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Hawks' unfinished business

Date

Chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age

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Job half done: The Hawks celebrate their 2013 premiership, but believe they owe themselves another in 2014.

Job half done: The Hawks celebrate their 2013 premiership, but believe they owe themselves another in 2014. Photo: Pat Scala

The most ominous words in Playing To Win, Michael Gordon's account of the making of Hawthorn's 2013 premiership, are the last. ''It doesn't feel like the job's done,'' swingman Jarryd Roughead said to coach Alastair Clarkson as they each went their post-premiership ways. ''It feels like there is still some unfinished business.''

Hawthorn's latter-day business began with the appointment of Clarkson for 2005 with a view to opening a two-premiership window by 2010. The 2008 flag came two years ahead of schedule, but the Hawks were thwarted for the next four years, and the 2013 premiership appeared to arrive barely in the nick of time - just before close of business, if you like. Now, though, there is a sense at Hawthorn that 2008 was a bonus and that the Hawks still owe themselves one business-hours premiership.

Gordon had the privilege of the fly on the wall, also the luck not to have been swatted by, say, a distracted Lance Franklin or an indignant Jeff Kennett. What emerges is a candid picture of the tautness and minute-by-minute intensity that animates even a good club, but also how a great club turns it all to its ultimate advantage.

At the start of 2009, the Hawks' skinfolds were on average 20 per cent flabbier than the previous year. This alarmed captain Sam Mitchell. ''It showed that the players' attitude in the off-season was not quite as vigilant,'' he said. ''It just showed a bit of softening on the mental side.''

The blundering Hawks missed the finals that year, and made up the numbers the next. Kennett's presence looms large in this time, as agitator-in-chief. To a suggestion he advocated that Clarkson be ''dropped'' to Box Hill for a match, he claims not to remember it. But he is unapologetic about keeping the club on its toes.

''We think we've got it,'' Clarkson said to chief executive Stuart Fox in 2010. ''We think we've held onto the old game plan too long.'' It was too late to salvage that year, but reflecting on it, Clarkson said: ''The biggest thing to come out of 2010 was that we stopped feeling like a victim and feeling sorry for ourselves. Our destiny was in our own hands.''

Still, there was heartbreak. In 2011, there was the last-kick loss to Collingwood in the preliminary final. Mid-2012, there was a shocking thumping by Richmond mid-season, another crossroad. ''It was a pretty challenging time,'' said fitness man Andrew Russell, ''the most intense I've ever felt at a footy club, any footy club.'' The Hawks regrouped to make the grand final against Sydney, then kick it away.

Mulling over it in a pub afterwards, Brad Sewell asked ruck coach Damian Monkhorst why the 1990 Collingwood premiership team he played in stopped winning. Monkhorst said that individuals had tried to do too much, subverting the team imperative. Sewell dwelled on this daily on a trip to the US, and upon his return elaborated on his thoughts to captain Luke Hodge, among others.

Meantime, Clarkson had made a philosophical change. A couple of years previously, the Hawks had adopted the rhetoric and rigor of the US Navy Seals. The idea was that they were anonymous individually, but ruthlessly effective. No one knows who killed Osama bin Laden, only that a Seal did.

Now, Clarkson backed away from grand themes. ''I go through sporting clubs right around the world, and there are value and mission statements up on the wall at nearly every club, and you look and think, that reads well, that might be something that resonates among the players,'' he said. ''But does it resonate? Is there genuine belief and buy-in?''

Ultimately, schemes by which the coach held the players to account would not work, said Clarkson. It had to be the players, adhering to their own values. At Hawthorn, they formulated four ''behaviours''. One, Clarkson proudly borrowed from Alan Jeans, with whom he developed a friendship late in the great coach's life. It was ''ego on the hook''.

Inexorably, the Hawks built their 2013 season. Still, there was one insurmountable. Two more losses to Geelong made 11 in a row since the 2008 grand final. No one at Hawthorn subscribed to the notion of Kennett's curse, but at last they acknowledged that it was more than ill-luck.

Playing To Win is replete with the seemingly inexhaustible supply of props, slogans and metaphors Clarkson used in addressing the players: a rotten mandarin, a dissertation on his daughter's text messaging technique, a coil of rope, and in the corner of the Waverley lecture room in the second half of season 2013, an empty trophy cabinet.

For all the science and sophistication that goes into preparing professional football teams, said Clarkson, these gimmicks matter. AFL football was contested by more players on a bigger arena than any other sport, unconstrained by zones. His devices, physical and rhetorical, helped to simplify and order a mazy game. In this, there are also echoes of Jeans.

Facing Geelong in a preliminary final, Clarkson used a bag of flour theatrically spilled across the lecture room floor to symbolise a white line. The next night, the Hawks came from behind at three-quarter-time to beat Geelong, at last. A week later, the Hawks had their coveted 11th premiership.

For supporters, it eclipsed the travail of the intervening years since the 10th. For the club, it was because of it. ''Ladies and gentlemen,'' said post-Kennett president Andrew Newbold at the club's annual meeting in December, ''it's easier to be self-critical when you have not had success. It is harder to do that when you have succeeded. That is the club's challenge now, at all levels.''

When the Hawks reported back for duty in the first week of January, Gordon writes, their skinfolds were leaner even than they had been in 2013.

1 comment so far

  • Oh come on what would Clarkson know? He's just an AFL nobody, whose 2 AFL premierships pale into insignificance against Laki of Essendon's rich AFL history! Come on Laki, tell us all where you have got your mountain of knowledge from....

    Commenter
    Just sayin'
    Date and time
    February 19, 2014, 4:01PM

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