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Thanks for the memories, Clarko

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Roar Guru
21st August, 2021
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After 17 years as coach and 390 games at the helm for 228 wins and four flags, the curtain has fallen on the Alastair Clarkson era at Hawthorn.

The super-coach leaves Glenferrie Oval in a much better state than when he found it, having arrived when the club was on its knees.

At the time of his appointment as head coach in September 2004, the Hawks had just endured their worst season ever, finishing second-last on the ladder with just four wins, after previous coach Peter Schwab declared during the pre-season that the club could win the flag.

Elsewhere, the Brisbane Lions were the most dominant side in the AFL having won the previous three flags, John Howard was prime minister, Steve Bracks was premier of Victoria, and Australia had just won 17 gold medals at the Athens Olympics.

Clarkson arrived at Hawthorn with a clear mission – to make the club great again, and that’s exactly what he would do in the ensuing 17 years.

The Hawks went into the post-season draft armed with three of the first seven picks, including a priority pick, which they would use on Jarryd Roughead. The other two players they selected with those high picks were Lance Franklin and Jordan Lewis.

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They joined previous draftees Luke Hodge and Sam Mitchell, who both arrived at the club in 2001. Four of these players would later go on to play in each of the club’s 2008, 2013, 2014 and 2015 flags, with Franklin missing out on the latter two flags.

More on that later, but let’s take the time to look back at how Alastair Clarkson turned a basket case into a powerhouse club.

His first match in charge of the Hawks ended in a 63-point loss to the Sydney Swans at the SCG, which also doubled as the debut match for Lance Franklin, who ironically now calls the Harbour City home, following his stunning transfer north at the end of the 2013 season.

But it would not take long for Clarkson to register his first win as coach, when the Hawks upset recent triple-premiers the Brisbane Lions by 46 points at the MCG in Round 4.

The match saw breakthrough performances for third-year midfielder, and now-coach Sam Mitchell, who racked up 36 disposals, and fourth-gamer Franklin, who earned an AFL Rising Star nomination after kicking one major.

Roughead and Lewis had made the AFL debuts in the previous week’s match against Essendon, which the Hawks lost by two points.

Ultimately, the Hawks would win just five matches for the season, with their only top-eight win being against Melbourne in Round 8, while there were also notable victories over Fremantle (in Perth) and Essendon in Rounds 9 and 20 respectively.

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The following draft saw another future multiple premiership player in Grant Birchall, and former St Kilda forward Brent Guerra, arrive at the club.

While another season without finals followed, the club finished 2006 strongly, winning their final four games, including a 61-point thrashing of future powerhouse the Geelong Cats at Marvel Stadium, to finish 11th with nine wins from 22 matches.

The 2007 season saw the club return to the finals for the first time since 2001, finishing fifth on the ladder with a 13-9 record as the crop of the draftees started to gel together.

In their elimination final they would face the Adelaide Crows, who had reached the preliminary final in the previous two seasons but would only finish eighth on the ladder, at Docklands.

The Hawks trailed at quarter, half and three-quarter time, but a stunning final quarter, capped by a clutch goal from Franklin at the death, saw them win by three points before bowing out in the semi-final stage against the Kangaroos.

That would only be the beginning of better times ahead at Hawthorn.

After drafting Cyril Rioli and luring Stuart Dew out of retirement in the post-season draft, the club started the 2008 season with a bang, winning their first nine matches including a 104-point thrashing of Melbourne at the MCG in Round 1.

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They would finish each round no lower than third on the ladder, and eventually finished second only behind the reigning premiers, the Geelong Cats.

In the final round against Carlton, Franklin became the first man since Tony Lockett in 1998 to kick over 100 goals in a regular season, sparking the most recent in-game pitch invasion in AFL history.

Wins over the Western Bulldogs and St Kilda, to whom the Hawks lost their only regular season matches against, saw them advance to the grand final where they’d face the Cats, who were going for back-to-back flags.

The Hawks went into the match as massive underdogs, but they would pull off a major upset to win their tenth premiership, and first since 1991, in front of a grand final crowd of 100,012 – the biggest since 1986.

