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 @ 10:32am
      Swampy said | April 19th 2017 @ 10:32am | ! Report

      If I was a Hawks supporter I’d be pretty happy with the last ten years (going back to the premiership they unexpectedly nicked off Geelong). If I was one that was born in the 70’s, even happier. No team has been as successful in that time. Eras end. Hopefully they are unable to rebuild quickly and spend a few decades out of the eight.

      As a Tasmanian, I’ll be ecstatic if the govt can have the foresight to not spend on existing teams (really just bailing north out and plumping hawthorns bottom line) and put its efforts towards a Hobart team by 2025.

      The way the draft and salary cap work teams are meant to cycle up and down. Hawks beat this for a bit but time got them in the end.

      And while people are complaining about players they obtained, let us not forget they gave up Buddy Franklin in his prime. He was a pretty decent player at the time.

      • April 19th 2017 @ 10:34am
        andyl12 said | April 19th 2017 @ 10:34am | ! Report

        Dead right Swampy. Good to know some neutral fans will tell it like it is (although your Tasmania prediction will probably not happen).

        • April 19th 2017 @ 11:43am
          Brian said | April 19th 2017 @ 11:43am | ! Report

          The AFL won’t be keen on a 19 team competition. On Tasmania the govt should either push for the Tasmanian Kangaroos or wait for the next expansion to 20 teams. However NSW or WA No 3 is probably at least 20 years away rather then 10.

          • April 19th 2017 @ 6:26pm
            Swampy said | April 19th 2017 @ 6:26pm | ! Report

            I would think there is more chance of there being at least one (if not two) Melbourne teams disappearing than the competition going to 20 teams.

            No one wants to inherit whatever financial basket case makes a final clutch for survival by relocating to outside of Melbourne.

            Even if GC survive, I’d rather not inherit a team badged the Suns (although I like the irony – be like the Utah Jazz).

            Anyways, the Hawks had a great run and the Tassie government sponsorship has more than likely boosted tourism numbers so it’s not all bad.

    • Roar Guru

      April 19th 2017 @ 10:51am
      Dalgety Carrington said | April 19th 2017 @ 10:51am | ! Report

      Our brains hate uncertainty and in hindsight it tends to erase it as much as possible, leaving us with the feeling that what did happen was inevitable to the extent we over emphasise what evidence it can to support the inevitability theory (and our perceived precognitions) and minimises the opposite.

      Good evidence of this is how many preseason predictions had the Hawks up there again this year.

    • April 19th 2017 @ 11:42am
      Franko said | April 19th 2017 @ 11:42am | ! Report

      Fair bit of venom toward Hawthorn at the moment and it’s not hard to see why.

      You didn’t get this reaction with the other comparable sides of the last 20 years. Brisbane, Sydney, Geelong all basically took their success with grace and goodwill. Not the Hawks though.

      • April 19th 2017 @ 11:47am
        Brian said | April 19th 2017 @ 11:47am | ! Report

        Your kiddin right.

        Brisbane and Sydney were all about salary cap handouts from the AFL whilst Geelong abused the father son rules. The only differences that make the Hawk vitriol slightly higher are
        1. The other 3 all broke 40+ year droughts so unlike Hawthorn no one is living through a second era of their dominance
        2. Hawks won 4 times the others didn’t.

        • April 19th 2017 @ 11:56am
          Franko said | April 19th 2017 @ 11:56am | ! Report

          Agree the Swans and Brisbane copped a bit over AFL handouts, but that was more a crack at the AFL than the clubs. Sydney in particular were admired for their no d*heads policy and “bloods” culture.

          FWIW the vitriol said and written about Hawthorn will be nothing on what GWS cop. With absolute flogs like Heath Shaw, Toby Green and Phil Davis in their side coupled with their entitled attitudes we’ll be yearning for the days of #freekickhawthorn and Hodgey the “great bloke” sniping people.

          • Roar Guru

            April 19th 2017 @ 12:05pm
            Pumping Dougie said | April 19th 2017 @ 12:05pm | ! Report

            Good comments Franko. And fair reply Brian.

