The history of the St. Kilda Football Club is littered with failure, inadequacy and dishonourable off-field mismanagement. Formed in 1873, the club has hoisted the premiership cup just once, that lone triumph coming via a wobbly, ill-directed snap from the foot of Barry Breen way back in 1966 against a Collingwood side in the midst of the most infamous run of misfortune and calamity in football history. For the Saints’ many supporters, it serves as both a high watermark and an irritating reminder of their clubs habitual ineptitude. As with England’s glorious World Cup victory the very same year, it represents a sepia-toned juxtaposition completely at odds with the truth of their plight. For those too young to have witnessed it, its existence is akin to conspiracy theories surrounding the moon landing.
Indeed, 1966 was part of a golden age for St. Kilda. They topped the table for the first time in 1965 before falling short in the big one, then came ’66 and another Grand Final appearance in 1971, a narrow defeat this time at the hands of Hawthorn. Between 1965 and 1973 the Saints competed in the finals seven times. In the days of the final four and then five, this was the record of a successful club, a consistent contender.
Of course, the club would not taste September action again for a generation, yet even when they did the litany of wooden spoons and sacked coaches continued. It was not until the Ross Lyon epoch with a glut of top draft picks in tow that St. Kilda would look anything like reversing their past. Even the brief flirtation with success that was 1997 seemed only to confirm their place in the scheme of things.
Undeniably, 2009 was the greatest single season in Saints history and one of the most dominant on record. 20 wins, two narrow losses and at three quarter time on Grand Final day they had extended their lead at every change. That they would then succumb to a mighty Geelong – and in doing so become the only team in history to lose just the final quarter of a decider and fail to become premiers – says everything about St. Kilda’s existence, as if the players were thespians living up to a pre-ordained role. That the whole rigmarole of heartbreak was to recur the following year solidifies the suspicion.
Two seasons in a row they were just a kick, a leap, a bounce away from immortality. Something that galling could only come to pass at St. Kilda.
Coming into 2014 the club is one of the favourites to register a mind-blowing 27th wooden spoon. To put that into perspective, that means finishing with the worst record in the competition in almost a quarter of all league seasons. They have just sacked another coach and are a club once again in disarray. It is a cycle their fans are all too familiar with.
Contrast this with the fortunes of Hawthorn, another club that was mired in perpetual ineptitude for more than half a century from their formation. It took the Hawks 37 years and 11 wooden spoons before they won their inaugural league premiership in 1961. Unlike the Saints, Hawthorn has parlayed that success into a further ten flags in the ensuing six decades, making them one of the true powerhouses of Australian sport.
The reverse can also be true. Melbourne, the foundation club of the code, was the dominant side in the game throughout the 1950’s and early 1960’s, winning six premierships in a decade – a run of success the equal of anything ever achieved. When they saluted for a 12th premiership in 1964 no-one could have foreseen that 50 years later they would have failed to add to the tally. The monolith that is Richmond has endured the very same phenomenon.
It seems that a club’s providence can be altered positively or negatively only by a seismic event; a premiership, the arrival of a prominent and influential figure or, as with Norm Smith at the Demons, a shameful decision at board level that tore the club apart. Even then, how do those events in isolation continue to ripple for generations and why did the Saints, unlike the Hawks, return to type? Perhaps players and coaches engrossed in a club culture that is predicated upon being the underdog are more likely to be accepting when they fall short.
Dr Lionel Frost, in his outstanding history of the Carlton Football Club, described it thus:
“In some respects the game is a simple one – great players can make it seem more so – less obvious are the complex factors that impinge on the fortunes of clubs. The result of any given match is thus the outcome of a multitude of decisions made not only by those involved directly in the game – players, coaches and umpires – but also club officials who have in the past made decisions about recruiting and player payments. Every football club has a history that shapes what it can do and how well it can do it. Only an interpretation that takes these forces into account can explain… success, on and off the field.”
Just three clubs have been routinely successful for essentially their entire existence – Carlton, Collingwood and Essendon – and it’s therefore no surprise that they are clearly the three most triumphant in the game. Even when these sides are in a slump there is genuine belief that the next premiership is imminent. Their club culture stubbornly refuses to accept a position of mediocrity even when, as with the Blues and Bombers, they haven’t been near a flag in well over a decade. Is that delusion or well-founded confidence?
Either way, supporters of St. Kilda and the Western Bulldogs, with just a premiership apiece, hold dear the examples of modern fairytale stories in Geelong and the Sydney Swans, both of whom until recently hadn’t succeeded since the advent of decimal currency, or in Sydney’s case, before WWII. The Cats and Swans have been able to capitalise on the changing face of the game to produce golden eras that could well revise the course of club history for decades.
With draft and salary cap measures designed to have all on an level playing field, it defies logic that some teams are hindered by constant incompetence while others continue to thrive regardless. Surely with all things being equal, that indefinable thing that is club culture must have its invisible hand somewhere near the wheel.
