We have the game covered.

History Lesson – 2010: Lyon opens up about real loss


Ross Lyon dealt with far greater losses than just a grand final in 2010. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

History Lesson – 2010: Lyon opens up about real loss

THERE are disappointments and then there are tragedies. Sometimes tears cloud eyes, blurring the boundaries. But on this point, St Kilda coach Ross Lyon has a cruel clarity. He knows the heartbreaking difference.

Losing an AFL premiership is a disappointment. Losing two beloved family members within four months is a true tragedy.

”Footy’s really, really important to me, but, you know, well, we’re still alive, and we get another opportunity,” he says.

As Lyon knows better than any of his shattered players, some people don’t.

Unbeknown to all but close friends, the 44-year-old has been coaching the Saints against a backdrop of family tragedy since his older sister, Julie, died in July.

Julie, who had been battling breast cancer for 18 months, succumbed quite suddenly to an undetectable cancer that had spread to her blood vessels.

Then, just three weeks ago, Lyon’s nephew, Kane, the 24-year-old son of his sister, Michele, was killed in a motorcycle accident while on holiday in far north Queensland.

”I’m really just starting to deal with it now, it’s still a bit raw,” he tells The Sunday Age, speaking publicly for the first time about the tragedies. ”It’s been a tough period for my family, we’re dropping like flies.”

The black humour is just one coping mechanism. Lyon became so practised at handling his grief during the final critical months of the AFL season that he managed to hide his personal turmoil from almost the entire club as it locked on to the task of winning that elusive flag.

Lyon explains it thus. ”There’s a real responsibility leading an AFL team, that you’ve got to dig in. It’s easy to talk about it, but sometimes it’s your turn as a coach, or as a father or whatever, to practise what you preach a little bit and not crumble.”

The St Kilda coach certainly didn’t. Julie passed away late on the Tuesday evening before the Saints’ important round-16 clash with Collingwood. Her brother kept a corporate speaking appointment the following day. He continued to work through the week and he addressed his players before they ran out that Saturday afternoon, the Saints oblivious to his loss.

”I knew it was a big game, and I didn’t want to distract the players,” he says. A flat-looking St Kilda was well beaten that afternoon. A score of Saints had been ill during the week. But in the post-match analysis, Lyon refused to use excuses for his players, and certainly not for himself. No one could have blamed him had he done so.

Julie was talented at sport like him, having represented the state at junior level in squash. Although she had fought a lengthy battle with breast cancer, enduring a mastectomy, her death still came relatively suddenly. Lyon did not have the chance to say goodbye.

”I got a bit crook myself, and run down, and missed a family birthday,” he recalls. ”All my sisters had been into the hospital to see her, but as much as we knew she was in massive trouble, we thought she had some time left.

”I rang her on my way home from work and left a message saying, ‘Sorry I haven’t seen you, hope you’re going well, give us a call’. I’d been working hard and it was a pretty important game, so I said to [wife] Kirsten I was going into the spare room because I needed a good night’s sleep.

”I went to bed about 11, then at about 12, Kirsten came in in tears. I asked what was wrong and she said, ‘It’s Julie, she’s passed away’. I sort of erupted because it came as a real shock. So we drove into the hospital pretty late. We saw her, I gave her a hug. Then I went and picked up her nine-year-old daughter Sarah and brought her in. It was really horrible.”

That task was made even more poignant by the fact that Kirsten had lost her own mother to breast cancer when she was only 12.

Julie’s funeral was a private affair, save for the presence of assistant coach and Lyon’s close friend Stephen Silvagni. ”I said I didn’t want anyone from the club at the funeral,” he reflects. ”At some point, you just want to be the brother. I didn’t want to be the AFL coach, I just wanted to be Julie’s brother.”

Lyon says he doesn’t want his stoicism to be ”seen as some sort of badge of honour”, nor have anyone think his situation is different from anyone else’s.

”People talk about the pressure AFL coaches are under, but mate, everyone’s got pressures. The printer, the plumber, they all go home to a mortgage and kids … It happened, and I’m dealing with it, but so are a lot of other people. Cancer is everywhere.”

But further tragedy was awaiting Lyon and his three surviving sisters. Choked with emotion, he tries to detail the recent motorcycle death of his nephew, Kane, in Cooktown.

”He’d gone up there with his girl to visit her old man. He came off the bike on a dirt road, his helmet came off, and …” Lyon’s voice trails off.

”I think you find out a fair bit about yourself in these sorts of times,” he says later. ”Whether you’re going to give up or keep working. And I think AFL football prepares you over a long period of time to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

”I think they (the deaths of his relatives) are stark reminders about embracing life and people … At Kane’s funeral, there was a quote from Tennessee Williams: ‘Death is one moment, and life is so many of them’. That resonated with me a lot.”

Lyon, who lost his mother, Louise, in 2004, has lately seen a lot of more of his father, Maurice, now 80. ”There’s an acute awareness of what you value. I think it highlights that, that’s what it’s done for me.”

It’s also a reminder that ”there’s always someone worse off than you,” he says, talking about young St Kilda supporter Madison Bartlett, who lost her entire family in the St Andrews’ bushfires two summers ago.

Closer to home, there’s the now widowed husband trying to comfort his motherless nine-year-old daughter, and the grieving mother who has lost a son in the prime of his life.

These are real tragedies – something Lyon knows a St Kilda grand final defeat, however upsetting, will never be.