It’s easy to say in hindsight, but Hawthorn’s writing was always on the wall

Tim Lane Columnist

By Tim Lane, Tim Lane is a Roar Expert

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    The signs of impending doom were there, we just didn’t look hard enough. Or we put too much faith in the established order. Or we didn’t dare believe it might be so (depending on where our loyalties lie).

    Hawthorn had been hanging on by its fingernails for quite some time and, bit by bit, their resistance was fading.

    So much of modern football is measurable by numbers, some relatively complex and requiring informed analysis, others straightforward. In the case of the Hawks, the latter will do.

    For starters, they’ve now lost eight of their last ten games: prior to this season’s implosion, they’d won two of their last six in 2016. One of those, a must-win affair against lowly Collingwood, was snatched from the fire by Jack Fitzpatrick’s memorable late goal at the MCG.

    That heart-stopper was the sixth thriller the Hawks had negotiated for the season. Five were won by a kick and there was a nine-point win over North Melbourne in mid-year. We, of course, all nodded sagely and muttered to the effect that it showed how much belief this mighty team had. It would all be okay on the night. Or day, or whenever the grand final was scheduled.

    How hypnotised we become by sustained success. As you look back now, Hawthorn was clearly a fading entity. If the three consecutive one-kick wins in the first five weeks had gone the other way, they were 1-5 by Round 6. And before you say, “But they didn’t”, the fact is the Hawks were by now playing close to the cliff’s edge.

    Their phase of stability last year was a nine-win sequence from late-May until the end of July. But, with the benefit of hindsight, even that was a mirage. Only two of the nine teams they beat through that period made the finals – edging North Melbourne by nine points as mentioned above, and downing Sydney at the SCG by five points.

    Perhaps the latter was the Hawks’ finest two hours of the season but maybe, just maybe, it was achieved against a team also struggling with the pull of gravity. The other wins were all against bottom-half teams.

    So, the writing was on the wall. Not that it warned of so spectacularly disastrous a start to the 2017 season as we’ve seen.

    However, having slipped from last year’s top four by the end, having parted ways with two of its greatest players of the era, and with the clock ticking audibly on some others, the Hawks were hardly likely to go forward. They could reasonably be expected to be a lower-end-of-the-eight prospect at best. And that’s based purely on the cold, hard numbers.

    But there’s more. When eras end and great teams begin the inevitable slide, another factor inevitably comes into play. This is, thank goodness, where the game’s humanity still asserts itself. And that, it’s fair to say, is what we’re now seeing.

    Suddenly, Cyril Rioli (most obviously), Luke Breust, Jack Gunston, Liam Shiels, Josh Gibson and a few others are playing without killer instinct, for they know their team is no longer a killer. As that knowledge has penetrated their collective psyche, the glorious confidence of the past five seasons has eroded. And the players promoted to fill gaps in the team haven’t found themselves surrounded by a supremely confident group, as had happened in recent years. Indeed, theirs is the polar opposite experience.

    I was foolish enough to imagine a rebound from the Round 3 humiliation on the Gold Coast. Instead, through the early stages on Easter Monday, the tentative team wearing brown and gold was unrecognisable as Hawthorn.

    Fortunately for the Hawks, Geelong seemed to be jumping at shadows. Until late in the day, the Cats played as though dealing with a ticking time-bomb. Once they realised their opponent carried no weapons, however, they beat Hawthorn as no one has done in years.

    So, where to now? It’s no longer a matter of whether the Hawks can make the finals; more of how low they can go. Currently, they’re dead last. Surely not?

    This, as we know, is what can happen to a team that’s enjoyed sustained success. The question is: how to rebuild quickly? And who should lead the new era?


    Alastair Clarkson acted with breathtaking boldness in farewelling Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis. He might well be asking himself now whether, despite his long-term contract, he should join them. Former club president Jeff Kennett thinks so.

    Clarkson could make a fresh start elsewhere – there’ll be no shortage of suitors. On the other hand, Hawthorn plucked him from relative obscurity and gave him a start. Also, having made such a radical move on two of the club’s greatest champions to begin the rebuild, it could be argued Clarkson now has an obligation to dig in for the long haul.

    It’s been a brown-and-golden era. For nearly a decade now, the Hawks have been armour-plated as they’ve controlled the traffic around them.

