Is Alastair Clarkson still the right fit for Hawthorn?

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Every coach in the land knows professional football is a results business, but nobody knows it better than Alastair Clarkson. The Hawthorn mentor was the mastermind behind one of the greatest teams in living memory, dragging the Hawks from the doldrums of mediocrity and transforming them into winners. Those times have past. Clarkson might be the finest, most erudite coach in the game, but whether he is still the right man for Hawthorn is another thing.

Clarkson assumed the reins in 2005, improving the Hawks from 14th position to premiers inside four seasons. It set both club and coach on their way and moulded a devotion to triumph that exists to this very day. “When I first arrived at Hawthorn, I thought that for teams to rebuild it’s going to take seven or eight years and that was the forecast I gave to the players in the club and everyone, and we were all invested in that,” Clarkson told Fox Footy last month. “But we turned it around in four years, we’d won silverware within four years. That’s the theatre of the game.”

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Those Hawks would go on to win three more flags, claiming three on the spin from 2013 to 2015 in a golden era of near invincibility. Like the last reveller at the party Hawthorn have tried to keep the good times going; they have gone about their work in the ensuing years with the hope, expectation even, that another premiership is just around the corner. It is not. The music has stopped and the silence is deafening for a club that has refused to rebuild but now has no option.

On Saturday, the Hawks plumbed new depths when they coughed up a 32-point lead against North Melbourne to go down by seven points. It was the Kangaroos’ first win of the season and their first since they beat Adelaide in round nine last year. Hawthorn are now 2-7, their worst start to a season under Clarkson, and will finish nearer last than first. The spiral downwards is unmistakable: after finishing fourth in 2018, placings of 9th and 15th will likely be joined by a resting place even lower in 2021.

The Hawks are now reaping what they have sown

The time has come, however, for Hawthorn to no longer judge themselves on their win-loss ratio, but on how they are positioned for the future. Right now, the Hawks look further away from a premiership than any club in the AFL. Clarkson, though, is still plotting a course for that next victory. “There’s only one way, and that’s to go back, work hard on the training track and try to do it for a little bit longer next week against Carlton,” he said after the loss to North Melbourne. “Hopefully it’s a lot longer and we can secure ourselves a win.”

Hawthorn players leave the ground after their shock defeat to North Melbourne. Photograph: Steve Bell/Getty Images

The Hawks are now reaping what they have sown. To keep the party going, Hawthorn’s modus operandi has been to trade away draft strength in exchange for experienced bodies from rival clubs. In recent years the likes of Brian Lake, James Frawley, Josh Gibson, Jaeger O’Meara, Tom Mitchell and Chad Wingard – all top-end talent – have walked through the doors but at the cost of youthful players required to take the club to the next phase. “We’re trying to defy what the competition is,” Clarkson has said of Hawthorn’s equalisation-opposing stratagem.

Though injuries are playing their part – including to Will Day and Denver Grainger-Barras, Hawthorn’s only high draftees of recent times – the mix is not working. There was nothing pedestrian about their midfield in Launceston, on paper at least, but not for the first time this year they went missing as the opposition strung together unanswered goal after unanswered goal. It is time for Hawthorn to look hard into the mirror and commit themselves to a full-blown rebuild. Clarkson has the intelligence and wherewithal to pull it off, but does he have the desire?

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His current deal is up at the end of next season. Last year, club president Jeff Kennett raised many an eyebrow when saying, “We won’t be sacking Clarko, Clarko won’t be sacking us, when the time comes we will come to an agreed position and I suspect it will be at the end of this contract”.

They were words that put the rest of the AFL on notice and Clarkson would be coveted by any club keeping a cursory eye on the market. Collingwood would be obvious contenders for Clarkson’s signature; even Greater Western Sydney would be in the picture despite Leon Cameron last year extending his current deal to the end of 2023.

A fresh challenge would be of obvious appeal but for his part, Clarkson is all-in at Hawthorn. “I’m excited for it and I’ll do it for as long as the club and I see fit that we’re making progress,” he said. Clarkson, however, is a man wired for success. The Hawks have a way to go backwards before they will again go forward, with or without him.