Can Brett Ratten Inspire a St Kilda Resurrection?
This time last year, the St Kilda Football Club was 5-5 and outside 'The Eight' by percentage only.
What followed was their infamous 'Shanghai Slaughter’ which set in motion yet another regime change at Moorabbin.
While they snuck past the Gold Coast Suns by just 4 points upon their return to Australia, they lost their next four games by an average of seven goals, with their Round 17 loss to the Geelong at Kardinia Park signalling the end of Alan Richardson’s 6-season reign as coach.
Though the elevation of senior assistant Brett Ratten wasn’t enough for the Saints to end their 8-year AFL Finals exodus, the Saints hierarchy were suitably impressed with the team’s progress, installing him as full-time head coach at the end of the season.
And so - for a club with a famous 27:1 Wooden Spoon to Premiership ratio (and one without a single September win in ten years) - just how far off genuine contention are the Saints?
At first glance, the St Kilda list doesn’t exactly jump off the page to command your respect.
According to Stats Insider’s Player Ratings, they have just two Top-100 rated players - Jade Greshamand Seb Ross - which is the lowest representation in the league. In addition, this is a list with an average of just 6.4 career Brownlow Medal votes per player, a number which places them 17th in the competition.
Yet what you see, isn’t always what you get.
St Kilda have actually moulded together quite an intriguing squad, largely through a pronounced aggression at the trade table, and one that it if can quickly coalesce, has the potential to be a genuine competition dark horse.
Scattered throughout the Saints' optimal line-up are players who have been head-hunted from other clubs.
At the back, Dougal Howard and Jake Carlisle are more than capable of holding their own. Up forward, former Swan, Tim Membrey, has led the Saints' goalkicking in three of the past four seasons since arriving at Moorabbin, while 2017 All-Australian ruckman Paddy Ryder has been recruited to add size and experience to the ruck department.
It's in the midfield, however, where the Saints have done most of their intense wheeling and dealing.
Former Giant, Jack Steele, has been a revelation since arriving in 2017. Dan Hannebery - at his best and when fit - is one of the game’s elite inside midfielders, while his former Sydney teammate, Zak Jones, still has plenty to offer at senior level.
Yet it’s the recruitment of Bradley Hill which threatens to truly ignite St Kilda’s prospects in 2020 and beyond. The Saints effectively traded themselves out of the 2019 draft to secure his signature, with the former Hawthorn premiership winner and Fremantle star wingman offering a potent mix of everything lacking at the bayside club in recent years - principally, pace and penetration.
St Kilda have had to get fancy at the trade table, as, unlike many other clubs, the nucleus of their team has not been cultivated through the draft.
While their hard-working recruiting team has done an exceptional job unearthing talent in later rounds and through the Rookie Draft - think Rowan Marshall, Josh Battle and Matthew Parker - the club’s record in the early rounds hasn't been spectacular.
Speaking of first round picks, is there a single player on the St Kilda list more intriguing than Max King?
While the 2018 #4 overall pick finally debuted in Round 1, helping himself to a couple of goals, his selection at the time was roundly criticised due his extensive injury history, coupled with the availability of Connor Rozee - who’s already on the brink of becoming a star at Port Adelaide.
If King is, however, able to get himself fit - and, if he can begin stamping his authority on games - then this young, raw talent really could hold the key to a genuine St Kilda resurgence.
Brett Ratten has only been at Moorabbin for a little over 18 months, with less than nine as head coach, yet he’s rapidly emerged as the heart and soul of the club.
As a decorated player and coach at Carlton, through to his wildly successful years as Alistair Clarkson’s right-hand man at Hawthorn, Ratten has been at the forefront of the game’s evolution.
In addition, heartbreaking circumstances off the field seem to have engendered a heightened sense of empathy, which comes through each time he speaks publicly.
And, it’s his passionate, generous and enthusiastic personality which masks a bright tactician, whom the Saints appear incredibly fortunate to have leading their club.
While Ratten’s previous experience as an AFL head coach was cut short, his tenure at Carlton was criminally under-appreciated.
Not only did he take the Blues to Final's campaigns in three of his five seasons at Princes Park, but he secured double digit wins each year, overseeing a dramatic tactical transition at the club which was to have a profound affect across the entire league.
When 2-time Coleman medalist Brendan Fevola left the Blues at the end of 2009, Ratten and his coaching team had to come up with alternative routes to goal.
What they conjured was really quite remarkable.
In 2011, the Blues spent 18 weeks ensconced in the top-4, largely off the back of it’s famous ‘mosquito fleet’ led by Andrew Walker, Eddie Betts and Jeff Garlett - a trio which combined for 154 goals - utilising one the of the smallest forward set-ups the game had ever seen.
At Carlton, Ratten was courageous enough to try something radical, and its success should embolden him to keep pushing the envelope of innovation at St Kilda.
Incredibly, he was moved along just 12 months later, as the Blues couldn’t resist the lure of legendary coach, Mick Malthouse. It was a move which continues to haunt the Blues, and one that surely constitutes one of the most baffling of the last few decades.
While it’s taken eight long years for 'Ratts' to finally secure another shot at being a head coach, the Saints would be only too conscious of how fortunate they are to have his services.
They say you have to crawl before you can run, which is an adage St Kilda would be all too aware of, insofar as adding a second AFL Premiership to the barren trophy cabinet down the Nepean Highway.
So many recent premiers have had to endure long September apprenticeships before breaking through, with the brilliant Damien Hardwick requiring eight years to even win a single game in September, let alone a premiership.
Yet the Saints will know there are exceptions to every rule, and could look to the Western Bulldogs as inspiration.
Like St Kilda, the Bulldogs were a struggling club prior to their late 2014 revolution, and one weighed down by a hardworking, albeit conservative coach.
After sacking Brendan McCartney and replacing him with Luke Beveridge, they immediately found themselves in a Finals campaign, and, 12 months later, broke their 62-year premiership drought.
Like the 2016 Bulldogs, this Saints list isn’t without pedigree or experience, and if re-configured - and with a tactical edge in the coaching box - there’s no reason why the Saints can’t make a surge up the ladder.
If 2020 has taught us one thing, it’s simply that anything is possible.
So much of the hard work, whether in cobbling together a strong list or identifying their ideal coach, has already been done.
It’s now time to start winning games of football consistently, and putting smiles back on the faces on one of the league’s most loyal and passionate fanbases.
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