    Suddenly, they’re very exposed as they stand at the crossroads.

    Tim Lane
    Tim Lane

    Tim Lane is one of the most respected voices in Australian sport, having gained a strong following for his weekly AFL column in The Age. Tim has also called 32 AFL/VFL grand finals and was behind the microphone for Cathy Freeman's memorable gold medal at the Sydney Olympics. You can catch him on Twitter @TimLaneSport.

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    The Crowd Says (109)

    • April 19th 2017 @ 8:41am
      Roger of Sydney said | April 19th 2017 @ 8:41am | ! Report

      Its sad to see a great team tumble, I do agree the Hawks have had a glamour run with umpiring that seems to have moved to the Bulldogs now so a changing of the nineteenth player. I hate Hawthorn in a healthy way but 2-3 years time they will be back because young blokes want to play for power clubs, like Hawks, Crows, Swannies and Weagles.

      • April 19th 2017 @ 2:57pm
        col in paradise said | April 19th 2017 @ 2:57pm | ! Report

        I notice the Hawks biggest Sychophant and squeeling groupie – Bruce McAvaney has already made the move last season to the Doggies…….still of course has his fav players that no matter what they do or don’t do in a game he will prattle on about for most of the game..Hodge still clinging in is Penders, The Bont and Dangermouse…et al….

    • April 19th 2017 @ 8:56am
      Scott said | April 19th 2017 @ 8:56am | ! Report

      Good article. They had the confidence and now they don’t. That pretty much sums it up. I still think they could have not gone for Vickery and kept Lewis and Mitchell, then given it a crack this year. They were one of the most confident teams ever and won most games on belief. If they added Tom Mitchell and Omeara to last years team they would still have that belief and also one of the best midfields in the comp, addressing their contested ball issue. Then either this year or next let the 4 champs retire and free up a massive amount of salary cap to go after a real big fish in free agency

    • April 19th 2017 @ 9:29am
      Birdman said | April 19th 2017 @ 9:29am | ! Report

      The usual trolls looking to devalue the legacy of this brilliant Hawthorn era are out early…..


      • Roar Guru

        April 19th 2017 @ 10:52am
        Col from Brissie said | April 19th 2017 @ 10:52am | ! Report

        Birdman, any of them would love for their team to have the success the Hawks have had, not only the last 8 years but the last 50. Sure the team is fading as age is setting on most of their stars but they have also been raided of assistant coaches and administrators over the years simply because they were so good at what they did.

        As a Carlton fan it is hard for me to say I have admired the Hawks for what they have achieved but they are a great club and I have no doubt they will pick themselves up in the next few years and rise up again. Perhaps I might see something I haven’t seen for many years and that is a Carlton victory over the Hawks but I doubt it will come easy.

        • April 19th 2017 @ 10:58am
          Birdman said | April 19th 2017 @ 10:58am | ! Report

          Cheers Col – appreciated your classy post.

          Blues may well be firm favourites by the time round 22 rolls around.

          • Roar Guru

            April 19th 2017 @ 11:24am
            AdelaideDocker said | April 19th 2017 @ 11:24am | ! Report

            I’m with Col – I’m not a fan of Hawthorn whatsoever, but that doesn’t mean I’m ignorant enough to not respect them. Because what they’ve achieved over the past few years has been nothing short of phenomenal, and I’m sure they’ve given their fans more than you guys have ever imagined to ask for!

            And yeah, I have no doubt that you guys will find your way out of this deep, deep hole you’re in right now!

            But, I’m still gonna enjoy your club’s decline for a bit 😉

            • April 19th 2017 @ 11:38am
              Birdman said | April 19th 2017 @ 11:38am | ! Report

              cheers AD.

              I’m actually hoping that Freo’s astounding form in the last two rounds might be a pointer forward for the Hawks as our list should be worth more than a wooden spoon.

              Freo’s resurrection (pardon the post Easter pun) should be the story du jour IMHO.

              Playing the ‘kids’ has to be Hawthorn’s way forward too so no-one will die wondering if they’re good enough – just leave a spot for Hodge who is still playing great footy.

              • Roar Guru

                April 19th 2017 @ 11:46am
                Col from Brissie said | April 19th 2017 @ 11:46am | ! Report

                I just don’t see what people get out of potting opposition teams and players just because they don’t like them or are jealous of their success. There are far more important things in life.

