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The Alastair Clarkson endgame

Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson. (Image: AAP Image/Joe Castro)
Expert
14th March, 2018
53

The longest tenured coach in the AFL has two years to run on his contract. His team has ascended the mountain, twice, and tumbled all the way down again. The past 18 months have me wondering: are we in the Alastair Clarkson endgame?

The Australian Football League grows more sophisticated and nuanced by the year, as seen in the approaches to team building, to back office staff appointments, and most significantly to coaching.

Not coaching in the active sense – coaches are coaches, as they always have been, with their own schemes and modes of operation – but the maturity towards coaches, and their contracts.

We have lived through the golden age of coaching stability. Just two teams have changed abruptly in the past two years: Brisbane (Justin Leppitsch to Chris Fagan) and Gold Coast (Rodney Eade to Stuart Dew). Melbourne also switched (Paul Roos to Simon Goodwin), but that was ordained two years prior.

In the preceding two year period, five clubs got in on the act. And in the two years prior to that, another five changes were made.

We are in somewhat uncharted waters – coaching tenure is as sure a thing as ever, which probably spells danger for one or more clipboard holders across the league, as Josh Elliott raised yesterday.

No club has exhibited this better than the Hawks of Hawthorn.

Clarkson has been at the helm since the end of the 2004 season – that’s 14 offseasons – and next week will begin his 14th season as boss.

In that time, and I kid you not, 57 other men have coached an AFL club for at least one game. Melbourne has churned through eight head coaches, Essendon seven, Brisbane and Adelaide six.

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Clarkson has coached 305 games of football for Hawthorn. Just six men have had longer coaching careers for a single club: Norm Smith (310) at Melbourne, Alan Jeans (332) at St Kilda, David Parkin (355, in two stints) at Carlton, Dick Reynolds (415) at Essendon, Kevin Sheedy (634) at Essendon, and Jock McHale (713) at Collingwood.

The hallmark of their longevity? Premierships. Smith won six with Melbourne, Jeans one (St Kilda’s lone flag), Parkin three, Reynolds four, Sheedy four, and McHale seven. Clarkson has four.

Hawthorn Hawks 2015 AFL Grand Final Premiership Flag

AAP Image/Julian Smith

Another common thread? Most coached for an extended period after their final grand final win. Smith had three seasons for Melbourne before spending four at South Melbourne. Jeans spent a fruitless decade at St Kilda before winning three premierships in ten years at Hawthorn. Parkin stayed at Carlton for three years after his second premiership, went to Fitzroy for three relatively poor years, spent two years out of the game, and came back to lead the Blues for another decade (winning another premiership).

Reynolds spent ten years at Essendon after his fourth and final flag, without winning another. Sheedy was Essendon’s coach for seven years after their 2000 premiership, spent four years on the sidelines, and came back to lead the GWS Giants in their first two seasons. And McHale was Collingwood’s coach for a dozen years after his final premiership victory.

All made grand finals after their last win. But none won the last game of the season.

The end of Clarkson’s current contract, 2019, will be his 15th season in charge of the Hawks. That’s the same amount of time Parkin coached Carlton all up. If we look at the first 15 years of each of the longest tenured coaches in league history, Clarkson’s record holds up.

Seasons Finals campaigns Grand finals Premierships
Norm Smith 15 11 8 6
Alan Jeans 15 9 3 1
David Parkin 15 11 5 3
Dick Reynolds 15 12 8 4
Kevin Sheedy 15 11 5 3
Jock McHale 15 11 8 2
Alastair Clarkson 13 9 5 4
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Clarkson has taken Hawthorn to as many finals campaigns as Alan Jeans, as many grand finals as Kevin Sheedy and David Parkin, and as many premierships as Dick Reynolds, in two fewer seasons.

Another tick for Clarkson: he did it all in an era of competitive balance, of national drafts and salary caps, where the macro settings of the league are pulling everyone towards 11-win seasons.

But it leaves one pondering: does success beget tenure, or tenure beget success? Is Clarkson considered a supercoach because he has been able to stay relevant for so long, or has he been relevant for so long because he’s a supercoach?