Mark Williams booted three majors, while Luke Hodge won the Norm Smith Medal as the best-on-ground as the Hawks forced the Cats into several uncharacteristic errors, including a large number of rushed behinds, which forced the AFL to introduce a new rule in that regard the following season.

It was also the 305th and final game for club veteran Shane Crawford, who famously hijacked the microphone and yelled out the words “that’s what I’m talkin’ about!” during the post-match celebrations.

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The club entered the 2009 season underdone with injuries, and after an inconsistent season it all came down to a final-round clash against Essendon to determine whether they would play finals or not.

In that match, the Hawks led by 22 points at halftime before things took an ugly turn early in the third quarter when Brad Sewell was KO’d in a contentious bump from Bombers captain Matthew Lloyd.

This left the Hawks one man down for the rest of the match and they would ultimately lose by 17 points, becoming the first defending premier since the Adelaide Crows in 1998-99 to miss the finals 12 months after winning the flag.

Port Adelaide midfielder Shaun Burgoyne would join the club in the off-season that followed, but he would not make his Hawthorn debut until Round 8, to which point the Hawks had lost six of their first seven matches.

The Hawks would beat Richmond by just three points in the match best known for Sam Mitchell’s last-gasp tackle on the late Shane Tuck, which also single-handedly saved the coaching career of Alastair Clarkson.

If it wasn’t for Mitchell’s heroics, Clarkson would’ve been sacked the next day and the Hawks would not have evolved into the powerhouse club that they were to become.

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The club recovered from their poor start to the 2010 season to finish seventh, but would lose to Fremantle by five goals in their elimination final at the since-demolished Domain Stadium to see their season ended three weeks before the grand final.

A much-improved 2011 season followed, with the club losing just four matches en route to finishing third on the ladder, with the losses being against the Geelong Cats (twice), Adelaide (Round 1) and Collingwood (Round 15).

They would ultimately fall just short of reaching the decider after losing a classic preliminary final against the Pies. Even then, it was a remarkable result given where they were after seven rounds in the previous season.

After adding Jack Gunston to their playing list during the off-season, the club started the 2012 season poorly, losing four of their first nine matches, but would then go on to finish first on the ladder with a 17-5 record despite losing one more game than in the previous season.

During the season, Franklin famously booted 13 goals in the match against North Melbourne in Launceston, while he also booted his 500th career goal in the Round 15 match against the fledgling GWS Giants which the Hawks won by a near-record 162 points.

Sam Mitchell initially finished as joint-runner-up to Trent Cotchin in the Brownlow Medal count, only for the two to retrospectively be awarded the medal in 2016 after Jobe Watson was ruled ineligible due to the Essendon supplements scandal.

Wins over Collingwood and the Adelaide Crows in the qualifying and preliminary finals, respectively, saw the Hawks advance to the grand final for the first time since 2008, where they’d face the Sydney Swans, who had finished third on the ladder with the league’s best defence.

The Hawks, which ranked number one in attack, went into the match as hot favourites, but after a dominant first quarter they would succumb to the tackling pressure applied by the Swans to trail by as much as 28 points in the third quarter.

They would manage to get the margin back to a point at three-quarter-time, and after leading by 12 points early in the final quarter they would concede the final four goals to lose by ten points, suffering their first loss in a grand final since 1987.

It was a disappointing end to a season that promised so much, but it would only fuel the fire for the club to succeed in 2013.

As dominant as they were in the 2012 regular season, the 2013 season saw the club compile a 19-3 win-loss record (with the three losses being to the Geelong Cats twice, and to Richmond in Round 19) as they again finished on top of the ladder.

After outlasting the Cats in the preliminary final, ending the so-called Kennett curse in the process, the club went on to defeat Fremantle in the grand final, with off-season import Brian Lake winning the Norm Smith Medal for his efforts in shutting down the Freo forward line.

In the days following their 11th premiership win, the club was rocked by the bombshell news that Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin had signed a mega nine-year contact with the Sydney Swans, raising fears about the Hawks’ immediate future.

But, like the Geelong Cats did when their superstar midfielder Gary Ablett Jr left for the Gold Coast Suns at the end of the 2010 season, the Hawks would continue to go about their business, beating Franklin and the Swans by 63 points in the 2014 decider to win their 12th flag.