    • April 19th 2017 @ 9:52am
      Liam O'Neill said | April 19th 2017 @ 9:52am | ! Report

      If Josh Gibson wasn’t wanted at North, could someone please tell me the full story?

      • April 19th 2017 @ 10:29am
        Birdman said | April 19th 2017 @ 10:29am | ! Report

        Depends on who you talk to but apparently he was competing for a spot with a number of medium – tall sized defenders at the time including Pratt, Grima, Thompson and Hansen. North thought he was good but not essential.

        He was also coming off a low paid contract with North and while North upped his new contract he opted to get to the Hawks who he’d supported as a kid.

        North were holding out for a primo pick for him but caved in for picks 25 and 41 which looked fair value at the time for both clubs but he went to another level with the Hawks.

        Another in a long line of trade coups that the Hawks have won over North.

        • April 19th 2017 @ 1:45pm
          DH said | April 19th 2017 @ 1:45pm | ! Report

          Hawthorn offered him a lot more cash than he was getting at North who didn’t want to pay him more than they thought he was worth. He’d just finished 5th in the B&F, so they knew he was good, just didn’t want to pay the big price tag.

          That was probably the most astute transfer Hawthorn made, North let Gibson go far too cheap, but being out of contract not sure they could have stopped him walking to the PSD.

          • April 19th 2017 @ 2:29pm
            Birdman said | April 19th 2017 @ 2:29pm | ! Report

            Hmmm…as I understand the Hawks deal was slightly less than North’s new contract offer but he had been underpaid for some time so maybe Josh felt morally justified in leaving esp. with more competition for defensive spots.

    • Roar Guru

      April 19th 2017 @ 10:08am
      Pumping Dougie said | April 19th 2017 @ 10:08am | ! Report

      Nice article Tim. Good analysis and commentary around the modest experienced players and new, young players in the lineup not performing at a high level because of the collective drop in self-belief.

      The Hawks have been in finals for about 75% of the last forty years and participated in more than a third of the grand finals in that time. That’s bloody selfish and greedy!

      I don’t hate the Hawks or their supporters, but I think it’s only fair their supporters experience at least a decade in the wilderness now (and I think there’s a fair chance that will happen).

      As for sniping, distasteful thugs in their era led by Clarko, Campbell Brown, Hodge and Lewis, the footy world is better off without them. I suspect we’re going to see the re-emergence of the unravelling, angry, nasty, sanctimonious, schizophrenic persona of Clarko this season. The media will get on his nerve.

      • April 19th 2017 @ 11:06am
        Brian said | April 19th 2017 @ 11:06am | ! Report

        I don’t see any basis for Hawthorn having a decade in the wilderness. Sure our wonderful dash is done but Hawthorn have not undertaken salary cap rorting or implement a doping program.

        The club is much better placed today then it was in 2004 when Schwab was dumped, Hawks came 2nd last and former premiership players Wallace and Eade did not even want to coach them.

        Hawthorn have given away a top draft pick next year but that is not much different to the 2005 draft where Hawks picked Beau Dowler at pick 6, or 2006 where they picked Thorp at pick 6. Mistakes are made. O’Meara needs 10 years before we know what he was worth.

        If anything falling off the cliff gives the perfect opportunity to rebound. Clarko knew this was coming which is why he started regenerating the midfield. Now the kids will play before Hodge, Burgoyne & Gibson bow out. Time to find out who can play and rebuld. There is no reason Hawks can’t win another flag early next decade.

        • April 19th 2017 @ 11:40am
          Birdman said | April 19th 2017 @ 11:40am | ! Report

          all great points Brian.

        • Roar Guru

          April 19th 2017 @ 11:57am
          Pumping Dougie said | April 19th 2017 @ 11:57am | ! Report

          Brian I’m not predicting 10 years in the wilderness, just saying it’s only fair if that occurs. ?

          But I do think there is a lack of talent emerging at Hawthorn to replace the ageing warriors, which suggests a quick resurrection is not on the cards. I think the harsh reality is the Hawks are now behind Carlton in terms of a playing-list rebuild. The advantage the Hawks have over other clubs who have been in the bottom half of the eight is a great club culture, strong leadership and recent success rendering extended support and patience for key personnel. But even the leadership is leaking, now that Mitchell, Lewis, Newbold, Fagan, Bolton, Beveridge and Simpson have left.

