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Clarkson waits for coaching call

Football

The AFL’s most-wanted coach is due in Adelaide next week on a fact-finding mission for Tasmania’s AFL taskforce. But wherever Alastair Clarkson steps in the next few months will send the footy telegraph into overdrive, Michelangelo Rucci reports.

 

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So far, the speculators have had Alastair Clarkson buy a house at Lockleys, West Beach and West Lakes Shore.

Former Melbourne coach Mark Neeld became famous (and mocked) for having two desks in his office – one for football talk, the other for everything else. But an AFL coach with three residences in the same city would be an extreme.

So it will be with Clarkson for the next few months until he signs to coach his second AFL club. Along the way, Clarkson sightings will become sports news events, starting in Adelaide next week when the former SANFL coach returns on a research trip for the Tasmanian taskforce bidding for an AFL licence.

Clarkson’s imminent return to AFL coaching, after an enforced gap year triggered by Hawthorn preferring to start a new era with Brownlow Medallist Sam Mitchell, is no surprise. Former Brisbane captain and Port Adelaide midfielder Tom Rockliff started his media career grabbing headlines in late February by declaring: “Alastair Clarkson has been making phone calls … (he) has been calling a few free agents directly telling them not to re-sign because ‘I will be coaching next year’.”

There even was a bizarre claim across football’s telegraph that Port Adelaide Football Club president David Koch had a deal to parachute Clarkson back to Alberton if his team made a bad start. Despite a club-worst 0-5 opening to the AFL home-and-away series, Clarkson is not sitting in Ken Hinkley’s chair.

But with Clarkson wanting to get back in the game, expectation changes. and not just with Hinkley’s much-debated future. Each mainland State has an AFL team on the edge and now there is the shadow of Clarkson looming large. “The pressure goes on everyone,” says Brisbane coach Chris Fagan.

The anticipated coaching merry-go-round had its first nudge last week, with Greater Western Sydney coach Leon Cameron resigning while Clarkson was returning to Melbourne from a 14-week sporting tour of the United States, where he was embedded with NBA franchise Golden State Warriors.

Clarkson immediately made it clear he is in the market for an AFL senior coaching job.

“The buzz in the stadium (during an NBA play-off game) was just like, ‘I want to be back in the cut and thrust and the cutting edge of the coalface’,” Clarkson said last week.

Now the question is: Where? There is one confirmed vacancy – and at least four more on the cards.

In the past 60 years it is doubtful there has been an “unemployed” VFL-AFL coach with a greater chance to walk into any club. Six-time premiership coach Norm Smith went from Melbourne to South Melbourne. Ron Barassi certainly was the Clarkson equivalent of the 1970s when he worked football miracles as a premiership coach at Carlton and North Melbourne, and then without the ultimate success at his home club of Melbourne and Sydney in the 1980s.

Why – other than the record of four premierships at Hawthorn – would every AFL club president today be itching to call Clarkson’s manager or Clarkson direct? And why do they believe Clarkson can translate his success at Hawthorn to their club when football history is loaded with examples of false prophets?

Even the “messiah” Malcolm Blight, after his four grand final appearances at Geelong and back-to-back triumphs at Adelaide, did not last more than 14 games at St Kilda. The game’s longest-serving coach Michael Malthouse found no joy at Carlton.

The answer is that everyone wants Clarkson because he is a “once-in-a-generation” coach. Take note that Clarkson’s influence is already significant in this year’s AFL premiership race. It started with seven of the 18 clubs coached by former Clarkson pupils: former players Sam Mitchell (at Hawthorn) and Stuart Dew (Gold Coast); former assistant coach and football manager Chris Fagan (Brisbane) and former assistant coaches Damien Hardwick (Richmond), Luke Beveridge (Western Bulldogs), Adam Simpson (West Coast) and, until the weekend, Leon Cameron at Greater Western Sydney.

“If I was looking for a coach,” says former Port Adelaide chief executive Brian Cunningham, who hired Clarkson as an assistant coach in 2003, “he’d be top of the pops on my list.”

“He can take any team to number one,” says former SANFL chief executive Leigh Whicker, who became a devout fan of Clarkson after watching his work as a South Australia state coach. “But it’s not just the ultimate success on the field you get with Alastair. He is not just a coach – he will build a club, he will mentor men.”

Shaun Burgoyne saw this close hand at both Port Adelaide and at Hawthorn where he played 157 and 250 AFL games respectively, winning a flag at Alberton in 2004 and three in a row under Clarkson from 2013-2015.

