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WHEN you’re a perennial football chopping block, a small victory can seem large indeed. As it did when Hawthorn recorded its first win at Collingwood’s home ground of Victoria Park in July 1960.

Until that afternoon, Hawthorn had beaten the VFL powerhouse just three times in 60 attempts. The Hawks had not won a premiership, Collingwood had 13. The Magpies played off for another only a couple of months later while Hawthorn again missed the finals. But to say the pendulum of power was about to swing would be a massive understatement.

Hawthorn goes into today’s grand final against Sydney a warm favourite to add another premiership cup to a burgeoning trophy cabinet, making it 11 in total and taking it past Richmond on the all-time ladder, behind only Carlton, Essendon, Collingwood and Melbourne.

A fair bit has changed since that winter afternoon a tick over five decades ago, with Hawthorn striking premiership pay dirt more consistently than any other club in the competition at a strike-rate of one every five years. In the same period, Carlton comes closest with eight flags. The Magpies have won two.

The fundamentals for Hawthorn have stayed the same. Strong, driven and dedicated personalities leading the way. Presidents like Sandy “Doc” Ferguson, Phil Ryan, Ron Cook, and more recently Ian Dicker and Jeff Kennett. Coaching legends such as John Kennedy, David Parkin, Allan Jeans. Revered on-field leaders such as Graham Arthur, Parkin, Don Scott, Leigh Matthews.

The Hawthorn template has remained unbroken, the insistence on quality of character as well as mere ability sustaining the club through mostly good times but also the occasional crisis, like the near-merger with Melbourne in 1996, or through massive changes of circumstance.

The Hawks of today are based at Waverley, play home games at the MCG and several in Tasmania. Yet there has never remained the slightest doubt through the changes and marching of time about the heart which beats beneath the brown and gold. And there’s been ample evidence of it again this week.

At the AFL Coaches Association annual dinner on Tuesday night, long-serving club stalwart John Kilpatrick was honoured with a leadership award. Parkin became only the fourth coach after Kennedy, Ron Barassi and Tom Hafey to be named an official “coaching legend”. It was Parkin’s mentor Kennedy, whose son John jnr played in four Hawk flags, and whose grandson Josh will today represent the Swans, who made the presentation.

At the still spiritual home of Glenferrie Oval on Wednesday, Hawthorn wheeled out three generations of greats to speak about the club and about the significance of grand final day. Shane Crawford is a latter-day Hawk hero, Peter Knights a favourite of the 1970s and early 1980s, Arthur skipper of Hawthorn’s drought-breaking 1961 premiership side, and of the club’s official team of the century.

Crawford retired only four years ago. Knights last played in 1985, Arthur, now 76, in 1968. But the connection of each to the club remains watertight.

Arthur, who continued to serve the Hawks for more than 20 years in an administrative capacity after the end of his 232-game career, was in his first year as captain in 1960 when the club finally beat Collingwood on its own patch.

He’d arrived from Sandhurst in 1955 just as the Hawks were setting to rid themselves of the “easybeat” tag. More money was tipped into recruiting, landing the likes of South Australian big name Clayton “Candles” Thompson, and accompanying publicity the likes of which the club had seldom known.

Another future champion in Brendan Edwards would follow Arthur to Hawthorn from Sandhurst the following year. Then there were the likes of Les Kaine, Garry Young, and an influx of talent from the inner-suburban private school belt which would come to serve the Hawks so well, names like Colin Youren, Ian Law and John Winneke.

Arthur was marketing manager during the 1980s when Hawthorn traded on the “Family Club” moniker. It was the source of some cynicism among rivals, but well into the 21st century it remains a truism.

“Our leaders have always been that type of dedicated person who was committed to lead by example,” Arthur says. “John Kennedy set it up, and we had to follow. Big shoes to fill, but we did it to the best of our ability. People like Ron Cook, who was secretary when we won our first flag, and president when we won a lot in the ’80s.

“That ethos just gets handed down from generation to generation. ‘Parko’ had his 70th birthday recently, and we had about 30 guys get together from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. It was the greatest lunch of all time, and people like Don Scott just lapped it up, because that’s what footy clubs are all about.”

