Hawthorn rebuild, Sam Mitchell vs Alastair Clarkson, new board, trades, list management, North Melbourne match, analysis
متابعة: الاخبارية سبورت
Nobody said it was easy. No one ever said it would be so hard.
Those may be lines from Coldplay’s ‘The Scientist’, but they could easily be applied to Hawthorn amid the club’s rebuild, for which the 2023 season appears to be the nadir.
On paper, the loss of nearly 1400 combined games of AFL experience from the list at the end of last season was significant.
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Hawks powerbrokers had given the football department and coach Sam Mitchell full backing to cut as deep as was necessary, with that buy-in a key factor in a watershed off-season.
EYES WIDE OPEN
The biggest outs from a trade point of view were Jack Gunston, Tom Mitchell and Jaeger O’Meara, who boasted a combined 539 AFL games.
As football boss Rob McCartney said following last year’s trade period: “We could’ve held onto those players – Gunston, Mitchell and O’Meara – and they could have helped us in the phase of getting close to the top eight and maybe just sneaking in.”
“But they weren’t going to be there for us to take that next step, we’d maybe get close to playing finals, but it wouldn’t help catapult us to where Hawks fans are used to us being.
“They are all great servants to our footy club and have been great characters, we’re very appreciative of what they’ve provided, and we wish them all the best.
“But we’re also on a journey where we need to start building towards that next flag and I think we took some steps towards that last night.”
Many a football journey requires taking several steps back to go several steps forward, with Hawthorn’s decisions at the close of last year a case-in-point.
A 59-point loss to arch rival Essendon in Round 1 was followed by an 81-point thumping from Sydney in Round 2 – margins the AFL would be far from satisfied with should they continue long into the season.
Hawthorn Hawks Press Conference | 14:11
It’s easy to see what Hawthorn is doing, fast-tracking the emerging talent by throwing them in the deep end at the elite level and trusting they’ll learn how to swim.
That the club’s off-field figureheads have been so transparent about this approach has helped steel supporters for the year ahead, not to mention the new on-field leader in James Sicily.
“On face value, it‘s quite easy to say we’re in for a tough year, but I feel like it’s put us ahead another year in terms of – you can use the word rebuild, I suppose, if what you think we’re going through is a rebuild at the moment – it sort of jumps us a year ahead,” Sicily told foxfooty.com.au ahead of the season.
“It’s hard to say that because a lot of those guys are good friends of mine. But that’s the direction the club’s heading in and I completely understand it.
“I think it’s going to be a good decision purely based on getting a year ahead of the rebuild for want of a better word.”
Maximising long-term gain, however, sometimes requires significant short-term pain, which is a reality quickly coming home to roost for anyone who thought otherwise.
THE REBUILD REALITY
Those above Mitchell keeping the faith will be easier said than done, judging by precedent.
Dual North Melbourne premiership player David King was one of several onlookers to fear for Mitchell’s long-term prospects given the scale of cuts made at the end of last season and the reality facing rebuilding coaches.
In May last year, he correctly forecasted a similar fate for David Noble after the Roos scored just 24 points in a 78-point loss to Fremantle.
Coincidentally, Hawthorn scored just 37 points in Round 2 en route to an 81-point loss to the Swans.
“I think your starting point has got to be that rebuild coaches don’t survive. They don’t. I could name you two in the last 20 years – Alastair Clarkson and Ken Hinkley,” King said at the time on AFL 360.
“The ones that have failed: (Mark) Neeld, (Brendon) Bolton, (Scott) Watters, (Terry) Wallace, (Alan) Richardson, (Guy) McKenna, (Brendon) McCartney, (Justin) Leppitsch – it’s designed for you to fail.
“You’re going to a team that’s come off the cliff and is going down and they are making a change because of that.
“So you’ve got four, five, six, seven years of pain – no one lives seven years of pain … the markers can’t be wins and losses.”
Two months after King’s comments, Noble was the latest ‘rebuild coach’ to be moved on before said rebuild was complete.
