Ameet Bains: one of the AFL’s unsung heroes works his magic at St Kilda

Five years after Harcharn Bains arrived from India to study at Deakin University in Geelong, he married Manjit and the couple decided to settle in Bendigo. The following year Ameet Bains was born, and then bred, along with his sister, in Bendigo.

Bendigo was then part of Carlton’s recruiting zone and Ameet become a zealous Blues fan. He would also become an exemplar of Carlton’s famous Latin masthead ‘mens sana in corpore sano’ – a healthy mind in a healthy body; throwing his energies into sport and study alike.

Bains spent winter playing football and summer playing cricket. His childhood sporting hero was Viv Richards, “just for the way he took on the game and didn’t fear anyone and tended to take on and beat all the opponents he faced,” he says. But clearly Bains’s long hours spent playing sport didn’t dent his academic abilities.

A speaker of English, Punjabi and Indonesian, his list of academic achievements is as long as Stephen Kernahan’s mullet and include a Bachelor of Business at Monash and Masters in Law at Melbourne University. But despite a taxing academic and professional regimen, Bains’s abiding love of sport saw him participate as an amateur footy player before entering club-land.

In 2008 Bains joined Carlton as a volunteer welfare officer under Rod Ashman but his football coup arrived when he joined St Kilda in January 2011 as the General Manager Player List and Legal Affairs.

At that time, the Saints were one of the competition’s behemoths. During the 2009 season, Ross Lyon’s St Kilda put on a blistering football display rarely seen in VFL/AFL history, torching most of the competition with a 20-game winning record and delivering them the minor premiership. Although St Kilda couldn’t knock over Geelong in the 2009 grand final or Collingwood in 2010, as Bains points out, St Kilda “led two grand finals in time on in the last quarter” and were a kind bounce away from glory. The Saints were at the top of their game.

From the outside it was assumed that Bains was joining the Saints at a moment of ascendancy and solidity rarely enjoyed in the club’s history. But eight months later there would be a shock change of coach when Lyon moved to Fremantle and suddenly all the short-comings of the St Kilda list came into stark relief.

The list Lyon took over in 2007 was the culmination of some handsome recruiting between 2000 and 2002 when the Saints finished 16th, 15th and 15th respectively. With that cache of early picks St Kilda were able to net a haul of high-quality players such as Nick Riewoldt, Justin Koschitzke, Luke Ball, Nick Dal Santo, Leigh Montagna and Brendon Goddard, to add to other quality players of the ilk of Lenny Hayes, Sam Fisher and Stephen Milne.

But there was always a perception that St Kilda during the Lyon era tended to be divided between a small core of well-remunerated elite talent and a larger pool of role players who were tethered to specific roles. Whether that was an effect of the list that Lyon inherited, or an effect of his coaching style is not clear.

Nevertheless what was clear was that Lyon wasn’t big on team changes and blooding youth. But then again, why would you? As Bains points out of St Kilda’s list management before he joined, “you can’t begrudge the decisions that were made. If one of those had come through, then there’s no real reflection on what should have been done or could have been done… When you win most weeks it becomes very difficult to change the team when players are doing what they’re asked to do.”

Lyon was there not to lay the foundations of some distant success and to potentially be bowled out of coaching with list experimentation before his senior career had even begun, but to put the premiership capstone in place.

Nevertheless, Lyon’s surprise departure at the end of 2011 was in retrospect akin to the canary in the mine. A warning that all the pressures pushing in on St Kilda – off-field scandals, administrative tensions, a bloated salary cap, and a lack of high-end draft talent washing through the list – augured a bottoming out and the need for a thorough list rebuild.

After Lyon’s exit – at the end of a season in which they finished sixth on the ladder – St Kilda then dropped to ninth, 16th and 18th in the three years following. Seemingly they were in the same position again as the early 2000s but St Kilda were bottoming out at an inopportune historical moment. The introduction of the Gold Coast Suns in 2010 meant the Saints’ first pick fell at 24 and with Greater Western Sydney entering in 2011, St Kilda’s first pick fell to 25.

As though to punctuate the issue of St Kilda’s ordinary list position, at the end of 2011, 11 players exited the club through retirements and delistings with only two players earning a trade return: Tommy Walsh, who netted pick 35, and Tom Lynch, who secured pick 37. Notwithstanding the need for St Kilda under Lyon to go for broke, as Bains points out there was something of an age profile and youth deficit on the list for players in the 18-23 range.

Bains was part of a strategic review, alongside Chris Pelchen, which identified a need to rebuild the list along the lines of the successful Port Adelaide and Hawthorn blueprints. As Bains notes, “unless something dramatic happened, we were going to go into the wilderness for a period of time… Whilst the draft and other measures over time can help square things up, we needed to take a more proactive approach to transforming the list.”

The pillars of that strategy required Viv Richards-style boldness: bringing in a rash of extra first-round picks through an aggressive trading strategy. Whether by circumstance or design, the early stages of the rebuild appear to be vindicated, with the haul of 2013 and 2014 especially vaunted by football pundits.

As one of the poorer cousins in the AFL, St Kilda appear at no disadvantage in the recruiting stakes. The recruiting department, one of the fulcrums of football success today, has had an injection of financial and human capital. With five full-time and 23 part-time talent scouts, and a specialist team of five dedicated to free agents and currently listed players, Bains believes St Kilda has the talent spread covered in the feeder competitions.

Whether these draft and trade dividends deliver ongoing success is still to be seen – and Bains certainly accepts that there are list gaps – but the efforts of senior players like Riewoldt and Montagna suggest the internal cultural dynamics are strong. And while the loss of players like Goddard was not desired – with St Kilda having put an attractive offer in front of him – Bains takes a philosophical “swings and roundabouts” view. Like the compensation received by Collingwood for Dale Thomas and Dayne Beams, there’s a case to be made that while St Kilda has lost talent, they might be better off with a radical rebuild than pursuing a death in the slow lane.

The strategic view under Bains is realistic and requires a couple of years of pain; hence Bains doesn’t foresee drafting any high-end free agents as a priority. “There’s no point bringing these high-priced free agents that will help us get from 13th to 10th to eighth, as opposed to taking us from eighth to sixth to first,” he says, his mind quite clearly on taking St Kilda right back to the top in the not-too-distant future.

*Originally appeared in The Guardian