was either play him today or wait for the night series". [10]

The victory over Hawthorn secured the double chance for the Saints and as it transpired this was fortunate, as Collingwood won a tumultuous second semi final by 10 points, 15.9 (99) to 13.11 (89). Baldock was still experiencing discomfort with his knee, while Ditterich's suspension meant that he would miss the entire finals series, but St. Kilda managed to overcome both these impediments admirably as they overpowered Essendon in the preliminary final by 42 points to earn another crack at the Magpies.

In the week preceding the grand final the media spotlight was firmly on the Saints, and more specifically on Baldock's knee. Unknown to the newshounds, however, Baldock actually aggravated his knee injury during the team's final training session prior to the match. Allan Jeans, aware of what had happened, immediately brought the training session to an abrupt and premature halt, but he did so in such a manner as to make it seem predetermined. The press were fooled. Come grand final day, however, Baldock was in considerable pain when he lined up at centre half forward. Early on, he took a mark a long way from goal from which he kicked truly, but "It felt like my knee went further than the ball". [11]

Nevertheless, nothing was going to prevent 'the Doc' from making his contribution to the St. Kilda cause; moreover, nothing, it seemed, was going to get in the way of St. Kilda's quest for that elusive first premiership. In a dour battle of the backlines watched by a largely pro-St. Kilda crowd of 101,655 there was seldom more than a kick separating the sides, but the initiative seemed to rest with the Saints for most of the game. Victory was finally clinched in the most dramatic of ways. With two minutes plus time on remaining Collingwood's Tuddenham kicked a behind to level the scores and set the stage for a frenetic last five minutes during which players frantically flung themselves at the ball with minimal regard for personal safety. Finally, two minutes into time on St. Kilda half forward flanker Barry Breen grabbed the ball after a ball up and sent a bouncing snap shot through for his fifth minor score of the day to secure a lead which the Saints managed to hang on to until the end. Final scores were St. Kilda 10.14 (74) to Collingwood 10.13 (73). The despair alluded to in the opening paragraph of this account was, for one brief moment, dispelled completely.

Best for the Saints on the greatest ever day in their history included half forward flanker Ian Cooper, centreman Ian Stewart, back pocket Brian Sierakowski, ruck rover Daryl Griffiths, and 5 goal full forward Kevin Neale. Skipper Baldock was uncharacteristically quiet, but not presumably during the club's post match festivities.

In an uncharacteristic display of emotion Allan Jeans told his players:

"Whatever you do, wherever you go, I'll always remember you for this wonderful moment you gave me today". [^12]

A second successive Brownlow for Stewart capped off a season which St. Kilda supporters with long memories still get goose pimples thinking about.

a gradual fall from grace

Sadly, however, St. Kilda supporters born later than about 1960 have nothing to think back on which even remotely compares to the glory of 1966.

Under Jeans, the Saints remained a force for the better part of another decade, with further finals appearances in 1968 (fourth), 1970 (third), 1971 (second), 1972 (third) and 1973 (fourth).

If the memory of 1966 provokes intense pleasure and pride, that of 1971 has inspired innumerable nightmares for players and supporters alike. Late in the third term of that season's grand final St. Kilda led by 26 points before Hawthorn's Leon Rice snapped truly to bring his side to within four straight kicks at the final change.

The Saints should still have triumphed, but inexplicably they were overrun, the Hawks adding 7.3 to 3.0 in a devastating last quarter display to win by seven points. Many a red, white and black heart was broken on a day when rover Ross Smith, centre half back Barry Lawrence, wingman Stewart Trott, ruckman Bryan Mynott, and four-goal centre half forward Barry Breen unavailingly gave their all to the St Kilda cause.

As the '70s went on, St. Kilda suffered a gradual fall from grace. Allan Jeans retired as coach, alleging burn-out, after a mediocre 1976 campaign which saw the Saints manage only 9 wins from 22 matches to finish ninth.