Ask Damian Hardwick: he was a washed up, brain-dead zombie sleepwalking off a cliff this time last year.

Clarkson will overtake Smith in Round 6 of this season. Before his current coaching deal is out, he’ll join Parkin, Reynolds, Sheedy and McHale in the top-five single-club coaches of all time. If you believe the betting markets, the Hawks won’t be contending for a premiership in that time.

But two busy off seasons, and some hints of what’s to come during this year’s preseason competition, can Clarkson bring his team back to the promised land sooner than we all expect?

Vital signs
Markets have pegged the Hawks as this year’s 11th or 12th placed team, on the basis of odds to make the eight. However theirs is a relatively modest $2.25 to play a game in September; the club’s over-under win total is set 10.5 at most books and the action has been fairly even.

The Hawks won 10.5 games last year, a flattering 1.7 above the club’s Pythagorean win total (8.8 wins). If you take the latter, and expect Hawthorn to have average in-game luck and a 50:50 record in close games, the market expects Hawthorn will be around two wins better than they were last season.

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2017 was Hawthorn’s first losing season since 2009, marking the end of the club’s modern golden era that yielded four straight grand finals and three premierships. But it wasn’t all bad.

As Clarkson himself said, the early stumbles that led to an 0-4 start resulted in Hawthorn “consciously decelerating” their 2017 season. Read: play the kids, sends guys off for surgery, try a few tactical tweaks… tanking, but not tanking, if you know what I mean.

Clarkson was comparing his team’s season to Sydney’s; the latter working hard to claw back the lost ground of an 0-6 start, and eventually getting battered by the Cats in a semi-final. Instead, inspired by the difficulties of their 2009 campaign (where the Hawks started 1-6 but didn’t give up on finals all year, eventually falling short), Hawthorn used the year to plan for the future. To tank in the pragmatic sense, but not in the literal sense that the league has such an issue with.

It allowed the, to consolidate the list management strategy that took hold in the 2016 off season. The core midfield was turned over to Tom Mitchell and Liam Shiels, and Jaeger O’Meara once his knee was 110 per cent ready to go. The club renovated its defensive half; Ryan Burton placed in the Rising Star, Blake Hardwick emerging as a flex-size defender with promise, James Sicily doing James Sicily things (playing quality football while also acting like a git) but in defence rather than up forward. Jack Gunston also spent time in the back half, his kicking an important means by which the Hawks were able to stop their early-season skid.

After trying to play a handball-heavy game – that their precision-kicking, pace-controlling playing group was not well suited to – the Hawks went back to what they knew around the middle of the year as the club’s fortunes stabilised. Between Round 7 and Round 12, they had a kick-to-handball ratio of 1.5, compared to 1.16 in the first six weeks. They re-upped the handball count in the second half of the year, but also increased their uncontested marking – from 86 per game between Round 1 and Six to 95 between Round 12 and the end of the year.

The attempted kicks into space open, which were a hallmark of their early season form, were replaced by controlled kicks more in line with the Hawks we know. That trend carried through into the 2018 preseason.

While they lost both of their preseason games, there were signs Hawthorn is set to return to its kick-centric, ball controlling ways now it has much of its first-choice team back. There were still opportunities for overlap handballs to running half backs, but there was plenty more kicking to leading forwards, and attempts to move the ball to dangerous areas of the ground with sequences of zig-zag kicks.

The forward line looks potent once again, after falling victim to the injury bug last season. It is small-ball centric, with Jarryd Roughead the lone lumbering big man, given Gunston is as sound below his knees as he is above his head. They are to be surrounded by Cyril Rioli, Paul Puopolo and Luke Breust, with newcomer Jarman Impey running a wing as an attacking midfielder. The untackleable Shaun Burgoyne has played plenty of forward time in the preseason, and would act as another ground ball threat if stationed there more permanently.

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jarryd-roughead-hawthorn-hawks-afl-2017-tall

Hawks captain Jarryd Roughead (AAP Image/Rob Blakers)

They have the means to play a high-pressure brand of football inside the stripe, as they did at the peak of their powers in 2014 and 2015.