Burgoyne tells InDaily of a coach who is strong but not stubborn in his coaching themes, and a master of forging relationships built on trust within a football club.

“Alastair forms good bonds with his players, it is about trust and a two-way friendship,” Burgoyne says. “He always is willing to defend his players, so the players respect him. When you go out to play, you are an extension of your coach. You want to play well for ‘Clarko’.

“He also surrounds himself with good assistant coaches, and trusts them. He has his own ideas on how the game should be played and he is very innovative, but he will always listen to his assistant coaches. He encourages them to bring new ideas to the table. And he never lets his pride get in the way of doing things differently.

“There were times when ‘Clarko’ would get the older players together to ask us, ‘Do you want to try this?’ We would trial a new idea for a few weeks and then review it to decide if we would continue with the tactic.

“And he has one thing no-one can buy – experience. Years and years of experience.”

Hawthorn coach Clarkson and Shaun Burgoyne walk off the MCG after round 23 in August last year. Photo: AAP/Daniel Pockett

The boards at Greater Western Sydney, Port Adelaide (where Hinkley is on contract for next season), Gold Coast, Essendon, West Coast and North Melbourne (where Clarkson played 93 senior games) will want to take on the Clarkson question.

Essendon is being tempted to go back to the late 1970s when it opted for the “outsider”, Richmond premiership player Kevin Sheedy who built a premiership powerhouse. Could it accept Clarkson when he agitated so many at Essendon to deepen the rivalry with Hawthorn?

At Adelaide, the board might have to answer why it rushed to re-sign Matthew Nicks to a two-year extension rather than wait for Clarkson to declare his hand. Club chairman John Olsen declared at the start of the season, as he explained the early re-signing to the club’s members at Adelaide Oval, that Nicks “deserved” to continue his work without the distraction and uncertainty created by speculation on a coach as his contract approaches the expiry date.

After costly payouts to Brenton Sanderson and Don Pyke to clear away their unused two-year contract extensions, Adelaide – which is managing $5 million of debt – cannot write another termination cheque.

The other AFL clubs that will stay out of the equation are Sydney, Fremantle and the Western Bulldogs, as well as Collingwood and Carlton which that coaches less than 12 months into the job in Craig McRae and Michael Voss after failing to entice Clarkson last year.

Regardless of contracts (which are more about terms of separation than engagement for AFL coaches, as even Clarkson learned at Hawthorn), there would be questions of premiership mentors Damien Hardwick at Richmond and Chris Scott at Geelong needing to be refreshed with new challenges.

Hardwick might become more appealing to Gold Coast than Clarkson, who is repeatedly linked as a league appointment to the AFL’s troubled and costly expansion franchise.

And there is the prospect of an emotional return to North Melbourne, where Clarkson played for nine seasons from 1987 while the VFL expanded to a national competition. This would allow Clarkson to completely follow the journey of the legendary John Kennedy. He already has surpassed Kennedy’s three-premiership mark as Hawthorn coach. Does he now seek to achieve the flag that eluded Kennedy in his five years (1985-1989) at North Melbourne?

Coaching Tasmania is not an immediate option. If the AFL club presidents in August vote to progress with issuing a 19th AFL licence, Tasmania would not enter the national league until 2028. In that six-year gap Clarkson could be a premiership coach again at another club.

His wide appeal wasn’t apparent in the early 2000s, when Clarkson was sacked by SANFL club Central District after leading it to the 2001 flag and the 2002 grand final loss to Sturt. He quickly called Cunningham, whom he had come to know through long-time friend Mark Brayshaw, then the marketing chief at Port Adelaide.

“I’d really rated Alastair for the work he was doing at Central District,” Cunningham recalls. “He came to my place one night to talk about Port Adelaide and the AFL and I became more impressed when I saw him at close hand as an assistant coach to Mark Williams.”

The same theme, of a man with rare qualities that could draw easily comparisons with the determination and trademark team and personal management skills of world football giant Sir Alex Ferguson, is recalled by Whicker.

“We’d appointed Alastair as State coach for the game that always troubled us – playing Western Australia in Perth,” Whicker said. “I was astonished by the pre-match work he was doing then. He was on the computer all the time, working every ‘what if’ scenario you could imagine unfolding in a football match.

“And tactically, he is the best. That’s why we appointed him again as State coach, and that became the end of him at Central District where they refused to release him to the State team again. Alastair went to Port Adelaide, then to Hawthorn. and now there will be another chapter. He is still a young man, so this year out of football will not have hurt him. He will come back as fresh as ever.”