Five months after Noble was moved on, the Hawks made the aforementioned bold moves at the trade table.
“I know Sam has made some comments about not wanting to limp into finals and wanting to get this great club back to the top where it needs to be,” King said on SEN in the aftermath of those moves.”
“I fear that Sam Mitchell, another rebuild coach, has committed professional suicide in terms of what they’ve done with the experienced purge of players from their list over the last couple of weeks.”
Forecasting can be a dangerous exercise in football, but even if the Hawks are playing finals in five years, it could prove too late for Mitchell.
“Sam Mitchell won’t be there when play finals next (if it’s in 2027),” Leigh Montagna said on Fox Footy last week when asked about Mitchell’s prospects.
“It‘ll be 2027 they’ll play finals.
“I don‘t know the board members, but they’d want to be very patient board members.”
As Montagna hinted at, keeping the faith is the most important factor in the coming months for Hawthorn.
Hawthorn’s board backed in the full-scale rebuild approach, but even the best-laid plans are subject to boardroom buy-in.
That board changed at the very top last year, with a much-publicised AGM resulting in the nomination of challenger Andy Gowers as Jeff Kennett’s replacement, rather than Kennett’s preferred successor Peter Nankivell.
In addition, James Merlino was also elected to the board, with both he and Gowers having championed the ‘Hawks for Change’ movement in the lead-up to the election.
Following his election, Gowers reassured Mitchell and company they had the board’s “full support”, but his ascension to the presidency was a reminder of how quickly things can change at the top.
Earlier this month, the board announced the appointment of its new football director, former player Luke McCabe, continuing the off-field overhaul that has quickly become as significant as the one unfolding on-field.
Montagna’s concerns over boardroom impact were echoed by one of Hawthorn’s greats, Shane Crawford, following last year’s trade period.
“Interesting time (at the club). I just hope even if there’s a new board that comes on board, they don’t get a bit nervous because the Hawks may struggle for the next year or two, they stick together,” he said on SEN.
“It’s been a really tough time.”
The months ahead will be a significant stress test on the new regime’s commitment to a cause that they believe was mishandled by those before them regarding the exit of Alastair Clarkson.
As fate would have it, the spectre of Clarkson is about to become a whole lot bigger.
There will be statements to the contrary this week, but make no mistake, the Alastair Clarkson-led North Melbourne facing the Sam Mitchell-led Hawthorn on Saturday afternoon in Tasmania is a grudge match.
Nearly 15 years ago, these two hoisted a premiership cup aloft together, but the circumstances under which they meet this week are far less jovial.
Whether they want to be or not, Clarkson and Mitchell are inextricably linked – consider the fact, for instance, Clarkson was being paid by the club to not coach in 2022 under the same soft cap that was also being used to pay Mitchell, his successor.
Before officially becoming Hawthorn’s president, Gowers said ahead of last year’s AGM he watched on “with despair seeing Clarko sitting on one side of a hastily convened, very awkward media conference, and listened to Jeff begin with the words, ‘The board has decided not to renew Alastair’s contract’ and it stirred up a hornets’ nest of emotions.”
“We watched on in disbelief, and the financial settlement (to Clarkson) has meant that we were unable to pay the full soft-cap in the football department this year, which hinders our football program.”
A handover intended to take place over a year fell apart in the space of a week.
Mitchell himself admitted in his biography he wasn’t sure he could continue at Hawthorn midway through the 2011 season given his relationship with Clarkson.
His “problem with Clarko”, he wrote, was eventually addressed, but their failed, short-lived partnership at the close of 2021 only drew more attention to those fractures.
Now, both helm rebuilding clubs, but it’s North Melbourne that – for the first time in a long time – will enter favourites and riding a wave of momentum following back-to-back wins for the first time since the opening two rounds of 2020.
Perhaps the feelings of both coaches will only be explained properly in the postscript, but removing the sense of shared history these two have will be nigh-on impossible in the build up.
For both, the state of their clubs and the state of their minds might best be summed up with the final words of that Coldplay song: “I’m going back to the start.”