            As far as the father-son rule goes, I think it’s great for the game. Obviously the Doggies are benefitting from it at the moment, but I’ve always liked it regardless. In this AFL landscape of players regularly changing clubs, it’s great to retain some sentimentalism. I don’t begrudge the Cats one bit for their father-son stars and I agree with Franko their side oozed class, grace and goodwill, as did the Swans. I wouldn’t say the same about Brisbane though – they were full of players who played the Hawks’ “unsociable” brand of football; two of who are brothers coaching now.

            • April 19th 2017 @ 12:06pm
              andyl12 said | April 19th 2017 @ 12:06pm | ! Report

              Hard to take seriously anyone who calls Hawthorn both unsociable and soft at the same time. No such person has ever said how they really want Hawthorn to play.

              • Roar Guru

                April 19th 2017 @ 12:41pm
                Pumping Dougie said | April 19th 2017 @ 12:41pm | ! Report

                Not sure who you’re talking about Andy? I’ve never called Hawthorn soft and I think it’s an acknowledged public descriptor of Hawthorn that they play “unsociable football”.

              • April 19th 2017 @ 12:42pm
                andyl12 said | April 19th 2017 @ 12:42pm | ! Report

                Not talking about you. But there are plenty on this website who ramble on like that.

              • Roar Guru

                April 19th 2017 @ 1:12pm
                Peppsy said | April 19th 2017 @ 1:12pm | ! Report

                I think that might have been a slight jab at anon

                And dougie I’ve heard stories of the Scott brothers school days. They didn’t paint a nice picture, and I don’t think they’ve improved yet.

              • Roar Guru

                April 19th 2017 @ 1:35pm
                Pumping Dougie said | April 19th 2017 @ 1:35pm | ! Report

                Haha Peppsy, I suppose that’s unsurprising.

                Interesting though that Chris Scott hasn’t implored his team to play an unsociable brand yet to my knowledge. Brad Scott has tried it a few times as coach though.

              • April 19th 2017 @ 2:40pm
                Birdman said | April 19th 2017 @ 2:40pm | ! Report

                Dougie, are you sure Chris Scott doesn’t have his guys on a mission? – suspensions to Menagola and Parsons may suggest otherwise.

              • Roar Guru

                April 19th 2017 @ 2:56pm
                Pumping Dougie said | April 19th 2017 @ 2:56pm | ! Report

                Fair point Birdman.

                I thought the Parsons incident was poor, but Menegola was a touch unlucky. I think he was trying not to turn Hodge’s body and head into the ground and got it slightly wrong. Benefit of the doubt unless he becomes a repeat offender. But you could be right.

                I must admit, I enjoyed seeing Hodge on the physical receiving end for a change (and to his credit he shook it off, didn’t whinge and soldiered on).

              • April 19th 2017 @ 3:09pm
                Birdman said | April 19th 2017 @ 3:09pm | ! Report

                yep – Hodgey’s always been happy to take it as well as dish it.

                deadset legend IMHO

          • April 19th 2017 @ 12:06pm
            Reservoir Animal said | April 19th 2017 @ 12:06pm | ! Report

            The no d!ckhead policy and bloods culture both went out the window with the recruitment of Tippett and Buddy. No longer do the Swans have the most respected team ethos in the competition.

            I have no problem with the way Geelong utilised the father-son rule, but I do think being in a one-team town with a fortressed home ground has given them advantages that Hawthorn can only dream of. Hence I tend to have Hawthorn higher in my greatest-of-all-time stakes.

          • April 19th 2017 @ 2:31pm
            I ate pies said | April 19th 2017 @ 2:31pm | ! Report

            Toby Green could be the most unlikable player ever to play in the AFL.

            • April 19th 2017 @ 2:42pm
              Birdman said | April 19th 2017 @ 2:42pm | ! Report

              I totally get what you’re saying there, IAP – has just edged ahead of Dan Hanneberry IMHO

              • April 19th 2017 @ 4:20pm
                Jim said | April 19th 2017 @ 4:20pm | ! Report

                Hannerbrey is hardly on the same page as that sniper Toby Greene…. he is truly a seriously unlikable footballer.

              • April 20th 2017 @ 8:36am
                Pumping Dougie said | April 20th 2017 @ 8:36am | ! Report

                Yeah I’m not sure why Hannebury should be in this conversation. He’s a ball player and behaves with dignity.

                I don’t have a problem with Greene either. But I do think GWS have a major attitude problem among some of their players (standover sniper mentality and cocky peacocks).