Exactly six years after first winning the Norm Smith Medal, Luke Hodge won it for the second time, in his 250th game, as the Hawks claimed consecutive flags for the first time since 1988-89.

They would then go on to make it a hat trick, and a 13th flag overall, by thrashing the West Coast Eagles by 46 points in hot conditions in the 2015 decider, with off-season import James Frawley keeping Josh Kennedy goalless and Cyril Rioli winning the Norm Smith Medal as the best on ground.

This saw Alastair Clarkson become the first coach since Leigh Matthews (with the Brisbane Lions between 2001-03) to coach a side to three consecutive flags, and also the most successful coach in Hawthorn’s history, with four flags.

Entering the 2016 season, many questioned whether the Hawks could join the Collingwood class of 1927-30 as the only side to ever win four flags in a row, but after finishing third on the ladder, they would bow out of the finals in straight sets with losses to the Geelong Cats and Western Bulldogs.

Hawks fans were left to ponder what could’ve been after watching the Bulldogs, under second-year coach Luke Beveridge (who had worked under Clarkson at Hawthorn), go all the way for the first time since 1954.

Then came the departures of two club veterans, with Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis offloaded to the West Coast Eagles and Melbourne respectively as Clarkson sought to reshape his playing list.

Into the club came Tom Mitchell and Jaeger O’Meara, as the club looked to remain in premiership contention.

With their premiership success starting to wear off, the club finished 12th at the end of the 2017 season, meaning they would miss the finals for the first time since 2009.

They were, however, able to send Luke Hodge off a winner with a nine-point win over the Western Bulldogs in the final round of the regular season, only for the two-time Norm Smith Medallist to backflip on retirement and join ex-assistant coach Chris Fagan at the Brisbane Lions.

Without Hodge and Sam Mitchell on their list for the first time since 2001, the club surprised many by again finishing in the top four in 2018, only to crash out of September in straight sets for the second time in three years with losses to Richmond and Melbourne.

The club would promptly drop down the ladder in 2019, only to finish the season strongly with wins over finals teams the GWS Giants and West Coast Eagles, on either side of beating the Gold Coast Suns at a packed Marvel Stadium in Jarryd Roughead’s final game.

His retirement, as well as the departure of Grant Birchall to the Brisbane Lions at season’s end, meant that there were no players left from the 2008 premiership side at the club by the time the 2020 season began.

It proved to be the most challenging season of all, with the global COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on not just the AFL, but also the Australian sporting calendar.

After beating the Brisbane Lions by 28 points at the MCG in Round 1, the season was put on hold for nearly three months, and a new rolling fixture was released replacing the original fixture that was released in October 2019.

The club evacuated Victoria after Round 5, shortly before the state went into lockdown to tackle a massive second wave of coronavirus infections, setting up short-term hubs in Sydney and Perth before finishing the season by playing home games at the Adelaide Oval.

Ultimately, they would win only five games, finishing 15th as they suffered their worst season of the Clarkson era. A win over the Suns in Ben Stratton and Paul Puopolo’s final games, though, saved them from what would’ve been their lowest ever finish (16th).

Then, as late as Round 19 this year, the club appeared headed for their lowest ever finish when they languished in 17th place on the ladder with only four wins and a draw.

But when it was announced that the handover from Alastair Clarkson to Sam Mitchell would take place 12 months earlier than planned, the club finished the season strongly, beating the Brisbane Lions, Collingwood and Western Bulldogs to finish 14th with a 7-2-13 record.

History tells us that Clarkson’s final game in charge ended in a 12.11 (83)-all draw against Richmond. In that game, the Hawks led by as much as 31 points before five straight Tigers goals, including one to Jack Riewoldt right at the death, saw the match end with the scores tied.

Alastair Clarkson

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

Not only that, it was also the final game for veteran Shaun Burgoyne, who was playing in his 407th AFL game and 250th for the Hawks.

With his retirement, it means Joel Selwood has become the newest oldest premiership player. The current Geelong Cats captain is the only player remaining from the club’s 2007 premiership team still playing in the AFL today.

Another three further premiership winners from the noughties – Grant Birchall, Lance Franklin and Tom Hawkins – also remain.