“We didn’t want to lose him,” adds Cunningham. “But how can you stop an assistant coach progressing his career when he is offered the senior job at another club?”

Clarkson coached Hawthorn longer than any other; 390 games across 17 seasons, with the record tenure having three distinct themes (and a health scare in 2014 when he missed five matches with a serious back complaint).

At the beginning, there was the difficult rebuild at a powerful club that had fallen to 15th of 16 teams in 2003 under the coaching of club hero Peter Schwab. Five years before Clarkson’s arrival, Hawthorn members had even contemplated a merger with Melbourne. Hawthorn had a 14-30 win-loss record during Clarkson’s first two seasons as senior coach that were loaded with hefty losses and questions about his merit as an AFL coach.

The 2008 AFL premiership changed all this. The triumph that ended a 17-year drought for Hawthorn was at least two years before Clarkson’s expectation. From the return to top-eight finals action in 2007 to the ‘three-peat’ of 2013-2015, Hawthorn’s win-loss across the four-flag rule under Clarkson was 133 wins, one draw and 69 losses in home-and-away football and a 16-6 win-loss record in finals.

The end chapter, with Hawthorn paying dearly for recruiting mistakes in a competition that uses the draft and salary cap to bring down “dynasty” teams, had a 65-1-59 count. It is notably marked with Clarkson not winning any of his four finals during his last six seasons, even after the remarkable top-four finish in 2018.

This makes Port Adelaide premiership midfielder Kane Cornes less eager than others to believe Clarkson is the must-have option for every AFL club in the coaching market this year.

“Alastair did not win a final in those last six years, despite being all-in to do just that,” Cornes said. “He brought in mature-age players – ignoring young talent in the AFL draft – to stay at the top.

“He says he is happy to work a rebuild at a new club, but I am not sure he can. There is no evidence of it, except from what he did on taking over at Hawthorn in 2005. So if I was on a panel interviewing Alastair for my club, I’d be asking how involved does he intend to be with recruiting and list management.

“Is he prepared to work with the people we have in place and the strategy that we have worked … or is he going to over-ride them?”

At 54 and with the chance to become the first coach of Tasmania’s first AFL team, just as Kevin Sheedy did with Greater Western Sydney after his record-breaking 27-year run as Essendon coach – why does Clarkson want to prove himself again? More so when his achievements at Hawthorn and reputation puts the world at his feet in business, football management and even other sports.

“Once a coach, always a coach,” says Brisbane coach Chris Fagan, who worked alongside Clarkson at Hawthorn. “He loves it. I don’t know what will happen next year (but with Clarkson available) the pressure goes on everyone.”

Clarkson answers the question saying: “I think every club in the competition, given the right personnel and the right playing group, has the capability of winning an AFL premiership. There’s 18 teams – and hopefully pretty soon 19 (with Tasmania) – that I wouldn’t hesitate to coach.”

Clarkson’s resume reads as a plaque for any Hall of Fame. Born in the small Victorian town of Kaniva just east of the South Australian-Victorian border, Clarkson made it to the big league in 1987, playing 93 games with North Melbourne before finishing his feisty career with 41 matches at Melbourne from 1996-1997.

The path to coaching started as an assistant coach at St Kilda in 1999 under Essendon premiership hero Tim Watson; a year later he was with VFL club Werribee and in 2001 Clarkson was at Central District where he took the SANFL club to grand finals with a premiership in his first year and a loss to Sturt in the 2002 final at Football Park.

Be it by his commitment to the SANFL as State coach or a fallout of recruiting targets, Clarkson was quickly out of Elizabeth and back in the AFL system with Port Adelaide in 2003, and on Hawthorn’s radar after the Melbourne-based club sacked.

Cunningham still speaks of losing Clarkson at Port Adelaide with disappointment.

“I get a call late in the 2004 season from the Hawthorn president Ian Dicker, who I had known for a while from his time in Adelaide, telling me he was keen to look at Alastair for their senior coaching role,” Cunningham said. “Ian wanted to know if they could speak to Alastair. I told him, ‘We can’t stop you … but you do understand we are about to get involved in a pretty important finals campaign?’

“Weeks later, after Hawthorn went through whatever process they had in place, Ian Dicker rang back to say they wanted Alastair. Now we were playing finals. I spoke to Alastair. I spoke to Mark Williams, who was adamant that Alastair could not coach Port Adelaide any longer while his mind was on a role at another club. Alastair agreed … and, unfortunately for him, he missed our grand final success.”

So, some Port Adelaide fans wanting change will note there is unfinished business at Alberton. And there are all those houses in the western suburbs to furnish.

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