Australia

Farewell to Alastair Clarkson, the master coach

A little bit of romance died on Saturday afternoon at the MCG and a bit of me with it.

Alastair Clarkson has coached Hawthorn for the last time. 

I grew up as a mad Hawthorn supporter from the early 1970s.

When you have followed a football team as long as I have, you get very used to the idea that players and coaches come and go. They are all, as Clarko so frequently said, “temporary custodians” of the club. 

But there are some that leave an indelible mark and Alastair Clarkson was one of them.

The Hawks have had so much success under Clarkson that it’s easy to forget how low they had sunk before he came on board.

It was fitting that Alastair Clarkson’s last game as Hawthorn coach pitted him against old friend and rival Damien Hardwick of Richmond.  (

Getty Images / AFL Photos: Michael Willson

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During the glory years of the 70s and 80s, the premierships flowed and the Hawks were literally a fixture in the grand final.

They played seven straight between 1983 and ’89, winning four, followed by a swansong in ’91.

But then the well ran dry. 

The Hawks fell into a wilderness lasting more than a decade, coached by a trio of passionate favourite sons, Peter Knights, Ken Judge and Peter Schwab — all famous Hawthorn names but unable to lift the side without the stars of the previous generation.

By 2004, the Hawks missed the wooden spoon on percentage only and Peter Schwab was shown the door mid-season, in tears.

The club was once again deciding between favourite sons Terry Wallace, Gary Ayres and Rodney Eade for the coaching position.

But former champion full-forward Jason Dunstall, by now a board member and interim chief executive, bucked the trend.

He was the one who championed little-known Port Adelaide assistant coach Clarkson, who presented to the board with a fierce intellect and a revolutionary game plan.

Alastair Clarkson holds the premiership cup
Clarkson would lead the Hawks to a premiership in 2008.(

Simon Moss: AAP

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As a player, he’d eked out 10 years with North Melbourne and Melbourne as a tough tagger and defender with limited athletic skills but a fiery competitiveness he brought to his coaching.

Clarkson wanted youth, he wanted good kicks, he wanted to bring in IT specialists and ideas he’d developed doing a teaching degree, an MBA, and through visiting other sporting teams both in Australia and overseas. 

He was ambitious — he saw himself as a career coach and gave Hawthorn a case so compelling they couldn’t resist.

It helped that he was able to put his youth philosophy into practice immediately, picking up three players in that year’s draft that would form the nucleus of the team for the next period of phenomenal success. Enter Lance Franklin, Jarryd Roughead and Jordan Lewis.

The trio joined developing stars Luke Hodge, Sam Mitchell and Brad Sewell and, along with a sprinkling of veterans like Brownlow medallist Shane Crawford, Chance Bateman and Mark Williams, the Hawks had the makings of a new era.

It took some time, of course, but not as long as anyone had predicted.

In 2005 they finished 14th out of 16 teams, the next year, 11th.

By 2007, they’d made the eight and won a thrilling elimination final victory from behind over Adelaide, with Lance Franklin delivering on his immense promise by kicking seven goals.

In 2008, the pieces of Clarkson’s plan were in place: a youthful team with elite skills and a revolutionary defensive structure that was quickly labelled Clarkson’s Cluster. 

Rather than have players directly man an individual opponent, the Hawks formed a grid of players occupying space that would move in unison as the opponent searched for a way through. It was a masterstroke that proved incredibly difficult to penetrate.

Lance Franklin celebrates grand final win
Lance Franklin was the Hawks’ key attacking weapon.(

Getty Images: Quinn Rooney

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At the other end, Buddy’s Box left space in the forward line for Lance Franklin to kick 100 goals in the season — the last time that has happened — while his sidekick and future Hawthorn captain Jarryd Roughead kicked 75.

By the end of the home and away rounds, Hawthorn had one of the best defensive and offensive records of all 16 teams. Geelong were superior on both counts and finished on top of the ladder, but in the grand final, the Hawks were too good, depriving the Cats room to move.

They were helped by a mercurial youngster in his first season, Cyril Rioli, and an overweight veteran who Clarkson had coaxed out of retirement, Stuart Dew. In one crucial five-minute period of play in the third quarter, Dew kicked two goals and helped set up another two to set up the 26-point win.

It was the Hawks’ first grand-final win in 17 years, one masterminded and executed to precision by a well-drilled team under the tutelage of Clarkson.

