THE football world was shocked at the end of last season, when Ross Lyon and the Fremantle Football Club announced that they would be joining forces. The scene I will never forget was St Kilda chief executive Michael Nettlefold on the night of the announcement. Alone in his office, pacing the floor with mobile phone stuck to his ear, you could tell he was anxious, agitated and about to switch into damage control.
All of a sudden the Saints were in crisis. Their coach of five seasons, who had taken them to three grand finals and enjoyed a success rate of 63 per cent along the way, had suddenly walked out the door.
Now nine months on, the Saints are looking good. Nettlefold realised that Lyon's departure gave the club an opportunity to breathe fresh life into a team that had given its all, but had come up tantalisingly short in achieving the much-cherished flag.
Emotionally, their players were largely spent, with on-field disappointment and too much off-field controversy. Maybe a new coach, a new voice, a new direction was needed.
The Geelong experience 12 months earlier had to give St Kilda confidence that good could come from perceived bad. At Geelong, not only did a dual premiership coach walk out, but so too did its supposed best player, Gary Ablett. The Cats got to work to find themselves a terrific young coach and a satisfying third flag in five years came their way.
So the Saints followed suit. They did extensive research followed by thorough interviewing and came up with Scott Watters. It seems they have chosen well.
Watters' first task was to give his new players a dose of ''TLC''. Confidence was instilled into fragile and confused players. Getting the experienced Dean Laidley on board to support Watters was also a good move.
But, as with Geelong, the resolve of the senior players shouldn't be underestimated. Matthew Scarlett, Cameron Ling, Jimmy Bartel, Paul Chapman and co are proud men. They would have been desperate to prove last year that football is all about team, and not two individuals - no matter how outstanding their credentials. I sense that Nick Riewoldt, Lenny Hayes, Justin Koschitzke, Sam Fisher and Leigh Montagna feel the same. As much as they respected Ross Lyon, they are determined to prove they are not a one-man band, and that it's the collective whole that really counts.
So the Saints sit 6-5 as they take on the Crows in Adelaide tonight. They are due to lose if their pattern over the past 10 weeks of win one, lose one continues.
But for narrow losses to Port Adelaide and Richmond, this team could be sitting 8-3 and eyeing off a top-four finish. The Saints, believe it or not, at the end of round 11 are the second-highest scoring team this season. Only Hawthorn has kicked more goals, and that's only by two.
Last year, St Kilda was ranked 12th for scoring, averaging 84 points a game. Now it is averaging 106. St Kilda supporters will be delighted that the team is scoring more, and this increase in attacking is not adversely affecting their defence. A strength of the Saints under Lyon was that they were hard to score against. Last year's average score against was 76 points. This year it's 85.
A problem for the Saints last year was that they lacked a spread of goalkickers. Only three players (Stephen Milne, Riewoldt and Adam Schneider) kicked more than 20 goals for the season. Compare that to Geelong and Collingwood (nine), Essendon (eight) and West Coast (seven). There's no doubt the new coach has encouraged his players to move the ball quickly and kick long into the forward line.
Watters witnessed at Collingwood the structure of always having at least two and often three talls (Travis Cloke, Chris Dawes and Leigh Brown) playing in and around the forward 50 arc. This season Riewoldt and Koschitzke are playing much closer to goal. Both are now in the top seven for contested marks and between them have slotted 50 goals.
By kicking long to the talls there will be a lot of crumbs. Speedsters in Terry Milera and Ahmed Saad have been drafted in to help Milne take advantage of this situation. The two new boys are on track for 20+ goal seasons, while the veteran is looking for another 50-goal haul. On top of that, goals are also coming from midfielders, something the Saints have missed for too long. Nick Dal Santo, David Armitage and Jack Steven are averaging almost a goal per game.
For too long there was an unhealthy reliance on Riewoldt and Milne to kick the bulk of the goals. Now more goals are being kicked by more players, and the return of Schneider in the second half of the season will make the forward line even more potent.
And what emphasis do you place on Hayes' return to the team? Last year, he played just two games. Now he is back better than ever. It's no surprise he leads with disposals, clearances, tackles, hard ball gets and contested possessions. He is a unique player who lifts the spirits of all who play alongside him and inspires fans.
In Hayes' time at the club, 20 CEOs, presidents, captains and coaches have come and gone. You get the feeling he will be remembered and revered above them all.