          Full credit to Hawthorn in being a destination club in the past which resulted in wanted players like Frawley, Gunston, Gibson, Burgoyne, etc. departing their clubs and seeking premiership success with the Hawks. But it will become harder and a more-even playing field to attract players now. The Hawks, in my opinion, need to go to the draft the slow way like the Saints and Blues, to re-generate now. And unfortunately for supporters, that option will have to be deferred given that the club has already traded-away high draft picks in 2017.

          But hey, supporters can hardly complain. You’ve had an awesome ride.

          • April 19th 2017 @ 6:41pm
            Nineteen said | April 19th 2017 @ 6:41pm | ! Report


            We will need to endure two years of bottom four placings with every other week a journo calling for Clarko to resign or saying he’s passed his prime.It won’t be until 2022 where we’ve had enough early draft picks to field a young competitive side (Hawhtorn 2007)

            Clubs that enjoy winning premierships or playing deep into finals for many years are left with a conudrum either:

            A) Try and hang on and be competitive and hope that your late round draft picks emerge as stars
            B) Sell of your old stars for draft picks
            C) Tank and rebuild from the draft. (The Ross Lyon approach)

            I’ve always said if you’re not winning premierships you might as well finish last. At least that way you can rebuild from the draft (risky as you may not choose well) Otherwise you’re always left being there abouts but not posing a serious threat to win the premiership. eg Geelong, North. Even Sydney as good as they are as a club still haven’t been able to win a premiership in recent years but there next five years look very solid with some great young talent.

            It would be a very lonely place for Clarko at the moment. He’s lost all of his best assistant coaches over the years to other clubs (Hardwick to Richmond, Fagan to the Lions, Bolton to the Blues, Simpson to the Eagles, Beveridge to the Dogs, Cameron to the Giants), the club president Andrew Newbold departed to join the AFL commission and the CEO Stuart Fox joined the Melbourne Cricket Club as their new CEO. The club has yet to find a replacement for Fox. Even our gun opposition analyst, John Wardrop who served us during our four premierships got poached!

            Clarko literally has no good football brains left around him to bounce ideas off?

            It’s great to see people overcome big obstacles in life and win. (That’s why everyone liked seeing the Dogs win last year) Make no mistake Clarko and the club are in a big hole but there is no doubt he is the right man for the job to see the rebirth of the new Hawthorn in the 2020s

            And for those who believe…

            • April 20th 2017 @ 8:28am
              Pumping Dougie said | April 20th 2017 @ 8:28am | ! Report

              Good comment Nineteen.

              Except that you’ve already traded away your first two draft picks this year, so “tanking” won’t do you any good.

        • April 19th 2017 @ 1:50pm
          DH said | April 19th 2017 @ 1:50pm | ! Report

          You accidentally left out the bid of the 2005 and 2006 drafts where you picked those guys with priority picks from finishing so low, the other first round picks in 2005 were Ellis and Birchall.

          The year before in 2004 Hawthorn hit the jackpot with Roughead, Franklin and Lewis.

          So in the long run it all balances out with some superstars and some misses. But you have to be in the draft lottery to win it. Hawthorn hasn’t been in it for years and won’t be in it for another year at least which is why the Hawks young brigade is so poor.

          • April 19th 2017 @ 2:35pm
            Birdman said | April 19th 2017 @ 2:35pm | ! Report

            seems to me that free agency is being forgotten here.

            Hawks will be up to their necks in FA this year and no, I don’t expect Fyfe or Martin to be there next year but they will have serious cash available.

    • April 19th 2017 @ 10:16am
      BBJ said | April 19th 2017 @ 10:16am | ! Report

      The good thing Tim is you acknowledgement your own incompetence at predicting outcomes. How do you think the Germans will go in WW2?

      • April 19th 2017 @ 8:16pm
        Bugaluggs said | April 19th 2017 @ 8:16pm | ! Report

        Never know, they might do better in WW3 which seems to be closer than a lot of people think the way some hot headed leaders are behaving of late.

        Ironically the Krouts are the good guys this time.

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