The Saints' troubled home life
Tale of two homes: Justin Koschitzke (left) and Nick Riewoldt at a St Kilda training session at Seaford. Photo: Paul Rovere
IT REMAINS one of the most fateful days in St Kilda's 115-year history, but it is five years since the Saints' former boss, Archie Fraser, stormed out of a marathon session with the City of Kingston and declared: ''We're gone, we're out of here.''
Fraser was talking about deserting Moorabbin, the club's home since 1965 and the heart of the St Kilda Football Club - a heart which continues to beat with a melancholy rhythm. As it does so, the team and those around it attempt to make the best of one of the game's more unfathomable decisions in recent history.
That decision was the move by the club to give up on Moorabbin and move to a satellite venue at Seaford, the reconstructed Belvedere Park. It was a decision dreaded by players, coaches and staff alike, and a move which now - almost 18 months since it took place - remains a regretful and occasionally bitter talking point among all at the Saints.
For many Saints, Moorabbin is still the preferred home. Photo: Wayne Taylor
Even the AFL privately believes more could have been done to save Moorabbin and reach a deal with the local council to push ahead with what was then a proposed $10.5 million upgrade, which fell apart over a bureaucratic stumbling block involving 80 poker machines.
The league is well aware that the players have not completely embraced their new home and also concedes that the club has already begun to outgrow what Fraser promised would prove a ''world-class facility''.
The Saints administration has already more than filled its new offices and the club's high-performance trainers remain concerned at the long hours footballers spend each week driving to and from the venue - for many players, closer to two hours than one hour each day.
1965: Workmen in the foreground screw down seats in the grandstand as the players do their warm-up lap.
Quite apart from the more trivial concerns regarding the geographic reality of a headquarters boasting no neighbouring infrastructure and situated by the side of a freeway, the Linen House Centre boasts no lap pool and no theatrette and already sits well behind the AFL's best practices in terms of training facilities.
And now the club is very quietly but firmly eyeing a return to its former home. While there is no suggestion the Saints will leave Seaford - where it holds a 25-year lease with an option of a further 25 years - the hope is that a push combined with AFL Victoria to create a centre of excellence around the still-pristine Moorabbin Oval will lead to the footballers spending half their weekly training hours back at Linton Street.
The City of Kingston's chief executive, John Nevins, confirmed this week that he had held a series of talks with St Kilda chief executive Michael Nettlefold and the club's general manager of new business Anthony Moore with a view to putting Moorabbin as a community football hub back on the map.
''If St Kilda is keen to continue using Moorabbin, we'd be very keen to look at that,'' Nevins told The Saturday Age, pointing out the Saints still held 28 years on their lease with Moorabbin. ''It is on the drawing board. They have a very strong local supporter base and the people of Kingston remain very proud of their relationship with St Kilda.
''St Kilda has been here since the early 1960s and they remain very much a part of this community and the people in it.''
Nevins confirmed ''a shared interest'' with the Saints in opening Linton Street up for community use, as well as creating a community football hub to be used by the Sandringham Dragons, the Southern Football League and the 430-team South Metro Junior Football League.
Fraser, who quit the Saints in 2009 for an ill-fated move to run the A-League, claimed this week that the move to Seaford involved an agreement with the City of Frankston that remains the envy of many other clubs. But the pull towards Moorabbin remains magnetic.
And the falling out with the council five years ago appears another classic case with which St Kilda's history is littered - the story of a conflict between personalities getting in the way of the big picture.
St Kilda still trains at its old home at least once a month - significantly more over the pre-season - despite the absence of changing rooms, which were demolished when the grandstand was pulled down. The players also still enjoy the use of the old gymnasium and a recent members' day at Linton Street attracted more than 1000 fans.
Whether the Saints move towards a stand-alone reserves team, the club remains keen for either a St Kilda VFL side or Sandringham - to which the club remains wedded until the end of 2013 - to train in future at Moorabbin under the AFL Victoria model, which involves a push to create centres of excellence in both rural and metropolitan communities.
No one at St Kilda would publicly criticise Seaford this week and certainly no one wants to offend the City of Frankston, which contributed close to $4 million to the Linen House Centre - a facility which was to have been based at Frankston Oval before building restrictions led to the project budget blowing out by more than $5 million.
But the club's newly restructured football department has worked to alleviate the players' various logistical issues with their new home. The recently renegotiated collective bargaining agreement, which demanded one full day off for players, means that during the season the team must travel to the Linen House Centre only four days each week at a maximum - not five.
While it is true the players now enjoy significantly better facilities than previously, the big question that remains is whether all this heartache could have been prevented.
Not according to Fraser. The major thorn in the club's side in 2007 was Kingston councillor Greg Alabaster, who some at the Saints believed harboured a green agenda which included ejecting the club from Moorabbin altogether.
Certainly, Alabaster, no longer a councillor at Kingston, criticised in a submission to the Victorian government a failure by bureaucracy to recognise the importance of public land. ''The state government needs to act now to … recognise and protect our existing public land and open spaces.''
The view of the Saints administration at the time was that Alabaster led a refusal to approve the relocation of St Kilda's poker machines to a proposed boutique social club nearby on South Road - leaving that politically sensitive decision to the Victorian government.
''Had we gone ahead and built that facility, we would have gone broke,'' Fraser said this week. ''We would have gone into debt and been caught in the middle of a conflict over poker machines between the Victorian and Kingston local governments. It was a business model which would have flattened us.
''We were not in a position to take on that battle. We didn't even have the money to knock the stand down, and our directors were unable to start a foundation to raise private money.''
Fraser pointed out that the Saints cut a deal with the City of Frankston, under which it is charged a relative pittance - $30,000 a year - for the upgrade of the Seaford facility, compared with an annual $450,000 at Moorabbin. He also stressed the future value of the Mornington Peninsula in terms of supporter growth.
''In 20 years' time, people will say it was an inspired decision,'' he said.
But there is a view at St Kilda now - one shared by the AFL - that the club could have exerted more patience and persistence in making the Moorabbin upgrade work.
In the words of St Kilda premiership player and 300-gamer Barry Breen at the time of the move: ''It was sad that the club and the council couldn't come to grips with what each other wanted and set up a whole precinct there from South Road to the oval as a community centre.''
Said Nevins: ''They made their decision and we all just have to move forward from there.'' However, he described the current proposals to reinvigorate Moorabbin as ''an exciting prospect''.
It is true that while the club complains it struggles to attract football media to Seaford and the new Linen House Centre has disenfranchised Saints fans, the move towards satellite facilities is a worldwide trend embraced successfully by European soccer.
Essendon will soon leave Windy Hill for Tullamarine and even West Coast has not ruled out setting up a new home away from its Subiaco roots should the club and the West Australian Football Commission fail to come to terms over a redevelopment.
Tell that to St Kilda supporters who feel they have lost touch with their club - a club which has long boasted a unique relationship with its fans and its heartland. And tell that to the players and coaches trying to make the best of a relatively soulless facility while significantly closer to home sits one of the best football ovals in the state, surrounded by enough land to have built an indoor training venue comparable to the Westpac Centre.