Back on topic now, and Alastair Clarkson will depart the Hawthorn Football Club as their most successful coach, coaching the most games (390), wins (228) and flags (four) in the club’s history.

In addition, he has also acted as a mentor to several past and current AFL coaches, including:
• Damien Hardwick, who first joined Clarkson on the Hawthorn coaching panel in 2005 and was an assistant in the 2008 premiership victory before taking on the Richmond coaching role in 2010 and leading them to three flags in 2017, 2019 and 2020.
• Todd Viney, who coached Melbourne for the final five games of the 2011 season after the late Dean Bailey was sacked after their near-record 186-point loss to the Geelong Cats at Kardinia Park.
• Leon Cameron, who has coached the GWS Giants since 2014 and, against all odds, coached them to the 2019 grand final where Hardwick’s Tigers won in a landslide by 89 points.
• Adam Simpson, who was an assistant in the Hawks’ 2013 premiership victory before taking on the West Coast Eagles coaching role in 2014 and leading them to a flag in 2018.
• Luke Beveridge, who was player development manager at Collingwood when they won the flag in 2010, and was an assistant in the Hawks’ 2013 premiership victory before taking on the Western Bulldogs coaching role in 2015 and leading them to a flag in 2016.
• John Barker, who coached Carlton in the second half of the 2015 season after Mick Malthouse was sacked following Round 8.
• Brendon Bolton, who coached the Hawks for five matches midway through the 2014 season when Clarkson was sidelined due to illness, than coached Carlton between 2016-19 before returning to Hawthorn in 2020.
• Chris Fagan, who has coached the Brisbane Lions since 2017 and led them from wooden spooners to consistent finalists.
• Brett Ratten, who has coached St Kilda since mid-2019. He had previously coached Carlton between 2007 and 2012 before joining the Hawks as an assistant coach in 2013 and being part of the club’s hat trick of flags between 2013-15.
• And finally, Sam Mitchell, who has now succeeded Clarkson as head coach and will coach the club in his own right for the first time in Round 1 next season.

Sam Mitchell of the Hawks addresses players

(Photo by Cameron Grimes/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Additionally, Don Pyke acted as an assistant under Simpson at the West Coast Eagles between 2014-15 before being selected to replace the late Phil Walsh as Adelaide Crows head coach in 2016.

With Clarkson’s time at Hawthorn officially finished, it means Sam Mitchell, the club’s 2008 premiership captain, has officially taken the reins as head coach, and he will not have long before he starts stamping his authority on the playing list.

He becomes the third premiership captain since the turn of the century, after James Hird (2000) and Michael Voss (2001-03), to later coach their clubs.

He also joins Brett Ratten (Carlton), Matthew Primus (Port Adelaide) and Nathan Buckley (Collingwood) as those to captain and coach their clubs in the same time period.

Though Hird and Voss won five flags between them as players (and also shared the Brownlow Medal in 1996), neither enjoyed the same success they did as coaches.

Under Voss, the Lions contested only one finals series – in 2009, his first season as coach, where they came from behind to beat Carlton in the elimination final before losing to the Western Bulldogs by 51 points in the semi-final. He would be sacked as coach just before the end of the 2013 season.

Hird also took the Bombers to a finals series in his first season as coach, in 2011, only for the club to suffer a 62-point thrashing at the hands of the Blues in the elimination final. He would also be dismissed from his post close to the end of the 2015 season as controversy shrouded his time as coach.

Thus, the Hawks will want to ensure that the same favourite son curse that plagued Voss and Hird at their respective clubs does not strike when Mitchell is at the helm.

He will have to overcome a hoodoo that has lasted 15 seasons, in the sense that no man has captained and then coached the same club to a flag since John Worsfold did so with the West Coast Eagles, first as captain (1992 and 1994), and then as coach (2006).

To finish off, thank you, Alastair Clarkson, for your long continuous service as Hawthorn coach, during which you left a legacy that will never be matched or forgotten at the club.

And good luck to Sam Mitchell as he embarks on the rollercoaster ride that is the AFL coaching caper, and may he enjoy the same success he did as on-field captain in the coaches box.

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