Shake: Ross Lyon and Alastair Clarkson on Friday. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
- The 2013 grand final teams
- The Age experts' grand final predictions
- How Hawthorn can win the flag
- How Fremantle can win the flag
Around 5.15pm today, when the hurly burly's done, and the battle lost and won, Kevin Sheedy will hang a medal around the neck of Alastair Clarkson or Ross Lyon. One of them will be the recipient of the Jock McHale medal. The other will have either lost consecutive grand finals, or a treble of them.
That Sheedy is awarding the medal is a metaphoric moment, since the four-time premiership coach - the most visible coach of the past quarter of a century - will be giving an unofficial blessing and welcoming one of the coaches to an elite club. Lyon would become a premiership coach, Clarkson a multiple flag winner.
The grand final coaches square off in the lead-up to the big day. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
In the eyes of many within the football ''industry''', Lyon and Clarkson are the game's premier coaches already - an assessment that Lyon's friend, former teammate and ex-coaching colleague Paul Roos endorsed on Friday. Their stature, though, doesn't rest on premierships, plural. They're recognised as the best (or near enough to it), based on how they've taken the game in certain directions and extracted commitment from their players.
Lyon's arrival at Fremantle has transformed that football club, and it is noteworthy that the Dockers' cross-town enemy was willing to follow the Freo lead and poach Clarkson, if possible. We don't hear much about the brutal treatment of Mark Harvey these days. This year, the Dockers truly have been Lyonised.
The Dockers' coach himself is lionised for his ability to galvanise players, to get them to ''buy in'' and follow his highly logical, almost mathematical game plan, which was dramatically showcased in that first half of the preliminary final, when the Swans were forced into a game of ''Rossball'', were trapped in the Lyon cage and couldn't get the ball out of their defence.
Fremantle's coach Ross Lyon in Collins St. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
Clarkson, meanwhile, broke the curse that bore the name of the Hawthorn president who, typically, called for the coach to be Jeffed after a round-one loss to Geelong. A second flag would assure Clarkson's place in the coaching pantheon - in the expanded AFL, two flags surely signifies greatness, though Sheedy suggested ''three or four'' flags remained the measure for ''great coach''.
Conversely and somewhat unfairly, another grand final defeat to a less gifted and defence-based team would invite questions about the precise Clarkson game plan, and whether it is really a house of sticks that can be blown apart under gale-force pressure. Forget that the plan held up against 16 clubs, including Geelong, this year. Grand finals are the cruelest games. ''Malcolm Blight was a great coach and he lost three [grand finals],'' said Clarkson's manager and good friend Liam Pickering. ''Then he went and won two at Adelaide. They're so hard to win.''
Clarkson and Lyon are driven, they are fierce and loyal fellows. Two of Lyon's closest mates - one a high school friend, and neither of them from football backgrounds - will be sitting in the coach's box today, assisting him with the computer-recorded match-ups. Lyon, as with many successful coaches, places a premium on trust. Clarkson's demand for loyalty famously saw him unload on chief executive Ian Robson when Robson defected to Essendon.
Hawks coach Alastair Clarkson reacts next to the premiership cup during the 2013 AFL Grand Final Parade. Photo: Michael Dodge
''Fiercely loyal,'' is Pickering's overriding description of ''Clarko'', which, the manager said, was why West Coast was not an option. ''It wasn't even a question … he treats these blokes [Hawthorn players] like sons.
''I don't think I've ever seen a more driven bloke than Alastair,'' added Pickering, who recalled how, in searching for a coach to replace Peter Schwab, Hawthorn's then vice-president Martin Jolly, told Pickering that, rather than trawling over experienced coaches, ''maybe we should be looking for the next Kevin Sheedy''. It's arguable that they found someone in Sheedy's ballpark, boasting the requisite hardness of the back pocket-style coach, as well Sheedy's talent for innovation.
Dermott Brereton, a member of the Hawks' board that boldly appointed Clarkson (Dermott had wanted the safer, experienced option of Gary Ayres), called him ''a feisty little bastard'' on Friday, while praising the Hawthorn coach for his ability to adapt and modify his game plan constantly.
