They say that football takes no prisoners. But as it turns out, sometimes it does.
Across a decade at St Kilda, Jack Billings built something that was solid and reliable, with an occasional feature of brilliance. As a whole, it didn’t catch the eye, but it wasn’t ugly by any means. If what he’d built was a house, you’d quite happily live inside.
But when Jack arrived at St Kilda in 2013, the club and its fans didn’t want a house; they wanted a castle, with a big flag (or multiple!) on the front lawn. They tied this expectant weight to Jack’s ankle, and sent him to work with nothing more than a hammer and a few pieces of wood.
Billings Place on St Kilda Street would not end up being a castle. It’s a perfectly comfortable three-bedroom home, and you’d expect it to weather a storm and keep a roof over your head. And it did that, for ten years.
But it’s these seemingly desirable features that turned Billings Place into a prison for its builder. It’s safe and cosy, but for an eternity Jack wasn’t able to leave.
His problem was twofold.
Firstly, for a long time, no one else on his team was helping him build anything at all. Jack joined the club at the beginning of what would be its leanest stretch in decades. The Riewoldt-era guys were deep into twilight and the club, in alarming debt, was forced to relocate to Seaford, Siberia. Player development was non-existent under new coach Alan Richardson; from the four drafts after Ross Lyon left in 2011, exactly one player (Dan McKenzie) will be on the Saints’ list in 2024.
Jack was trying to build something in an environment that was doing everything it could to burn it down.
The second part of Jack’s problem was a new recruit on the block right behind him. This guy did build the castle that Saints fans wanted, even including the flag out the front. But it was on a different street, for a different team. His name was Marcus.
Despite Jack’s own respectable career, he spent his St Kilda days living in Marcus’ shadow. Bontempelli went at Pick 4 in the 2013 Draft, one spot after Jack, and subsequently became one of the best Bulldogs players of all time.
It has nothing to do with Jack, but no one ever let him forget it.
He couldn’t do anything without it being pedantically compared to the illustrious accomplishments of the man who was picked after him. Jack could only watch from his window as Marcus enjoyed the accolades that might have been his.
It was this combination of external factors that ultimately cast the die for Jack in Saints colours. Would he have become the superstar St Kilda dreamed about had he been drafted elsewhere? Who’s to say. What we do know is that the confluence of circumstances that did play out certainly didn’t help. And this was a hard pill for long-suffering Saints fans to swallow.
Jack wasn’t the only victim of this period in St Kilda’s history, but he’s the only one who was held prisoner by it for so long. Paddy McCartin springs to mind, but his health issues decided his football fate for him. Other players from this time — Luke Dunstan, Jack Lonie, Blake Acres — have moved on.
In a way, Billings did end up being the poster boy of this Saints era, but it was an era of 10th place finishes instead of premierships.
The lack of success this group of players has found to date says more about St Kilda at that time than it does about any one individual. They were damned before they stepped through the door by a cursed club at its lowest ebb. The organisation has seemingly turned a corner but it’s a case of ‘too little, too late’ for Jack, whose departure puts this chapter out of its misery.
So when the news broke that Jack Billings will play in a Melbourne guernsey next year, it was with melancholy more than anything that St Kilda farewelled a player who was supposed to be their saviour.
But now Jack is free.
There’s still time to add some ornaments to the career mantlepiece, even if it is in another team’s colours. He has a clean slate to go out and play his best footy, and maybe even steal a flag to stick in the front lawn after all.
Billings Place is an important feature on St Kilda Street. It’s one of only a few in this section that can stand proudly on its merits, and when time has evened things out a little, Saints fans will look back and finally acknowledge Jack Billings for the player he was instead of the one he wasn’t.