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Hawks and Dogs: the fork in the road

On this winter Sunday, the teams of Melbourne's east and west meet in the southern-most state. Fortunately the weather in Launceston is improving and the temperature could conceivably hit double-digit degrees.

The Hawks, at the northern extremity of modern history's success barometer, are again the team to beat. The Bulldogs continue to be perceived as battlers, although they now see themselves as being among the aspirational class.

A lot has changed since these clubs met in the 1961 VFL grand final, and some has stayed the same. Back then they had one flag between them. They now have 12.

After entering the competition in 1925, both struggled to shed their lowly born tags. By the time the sixties arrived, the Dogs appeared the more advanced. They had come of age in the previous decade, winning a premiership and making the finals four times in six years.

Hawthorn, meanwhile, was just getting started.

During their first 29 seasons, the Hawks had climbed out of the bottom-three only four times. It took 33 years for them to crack a spot in the finals.

But it was about to change. Hawthorn was the dominant team of 1961 and stormed to the flag. Since then, they’ve been in 16 grand finals and gone home smiling on 10 of those occasions.

The "Scraggers" haven't been to the big dance once in 52 seasons.

So what happened? Why did the fortunes of these two clubs head in such polar-opposite directions?

If you ponder that question, and even though there's no doubt much more to it, you will almost certainly come up with one important word: leadership.

Even as the two clubs faced extinction during the past 25 years, there was a hint of this. The Bulldogs were saved only by an uprising from outside the club. The man who led it, Peter Gordon, had the presidency thrust upon him at 32 years of age.

The Hawks were inspired by a former champion of their playing ranks, Don Scott, whose passion and flair won the vote on the night. Ian Dicker, a mature-aged businessman and fervent supporter, was ready to take the reins from those whose faith had wavered.

But this goes back much further. As Footscray was first becoming a club to be reckoned with, Hawthorn was quietly finding its way.

Former Carlton lionheart Jack Hale coached the Hawks for eight years from 1952. In his 6th year at the helm, he took the team of the church belt to its first finals series. A player named John Kennedy was captain. Kennedy has said it was Hale who laid the foundation for what followed.

By 1960, Kennedy was coach. He had two stints in the job, punctuated by a teaching transfer, eventually stepping aside at the end of 1977. Over 25 years to that time, and indeed through 'till 1987, Hawthorn had only three presidents: Dr Sandy Ferguson, Phil Ryan, and Ron Cook. Stability and maturity have a lot to recommend them.

The club's on-field leaders through the Kennedy-era were Graham Arthur, David Parkin, Peter Crimmins, and Scott. But any from a list of Ian Law, John Peck, Rod Olsson, Leigh Matthews, Bob Keddie, Peter Hudson, Peter Knights and Michael Tuck might have stepped up.

The Bulldogs, on the other hand, struggled with unstable administration and lack of leadership. Charlie Sutton and Ted Whitten inspired the club to its two grand final appearances, but in each case as playing-coach. Neither was able to replicate this success coaching from the sidelines.

And instability off the field inevitably begets instability on it, or vice versa. Always cash-strapped, the Dogs gave up an extraordinary number of their best players. With one exception, every winner of the club's Best and Fairest award from 1968 to 1982 finished his career at another VFL club.

That list doesn't include Brian Wilson, Barry Round, or Bernie Quinlan, who left Footscray and won Brownlow medals elsewhere. At least Gary Dempsey and Kelvin Templeton took Charlie home while still wearing red, white and blue.

Yes, five Brownlow winners in an eight-year period played for the Dogs ... and left!

Of course, Footscray and Hawthorn represent opposite ends of Melbourne's socio-economic spectrum and no doubt the Australian game has been the more natural choice for a greater proportion of boys from the east side than from the west.

But balancing that, Footscray, like Hawthorn, enjoyed the advantage of a strong football region in the days of zoning. The Latrobe Valley delivered the Dogs many fine players. They just couldn't keep their stars on the same page.

And thus it has been: Hawthorn the most successful club of the past 50 years, the Bulldogs the least so.

A Hawthorn-tragic mate of mine loves telling the story of Footscray inflicting one of only three defeats suffered by Hawthorn in 1971. It was at the Western Oval. An angry John Kennedy snapped afterwards: "It'll be a different story when we play them at Glenferrie". And it was: the Hawks won by 115 points.

So it's been since '61. But who knows what a new day may hold?

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