Brereton said Clarkson had reached a ''fork in the road'' on a few occasions in his coaching career and chosen to change or greatly modify his game plan, having succeeded with the rolling zone in the 2008 premiership and then dispensed with it in 2010. Dermott observed that as recently as the past eight weeks, the Hawks - having overdosed on ''bombing'' long to tall forwards 10 metres to 20 metres from goal - had been kicking shorter to their forwards.
Roos said of Clarkson's pattern of changing and adapting his styles: ''I'd say he does ebb and flow a bit.'' But a premium on precise kicking - selecting and promoting players who can kick - has been consistent throughout his nine years at Hawthorn, which has seen the club ascend to heavyweight on all levels. Pickering recalled how, in Clarkson's first week as coach, the Hawk coaches had a working bee to fix the ramshackle facilities at Glenferrie. ''They were knocking down walls.'' Clarkson, clearly, is fond of renovating - game plans or rooms - having also dented the wall of the coach's box at the MCG with a well-aimed punch last year. These periodic bursts of anger - one of which prompted an apology after an outburst at a junior footy game - are part of the competitive Clarkson package.
The Lyon plan, predicated on defensive actions and winning the ball back, is similar to what he did at St Kilda, though, as Roos observed, Lyon had ''tweaked it with his [Fremantle] personnel''. Roos said Lyon's plan required ''a lot of structure and a lot of discipline''. It's a method that, as ex-Tigers coach and StKilda great Danny Frawley said, was beaten only by ''a toepoke by Matthew Scarlett  and a bounce of the ball [for Stephen Milne in the 2010 drawn grand final].'' Lyon has noted that the records don't record the runner-up.
Brereton reckoned that Lyon's coaching method had what he termed a ''spiritual dimension'' since it taught the players a way to play and then demanded their absolute belief in that way. Clarkson's way, though, is seen to involve more intuition from his players, several of whom - and especially Lance Franklin, Cyril Rioli and Luke Hodge - are creative, inventive players.
The grand final pits a dramatic contrast between a team that is the best with the ball, and another that is without peer when it doesn't have the ball. It could be seen, thus, as a clash of philosophies, although Roos reminded us that ''you've got to give credit to Hawthorn's defence and Freo's attack'' as well.
''Both teams and both coaches have a brand,'' said Roos of the grand final. ''We know what Hawthorn will bring and we know what Fremantle will bring. We know what we're going to see. We don't know who will win.''
The AFL grand final remains, even in an 18-team competition designed to be even, a game in which the runner-up is supposed to feel terrible, the winner absolute euphoria. Coaches invariably describe the victorious feeling not as euphoric, but one of relief. The coach - who is subject to so many slings, arrows and worse - is almost defined, in his own mind, by averting defeat.
This poses the interesting question of how Lyon and Clarkson would handle another defeat in the last game, given that each has been beaten narrowly in their most recent grand finals. Lyon's history suggests he will look forward as soon as he can, and dispense with the defeat. ''I think he's got a great capacity to live in the here and now,'' said Roos.
Lyon has been fated to enter each of his three grand finals (four if you count the replay of 2010) with a team that was considered less talented than the opposition. Brereton thought - as most of us do - that the Dockers ''batted deeper'' than the Saints, but that St Kilda's teams of 2009-10 had the edge for star power. Excepting 2009, when the Saints were minor premiers and had a game-style edge over the competition (the forward press), he's been steering the underdog.
The weight of expectation, thus, falls heavier on Clarkson, whose team and club will be disappointed with a yield of one flag over that six-year period. ''Our game, unfortunately, isn't the English Premier League [where there's no finals], or he'd have two or three titles,'' said Pickering.
Hawthorn president Andrew Newbold, who said he was not emotionally prepared for a loss last year, reckons the Hawks will rise again even in the event of defeat - which wasn't expected. ''I think we'll win.''
Newbold felt it would upset the players themselves more than anyone. ''Having said that, I think they'd reset - win or lose - and we'll be challenging again.''
If Lyon will move on quickly and ruthlessly focus on whatever is necessary to win next year's flag, Clarkson's after-match speech last year was a hint that, however the club handles it, this most competitive of coaching beasts has developed the perspective to deal with defeat. At the club's wake, the Hawks coach spoke of how the murder of Jill Meagher, and the death of his brother-in-law to a brain tumour represented ''true tragedy''.
''That's what brings a genuine tear to my eye,'' said the coach. ''We're in the theatre of sport.''
At 5.15pm today, one coach will need similar equanimity.