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Nick Riewoldt and the AFL's lost boys

Nick Riewoldt told the AFL only one in four of his teammates had found satisfaction in retirement.

Nick Riewoldt told the AFL only one in four of his teammates had found satisfaction in retirement. Photo: Getty Images

At the start of 2013, St Kilda captain Nick Riewoldt sat down alongside his fellow AFL team leaders and chose not to waste his opportunity over lunch with the game’s governing body – its commissioners and its executive.

Riewoldt spoke of his disappointment at the abuse that came the way of his teammates from spectators. Several other captains agreed with him that inappropriate crowd vilification should no longer be tolerated and the result of the discussion saw a player-led scoreboard campaign launched by AFL football boss Mark Evans.

One year later, in Adelaide last month, Riewoldt chose the same forum – lunch with the AFL Commission – to explore a deeper, more disturbing problem: life after football.

His anecdotal evidence was alarming. In his time at St Kilda, said Riewoldt, one in four of his teammates had truly found satisfaction in retirement. Too many had failed to find adequate employment and too many had turned to the first offer that came their way - often to their peril.

The Saints skipper did not name names but he urged the AFL bosses to be more vigilant in prioritising player welfare, development and education. Riewoldt was not alone in his concerns, but several other captains – Matthew Pavlich and Luke Hodge to name two –  felt their clubs had worked harder to ensure such problems did not fester in the manner they had at St Kilda.

Gold Coast’s Gary Ablett was also vocal and pushed for a new educational model tailoring specifically to players in their first, second and third years. The discussion ran for more than one hour and it became clear that most clubs could continue to improve their programs while a smaller number still had some work to do.

The AFL and the AFL Players Association have taken Riewoldt’s comments and Ablett’s recommendations on board and have admitted to Fairfax Media that further restructuring around the closeted lifestyles of so many  footballers remains a priority.

Too many clubs continued for too long to pay lip service to a mantra that insisted that developing well-rounded young men should be a key platform of a successful team. St Kilda stands out as a club that had more success than any other over a decade without a flag and yet failed dismally at welfare and off-field development.

The chief executive-elect Matt Finnis witnessed as much in his role as the AFLPA boss and clearly cannot start his new job soon enough. Both Finnis and the Saints’ relatively new head of football Chris Pelchen pointed to the appointment of Tony Brown at the end of 2012 as the club’s first truly respected player welfare boss, whom they insist has already instigated change.

But the fallout from years of neglect continues to cast shadows. Recently retired Stephen Milne has struggled with life after football for obvious reasons as he awaits his court case over four rape charges, no longer shielded by the routine of his old life.

Justin Koschitzke fretted about his impending departure from the AFL during his last season and while he has taken on a number of new roles in retirement the club has been concerned enough to bring him back to Seaford one day a week in a marketing role.

Ahmed Saad remains a source of major concern for the Saints. Those close to Saad have become disenchanted that he has become an individual isolated from the football community, banned from all organised sport, from entering the Linen House Centre and in fact from any off-field role except for unpaid anti-drug training and counselling.

His dumping from his AFL multicultural ambassadorship caused some division at every level of the game, with Saad supporters frustrated that his potential in the dual fields of drug education and racial vilification has been removed.

Saad has had minimal recent contact with the players’ association and only speaks occasionally with the Saints’ aforementioned Tony Brown. Saad’s only constant support from any level of officialdom has been the AFL’s multicultural staffer Ali Fahour.

Having made what appears to have been a genuine, if sloppy, mistake in taking a banned match-day substance, Saad remains unsure whether his ban will stretch beyond 18 months, nor when he can defend ASADA’s appeal to extend that ban. That his transgression took place in a year in which the club’s football operation was divided and also sloppy at times must prove a source of great discomfort to St Kilda.

Pelchen, who came on board late in 2011, conceded the club’s track record in the past had been poor and he spoke with great regret at the handling of some past players, notably Jarryd Allen, the tall forward who damaged his hip in the Saints’ 2008 semi-final victory against Collingwood.

Ultimately forced to retire after three unsuccessful operations, the would-be landscape gardener, now boasting an aluminium hip, was forced to chase St Kilda to pay his medical bills and ultimately covered the cost of some rehabilitation when the effort of pushing the Saints to fulfil their obligations to him wore him down emotionally. The club now seems rightfully ashamed of the thousands of dollars the once-promising Allen lost when his employer refused to pay.

St Kilda opens its 2014 campaign against Melbourne with a new coach, a new chief executive and a new president backed by a new five-year plan. No one is attempting any more to hide the fact that this is a long-term rebuild. But nor should the club turn its back on its lost boys.

Having been the leader of a generation of St Kilda footballers - some of whom spent years in a bubble - who came tantalisingly close to a premiership but ultimately lost, it is heartening that Nick Riewoldt has moved to influence the competition to better care for its players. And by extension the Saints take some responsibility for a lost generation of young men away from the game.

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