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As the AFL plays catch me if you can with Covid-19 in a desperate bid to keep the season going, there will be one man quietly relieved to be off the treadmill. Alastair Clarkson, with almost 17 years of perspiration beneath his furrowed brow as the mastermind of one of Australian sport’s great success stories, will soon be a free man.
Time will reflect on Clarkson’s imminent removal as Hawthorn head coach – a big deal presently overshadowed by a national health crisis and the Tokyo Olympics - as an embarrassingly arrogant piece of maneuvering by the Hawks. While there are always two sides to every story, machinations at play apparent only to the privileged few, there seems only one winner from all this, and it is not the Hawthorn Football Club.
Throughout this ordeal – and this is what it should be termed for a man who has led his club with distinction – Clarkson’s head has been held high. Even at Friday’s announcement, Clarkson sat alongside Mitchell and looked a man at peace with it all. Given the awkward situation in which he had been placed, the rift that had emerged between the two coaches and his tumultuous relationship with Hawthorn hierarchy, Clarkson is either a man of extreme virtue or he is just bloody good at biting his tongue. “We’ve come to the realisation that this footy club needed some fresh air,” Clarkson said. “I’m enormously grateful to this footy club for the opportunity I’ve had to coach at this great club.”
Looking back at Hawthorn’s hurriedly announced succession plan less than a month ago, it is hard to believe they convinced anyone this was in the best interests of the club, or indeed that it might ever see the light of day. Drawn-out handovers, after all, do not have the best of track records in the AFL. “I don’t think we’ve misled the members,” Hawks president Jeff Kennett said last week as his plans backfired. “We’ve done what we think is the right thing. It hasn’t worked. I accept responsibility for that.”
There seems only one winner from all this, and it is not the Hawthorn Football Club
The drums had been beating for some time that Clarkson would not survive beyond his 2022 due date. Despite Hawthorn’s fall from grace in ladder terms, willingly doing away with a man of Clarkson’s track record would be a hard sell to members and fans. Muddying the waters even further was the ongoing aggro between Clarkson and the Kennett-Justin Reeves duopoly and the soft-cap ramifications of having to pay out Clarkson in the event they would have to let him go 12 months early.
It all added up to Hawthorn wanting a quiet 2021 before showing their hand at some juncture next year. But then Collingwood came knocking for Mitchell, Clarkson’s understudy and Box Hill coach, and the proverbial hit the fan. Hawthorn might not have panicked but they were rushed into a decision they hadn’t thought through and weren’t ready to make. As Hawks great Jason Dunstall said: “You’ve got this great resource that you’re basically winding up because you’re afraid of losing another resource. You’re placing a lot of faith and pressure on Sam Mitchell.”
From the outset, Clarkson had insisted he would see out his contract. And initially Mitchell made all the right noises about wanting to make the plan work. But it did not take long for the time bomb to start ticking.
A fortnight ago Mitchell furiously refuted reports he had insisted on Clarkson’s departure at a mediation session gone wrong. “I must admit, I get a bit pissed off with people saying that,” Mitchell said as speculation grew he was working behind the scenes to have Clarkson ousted forthwith. Veteran journalist Caroline Wilson, who blew the lid on the spot fires engulfing Hawthorn, was pilloried for her reporting on the matter but she was spot-on – the Hawks were imploding.
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For Kennett’s part, the pressure is now all his. In freeing themselves from Clarkson’s shadow, as Clarkson himself put it, the club and the man who run it are now at the mercy of the seeds they have sown. Even the best coaches come and go, but it is hard to look at Clarkson’s jettisoning in any other way than distasteful. Kennett primarily, but Reeves also, will have to live with the fact the coach who started with nothing and won Hawthorn four premierships was casually undermined and then discarded. “Jeff Kennett clearly thinks he walks on water and it would work for him,” Mick Malthouse, who knows a thing or two about succession plans, told the ABC. “It hasn’t and was never going to.”
Now, probably the code’s finest mind is not only on the shelf but parading the streets with an enormous sandwich board strung around his neck. Potential suitors: please form an orderly queue. Collingwood? Carlton? Who knows? From Hawthorn’s perspective it is more a case of who cares. Clarkson says he will take a breather at season’s end but, while you can take the man out of coaching, you cannot take coaching out of the man. Wherever he goes next will be their gain and Hawthorn’s loss.