Under Jeans' successor, Ross Smith, the team fared even worse, managing just 3 wins and 2 draws and landing the Saints with their first wooden spoon for 22 years. Smith departed after just a single season in charge, but none of the five coaches who followed (Mike Patterson 1978-80, Alex Jesaulenko 1980-2, Tony Jewell 1983-4, Graeme Gellie 1984-6, and Darrel Baldock 1987-9) proved capable of restoring St Kilda's fortunes.

Frustratingly, the club was back in its familiar rut of mediocrity, albeit that it still managed to acquire the services of some top quality performers. Most notable among these were long serving utility and 'enforcer' Kevin 'Cowboy' Neale (256 games and 301 goals from 1965 to 1977), rover Bruce Duperouzel (139 games 1974-82), centreman Glenn Elliott (138 games 1969-77), ruckman and key position forward Gary Sidebottom (54 games 1978-80), defender Val Perovic (77 games between 1973 and 1979), ruckman Jeff Sarau (226 games 1973-83), and utility Trevor Barker (230 games 1975-89).

The 1980s proved to be a particularly inauspicious era with wooden spoons in 1983-4-5-6 and '88. The Saints' best showing for the decade came in 1987 when 9 wins from 22 matches gave them tenth spot out of fourteen teams. That very year, however, the club almost went under as a result of a huge financial deficit, and although recovery was achieved economic security proved elusive.

Under Ken Sheldon, coach from 1990 to 1993, St. Kilda underwent a brief revival, contesting finals series in 1991 and 1992 with limited success. At their best, the Saints of the early 1990s were as good as any other side in the competition. Boasting arguably the game's premier key forwards in Tony Lockett and Stewart Loewe, and with a formidable midfield set-up incorporating the likes of Nicky Winmar, Nathan Burke, Gilbert McAdam and Dean Greig, St. Kilda were capable, on their day, of producing some truly awesome football.

The key phrases in the previous paragraph are "at their best" and "on their day". Too often, whether because key players were missing because of suspension or injury, or simply because the side lacked sufficient confidence in its own ability, games were lost that ought to have been won, the ultimate upshot of which was that the Saints never totally managed to make the transition from bridesmaid to bride.

... little....indication that the club was about to turn the corner

A mediocre season in 1993 precipitated Sheldon's departure, and under his successor, Stan Alves, there was little immediate indication that the club was about to turn the corner. Indeed, a combination of continued financial pressures and unpredictable calamities like the loss of glamour full forward Lockett to Sydney made St Kilda's long term prospects begin to look extremely precarious indeed.

However, in 1996 the side began to show signs of a resurgence. A resounding 58-point defeat of reigning day premiers Carlton in the pre-season Ansett Australia Cup grand final was followed by a solid home and away season during which the Saints may have failed to make the finals but were seldom less than competitive.

The improvement accelerated in 1997 when, after a poor start, the Saints went on to secure the minor premiership for only the second ever time. Comfortable finals defeats of the Brisbane Lions and North Melbourne subsequently saw the side qualify for its first grand final since 1971. In the week leading up to the grand final the club received a further morale boost when dynamic on baller Robert Harvey was named as St. Kilda's first Brownlow Medallist for a decade. Most media pundits made the Saints raging hot pre-match favourites against first time grand finalist, Adelaide. The Crows had already had to contend with three tough finals matches in as many weeks and were expected to run out of legs well before the end.

Unfortunately, no one told this to the Crows players. St. Kilda played well in the first half to lead at the main break by 13 points, but the second half was a disaster as the Crows added 14 goals to 6 to win pulling away. Players like Harvey, Cook and Jones were conspicuous for the Saints, but too many of their colleagues went missing when the action heated up. Stan Alves summed it all up when he said:

"It was just unfortunate from our perspective today that Adelaide had the good players on the day and we struggled. I thought that to win a game you've got to have most of your players playing well and unfortunately today we didn't have many players playing well. We hung in with a bit of G and D and unfashionable grind and things like that. You'll probably find a lot of Adelaide players today were better players than our players, whereas if you look at our side, if you look objectively a lot of players played below what you'd expect of them."