Hawks celebrate with fans
Hawthorn fans revelled in the team’s success.(

AAP: David Crosling

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Basking in hubris, Hawthorn’s president Jeff Kennett boasted Geelong “lacked the mentality to defeat Hawthorn”.

And so was born the Kennett curse and a run of 11 straight victories by Geelong over the Hawks.

The team dipped the following years as teams worked their way through the cluster. Shane Crawford retired after finally winning an elusive premiership. There was talk of a premiership hangover. 

But the competitive fire burned. Clarkson was already working on his next surge to glory.

With the bevy of stars under his tutelage, Clarkson didn’t favour trips to the draft to top up.

Instead, he looked around for rejects and free agents from other clubs: David Hale, Ben McEvoy, Josh Gibson, Brian Lake, James Frawley, Jack Gunston, Brent Guerra and his piece de resistance, a hobbled former Port Adelaide premiership player, Shaun Burgoyne, fresh off a knee operation. 

Hawthorn's Burgoyne congratulates Gunston against the Eagles
Shaun Burgoyne and Jack Gunston were added to the Hawks roster.(

AAP: Mal Fairclough

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The Hawks thought Burgoyne might be good for three more years. He also retired this week after 250 games for the club over 12 seasons.

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To that mix he added rookies and late draft picks Luke Bruest and Ben Stratton as well as some inspired mature-age selections in Issac Smith and Paul Puopolo.

The Hawks made the grand final again in 2012 but lost to Sydney.

The following year they finally broke the Kennett curse, beating Geelong in the preliminary final and then winning the premiership against Fremantle.

They gained revenge over Sydney in the 2014 grand final and took apart West Coast in 2015.

The three-peat was Clarkson’s crowning glory, making him Hawthorn’s most successful coach and putting him among the greats of the game. Only Brisbane, under former Hawthorn legend Leigh Matthews, could claim three consecutive grand final wins (2001-03) in the modern era. 

Luke Hodge and Alastair Clarkson lift the AFL premiership trophy
Hawthorn completed the three-peat in 2015.(

AAP: Julian Smith

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The recipe was the same: Slick ball use by foot, depriving the opposition of the ball and, when it was contested, the tough nuts and ball winners like Sam Mitchell and Brad Sewell who could farm it out with precision, while Luke Hodge marshalled the defence like a second coach.

Clarkson even made the departure of Lance Franklin to Sydney in 2014 an asset.

Knowing Franklin was most likely going to depart at season’s end, Clarkson moved him to a half-forward flank where he became just as dangerous a weapon. He still kicked 60 goals that season, but he helped Roughead kick 72, Gunston 46 and Luke Bruest, 40.

Buddy Franklin clashes with Luke Hodge
The band was split up, but Clarkson made the most of Franklin’s departure to Sydney.(

AAP: Julian Smith

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2016 looked promising for the Hawks to make it four in a row as the team finished the season in third place. But two finals defeats followed and thereafter the magic was gone.

The Clarkson shine became tarnished with some off-field moves which will forever taint his legacy.

Former club captain Sam Mitchell was traded to West Coast after winning his fifth club champion award.

Sam Mitchell of the Hawks is carried from the MCG by Jordan Lewis and Luke Hodge while carrying a yellow football.
Sam Mitchell played 307 games for the Hawks, winning four premierships.(

AAP: Julian Smith

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It was painted as a mutual decision for Mitchell to continue his footballing education with a view to coaching, but the fans were nonplussed.

It was made all the worse just days later when Jordan Lewis, one of the trio of stars that helped build Hawthorn’s dynasty, was traded to Melbourne. If Mitchell had gone willingly, with Lewis there was unquestionably a bitterness.

The following year, Hawthorn’s former captain and one of the club’s greats, Luke Hodge, retired, only to have a change of heart and play for two more years at Brisbane. Another club great, Grant Birchall, soon followed him north.

When Cyril Rioli decided to retire in 2018, none of the four-time premiership stars remained apart from Roughead.

To see the heartbeat players of the club traded and given away tore at diehard Hawthorn supporters and exposed Clarkson’s ruthless streak.

Alastair Clarkson speaks at a press conference
Clarkson could be cantankerous at times.(

AAP: Julian Smith

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Clarkson could be cantankerous, feisty, even violent — he famously punched a hole in the wall of the MCG coach’s box. His veins would bulge in his neck as his face reddened with disgust at the actions of a player who broke the team rules on the field.

