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Port Adelaide's flagging patience with saviour coach

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Port Adelaide fans wore “In Ken We Trust” T-shirts when “outsider” coach Ken Hinkley saved their football club’s AFL licence in 2013-14. But the wait for another premiership is testing the relationship, writes Michelangelo Rucci.

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Ken Hinkley’s ears would be burning much less this week.

Those Port Adelaide fans and influential powerbrokers – including men of previous regimes at Alberton who notably agitated after another loss to a top-four rival last week – are silent today.

There also is no gushing praise for Hinkley, who at the weekend took an injury ravaged line-up to Melbourne to defy an in-form St Kilda team eyeing a spot in the AFL top eight.

Only vice-captain Ollie Wines has publicly hailed Hinkley for setting up a playbook that not only blunted St Kilda, but delivered Port Adelaide’s best win of the season.

Eight years ago they were printing T-shirts with the slogan “In Ken We Trust” to laud their new messiah; the outsider from Geelong who saved Port Adelaide’s AFL licence from being scrapped by the AFL Commission or discarded by owner, the SANFL.

 There were big changes made, and we took them on thinking what have we got to lose, we are shithouse.

Today, the T-shirts are absent as Port Adelaide fans show impatience with the club’s longest premiership drought – 17 years in the AFL, 22 years in the SANFL.

Hinkley, 54, should not be surprised with how gratitude quickly evaporates at football clubs. The game’s greatest player of the 20th century, Leigh Matthews, was promised the Collingwood coaching job “for life” by club president Allan McAllister in 1990 after ending a 32-year premiership drought. He was sacked five years later.

Those diehards who were gnashing – or sharpening – their teeth after Port Adelaide’s 31-point loss to league pacesetter Melbourne in Thursday Night Football at Adelaide Oval a fortnight ago will find their voices again should expectations not be met at Alberton. After all, there are three flags to be won in the next five years to fulfill the club’s “Chasing Greatness” manifesto.

But just as Collingwood can regret casting aside a maturing Matthews – who returned to coaching to build a triple-premiership empire at Brisbane – Port Adelaide might need to consider how Hinkley is a much better coach today than in 2013-14, when he was seen as infallible.

Former Port Adelaide chief executive Keith Thomas hired – and rehired – Hinkley, first at the end of 2012, when many favoured candidates were turning their back on the Alberton coaching vacancy knowing the cash-strapped club’s AFL licence was at risk of being torn up.

Hinkley declared he was the “right man standing” rather the last man available for the unfashionable job, after more-fancied candidates such as Leon Cameron and Rodney Eade went to the AFL’s new projects at Greater Western Sydney and Gold Coast respectively.

Now nine months away from the at-times insular bubble at Alberton – and aware how Port Adelaide fans judge their coaches – Thomas is, as he puts it, “still a believer”.

“Not just of Ken, but also of the (playing) group to get it done,” Thomas told InDaily.

Hinkley this week will coach Port Adelaide for the 196th time in AFL company. Only premiership coach Mark Williams has served longer (274 matches) at a club that has had just four senior coaches since joining the AFL in 1997.

Those impatient Port Adelaide fans – many from the club’s SANFL era when a flag was seemingly won “every second year” – might note three-time AFL premiership coach Michael Malthouse did not collect his first flag until his 212th match. And there was a 380-game gap between his second and third titles, the last demanding a grand final replay in 2010.

Of the current 18 AFL coaches, Chris Scott, who sought the Port Adelaide job in 2010,  won a flag at Geelong after just 25 games. His search for the second premiership is now at 228 matches, and counting.

Winning three flags in five seasons – the goal of the “Chasing Greatness” campaign at Port Adelaide – would demand Hinkley and his team are unstrapping champagne corks at Alberton with gaps of no more than 50 matches. It is an extraordinary challenge – a theme that repeatedly has not scared Hinkley, particularly when asked to remodel his squad … and himself.

Photo: Michael Errey/InDaily

Thomas and former Port Adelaide captain Dom Cassisi offer an insight as to how Hinkley has continually adapted to become a better coach. Unlike many other long-term AFL coaches,  often accused of becoming stale or damagingly stubborn while taking residence at one club, Hinkley’s results have not crumbled.

Hinkley has had “winning seasons” – more wins than losses – in every home-and-away campaign except 2016 (10-12) and 2019 (11-11). Port Adelaide has not lost three consecutive games since late 2019, and only seven times in his nine seasons at Alberton.

“And,” notes Cassisi, the Port Adelaide captain during the club’s darkest chapter from 2009-2012, “Ken has not put protecting his personal win-loss record ahead of the club’s long-term list management needs.

“He has let the club make brave decisions to evolve the list by trading established players such as Chad Wingard (to Hawthorn), Jared Polec (to North Melbourne) and Dougal Howard (to St Kilda) to get early draft picks that give the team Mitch Georgiades, Connor Rozee, Xavier Duursma, Zak Butters …

“Port Adelaide has been the bravest in the competition for evolving its list.”

This point was not lost on club president David Koch in January this year when his board handed Hinkley a two-season contract extension, keeping him at Port Adelaide until at least the end of 2023.

“Ken has selflessly coached and rebuilt our football program to deliver what we think is best for sustained success of our club,” Koch said.

Hinkley, a 132-game player at Fitzroy and Geelong, has evolved too.

“Ken changed us as a football club – but he also changed himself for the sake of the team,” Thomas told InDaily.

