Master class: John Kennedy with Hawks coach Alastair Clarkson and Sydney opponent John Longmire on Tuesday. Photo: Dave Goudie / Eagle Image
AT THE AFL Coaches Association's annual grand final week bash on Tuesday night, the chance wasn't missed to bring Saturday's coaches and their first mentor together. As John Kennedy stood between Alastair Clarkson and John Longmire, he told them he wished both could win. Tears welled.
Kennedy's shadow fills the stage of the 2012 premiership showdown - as veritable father of Hawthorn, grandfather of a Sydney star and first AFL coach of the men steering the two ships. He means a lot to Clarkson and Longmire, just as they have been through enough to fleetingly wish the same of each other - at least until their game faces are donned.
There is a deep North Melbourne thread to this year's play-off, and an unforgettable starting point to the relationship between the two coaches. As Greg Miller, who recruited both to Arden Street, says: ''They met on the plane on the way to London - to play in the 'Battle Of Britain' [against Carlton].''
Longmire was 16 and fresh off a Corowa farm. Ron Joseph, North's legendary administrator, recalls Kennedy saying of the new recruit: ''Bring him over and we'll play him. We'll run him around out there.''
Denis Pagan, then the Roos' under-19s coach, was runner on this infamous day when Clarkson was a central figure in what Pagan calls ''the hullabaloo''. As Ian Aitken lay prone with a broken jaw, and Carlton players sought instant and violent retribution, Longmire was caught in the crossfire. Such was his very first outing in North colours.
''They run out there and Johnny's got a look at Al in full flight, and he's wondering, 'What the hell's this AFL footy about?''' Miller laughs.
They had come to North by unconventional pathways, and a friendship that from afar might seem unlikely, has endured. Clarkson's home town of Kaniva was in Essendon's zone, but Miller says St Kilda made out to have signed him - until his parents said the pertinent signatures weren't actually theirs. Longmire should have been Sydney-bound, but Miller's Swans past (as South Melbourne player and later recruiter) gave him a crucial ''in''.
Their coaching prospects at the time were chalk and cheese. Joseph says if you'd asked, he'd have said Longmire would be back on the farm within a heartbeat of the final siren sounding on his playing career. ''With Alastair, you could always tell he was going to make a career out of football.''
Pagan says Longmire was ''very serious, very driven, a genuine person who you could trust with your life''. Be he didn't think he would be a coach. ''I didn't necessarily see him as a tormented soul.''
Clarkson was different - and remains so, relative to the outside perception of him as something of a coach's box volcano. ''Alastair's got a heart of gold,'' Pagan says. ''He's got a genuine care and interest in everyone he's involved with, he's completely different to what he portrays when he goes into combat mode.''
At odds with their North Melbourne roots, this pair from a club that didn't encourage its players to join the footballers' union influenced the players' association's evolution into the strong body that safeguards players' rights today.
Clarkson was involved in the review of the AFLPA's structure, and Longmire backed another former North man, Andrew Demetriou, to get the association's top job. Miller acknowledges Clarkson's part in the AFLPA becoming ''a dynamic force'', and says Longmire would have agitated more subtly, but to no less effect.
As another leading figure in the players' association story said yesterday: ''At the end of the day, Johnny Longmire's actually probably shaped Andrew Demetriou's career.''
Miller says Clarkson was ''a teacher and a leader'', organised, ahead of his time (he points to a web design business Clarkson ran when the internet was just a new toy - ''one of 100 businesses he had''). ''He was always a man in a hurry.''
His thoughts on where Longmire has ended up are captured by a chat they had when the full-forward who reinvented himself as a back-up premiership ruckman came into his office, nearing 30, and asked Miller if his future lay in football or administration. ''I said, 'Administration buddy, you'll be far better at that. Coaching's a cut-throat game, you won't last five minutes'.'' The humble pie letter of apology was penned and sent long ago.
Now they meet to decide the season's champion. The North Melbourne tentacles extend to Leigh Tudor and John Blakey in Longmire's box, and Adam Simpson in Clarkson's, but Joseph scoffs at the idea that North folk can own a little of the day. ''Unless you're in it as a club it means $#@! all.''
He is moved, though, by how the coaches' paths have again reached a common point. ''In the time they shared at North they were genuinely good friends. Even though they were a bit apart in character, they shared a great friendship.
Miller agrees: ''They'd be proud of each other, in a funny sort of way.''