The Sad Demise of Bolton Wanderers Football Club
It is hard to believe the dismal state Bolton Wanderers find themselves in
If you watched the English Premier League during the early 2000s, you would have been familiar with the plight of Bolton Wanderers. The long running club is now in absolute dire straits, bereft of resources, searching desperately for new owners as it staves away its seemingly inevitable end. It is truly a sad turn of events for a club that has been around for almost 150 years, once known as the plucky, never-die team of English football’s top flight.
The Greater Manchester club, gleefully nicknamed ‘The Trotters’, were always a group of ragtag underachievers who constantly overachieved. The club, under the tutelage of Big Sam Allardyce, spent several Premier League seasons languishing at the bottom end of the table staving off relegation before progressing to mid-table safety. It wasn’t that they were good, because, for the most part, they weren’t, but it was because they always found a gutsy way of surviving by sheer determination, miraculous last game results, and for finding the last remaining ounce of juice left in washed-up players looking for one last round of glory.
It’s the latter point perhaps, that endeared Bolton to fans who didn’t spend their weekends at the Reebok Stadium. Bolton was the home to many talents that found new life under Allardyce. Players that managed to thrill a mostly dull part of the footballing world with European flair and Nigerian spice. I have fond memories of the indomitable Jay-Jay Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff reminding fans of their class. Then there were the bruising, hard-hitting playing styles of Ivan Campo and Fernando Hierro- adding much-needed steel to that Bolton lineup. They complimented the steadfast if not boring quality that came with the ever-present Jussi Jääskeläinen and Kevin Davies. Atop them all sat Big Sam- who long before he became a joke in English football, was the no-frills, old-school English manager who took Bolton up from the old Division One to the Premier League. And during his run, he became known for being able to get Bolton out of trouble at the last minute, no matter how ugly the season had been. They made an FA Cup Semi Final and the Round of 16 of the UEFA Cup, somehow beating Atletico Madrid along the way.
Those days are sadly long gone as the club find itself languishing in the third tier of English football, once again ending the previous season relegated. Mired in financial disarray, the club has been in control of administrators since May, with its long-awaited takeover by new owners (whoever they may end up being) dragging on and on. The sad state of affairs has been punctuated by the club unable to pay its players and staff, canceled pre-season friendlies, and quite possibly the saddest team sheet in all the time I’ve been a fan of English football. As of this time, their official team page has but 7 players listed (no defenders), not even enough to field a full first team. If by the time you read this they’re able to pull their socks up and field a full team, it’ll be a miracle.
Their financial downward spiral hit breaking point in 2015 when the club found itself £172.9 million in debt. It only seemed to get worse from there. Unpaid taxes, transfer embargoes, manager changes, poor results, and most depressingly, non-playing staff having to use food bank donations to feed themselves (including donations from rival club Preston North End).
It really is hard to believe the dismal state Bolton find themselves in. I can’t imagine what it must be like for a true Wanderers fan to face the reality of their club in 2019. It’s not that the club has ever been successful (their last significant trophy was the 1958 FA Cup), but from the outside, their grit, their pluck, and their ability to seemingly escape the direst of circumstances made them endearing. They were the underdog team of has-beens, never-rans, forgotten souls, and Big Sam.
Now it seems their darkest days are closing in. Football fans surely would love for new owners to come in, reset the club, and start that long, arduous journey back into stability. But their new season hopes don’t even start on any positive note, with their financial failings they’ve already been docked 12 points before the start of the new season. Even with new owners, it will take a significant time to turn things around. The best they can hope for is to pull a Rangers and find themselves back on the up after 5 or so years… but the English Premier League is a far different beast to that of the Scottish Premier League, just ask Leeds United.
The long road back is never going to be easy. And for Bolton Wanderers, once a club that found its soul with players looking for one last spot of luck, may have run out of its own.
The Long Goodbye: A Spurs fan’s final salute to Kawhi Leonard
Am I a product of my generation? Yes, just like Kawhi and many of today’s younger generation of fans are a product of theirs.
The saga of Kawhi Leonard is over and while his signing to the Clippers means that two fanbases are left incredibly disappointed, there’s one group that is making their overdue final goodbyes. For Spurs fans like myself, it is clear that while the Board Man is a special player, he is a product of the current generation of players- loyal to themselves. It’s OK, I’ve resigned myself to moving on because I was happy that he won in Toronto, happy for everyone involved (except for Drake) because I knew that as soon as he signed for the Clippers, his legacy would no longer be built on unbreakable bonds but rather on personal pursuit alone. And that was never the trait of the silver and black. At times during this saga, I’ve felt like Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s 1973 movie The Long Goodbye, blinded by what I initially thought was loyalty. But after living through Kawhi sitting out, his demands for leaving, and ultimately, his winning a ring for the North, I’ve realized that in today’s NBA, allegiance, integrity, and trust are the exception, not the norm.