And winning. Of which Hawthorn has done plenty. The Hawks’ most sustained period of success stands like a beacon in these days of equalisation and with premierships harder to win than ever, an amazing eight flags won and 12 grand finals reached over 21 seasons between 1971-91.

Peter Knights played in three of those flags, and would have played in four but for an untimely injury in the 1971 second semi-final. He’d arrived at Hawthorn in 1969 along with another teenager, Leigh Matthews, both products of incredibly fruitful country and metropolitan zones which would land the Hawks the likes of Alan Martello, Kelvin Moore and Michael Tuck.

“I was 16 when I came here, a dairy farmer’s son, and I’d only seen a VFL game once before I came here to train, but I was a Hawthorn supporter, so it was almost like a dream,” he recalls. “I was in year 10 at Drouin High School, getting picked up in a taxi to come to train alongside these household names like [Peter] Hudson, Scott, [Peter] Crimmins and [Bob] Keddie, how lucky was I? I really had to pinch myself.”

Knights played 264 games, won two best and fairests, was runner-up in a Brownlow Medal and coached the club for two seasons in 1994-95 before finding out he’d been replaced via a TV news report. But like so many of his kin, there’s never been bad blood, Knights still working full-time for the club and passing on the mantra of commitment and success to all those who pass through its doors.

“One of my roles at the club is to do an induction with all new players and staff. I tell them, because it’s something I’ve never forgotten, about when I was presented with my first Hawthorn guernsey as a 16-year-old by John Kennedy.

“To this day, I remember him saying to me to be excited, be happy, but also know the responsibility that goes along with wearing it, that you’d be representing so many others that will never get the chance to wear it, or who have worn it before, and that you have to earn respect in it, to make sure that you fit the Hawthorn guernsey.”

Crawford fitted his perfectly from the moment he stepped into the club after being selected in the 1991 national draft. That was the year of Hawthorn’s ninth premiership. But for much of a 305-game, Brownlow Medal-winning career, the courageous little man appeared unfortunate enough to have landed in the right place at the wrong time.

As the club hit the financial wall and a score of ageing champions such as John Platten, Dermott Brereton, Gary Ayres and later on Jason Dunstall bowed out, Crawford found himself a young leader with the place apparently collapsing around him, the club on the brink of a merger in 1996.

Again, however, it was Hawthorn’s now resilient culture which saved the day. Former great Scott became the symbolic front of the resistance to a desperate solution. Highly respected businessman Dicker marshalled support from the corporate world. And a hitherto untapped and large support base in the south-east of Melbourne jumped on board.

“If anything, the merger proposal was probably a great thing because it brought people out from behind closed doors who put their hand up and really got involved, and those people are still there now,” says Crawford.

“For five or six years there, the focus was really off the field. We as players were doing a lot of ringing up supporters begging them to become members. “There was so much work done just to keep people interested in the footy club in some way, because the performances weren’t that good. “Then once things got a bit more stable we were able to go and get some players, and then ‘Clarko’ [Alastair Clarkson] came in and was courageous enough to rebuild on the field from the ground up.”

The fruits of all those efforts were realised for the Hawks and for Crawford four years ago, in his last game of AFL football, and are set to find the greatest possible acknowledgement again this afternoon.
But through the tough times and the rewards, nor has Crawford ever been in doubt what makes the Hawthorn Football Club tick. It is people, and what helping drag a near laughing stock of the competition to an AFL powerhouse has meant to them.

“It’s ingrained in you as soon as you come into the place,” he says. “It’s about the history, so many greats of the past, the respect for them and the jumper, it’s always prominent no matter which players or coaches come through the club.

“It’s about how proud people are to get out and watch you play for Hawthorn, the pride they have in you, and the biggest thing for me was always not letting down such well-respected people who have created such an amazing history for us.”

Musician Paul Kelly is performing tonight on the MCG after the grand final spoils have been won. If it is to be in the aftermath of an 11th Hawthorn premiership, his song From Little Things Big Things Grow would be apt indeed. Because while that win at Victoria Park back in 1960 seems but a footnote in the Hawks’ history now, it also stands as a moment when a footballing minnow began its evolution into an AFL juggernaut.