It’s not often that a team wins a game without leading at any stage between the opening and final sirens, but that is exactly what happened when St Kilda defeated Hawthorn in Round 22, 2001. It would prove a fitting final act in a season that lived up to its billing as the ‘Ride of our Lives,’ but for all the wrong reasons.
It is hard to put into words the level of excitement that surrounded Malcolm Blight’s appointment as St Kilda Coach for the 2001 season. Only a few seasons removed from taking the Crows from irrelevance onfield to back to back flags, his coaching genius was unquestioned. A maverick with different ideas, there was a mythical presence to him that lent itself to the messiah status Saints fans bestowed upon him. With a bevy of offseason trade acquisitions, that included Aaron Hammil, Fraser Gehrig and Brett Voss, and the drafting of Nick Riewoldt and Justin Koschitscke. there was a belief that he had the tools to work his magic at Moorabbin.
It is even harder to explain the feelings that surrounded him being shuffled off into involuntary retirement 15 rounds into the season. Having not been around when Melbourne sacked Norm Smith, I would go so far as to say it was the most shocking move against a coach in my life-time. Even with the Saints 3&12 under Blight, and failing in any way to live up to their pre-season expectation, it was the most unexpected of terminations and it sent a shockwave through the football world. After throwing all their eggs, and close to $2million, into the Blight basket, where would the Saints turn next to turn their dire situation around.
Anybody who thought that Grant Thomas was the answer to that question would have been subject to public ridicule. So it was not surprising then that the club received their fare share of scorn when they appointed their former head of football as the interim coach in the wake of Blight’s sacking. The intensity of which only grew when the Saints lost their first six under the interim stewardship of Thomas as they prepared for an end of season appointment with the finals bound Hawks.
There had been positive signs though. Missing the 851* combined games of experience of Nathan Burke, Stewart Loewe and Robert Harvey, young Saints were given greater responsibility. As a result, the likes of Steven Baker, Jason Blake, Justin Koschitzke and Nick Riewoldt were all able to show glimpses of what they would deliver over the next decade in red, black, and white.
As important as this was to the success of the team in the years to follow, it might not be the subject of this discussion decades later if not for the events of the last six minutes against Hawthorn. A strong Nick Riewoldt mark across fullback set things in motion. A 50-metre penalty saw him marched to the middle of the ground where he handed off to a flying Cayden Beetham who found Barry Hall with a sharp pass. The resulting goal had cut the margin to 15-points but even at this point, the ultimate conclusion to this match was impossible to imagine.
As one of the 24,113 hardy souls in attendance that night, I have to admit that while still optimistic, there was little sense in the crowd that the Saints could pinch the four points from this position. For Hawks fans, who spent much of the final quarter mercilessly heckling anybody within shouting distance, it was not thought they had spent any time considering. This was probably not that surprising given the Saints had won just eight of their last 52 games but those of us sitting in the old Ponsford Stand, we were in prime position to witness the surprising and thrilling conclusion.
As is almost always the case in comeback wins, a little luck needed to fall the Saints way for them to complete their task. In a vital two minutes of play, Brett Voss threaded the needle to reduce the margin to 10 points. John Barker missed for Hawthorn from long range before Ben Dixon failed with his two running attempts. The future St Kilda goal-kicking coach watching on in horror as his second shot was touched on the line by a desperate Stephen Baker to keep the game alive.
It was fitting that central to the Saints first win of the post-Blight era, was a player the ex-Coach had declared was not up to AFL level. In just his 17th game for the club, a 21-year-old Stephen Milne all but pinched the game from Hawthorn on his own in the final two minutes. With two goals already to his name, he ‘earned’ a free kick in the goal square to bring the Saints within one straight kick of victory. A kick he looked to have delivered after a stoppage deep in attacking 50. Running on to a handpass from Brett Moyle with 30 seconds on the clock, Milne hooked the ball towards the winning goal but was denied by the woodwork.
It would prove a temporary rebuff with the Saints goal sneak eager to make up for his miss. Front and centre at the fall of the resulting kick in, he roved the spillage caused by a desperate Andrew Thompson spoil. Using remarkable poise, rather than blast away again, he delivered a delightful pass to Barry Hall on the lead. With what would prove his final kick in St Kilda colours, the big forward made no mistake with the game on his boot after the final siren.
The moments afterward were chaotic both on and off the field. As Hall was swamped by his team mates, St Kilda fans were equally euphoric in the grandstands. The emotion seeing total strangers hugging in the crowd, I think I even hugged a security guard across the fence, as the team broke into the club song on field. After a season in which the ride of our lives was more ghost train than thrill ride, the future once again looked bright. There were a few dark days to be overcome but the building blocks were in place for a team that would genuinely contend.
The Saints were coming.
AFL 2001 ROUND 22
St Kilda 3.1 7.4 9.7 13.11 (89)
Hawthorn 7.3 10.3 11.7 13. 9 (87)
Best: St.Kilda – Capuanao, Moyle, Jones, Hall, Peckett, Baker, Koschitzke.
Hawthorn — Greene, Barker, Graham, Hay, Chick, Smith, Vandenberg.
Goals: St. Kilda -Hall 4, Milne 3, Blake, Capuano, Gehrig, Koschitzke, Moyle, Voss. Hawthorn – Barker 3, Barlow 2, Graham 2, Dixon, Lekkas, Lonie, Tallis, Thompson, Vandenberg.
Umpires: Kennedy, Nicholls, Hanley
Crowd: 24,113 at the MCG.
* As at Round 22, 2001.