While the 2018 AFL season is already bookmarked as a wasted opportunity for most in the St Kilda camp, for senior coach Alan Richardson the stakes have never been higher.
Heading into the season Richardson and company sold the footy world a vision of a competitive St Kilda, expected to break into the top eight and possibly even the top four for the first time in years.
Now with the end of June in sight and 12 rounds of the season completed, St Kilda sits in 16th spot on the ladder with one win, one draw and ten abysmal losses.
The Saints line up for the next time on Saturday night, taking on the Gold Coast Suns at Metricon Stadium, and it’s a very real possibility that a loss for St Kilda could force the termination of Richardson’s career as coach.
Despite the pressure and speculation St Kilda’s Richardson insisted during the week that this match was no different.
“I worry about what I can control, and I can’t control anything that is in here, I can’t control anything about what is being said. I can only control what happens inside our four walls at our footy club and that’s my focus,” Richardson declared on AFL 360.
“Right now, we’re a pretty young footy team. I don’t want to make excuses because these are just reality but we would’ve had five blokes play under ten games against an incredibly experienced team.
“Our group and our coaching group’s focus is to be as aggressive, urgent and bold and as desperate every week about trying to get the result.
“This is no different.
“The reality is that we’ve won one game and they’ve won one game (three), they would have expectations based on a disappointing day last week to respond so do we.”
Richardson first took over St Kilda as coach in 2014. Since then he has a record of 34 wins and two draws from 100 matches. Under his stewardship St Kilda has finished the home-and-away season in 11th (2017), ninth (2016), 14th (2015) and 18th (2014).
While we’re on the topic of recent history, the ledger is evenly divided between the Suns and Saints. In 2017 St Kilda got the job done against Gold Coast by 31 points in Round 14 with Jack Billings staring at Etihad Stadium. Before that it was Gold Coast, winning by 40 points in 2016 (Metricon Stadium) and 28 points in 2015 (Metricon Stadium).
With all things considered, my expectation is that Richardson is safe until at least the midway point of the 2019 season. Patience with coaches is often rewarded at the AFL level, best exemplified by Richmond last season and Damien Hardwick.
Hardwick led Richmond to consecutive elimination finals losses in 2014, 2015 and 2016 before plummeting down the ladder in 2017, finishing 13th. Speculation thundered that he was gone as a result.
Richmond instead opted to hang on, making some big trade table moves. They brought premiership success to a certain end of Punt Road for the first time in more than 30 years.
I’m inclined to believe that St Kilda will take the same approach and pray for a similar result.
While Richardson’s tenure has been less than inspired, the club’s biggest failure of late was heading into the season boasting of the success to come instead of dramatically tempering their expectations after the retirement of long-term captain Nick Riewoldt.
Last season St Kilda produced an energetic and lively brand of football headlined by underappreciated and emerging midfielders and a dynamic forward line, and it’s important to ask the question of what changed between 2017 and 2018.
The answer is that the club’s centre half forward, a veteran captain with 336 games to his name and more than 700 goals under his belt, was swallowed by a black hole and disappeared that void is yet to be replaced.
If St Kilda had have spent the preseason hyping up the challenge of locating the next big thing for the club instead of trying to book in the next fairytale, Richmond and Western Bulldogs-esque story, then Richardson’s job as coach wouldn’t even be a talking point at this stage of the season.
Rodney Eade is the most recent AFL coach to be sacked, losing his job at the Gold Coast in 2017 after five consecutive losses to Fremantle, Richmond, the Western Bulldogs, Collingwood and the Sydney Swans.
Before that it was Justin Leppitsch in 2016, sacked in August after losses to St Kilda and Geelong and a third consecutive season of ladder regression.
Out on the field, more honourable losses – closer to those against Richmond and West Coast – are likely to keep Richardson safe from the same fate as the aforementioned.
The Suns are prime prey for the Saints after failing to take a mark inside 50 last round and, if my memory serves me correctly, have failed to win a single quarter of football in four rounds.
But if the Saints are unable to overcome a group as disillusioned as the Gold Coast?
The push for change might just develop all the momentum it needs to rub Alan Richardson’s name off the whiteboard once and for all.