One of my earliest memories of being a Spurs fan was the ragtag group of players assembled for the 1992 season. It was early in my Spurs fandom and only two years into the storied career of David Robinson. The Admiral would become my favorite Spur, and ultimately, my favorite NBA player of all-time, but it was clear early on that he needed help. While Sean Elliott, Willie Anderson, and Avery Johnson were nice pieces, it was memories of wayward Rod Strickland passes that would ultimately encapsulate that time as an NBA fan. But the truth is, it was an important learning phase for any true NBA fan- that success comes with smart moves and dedicated, loyal, and hard working players who forever would put team above the name on the back of the jersey.
The years that followed was a mix of frustration and hope. The team gelled, especially for the 1994-1995 season where the team finished 1st in the Midwest (62-20) and David Robinson would end up capturing the league MVP after a dominant season (27 ppg, 10 reb, 3 blks). It was all awash come playoff time where vivid memories of Hakeem Olajuwon “dream shaking” The Admiral out of his shoes still haunt me to this day.
Perseverance paid off. Both for the Spurs and to fans like myself. Then general manager Gregg Popovich took on the additional responsibility of running the ship from the sideline, David Robinson was never traded, he rarely complained, and the miracle of the 1997 NBA Draft changed the fortunes of the franchise forever.
The years that followed were graced by the very best kind of basketball for basketball purists. While the league continued to flourish under the star power and glamour of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, the Spurs quietly put together championship pedigree devoid of front page drama, superstar whinging and a sense of loyalty to the city and team that has all but become extinct in today’s NBA. My generation of Spurs fans are lucky to have lived through 5 championships, but also lucky that we were able to stay true to a team that had loyalty in their DNA. We were blessed that Tim Duncan got to take the court with players Tony Parker and Manu. Both absolutely crucial to the titles and the teams, both exhibited the kind of character seemingly rare today.
Kawhi was supposed to be the next titan of the team. We saw what was possible with his captaincy and Finals MVP run for the 2014 ring. He was supposed to continue the Spurs legacy. What we got instead was an endless whinge-fest, culminating in his sitting out all but 9 games of the 2017-2018 season. The mysterious ailment that plagued him, his battle with Spurs management, his desire to “go home” to California, and his distance from other Spurs players led to so much unnecessary frustration. In March of 2018, Manu was quoted as saying; “For me, he’s not coming back because it’s not helping [to think Leonard is returning]. We fell for it a week ago again. I guess you guys made us fall for it. But we have to think that he’s not coming back, that we are who we are, and that we got to fight without him.”
It’s the kind of distraction that my 7th-grade basketball coach would have found embarrassing. Kawhi did the Spurs dirty, and while fans often project the burden of legacy on to players even when they never set out to be, it is the unfortunate fall out of being a great player- especially one that at the time, seem to fit the mold. Kawhi has now done the Raptors dirty, and if he wins a title in Clipper-land, he will most likely do them dirty too. It’s his MO, it’s his way, and really, in today’s 2K video game NBA, it’s OK because that’s just the way it goes.
Team basketball is dead, superteam basketball is now the play. Raptors fans are playing it cool, saying that the one title was more than they could have ever asked for. But really, if I was a Raptors fan I would be disappointed because Toronto seemed like such a great place for him to be. A good coach, a good front office, an adoring nation, everything he said he was unhappy with in San Antonio. If I was a Raptors fan, I would be disappointed not because the team didn’t do what the Clippers did and mortgage their future for a chance for more, but because Kawhi proved that there’s no such thing as loyalty- and that it’s OK today as long as there’s some transient success. Perhaps I have been spoiled by Spurs basketball. Spoiled by Popp’s team-first mentality where the glory of championship parades is not the end, but the next beginning. If I was a Clippers fan I would be wary. Not just because Kawhi isn’t as superhuman as we’ve all made him to be. But because the Clippers DID have to mortgage an entire future for Kawhi and Paul George to battle it out against LeBron, against AD, against an entire city that will always hold the Lakers above the Clippers. If I was a Clippers fan, I would be wary of Kawhi’s new 3-year, $103 million dollar deal (with the option to opt-out in two). Not because it means he’s positioned himself for that supermax pay off, but because potentially, he could weasel his way out of the Clippers in two years too.
Am I old and a little bitter? Maybe. I’m grateful of Kawhi’s contributions to that 2014 title- his performance during those finals, especially after the bitter disappointment of the previous year, proved that he was more than capable of being the next Spurs great. He came alive in Game 3, proved his MVP status in Games 4 and 5, and cemented what seemed like the future for the franchise. But in the end, what stands out more for me is the letdown that Kawhi just wasn’t up to par with the Spurs giants that he was supposed to follow. Am I a product of my generation? Yes, just like Kawhi and many of today’s younger generation of fans are a product of theirs.
He could have been placed next to The Iceman, The Admiral, and The Big Fundamental, instead, Kawhi becomes another in the long line of a new generation of NBA superstars beholden to no one but themselves, playing their former teams and fanbases for fools. I feel like Phillip Marlowe, manipulated, trust broken, hearing Kawhi telling me that “maybe I’ll never learn, maybe I’m a born loser”. Maybe he’s right, maybe I’m just waiting for my harmonica moment. It’s the way things go today.