It wasn’t just legendary players that left — senior staff also made their ways to other clubs — some who were seen as intrinsic to reigning in some of Clarkson’s wilder flights of fancy.

But his loyalty was undeniable, as was his love for his players.

And he was never one to miss a psychological trick when there was one on offer — like the time he jogged topless in front of his players around Canberra’s Manuka Oval in the middle of a frigid winter afternoon. The next day it snowed, and the Hawks blitzed the Giants.

True, the departures of the club legends did open the way to bring in some new talent like Sydney’s prodigious ball-winner Tom Mitchell, who won a Brownlow Medal with Hawthorn, and Gold Coast’s Jaeger O’Meara.

Clarkson still had the desire to build another premiership-winning team.

An audacious trade for Port Adelaide forward Chad Wingard was Clarkson’s final throw of the dice to secure a fifth flag, but it didn’t pay off — the cupboard was bare.

Although the wins dried up, the Hawks were always a possibility to pull off an upset. Clarkson’s nous and game plan meant when the Hawks were on song they could open up an opposition — even superior ones. 

We’ve seen it this month after the bizarre and unedifying end to Clarkson’s coaching career.

The Hawks, after sitting in 17th position on the ladder for most of the season, have drawn with top of the table Melbourne and then beaten Brisbane, Collingwood, the Western Bulldogs and finished yesterday with a draw against Richmond.

It was only fitting that in his final match it was the 38-year-old Burgoyne who made a last-ditch effort to get a hand on the football before it crossed the line to tie the scores.

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Afterwards, Burgoyne and Clarkson walked off the ground arm-in-arm with players from both sides clapping them. The embrace lingered down the race and into the rooms.

If anything, the end of season run has drawn attention to the one question that has never been adequately posed, let alone answered: Why?

Why get rid of the undisputed best coach in the league and arguably one of the greatest the game has ever known?

Clarkson himself said earlier this week that he should have walked out five years ago, but the desire was always there to build another team and another vision to win another premiership.

Clarkson still has the passion and talks openly of the love he has for his players, which is clearly mutually returned.

The Hawthorn AFL senior coach looks to his left while walking on the ground at the MCG.
Alastair Clarkson said he was always going to have to be forced out of the club.(

AAP: Richard Wainwright

)

Talking about his removal this week on Fox Footy, he said he was always going to be forced out, “because I just couldn’t walk out on those relationships”. 

Did the message get tired or was there still more to give? We’ll never know.

His legacy is enormous: four premierships and the spawning of five current senior AFL coaches who between them have won every premiership since Hawthorn’s three-peat. 

Jeff Kennett in his second incarnation as Hawthorn president was the one who pushed through the move — seemingly out of fear of losing prodigal son and assistant coach Sam Mitchell to another club.

He could yet be responsible for the Kennett curse mark II.

A man in a suit stands with his arms folded among Hawthorn players.
Will Jeff Kennett’s actions result in a second Kennett’s curse?(

AAP: Julian Smith

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But as this last month has shown, the future is promising.

“I’m really excited and want our members and supporters to be excited about where this might go for our footy club, for the next chapter of the hard way,” Clarkson said, referencing the name of the official history of the Hawthorn Football Club.

He may only have been a temporary custodian, but there will be many chapters in the next edition of The Hard Way dedicated to Alistair Clarkson.

My love for Hawthorn was cemented the time my father took me to see the Hawks play for the first time. To this day the only memory that remains is of a blonde streak wearing number 5 — the club’s captain, Peter Crimmins.

Crimmins died in 1976 from testicular cancer just three days after the Hawks won that year’s premiership.

A photo of him frail in hospital holding the cup surrounded by his Hawthorn teammates is one of the game’s most famous images and now the club’s best and fairest award is named in his honour.

My favourite player during Hawthorn’s recent golden era was Sam Mitchell — another blonde streak who wore number five and won the Peter Crimmins Medal five times.

If there has ever been a more intelligent player, I’m yet to see him or her play. What he lacked in speed, he made up for in work effort, desire and exquisite skills with his ability to hit targets off either foot or hand and a sidestep that could bedazzle.

There’s every indication that he is already bringing that intelligence and work ethic to his coaching and my sincerest hope is that he succeeds as the leader of the Hawks.

But for now, all I can say after 17 years, 390 games, four premierships and a lifetime of great memories is two words:

Thanks, Clarko.


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