Winless Hawthorn serve up unfamiliar feeling to fans amid current malaise | Craig Little

Craig Little
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Tom Mitchell of the Hawks walks off the MCG after the Hawks defeat to the Adelaide Crows on Saturday – their second loss of the season.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images</span>
Tom Mitchell of the Hawks walks off the MCG after the Hawks defeat to the Adelaide Crows on Saturday – their second loss of the season. Photograph: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

As gateway drugs to football fandom go, a premiership is awfully tempting. For all but a handful of the past 40 years, being a Hawthorn fan has been an easy high, an addiction to the aesthetics of skilful football carried to its peak. Hawthorn has won and won and won. And it has looked easy.

While nothing much seems to be coming easy for the Hawks at the moment, it is going to take more than a 0-2 start to the season for their fans to become well versed in the art of self-pity. But 0-2 is still unfamiliar territory, and it is a position Hawthorn finds itself in for the first time in eight years after a four-goal loss to an impressive Adelaide at the MCG.

To rise again, you first have to fall. And to fall, you first have to rise. And Hawthorn is a club that has an affinity for resurrections. When you consider that Hawthorn has won all bar one its 13 premierships in Dermott Brereton’s lifetime, it is easy to forget the club fell so far as to almost merge with Melbourne in 1996 – and just as difficult to convince yourself that Hawthorn’s current malaise will be a sustained one.

“We are probably not gelling as well as a group at the moment,” said Hawthorn captain Jarryd Roughead. “You have to learn how each other plays and you have to gel together rather than think they can come out and do what the old blokes are going to do.” Or did. As well as introducing four new players from other clubs, we perhaps owe Hawthorn more than two games worth of the benefit of the doubt in adjusting to losing the experience and guile of four-time premiership players, Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis.

“All we look for as coaches is the next opportunity for us to win a premiership, and we believe we’ve got a group of players that can help deliver that,” said the Hawks’ coach, Alastair Clarkson. “Despite what everyone else thinks about our more senior guys [being] past their best and all that sort of stuff, we’ve got some pretty formidable players.”

But what the current Hawthorn list may have in premiership-forged formidability, they want for in pace and outside run, something that second-half corked legs to Isaac Smith and Liam Shiels brought into relief – as did the speed of feet and mind of the Crows, exemplified by their former captain Rory Sloane and star turn Eddie Betts. On the weekend we saw yet again passages of play where it appears Betts sees the future trajectory of a football as clearly as the dotted lines traced by cartoon Nasa engineers.

But greatness was not something Clarkson had an immediate brown and gold reference for in the post-match press conference. “With anything in this game, it’s not always great and it’s not always that bad either. It’s somewhere in between and we need to play better, but we feel there’s plenty of upside for our football club.”

Things may be that bad for the Gold Coast Suns, Hawthorn’s opponent next week and a team where the upside is harder to find. To compare the two clubs is to compare a shark to plankton. Hawthorn is sustained by generations of success and good will. Gold Coast isn’t. Hawthorn has three premierships to draw on in the years that Gold Coast has been part of the competition. In that time, the Gold Coast has been the AFL’s most expensive joke, not finishing higher than 12th. On Saturday, the Suns sustained that joke admirably with a lamentable 102-point flogging to fellow expansion club, Greater Western Sydney.

It is difficult to find an upside even in the “son of god”, Gary Ablett Jnr, whose star is a little dimmer these days. There were moments on Saturday that suggested he was tired of his burden and bored with his brilliance. But to lay the blame at his feet is to ignore that 21 Suns players were responsible for that pottage. Clearly, when you’re so lacklustre and abysmal to concede 16 goals from turnovers, you don’t have a prayer.

While Suns coach Rodney Eade remains insistent that “the wheel will turn”, you sense that is of little comfort to those at AFL House not busy lobbying the state government for funding the “not-for-profit” organisation’s bid to get into the hospitality, tourism and leisure game with a $300m upgrade of Etihad Stadium, incorporating a plush hotel and ballroom. And given we exist in a media environment where one game into the season, a thousand AFL-accredited journalists dump rumours of coaching careers to a ravenous public like burley to sharks, you can’t help but feel if the Suns were from one of the traditional football states, Eade may have the impulse to flee his house and check into a less exuberant hotel under an assumed name. Hell, the panellists on Footy Classified just last week discussed (with a straight face) if Leon Cameron was still the right man for the Greater Western Sydney job.

At least Cameron can call on his supporters to have faith, having taken his young list to a preliminary final. As the Book of James says, “faith without works is dead” and right now, nothing is working for Eade and the Suns.

Nor is it for the 0-2 Nathan Buckley and Collingwood. A generous read would have Buckley in between the bounty and bankruptcy of good will of Hawthorn and the Gold Coast. Although with a difficult two months in front of them and three years of missing finals behind them, he may need more than the support of players such as vice-captain Taylor Adams who is insistent it is they who are letting down their coach. “He’ll probably cop some heat, so will we,” said Adams.

Buckley is no stranger to copping heat, and in the process of building a list he can call his own he has adopted the Patrick Swayze mantra from Road House that “pain don’t hurt,” and that the rewards would come – well, would come were it not for Collingwood’s kicking efficiency falling well short of the roundhouses featured in the same film. Should the Pies be 0-5 as the light dims on Anzac Day (a scenario very much in play) the pain may be too great for even the more faithful Magpie fans. Buckley himself has hinted that his future may hinge on the Magpies playing a role in September.

What will be worth watching is just how closely the fate of Buckley is linked to that of president Eddie McGuire, who may be forced to call time on an appointment he championed in order to maintain his high from presiding over Australia’s largest football club.

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