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St Kilda must learn from the past

The "lack of corporate governance" that has troubled the St Kilda Football Club in the past was once again on display this week, says chief football writer Caroline Wilson.

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SELDOM has a more meaningless game contained more meaning. By dint of tumultous happenings at both clubs, St Kilda v Melbourne has been transformed from a complete irrelevance befitting 16th v 17th to the most closely watched game of the round.

Five days ago, the broadcasters would have groaned at the 4.40pm Saturday slot that pitted a terrible Melbourne with a mediocre St Kilda. But, in the space of two days - when a coach sacking was followed by a rape charge against a prominent, polarising player - this became more than a game. It turned into a test of each club, its players, a new older coach and an established younger one and even the fans.

A game about nothing, in Seinfeld-speak, became one that carried a depth of human drama. The sideshow is the show.

Caretaker coach Neil Craig takes charge of Melbourne training this week.

Caretaker coach Neil Craig takes charge of Melbourne training this week. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

Mark Neeld's dismissal means that we will see a different Melbourne; we don't yet know if the Demons will be much better, if their spirits will be elevated, their attack on the ball and tackling stronger, their confidence bolstered. It will be fascinating to watch how individuals respond.

It's possible that they will play with a slightly different method, although the recent experience of mid-year coaching changes suggests that teams have insufficient time to make major adjustments to their game styles. But they will vary in some way, simply because the caretaker coach Neil Craig has a difference voice to Neeld.

As Melbourne's football operations manager Josh Mahoney explained, the players will receive a similar message from Craig, but there will be a "different delivery" of it, since Craig has his own personality and way of communicating. Mahoney said Craig had told the players "let's be positive about what we can get out of the last 11 weeks."

Stephen Milne.

St Kilda's Stephen Milne. Photo: Pat Scala

If there is a template for Melbourne's situation this week - the sacking of a coach is football's ritual human sacrifice - then the circumstances the Saints confronted were unusual and difficult, even for a club that seen has highly unconventional human dramas in recent years. On Sunday, they were preparing for a game against a hapless opponent. On Monday, they were preparing for an opponent with a new coach. But by Tuesday afternoon, the Saints were dealing with their own demons.

St Kilda's senior players have been a resilient lot, and it was not altogether surprisingly that Nick Riewoldt and Nick Dal Santo would want Milne to play alongside them in their 250th games, or that the Saints players would back Milne, who, unlike Andrew Lovett (eventually cleared of a rape charge) was well known to them. The players' defence of Milne's interests was a forceful counterweight to the socio/political/commercial forces that have prompted the club to put Milne in an "indefinite" limbo that will likely stretch for three or four games.

The AFL itself did not find it easy to form a definite view on Milne, since the rights of the accused and the alleged victim both had to be calibrated - with the reputational damage.

Had Milne played, the match would have an even greater sideshow and focus. But even without him, we wonder how the Saints will respond - whether they will be galvanised on his behalf, if they'll be distracted, angry, or simply down on goal power?

St Kilda football manager Greg Hutchison said Milne situation "hasn't impacted on any training or anything they've done. The schedule's remained exactly as they've done." That's aside from a couple of meetings involving team leaders.

The mindset of the players is one of those imponderables and, in this game, the Saints also bring three milestones to the table - the 250ths of the two Nicks, plus Sean Dempster's 150th. "They're significant players in our football club," said Hutchison.

Practically speaking, if a week such as St Kilda's would impact on anyone, it is the senior coach, Scott Watters, who has been forced to invest significant time, thought and stress in Milne. The assistant coaches don't bear much of that burden.

The Saints have to wonder how Craig will coach the Dees, too. What they know is that Craig is an experienced coach, not a novice, and that he should be measured and organised. They would also recognise that the Demons can't be radically reconstructed in five days.

Yet the Saints couldn't keep their eyes on the red and blue this week, any more than the Demons would be thinking much about the St Kilda's traumas. Each team can only attempt what footy's reality TV dimensions have made harder for all parties - to focus on the game itself.