The St Kilda Football Club has had an alarming fall from grace since the heady days of 2008-2011, and unfortunately for their loyal and long-suffering supporters, the worst is still to come.
Most pundits predicted another slip down the ladder for the Saints this season, but perhaps not the free fall that has ensued. The worst part is the weight being carried by the same old shoulders.
Nick Riewoldt has been a giant of the game for a decade or more, and continues to lead the way with his legendary work ethic, evident again in yesterday’s loss to the Swans.
Staggeringly to me, I still get the sense his career has been somewhat underrated.
He’s had a sensational year, should win his sixth best and fairest award, and is my personal All-Australian centre-half forward.
Leigh Montagna has returned to his hard-running, accumulating best after a couple of seasons that saw his impact dulled. He’s only really had one bad game from a ball-winning perspective, against Carlton in Round 7, but he offset that by laying nine tackles.
The leadership shown in a struggling side is to be commended, and he’s gone up a rung in the eyes of many.
Nick Dal Santo has found it hard to recapture his creative best, still being sat on every week by an opposition tagger. It’s become a tough ask for the silky left-footer, and he must be understandably struggling for drive with his premiership dreams in tatters.
No-one would begrudge him looking elsewhere next season, and he’d be a perfect fit at a side like Hawthorn that plays a possession game moving the ball by foot.
Lenny Hayes has been a heart and soul player for as long as anyone can remember, and is still willing his battered body to contest after contest, tackling fiercely and winning clearances. It’s yet to be determined if he’ll continue on next season, but he is one man who has well and truly earned the right to make his own call.
Riewoldt has played a lone hand up forward, and the three midfielders only have Jack Steven for company in averaging the most disposals per match for the team.
Steven was actually my pick for the St Kilda best and fairest at the start of this year, the leader of the next generation. He’s a certainty for a top three finish, and is the number one clearance and contested possession winner for his side, as well as ranking second for tackles, emphasising the defensive mindset that all coaches love.
Another asset is his goal sense, which is always important for a midfielder looking to step up to the elite level.
Support for him is thin on the ground, although David Armitage is still improving.
Farren Ray and Clinton Jones are the best of the next tier at this stage, which is a sobering thought.
Despite the lack of form and off-field troubles he’s suffered through this year, Stephen Milne is still the second highest goal-kicker for the year at the Saints. Starting as the sub yesterday, his superb career is coming to a close and it would surprise most if he decided to play again next year.
In terms of replacing Milne in that specialist forward pocket position, it’s the old “there’s good news and there’s bad news” situation.
The good news is that St Kilda has a plethora of options, with the recruiting staff at one stage being accused of trying to draft every forward pocket in the land.
The bad news is that none of them have shown they can consistently cut it at AFL level.
Adam Schneider is still effective when fit, which isn’t very often, while Ahmed Saad, Terry Milera and Trent Dennis-Lane have all been tried with varying degrees of success.
The latter three seem to get dropped as often as they get selected, with none able to nail down their spot.
Tom Lee has been a bright spot up forward after an unencouraging start to the season. Taller than he looks, he can assume a key position once he puts on some muscle. His distinctive kicking style is unerringly accurate when taking a shot at goal.
Down back, James Gwilt and Sam Fisher are still very good footballers, although seldom have they shared the same field in recent seasons. Like most of the Saints best players, they’re getting on, and Fisher in particular has his best football behind him.
Rhys Stanley is worth persevering with in the back half after a few spluttering seasons up forward. His footballing education as a full-back may help him in future years if he’s required to play in the front half again.
Sean Dempster was a deserved All-Australian defender in 2012, but has been down on that form in 2013.
This is as much a by-product of being far more under siege this year than last, but he’s taking fewer marks, generating less run, and disposing of the ball more inefficiently, not a good mix.
Dylan Roberton and Jarryn Geary have both been good for what they are, but it’s not a defence that strikes fear into the hearts of any forward line.
Ben McEvoy has gone backwards in the ruck, while Tom Hickey looks promising.
Both are still young enough to grow into a quality duo, but both have question marks over their agility in terms of having an impact when resting forward.
The Saints have used 38 players this season, which is at the top end for the AFL. It’s far too early to tell which of the inexperienced types are going to make it, but all are going to need continued exposure at the highest level.
We’ve known how poorly their list is positioned for a couple of years due to varying factors, and it’s going to be a long haul back. You’d think there is going to be three top three picks coming their way in the next few drafts.
Each of them needs to be nailed, and the focus must be on elite midfielders first.
By the time the next wave of youth matures into AFL standard, the gun older players are going to be retired. It’s not inconceivable that the Saints won’t see finals again this decade.