St Kilda will get no easy answers in Ross Lyon’s second stint with AFL club

It’s halfway through the final quarter of the 2015 preliminary final. Hawthorn has played almost flawless football, but the Dockers are rattling home. Nathan Fyfe is running around with a broken leg, because that’s what you do when you play for Ross Lyon. The crowd is febrile – later we will learn that a woman has been punched in the face and that a Hawthorn player has been whacked over the head with an inflatable anchor.

The Fremantle defender Tendai Mzungu switches play with a 20-metre kick across half back. His target is Tom Sheridan, who’s playing his 38th game. Hot on his hammer is Cyril Rioli, probably the last person in Australia you want in your vicinity at a moment like this. Sheridan drops the easiest of marks. Rioli pounces, turns on a dime, slams home a 50-metre goal and gives the crestfallen, butter-fingered kid a dig in the kidneys.

In the coach’s box, Lyon has his head in his hands. Goal, game, season, era. It’s over. The Hawks cruise to another premiership. Over the next few years, Lyon wears his players down, and wears out his welcome in Perth. His sacking is as cold blooded as his appointment. He shrugs his shoulders, and enrols in a course in behavioural economics at Harvard.

That was more than three years ago now. Since then, he’s stood to the side – smiling wryly, being sounded out, shying away, and being dragged back in. Some coaches can walk away, live a normal life, and find contentment. Some can slot back in as assistants. But some need the big job. It gnaws away. Selling houses, or rolling your eyes at Caro and Eddie, or joshing with the boys on Triple M simply doesn’t cut it. The action, as Tom Sizemore says in Michael Mann’s Heat, is the juice.

But he must have had his doubts. Taking on the St Kilda job is loaded with emotional risk, he said after being confirmed on Monday as the Saints’ coach for a second time. St Kilda traditionally isn’t a club that instils an enormous amount of confidence in its new employees. You could see the doubt when he was bailed up by Tom Browne, who had been lurking outside the president’s house for hours. Is this my life? Is this my “unfinished business”, as he put it? How do I take this middling list, and turn them into a relentless machine?

But it’s a huge risk for St Kilda too. It ended so badly last time. The club hasn’t been remotely the same since. A lot of St Kilda fans still haven’t forgiven him. He pretty much walked out in the middle of the night. He left the list in tatters. That’s always been one of the main criticisms of him – that he runs his playing lists into ground, squeezes every last drop of them, and doesn’t pay enough heed to the long term.

“I’m not easy,” he said following the 2015 season. And there’s no easy answers with Ross Lyon. There’s no easy way to sum up his career. There’s nothing easy about playing under him, coaching against him, or watching his teams. Ask football people about him and you’ll get 100 different answers. He’s pitiless; he’s caring. He’s hilarious; he’s boorish. He ruins football; he understands it better than anyone else. He builds lifelong relationships; he leaves his clubs in disarray. He’s too rigid; he’s five years ahead of the competition.

St Kilda clearly wanted a coach with a harder edge. But what does that mean, exactly? A louder voice? More arduous training sessions? More acid sprays? Does the autocratic approach even work any more? Are the 18 and 19-year-olds coming through the system, so many of them now from privileged backgrounds, equipped to deal with a man like Ross Lyon? Or will he soften? Many of his former players insist there’s a cuddlier side to him – a sentimental side, a caring, fatherly side. But it’s always almost the champions we hear from – not the ones he froze out, or berated, or ran into the ground.

St Kilda could have gone the way Collingwood did, for the next best assistant coach – for a low-key figure who builds relationships, who works as part of a broader coaching set up and who embraces imperfection. Young footballers seem to excel in that environment. A key message from Craig McRae all year was: “We don’t care if you make a mistake – put the windscreen wipers on and move on.” It’s hard to imagine Lyon adopting a similar approach. It’s hard to imagine him relinquishing control of his backline to a line coach. It’s hard to see how his defensive, asphyxiating, attritional brand will cut it in this conspicuously more attacking, open era of football.

To make this work, he’s going to have to change, to delegate and to soften. He said as much on Monday. If he’s given time and space by the new regime, and if he can make this list pop, he’ll go down as one of the great coaches of the modern era. But such talk is anathema to Ross Lyon. “I don’t deal in hypotheticals,” he says. He’s only interested in the now, in putting the work boots on and in embracing the grind. It underpins every training session, every game, every public utterance. It’s an attitude that brought him within touching distance of three premiership cups. But in this era of football, at this club, and with this list, will it be enough?