Saints skipper Nathan Burke was, predictably, equally disconsolate about the result:

"Before the game it was very hard to tell who was overly nervous," he said. "The warm-up seemed pretty much as usual - the quiet blokes were still quiet, the noisy blokes were still noisy - but certainly when we got out there we had a couple of blokes drop easy marks and choose wrong options, so if that was nerves, then there it is. Adelaide is a side you've got to be wary of, once they get that run-on they generally go on with it. The signs were on the board that was starting to happen: when we got a goal they just answered one straight back and there's nothing more disheartening than when that happens."

However, Burke did manage to maintain at least a veneer of optimism in spite of the disappointment. "If we have another half a dozen or a dozen young blokes jump up and do what Hudghton, Wakelin, Lappin did then we'll be very competitive over the next few years," he insisted. One might add that, historically, the team which finishes as runner-up has frequently shown itself to be a strong contender for the premiership in the succeeding season; the pang of defeat can be an extremely powerful motivator.

For much of the 1998 season, this indeed appeared to be the case, but ultimately the Saints fell two games short of repeating their '97 grand final appearance after a 51-point semi-final loss to Melbourne. In a season in which there was very little to choose between the sides in the top half of the table this was disappointing but no disaster, and, the somewhat controversial dismissal of coach Stan Alves notwithstanding, hopes for the immediate future remained high.

Such hopes appeared on the verge of imminent fulfilment during the first half of the 1999 season when the Saints, enjoying something of a honeymoon period under new coach Tim Watson, appeared on course for a top-three finish. The second half of the season, however, saw a series of performances reminiscent of the Saints of old, with a sequence of just 3 wins from the final 12 matches ultimately consigning the side to the ignominy of tenth spot. Season 2000 was little short of disastrous as the Saints managed just a couple of wins all year en route to the wooden spoon. The following season was almost as bad, both on (fifteenth place) and off (the ignominious late season sacking of 'messianic' coach Malcolm Blight) the field.

... no quick fixes on offer

The fact that there were no quick fixes on offer was emphasised the following season as the Saints, under Grant Thomas, again struggled, winning only 5 and a half games out of 22 for the year to again finish second from bottom. However, in 2003 there were signs that the team was at last beginning to turn things around, as it played some eye catching football to storm up the ladder and only narrowly miss the finals. It then carried this form over to the 2004 pre-season competition, the Wizard Cup, in which it swept all opposition aside en route to a 22-point grand final defeat of Geelong, eliciting considerable media hype in the process.

For much of the 2004 season a revitalised St. Kilda side provided fairly persuasive evidence that it was not far short of being the finished article in terms of premiership aspirations. After qualifying for the finals in third place with a 16-6 record the Saints overcame the disappointment of a lack lustre qualifying final loss to Brisbane to perform with admirable conviction in both the semi final against Sydney (won by 51 points) and the preliminary final at a hostile AAMI Stadium against Port Adelaide (lost, more than a trifle unfortunately, by a single straight kick). Worse teams than the Saints of 2004 have had their names inscribed on the AFL's premiership cup, but nobody down Moorabbin way would find this thought in any way consoling.

After appearing to lose their way a little during the first half of the 2005 season the Saints recovered well to clinch the double chance going into the finals. A gutsy qualifying final win away against minor premier Adelaide then earned the side premiership favouritism, but once again the preliminary final, played on this occasion at the MCG, presented an insurmountable hurdle. This time it was Sydney which ended the Saints' season, winning comfortably by 31 points after trailing by 7 points at the last change.

Things were even more disappointing in 2006. An inconsistent home-and-away season consigned the Saints to a cut-throat elimination final against Melbourne rather than the comparative luxury of the double chance, and despite a strong start to the game they eventually went under by 3 goals, a result which helped precipitate the dismissal of coach Grant Thomas several days later.

... the vagaries of a bouncing football

With Ross Lyon at the helm, the Saints endured a mediocre time in 2007, finishing in ninth place with an 11-10-1 record. This was followed by a creditable 2008 campaign which brought finals participation and an ultimate finishing position of fourth.

