Once a Saint
The biggest football story of last year will reach its next chapter and possibly its conclusion on Friday night when St Kilda takes on the Ross Lyon-coached Fremantle.
In an industry known for poorly kept secrets and innuendo, Lyon’s move to Western Australia came almost completely out of the blue.
It took the media, fans and Fremantle coach Mark Harvey by complete surprise as both Harvey and Lyon had a year remaining on their contracts.
There had been some late-season rumours that Lyon was unhappy with the Saints’ lack of enthusiasm in drawing up a new contract with his management group ESP.
As it turned out, Lyon negotiated his own contract with Fremantle without the knowledge of ESP, which also had Harvey on its books.
Lyon had been strongly linked to the senior coaching position at Melbourne that was eventually given to Mark Neeld. The Demons and Lyon rejected any suggestion they had ever spoken but Melbourne still managed to score one valuable asset from the Saints – strength and conditioning coach Dave Misson.
Misson had been seen as a vital part of St Kilda’s recent success and, in some ways, as big a loss as Lyon.
As it turns out, the Saints have had a remarkable run with injuries since Misson’s departure and go into the Fremantle game with only Raphael Clarke and Adam Schneider on the injury list.
No one from St Kilda has criticised Lyon for leaving the club with a year remaining on his contract, which is interesting in itself. One school of thought is that they are simply trying to hose down hype and not go down the path of acrimony.
Another school of thought privately expressed by some within the club is that the exit was beneficial for both parties.
Over his five years in the red, white and black, Lyon had earned a reputation as one of the most astute minds in the game and with a fierce competitive nature that he translated into his players. Two catchphrases often used by Lyon to his players and to the media were ‘Saints Footy’ and ‘the bubble’.
The first was the brand of football that had brought the Saints much criticism for its lack of entertainment, but still had taken them to Grand Finals two years in a row. The second was a mindset across the St Kilda inner sanctum that shunned all external factors and eventually ensured a pressure cooker environment.
‘The bubble’ was felt throughout the entire club, not just the football department, and proved to be too intense for some.
The St Kilda coaching staff was turned over almost completely on an annual basis and Lyon admitted at one best and fairest count that he was not easy to work with, but that it was all in the pursuit of the ultimate success.
Like any coach, Lyon had his favourites among his playing list, and the team’s success, coupled with a relatively smooth run with injury made it tough for the next wave of youngsters to come through.
Players not earning a regular senior berth were not a high priority for the Saints coach, with at least one going months without any direct dialogue with the coach before he was delisted.
Another younger player yet to make his senior debut was amazed at the level of interest new coach Scott Watters had shown in his development compared to his predecessor.
The lack of venom from the club aimed at the former coach also comes from a fundamental respect for the results his methods brought.
But for the bounce of two footballs late in the 2009 and 2010 Grand Finals, Lyon could today be a dual-premiership winning coach and the most successful in the club’s 139 years.
It’s a Sliding Doors situation and history shows the Saints fell agonisingly short in both those years. Lyon won’t be the man to lead St Kilda to its second premiership, but he could take Fremantle to its first.
Friday night’s game will be a fair indication as to whether he made the right move.