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Strength through loyalty

Ashley Browne  May 2, 2013 8:17 AM

22175-tlsnewsportrait.jpg

Stan Alves in 1996 talks to the team during a clash with the Roos

ST KILDA has always been known as a team with a large following among the showbiz set, which is fitting for a club that has been involved in more than a few footy soap operas over the journey.

And the coaches at St Kilda, or more to the point, the removal of coaches at St Kilda has been the cause of so much of the drama that has taken place at the club over the years.

People in football like to say they have moved on after their messy departures, but the beauty of Strength Through Loyalty, a new history of the Saints from 1965 to the present written by Russell Holmesby, which has been published this week, is the candor with which those involved in some of the tumultuous coaching changes spoke.

Four of the biggest coaching changes in recent times have involved the Saints. All were shocking at the time. 

Stan Alves was sacked in 1998, only 12 months after taking the club to its first Grand Final in 26 years. Malcolm Blight lasted a mere 15 games in 2001. Grant Thomas was the towering force at the club at the end of 2006 when the board moved swiftly to pull the rug from under him, while the Saints were finalising arrangements at the end of 2011 to announce Ross Lyon's contract extension when he instead abruptly departed for Fremantle.

Alves wrote a book of his own following his departure from the Saints, but the picture painted by Holmesby in his book is of the growing disenchantment among the leadership group with some of Alves' methods.

But the book dispels the popular myth that they called for his resignation. It takes much to rile the amiable Robert Harvey, but he bristles at suggestions that he, Nathan Burke and Stewart Loewe pulled the trigger, although Burke is very outspoken about the last few weeks of the Alves era.

"Stan went stupid really," he says.

It was president Andrew Plympton who sniffed the wind, and after Melbourne beat the Saints in a semi-final he gave his chief executive one week to complete a review. It was soon established that Alves was no longer at his best on match days.

The boozy Gold Coast dinner that convinced a reluctant Blight to sign on with the Saints in the first place is recounted in great detail through the words of those who were there.

Blight has only opened up about his sacking in a couple of media interviews ever since, but according to president of the time Rod Butterss, his "intuitive" approach to coaching no longer worked in a field where data and analytics had quickly started to take hold.

The book also dispels the myth that Grant Thomas agitated for Blight's removal because he coveted the job himself. But it also explains how quickly Thomas ingrained himself with all aspects of the club's football operations once he was installed as coach after Blight's sacking, to the point where he was negotiating player contracts.

A board meeting that lasted until 3am after the 2006 season marked the beginning of the end for Thomas. It was well recognized by then that Thomas had ambitions to become chief executive of the club. Burke commented that he had designs on being CEO and the coach and would have done so with the backing of the club's younger players who he said Thomas had a "guru effect" over.

The final straw might have been an overseas training camp that Thomas had arranged without permission from the board and which hadn't been included in the club's financial budgets. It was a sure sign that divisions had emerged within the club that needed to be addressed.

The magnitude of Lyon's stunning defection to Fremantle at the end of 2011 ensured that every aspect was discussed and debated for days and weeks afterwards.

The interesting revelation Holmesby writes about is that chief executive Michael Nettlefold says Lyon's behavior over the last weeks in 2011 had been "quite unusual".

Most notable was his surprise announcement of the retirements of Steven Baker, Robert Eddy and Michael Gardiner less than half an hour after the club lost the 2011 elimination final to the Sydney Swans. "Baker and Eddy were unaware they were 'retiring,'" wrote Holmesby.

"That night was quite bizarre," said Nettlefold.

And just like so many of the events over the years St Kilda. 

But thankfully in a time when football clubs traditionally close their doors at the first hint of bad news, Holmesby has prised them back open again and provided welcome context and background to some of the most tumultuous events at St Kilda.

Strength Through Loyalty: Saints at Moorabbin and Beyond is available for $49.95 through the St Kilda Football Club.

Ashley Browne is an AFL Media senior writer. @afl_hashbrowne