Ross Lyon at St Kilda's team photo day on February 6, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

CUDDLY Ross will return in 2024.

The man himself says so, convinced that the persona which accompanied his loudly trumpeted return to coaching last year made him, and his club, better.

"I've committed to being the same," Ross Lyon told as he outlined the final phases of preparations for his second season of his second stint as St Kilda coach.


"I had to remind myself … I'd come in (last year) and was really public and collaborative about the Cuddly Ross, and I really wanted to enjoy it. I embraced it, had a commensurate amount of doughnuts to make sure I was cuddly, too."

For Lyon, being different to his previous coaching stints at St Kilda (2007-11) and Fremantle (2012-19) became empowering. It balanced him.

"I was less manic, I wasn't trying to do all the pillars, and I could build better relationships and culturally drive it all," he said. "So for me, I have recommitted to make sure, even as expectation increases, which I feel from everyone, to the same model of engagement and balance and consistency and approach."

Callum Wilkie and Ross Lyon after St Kilda's clash with Sydney in round 13, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

St Kilda was one of the AFL success stories of 2023. It won its first four matches, weathered a messy one-win-four-loss stretch in rounds 14-18, endured injuries to key players, and was competitive in an elimination final against a team which ultimately fell one point short of reaching a Grand Final. The gameplan stood up against all tests.

Crucially, several young players flourished. Mitch Owens and Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera finished top-five in the best-and-fairest. Mattaes Phillipou played a full quota of 24 matches as an 18-year-old. Anthony Caminiti went from being an engineering student not even on a club list to being a mainstay in the forward line. Marcus Windhager showed maturity beyond his two-season career.

Additions from the 2023 AFL Draft are already sources of excitement for Lyon. Darcy Wilson's off-season suggests he will be the 2024 Phillipou. Hugo Garcia, Lance Collard and Arie Schoenmaker will be given opportunities.

The addition of Liam Henry from Fremantle is an X-factor addition, while the exits of Jade Gresham (to Essendon), Jack Billings (Melbourne) and Nick Coffield (Western Bulldogs) were in keeping with a list management strategy focusing on access to young talent in national drafts.

There is no ceiling being placed on St Kilda expectations in 2024.

"Where we were at all year, with the coaches and list management, was we would talk that there is the now, but that we wanted to build a list that has the capability to sustain and have a crack at a flag," Lyon said.

"There were some hard decisions made, particularly for me because we had good servants and senior players that for a variety of reasons we had to let go in order to get our batch for this year.

"Think we will go the next draft as well, then attack free agency. We feel we are in good shape."

Asked if St Kilda in 2024 could do a Collingwood of 2023, Lyon said: "I think anyone could do a Collingwood, a lot of us could have a good year, but it wouldn't need too much to go wrong …"

Full-forward Max King's 2023 season was marred by shoulder injuries. But he still managed 28 goals, including three in the elimination final, from 11 matches. Fellow forward Tim Membrey played just seven matches because of a troublesome knee, and was a late withdrawal on the morning of the final due to mental health.

Captain Jack Steele was banged-up generally and also missed three matches with a damaged collarbone.

Steele recently made public comments that under Lyon's coaching, he felt the need to re-prove his credentials.

Ross Lyon and Jack Steele before St Kilda's elimination final against Greater Western Sydney at the MCG on September 9, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

"I loved that," Lyon said. "Why do I love it? Because it talked to his quality. It applies to everybody. The platitudes don't last long and at this level you're only as good as your next training session and performance.

"Geelong was dominant in 2022, won the Grand Final easily, but the competition tells you if you slip a bit or lose a few … no one would have said on Grand Final day of 2022 that they wouldn't play finals the next year. It is a brutal national competition, no one can rest on laurels – me, you, and your captain – you start at the top.

"I demand more of my leaders because that is their role. I liked it, I liked his reflection. I liked that he enjoyed being held to a higher standard, and I would imagine if you're a St Kilda supporter, you go, 'Well, Ross isn't playing favourites, and the match committee isn't playing favourites' … it is not a bad spot to be."

The new cuddly outlook and approach may have positively changed Lyon, but as he is about to enter a 15th AFL season in charge of a club, it hasn't diminished the killer instinct he has always drawn on in 329 matches.

"I am looking forward to it," Lyon said. "The joy now is in the uncomfortability and the stress that comes with it, otherwise life is pretty humdrum.

"It is a privilege. I want to build the Saints. A lot of people have made a lot of sacrifices for this club, but there have been a lot of missteps. You inch forward. We feel we have never been in a better position, on and off field, to continue to build."

X: @barrettdamian