“When Ken arrived (in October 2012) he came to a broken and wounded club. And we working to a tight timeline … and (if there was no turnaround in results) potentially losing our AFL licence.

“We were very fortunate with the courage Ken showed in those first two years. There were big changes made, and we took them on thinking what have we got to lose, we are shithouse.

“Ken was convinced we could bridge the gap,” Thomas said of Hinkley, who in January 2013 agreed to billboard promotional campaigns saying his team – that he still had not seen play a match – would “never, ever give in”.

“By the force of Ken’s own enthusiasm, his personality, his leadership, his game smarts we had an almost miraculous turnaround. We were able to meet our focus of getting to Adelaide Oval in 2014 in good shape.

“The revival was spectacular. With (fitness coach) Darren Burgess and (football director) Alan Richardson, Ken made that change happen when no-one else thought it was possible.”

By taking a “basket case” to consecutive AFL finals series, including a dramatic preliminary final against eventual champion Hawthorn in 2014, Hinkley made a rod for his back. The “In Ken We Trust” T-shirts became more than a fashion statement.

“We expected more,” Thomas said. “And we did not get it.”

Ken Hinkley in 2014. Photo: AAP/Mark Dadswell

Hinkley became the first Port Adelaide coach in more than 110 years to survive missing consecutive finals series – twice (2015-2016 and 2018-2019).

“That’s when Ken chose to learn,” says Thomas. “And that was not easy for him. He had to adapt; change his style. It what was required to get us out of that mid-table no-man’s land of finishing ninth or 10th (out of 18 teams).

“There is more to the evolution of Ken Hinkley than he is given credit for.

“(Football chief) Chris Davies was very important in this too. He sent Ken and (senior assistant coach) Michael Voss to the United States for two weeks (at the end of the 2018 season) to learn about modern relationships between players and coaches. He came back a different coach.

“Ken’s change marks the beginning of what you repeatedly hear at Port Adelaide today when they speak of ‘connection’, giving the players more autonomy. It is hard for a coach to embrace that change.

“What we see today is a Ken Hinkley who has evolved his style, made a very personal connection with his players and gained a strong commitment from his team.”

Cassisi labels this “connection” as a “unique experience” from his 228 AFL games at Port Adelaide.

“I felt really connected to the whole cause,” Cassisi said. “Ken made you feel that it was more than just a job. It was not just about you as a ‘footballer’. It also was about you at home. It was a connection at every level of your life. He took that to a whole different element.”

Hinkley’s lessons in being more involved with his players, in an era of greater off-field issues, in particular mental health, have prompted him to make an appeal to the AFL to further educate and support league coaches become life mentors to their charges.

Thomas became convinced of Hinkley’s merit as a coach when the questions were most pointed after Port Adelaide missed consecutive final series in 2015-16, during a Brownlow Medal count in Melbourne.

“Amid our ‘due diligence’ (while looking at a contract extension) I noted all these players from Geelong such as Joel Selwood and Gold Coast (where Hinkley had worked as an assistant coach) kept coming to our table looking for Ken; his connection with those players was still strong,” Thomas said.

“And then we talked about list management. They were big, big calls with some players (traded to rival clubs). I told Ken, ‘If we do this, we could go backwards for a while and the pressure is going to come on you’. He understood that. He took it on with his eyes wide open.”

Coaches ultimately are judged by their game plans, usually by critics and fans who have never read a playbook let alone written one.

“I hear people say Ken has no Plan B or C,” Thomas said. “I always go back to the words of (the late) Phil Walsh. He told me Ken was the best in-the-box coach he had worked with. That is a big statement – I always took confidence from that.”

Cassisi describes Hinkley’s coaching as “refreshing”.

“Ken is proactive; he encourages you to take the game on, play to your strengths, put it to the opposition as much as you can. The ball movement was built on a new level of confidence for us. All of us were on the same page, valuing the little things that made us a better team.”

Hinkley has a 111-76 win-loss record (59.35 per cent winning rate) in home-and-away games and 4-4 count in finals where the losing margins have been by 16, three, two and six points. This is far better than managed by the two men who passed up on the Port Adelaide job in 2012. Cameron is at Greater Western Sydney (87 wins from 160 matches that include a horror show in the 2019 grand final) and Eade is now out of AFL circles after 377 games as a coach at three clubs (Sydney, the Western Bulldogs and Gold Coast) with no flag but one grand final in 1996.

“But there is no grand final (for Hinkley),” notes Cassisi. “He gets a big tick for the culture he has built, the player retention this has generated and the image of Port Adelaide as a ‘destination club’. All this can be understated at times.

“You can’t dismiss these things, particularly when it has not happened at a lot of other clubs that are worse off.”

As Hinkley walks the corridor from the changerooms to training field at Alberton Oval, he passes on his left side a parade of photographs of every Port Adelaide premiership team. The hook awaiting the 38th photograph has held nothing since 2004.

“The better the team looks, the greater the expectation and the less patience there is for success,” Cassisi said. “Richmond was patient with Damien Hardwick and has three flags in four years after none for 37 years. Collingwood wasn’t with Nathan Buckley.

“Port Adelaide. Are we patient?”

Thomas insists “at some point it will all pay off”.

“Every time the pressure builds I think back to those meetings Ken, David (Koch) and I would have, particularly during 2015-16,” Thomas said. “We would lean on the line used at Geelong when they were about to end their 44-year premiership drought in 2007: ‘Stay the course’.

“It takes time to build a powerhouse in a demanding competition like the AFL.”

Port Adelaide fans are not renowned for patience, however.

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