            • Roar Guru

              April 19th 2017 @ 7:29pm
              hairy fat man said | April 19th 2017 @ 7:29pm | ! Report

              He’s a punk alright, but football needs its villains in this sanitized age.

        • April 19th 2017 @ 12:13pm
          spruce moose said | April 19th 2017 @ 12:13pm | ! Report

          “Geelong abused the father son rules.”

          Please explain?

          • April 19th 2017 @ 12:41pm
            Franko said | April 19th 2017 @ 12:41pm | ! Report

            At the time Geelong got their Father-Sons they didn’t have “bid” for the draft pick hence Scarlett, Hawkins, Blake and GAJ all taken in the 40’s whilst drafting other talent at the time.

            I don’t begrudge them, at the time John Brown had gone to Brisbane F/S when his dad played 51 games for Fitzroy.

            They took their success with as good a grace as you can and will be remembered as a brilliant and fair side.

            • April 19th 2017 @ 1:46pm
              spruce moose said | April 19th 2017 @ 1:46pm | ! Report

              So I’m not sure how they abused the rule then.

              Sour grapes by Brian.

              • April 19th 2017 @ 3:39pm
                Brian said | April 19th 2017 @ 3:39pm | ! Report

                Not sour grapes just pointing out the abuse hurled at every club who succeeds. Nothing wrong with Geelong taking advantage of the rules as is exactly the same with Hawthorn when they picked up Gunston, Gibson, Lake etc.

              • Roar Guru

                April 19th 2017 @ 6:42pm
                Cat said | April 19th 2017 @ 6:42pm | ! Report

                There’s also the fact no one rated a twig named Scarlett nor was Gaz rated highly. Both would have went as 4th or 5th round picks – at best. We’ll never know if either one would have developed as they did somewhere else.

        • April 19th 2017 @ 1:53pm
          DH said | April 19th 2017 @ 1:53pm | ! Report

          Hawks play all their Grand Finals at home and got there using Priority Draft picks when that was the rort of the day, and morphed into free agency free kicks for ageing stars like Lake chasing glory.

          Each of them used the current rules to their advantage, if anything Hawthorn’s home ground advantage was probably the most significant.

          I reckon every interstate team would give up 5-10% of their salary cap if you guaranteed the Grand Final was at their home ground.

          • April 19th 2017 @ 2:24pm
            andyl12 said | April 19th 2017 @ 2:24pm | ! Report

            Except that Hawthorn didn’t tank for those draft picks. In one case we traded to get the No.1 pick, and then got that player back as well- smart moves if I’ve ever seen them!

            Hawthorn’s home ground advantage was totally insignificant if you go by the horse’s mouth. Sydney and West Coast both insisted that the MCG held no fears for them.

            You also forget that when Clarkson came to Hawthorn it was assumed that no Victorian side could ever win another flag unless they were Carlton/Collingwood/Essendon. We were a second-tier Victorian team and second-tier Victorian teams apparently had no long-term future. Since then we’ve been the club that Carlton/Collingwood/Essendon- for all their inherited wealth- secretly wish they could be like but can’t because they’re too hooked on their inherited ways to make decisions that are right for the 21st century. Not to mention that Carlton and Essendon deliberately passed up the opportunity to make the MCG their home ground, which is a big part of the reason we got a so-called advantage on Grand Final day.

            • April 19th 2017 @ 2:44pm
              Birdman said | April 19th 2017 @ 2:44pm | ! Report

              all very good points.

            • April 19th 2017 @ 4:16pm
              DH said | April 19th 2017 @ 4:16pm | ! Report

              Where do you get this stuff from? Who was assuming those small vic clubs would never win again? Did you just make that up?

              Syd and WCE ‘said’ the ground held no fears, doesn’t mean it’s not an advantage. WHen have you ever heard a coach say ‘yeah I hate going to Subiaco, it’s scary’.

              I accept your point that you didn’t tank, you were just abysmal without needing to tank in those years that you qualified for priority picks.

              • April 19th 2017 @ 4:34pm
                mattyb said | April 19th 2017 @ 4:34pm | ! Report

                Playing the GF in Victoria s an enormous advantage whether your actual home ground is Docklands or the MCG. I don’t know what else Sydney or West Coast were supposed to say. Theyre not going to admit the disadvantage going into the game.
                The Dogs home ground is Docklands but to play the GF in Melbourne against Sydney was enormous,especially considering ladder positions. I don’t understand how the supporters of Victorian clubs can overlook this. Hawthorn used this advantage three years running,good luck to them but you can’t just deny the advantage was not only there but substantial.