The Hawks look a little thin through the middle, but should they get 22 games out of Tom Mitchell, Jaeger O’Meara, Isaac Smith and Liam Shiels, there are certainly worse core midfield units out there. Their midfield depth is average to poor, and will take some time to rebuild after being allowed – through success – to drop away during the golden era.

Where Hawthorn look most vulnerable is the back half – caught between a cabal of veterans, who looked out of sorts when in the team last year, and a gang of youths that needs some more time to gel into a cohesive unit. Hawthorn conceded 5.9 per cent more points per minute of opposition possession last season (ranked 14th), and allowed scores on 49.5 per cent of opposition inside 50 entries (ranked 15th).

The return of James Frawley will help provide some stopping strength, but the Hawks will rely a unit comprised players with three seasons or less of experience each. But, this may hint at the way Hawthorn wants to go about its business in 2018. And potentially beyond.

Clarkson’s endgame
‘Endgame’ has multiple meanings – stick it into Google and a Taylor Swift song takes up the entirety of the first page – but I like Urban Dictionary’s the best (even though Urban Dictionary isn’t 100 per cent serious): “the ultimate agenda or desired consequence of a planned series of events (often elaborate or unknown to outsiders)”

The Alastair Clarkson Coaching Academy has filled almost half of the non-Hawthorn coaching positions in the league, if one were to consider Chris Fagan an adjunct professor and Don Pyke (whose assistant coach career ended with Adam Simpson, a graduate) a student-by-correspondence. There are more coaches in the league branching from Clarkson than there are from Paul Roos, who was the former tree trunk from which the league’s head coach talent grew.

His takeover of the league’s IP took a different turn in the past two years. First was the moving-on of trusted lieutenant Sam Mitchell to the West Coast Eagles on a player-to-coach contract. Second was the un-retirement of Luke Hodge, who will spend two years in Brisbane helping out Fagan. There, both Mitchell and Hodge (Clarkson’s premiership captains) would experience life at other clubs, in different circumstances, outside of the Melbourne bubble.

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At what point does Clarkson decide he has done all he can? I have a feeling we have entered his endgame.

Hawthorn Hawks coach Alastair Clarkson

AAP Image/Julian Smith

Coaching out his current contract will take Clarkson to 15 seasons in charge, the same amount of time Parkin spent at Carlton. Clarkson may end up with one or two fewer finals campaigns, but he has as many grand final appearances and one more grand final win. At a minimum, Clarkson will have coached 349 games – add a final in and he’ll get to 350.

His ascendency to the Australian Football Hall of Fame is already assured, no matter what happens in the final two years of this contract. His legacy, as one of the most important members of the Hawthorn Football Club, can be secured over the next 44 games.

In two years, the renovation of ‘Hawthorn’ the entity will be close to complete. The entire leadership of the club has changed hands since they won their last premiership, and will be firmly entrenched. The Hawks will have started the development of their new football home at Dingley, securing their financial future and warding off any chance of a return to the dark days of the 1990s.

The playing list is turning over at a pace the club has not seen in almost a football generation. While it remains the oldest and most experienced in the competition, that is almost solely due to the league-high eight players over the age of 29. They have 23 players aged under 24, which is only one fewer than the league median (24). In two years, Hawthorn’s list will have the profile of a finals contender once again, rather than this strange, golden-era-driven outlier.

Mitchell will have completed three of his four-year stint at West Coast, while Luke Hodge will be at the end of his two-year contract at Brisbane – apprenticeships worthy of a return to their football home in some capacity.

Clarkson is one of the most successful coaches of not just this era of football, but of all time. He doesn’t need to sign a contract extension before he’s ready to do so. But what if he doesn’t sign a contract extension? Not because he’s not wanted, but because his tenure is destined to reach the most natural of conclusions imaginable for a coach who has been in a position so brutal, so challenging, for so long?

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History suggests this rare breed of football leader – the coach who can outwit, outplay and outlast a cutthroat league and everything it can throw – may have what it takes to stay in the game. But to reach the peak of the mountain once more? Boy, that’s tough.

For all the positive signs the Hawks are sure to show on the field this season, my call for the biggest storyline regarding the brown and gold will centre off the field, as we reach the final stages of Alastair Clarkson’s endgame.