A year later St. Kilda enjoyed one of the best home-and-away campaigns in the club's history, winning 20 out of 22 matches to qualify for the finals in first place, 2 wins clear of Geelong. A comfortable qualifying final victory over Collingwood followed by a narrow, nervy triumph over Western Bulldogs in a preliminary final then ensued, booking St. Kilda's place in its first grand final since 1997, and only the sixth in its history.

Opposed by Geelong, the Saints had their noses in front at every change but in the end could not withstand the pressure applied by the Cats in a torrid final term, and they went down fighting by 12 points. 

Vanquished grand final teams have a knack of using their disappointment to fuel a subsequent, successful assault on the premiership, and St. Kilda fans might have felt justified in believing that there was a realistic possibility of their heroes taking the ultimate, decisive step in 2009. As it was, the Saints came as close to winning a premiership in 2010 as it is possible to do without actually succeeding. Opposed in the grand final by Collingwood, they showed great tenacity, coming from behind to tie the match in the closing minutes. But for a leg break of a bouncing ball that thwarted goalsneak Stepehen Milne, the Saints would almost certainly have won their second flag. But it was not to be. Final scores were St. Kilda 10.8 (68) drew with Collingwood 9.14 (68), and most observers would have expected the replay to develop into a similarly closely fought affair.

However, to the immense disappointment of their supporters the Saints proved unable to get into the game, failing to register a goal in the opening term, and managing only one up to half time. In the end Collingwood won comfortably by 56 points, and yet another season of promise had ended in despair for St. Kilda.

Those disappointing near-misses appeared to take their toll on the St. Kilda players and their 2011 season, after a narrow round-one loss to Geelong, never ignited. In the end, they scraped into the finals but bowed out in the opening week, losing to Sydney in Melbourne by 25 points, and soon after Ross Lyon dramatically resigned to take up the coaching job at Fremantle. Former Western Australian battler Scott Watters took up the reigns for the 2012 season, but the Saints endured a mixed time and ultimately finished ninth after winning 12 of their 22 home and away games. It was the first time since 2007 that St Kilda would be absent from the September jambouree.

The 2013 season brought a further decline in fortunes as the Saints won just 5 games to end up in sixteenth place. Scott Watters was subsequently replaced as coach by former Port Adelaide director of coaching Alan Richardson.

The 2014 season was a disaster as the club won just 4 matches to plummet to the wooden spoon. Since then, still under the guidance of Alan Richardson, the Saints have finished fourteenth in 2015, ninth in 2016, eleventh in 2017 and a highly disappointing sixteenth in 2018 when only 4 wins and a draw were recorded from 22 matches.

Whether the Saints boast the resources and ability to take the vital final step to premiership success in the near future remains to be seen, but the consensus would appear to be that, yet again, the club has somehow contrived to miss the boat.


Note: This article was written by John Devaney and subsequently updated with additonal material from writers.

  1. Geelong were actually something of a special case in that they tended to compete almost exclusively against country clubs.
  2. From 'Australasian', quoted in The Point Of It All by Jules Fledmann and Russell Holemsby, page 25.
  3. It is perhaps interesting to note that the Prahran Football Club was re-formed as a separate entity two years later.
  4. The winless sequence was actually 50 games if you include VFA fixtures.
  5. In 'Sport', quoted in Great Australian Football Stories by Garrie Hutchinson (ed.).
  6. 'Football Record', No. 20, 1929.
  7. The VFL had introduced its first official night competition in 1956 to be contested by the eight clubs which had failed to qualify for the finals. All night series matches were held at South Melbourne's home ground, the Lake Oval, and initially at least the competition proved extremely popular. In 1957 all twelve VFL clubs participated in the night competition but from 1958 the competition reverted to its original format. The Glossary entry contains further details.
  8. Not that the Footscray side was significantly more experienced with only Ted Whitten having previously participated in a VFL final.
  9. The Point Of It All, page 181.
  10. Ibid, page 189.
  11. Ibid, page 191.
  12. Ibid, page 193.


John Devaney - Full Points Publications


* Behinds calculated from the 1965 season on.
+ Score at the end of extra time.