              • April 19th 2017 @ 8:37pm
                andyl12 said | April 19th 2017 @ 8:37pm | ! Report

                “Theyre not going to admit the disadvantage going into the game.”

                If Sydney and West Coast genuinely want their cities to host Grand Finals then they do have to admit the “current disadvantage” at all times and not just when it suits them.

                DH- From 2001-2006 all flags were won by interstate teams. The view in Victoria was having 10 local teams was the reason why. The AFL may not have actively pushed mergers or relocations during that period but senior figures in the game (such as Ron Barassi) were of the view that most Victorian teams now faced excessive hurdles trying to move up the ladder. Geelong and Hawthorn changed all this and Carlton/Essendon/Collingwood (Collingwood not quite so much) still wonder how. It’s fair to say the Bulldogs’ 2016 flag owes plenty to Hawthorn’s display of what was possible if you run your club the right way.

              • April 20th 2017 @ 8:42am
                Pumping Dougie said | April 20th 2017 @ 8:42am | ! Report

                You’re right Andy. It could actually be a smart tactic psychologically for a coach to acknowledge the disadvantage in the lead-up to the game and paint themselves as underdogs. It would also be a smart move strategically for these clubs to be vocal about the issue.

                But stuff ’em. The MCG grand final is sacred! ? We are the sporting capital of the world. #VicsRule

    • April 19th 2017 @ 2:07pm
      Curtis said | April 19th 2017 @ 2:07pm | ! Report

      The great news for Hawk fans and bad news for Hawk haters (probably everyone else) is that history shows that the Hawks will be back to their annoying best at some point in the future – it might be a few years away but you can’t keep these guys down.

      While we all wait for that it would be nice to see some perennial strugglers – Dees, Saints – hey maybe even the Tigers – rise up and take the big one!

      • April 19th 2017 @ 4:04pm
        Brian said | April 19th 2017 @ 4:04pm | ! Report

        I hope your right but we can’t be sure. Richmond, Carlton and Essendon have all suffered incredibly under the it won’t happen because it us thinking. They have had many years of overrating their list and staff and paying for it.

        Hawthorn like Richmond is just a name. Richmond in 1982 thought they were “Richmond”. They’ve been a running joke since.

    • April 19th 2017 @ 3:40pm
      JK Legend said | April 19th 2017 @ 3:40pm | ! Report

      good riddance . I hope the ridiculous , outrageous and pathetic soft free kicks they got every single game will stop as well. 3 flags so what . How many games did they actually win playing there guts out without the family friends of umpires helping them on there way??? none that’s how many

      • April 19th 2017 @ 3:42pm
        andyl12 said | April 19th 2017 @ 3:42pm | ! Report

        “3 flags so what”

        Clearly you go for a team that doesn’t experience success. Sad.

      • April 19th 2017 @ 4:07pm
        Spruiker said | April 19th 2017 @ 4:07pm | ! Report

        Seems to me the Hawks are in the business of winning flags not games

      • April 19th 2017 @ 8:31pm
        Reservoir Animal said | April 19th 2017 @ 8:31pm | ! Report

        JK, who do you barrack for?

    • April 19th 2017 @ 4:09pm
      EddyJ said | April 19th 2017 @ 4:09pm | ! Report

      All this absolute pessimism and hatred of Hawthorn for being successful, and now for not being successful.

      Teams can’t be at the top forever, this is all part of the cycle. The great Hawthorn era in the 1970s and 1980s had to end, and it ended with a bang. Same now. Same for Brisbane after 2001–2004, and possibly coming up for Sydney as well.

      It happens. Players get older, coaching staff get jaded. Luck, injuries, list management all play a part. But I think most fans would trade a few years at the bottom for four premierships. You want your team to be at the top at all times, but it doesn’t work out like that.

      Let’s just be satisfied that we witnessed one of the great teams ever, and now that has all come to an end.

      • April 19th 2017 @ 8:31pm
        andyl12 said | April 19th 2017 @ 8:31pm | ! Report

        Hear hear!

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