The story goes that Brendon Goddard cried when back in 2002 he heard he was off to St Kilda. Apparently, too, his mother rang the St Kilda CEO and begged the Saints to let her boy go to Carlton, the club he’d been eyeing since way back when, his childhood love.
But the Blues had lost its right to the number one draft pick for systematically rorting the salary cap in the years prior. The AFL had changed the rules to punish them. By default, St Kilda jumped the queue. So as Goddard sobbed and his mother pleaded, the Saints licked their lips. In 2001 they’d snagged Luke Ball, Nick Dal Santo, Matt Maguire, Xavier Clarke and Leigh Montagna in the so-called ‘super draft’. The year before they’d nabbed the best number one draft pick in years, a key position freak named Nick Riewoldt. Now they’d snared an esteemed utility who could win his own ball, play tall or small and kick the bloody thing like a mule. For once in it’s dismal recent existence, St Kilda’s future was secure.
I remember little of Goddard’s first year beyond the rather impatient and underwhelmed mutterings of twitchy loyalists in the outer awaiting a golden egg to hatch. But I do recall one game. It was late in the season and played in long afternoon shadows at Princes Park. The Saints’ new youthful vim was finding a rhythm, the ‘measurables’ and ‘processes’ demanded of it by its dare-to-be-different coach, Grant Thomas, finally leaping off the whiteboard and making sense out on the turf. Conversely, their opponent, Carlton – hitherto Goddard’s first choice – had lost their way entirely. The Saints flogged the Blues that day. I think Fraser Gehrig kicked nine as the Saints showed off that rampant devil-may-care style that would carry them to the brink in 2004 and again in 2005. And in amongst the mayhem stood an impossibly young frame belonging to our boy Brendon. A 17-touch game. A modest return, really. But that flying mark on a wing. The perfect arc of those raking right foot punts. Those targets hit. Such polished beginnings.
Over the next decade, Goddard would become the epitome of the Saintly cause. Together with fearless skipper Riewoldt and the endearingly brave Lenny Hayes, Goddard was one of a triumvirate of red, white and black spiritual leaders champing at the bit to win. Brow furrowed with intense passion, by his own example he’d demand plenty. He’d thump the St Kilda crest with a clenched fist and bellow like William Wallace when he kicked a goal. Three times during 2009 and 2010 he rallied his troops on Grand Final day. Three times he was all but the Saints’ best. Three times the Saints fell short – twice agonisingly so. But not even one of the game’s greatest ever high marks was enough to let his Saints take a much deserved Premiership. Perhaps all this was salt in a creeping wound. In the end the whole ordeal rendered him a kind of ghostly, craggy presence. Goddard’s recent years have been solid enough, but the colour from his game has faded. Even if his average is better than the efforts of most, a lethargy has crept in. The all-over rover of yesteryear now specialised as a playmaking quarterback, a function reserved for a spare man in defence, a player without an opponent, a man alone within the team. Eventually, this game can drain you of life. They say that if you go without food for long enough, somehow you lose the will to eat.
And so now, a decade after it all began – perhaps inevitably in hindsight – Goddard’s time as a Saint comes to an end.
Not just a little ironically it’s a rule change that sees him leave.
Free Agency – a new system that affords long serving out-of-contract players an opportunity to jump ship before they are either pushed or under-appreciated – is the culprit.
Goddard is 27. St Kilda could afford to keep him until he was 30. The Saints made an offer in keeping with Goddard’s recent form line, the figure ‘not insignificant’, a figure reflective of his place in the current St Kilda pecking order.
Essendon, with a middling contemporary history and a squad bereft of a spread of stars had room in its salary cap to make a much grander bid.
They did so to the tune of as much as $300,000 a season over four years, one year and a bucketload beyond what the Saints could hobble together, the equivalent of an unencumbered inner city Melbourne terrace over the full term of the deal. Forget this ‘one-club player, unfinished business’ bullshit. With his name on a dotted line, Goddard was instantly superannuated and some. The choice, for him, was simple. He autographed in the right places then promptly jumped on a plane to the USA ‘for a holiday’ and away from the public glare – a far cry from the badge-beating tyro who so courageously carried his share of St Kilda’s hopes for so long.
Commentators pondered the wisdom of Essendon spending so much on a player two seasons post his peak. Others argued a change would see the fire return to Goddard’s game. Some raised an eyebrow at the ethics attached to an Essendon Board-member’s deal-sweetening offer of a job. Most however moved quickly onto which trade would likely to draw headlines strong enough to encroach upon the start the A-League, domestic cricket and Spring Carnival Racing seasons.
Among St Kilda people, reactions swung from the furious to the philosophical. But for every die-hard screaming bloody mutiny there exists plenty of rationalists. Every player has a price, they say. Money saved now can be better spent later. And we get a compensation pick. We might even get someone better. For them, the past is quickly glossed over. The future is where glory lies.
As a proud – if battered – St Kilda man I’m not sure where I sit on it all. Rage is so futile, disappointment so wasteful, and pragmatism so cold. I do think back to my brief time working at the Gold Coast Suns, though, and in particular the night of the 2010 National Draft. At one point I found myself up close to the action while some of the big name recruits had their destinations read out to a full room and a national television audience. Backstage, I listened in as they discussed who would go where. The surprising revelation to me was that the colour of their new jumper mattered nil. Instead, for them, it was all about the opportunity to play, to compete, to be recognised as part of a collective rather than as one of a subset. My reaction at the time was shock at the weird kind of sporting androgyny of it all. And with the ink still drying on Brendon Goddard’s new ground-breaking deal, I again wallow in the same pond. More and more the things we hope for in this game – sepia-tinted things performed by semi-professionals when jumpers were woollen and grounds did not have rooves – are not a reflection of reality. Not even close.
As if we needed reminding, this game is now a hard, ruthless, expensive business.
At moments like this I wonder for how long we will continue to pretend it represents something more.