Xavier Ellis: The secret to Alastair Clarkson and Hawthorn’s success

THIS weekend, a massive hurdle stands in the way of the Eagles retaining top spot on the AFL ladder.

West Coast have had well documented issues when playing in Melbourne in the past, but the venue and the travel isn’t the hurdle at this point. With their current leg speed and ball movement, it won’t be the ground that will challenge the boys.

No, the hurdle I refer to this week presents itself in the form of the Hawthorn Football Club.

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Let’s not beat around the bush, Hawthorn are arguably the greatest team of all time. And whilst there are many reasons for the team’s sustained success, most of it can be attributed to the genius of Alastair Clarkson.

As a former Hawk, I’m in something of a unique position as I sit down to write this column, as I spent eight years living and playing under Hawthorn’s four key principles of mateship, sacrifice, endurance, and courage.

These pillars were first established by the Australian warriors who fought at Kokoda, and it was this spirit that Clarko sought to emulate when he established the annual Kokoda pilgrimage within weeks of his arrival at Waverley Park.

At least once in their career every player on the list will jump on a plane and head to the Papua New Guinean jungle to take on the trek. The 100km hike through torturous mountains in extreme weather conditions obviously has its fitness benefits for a professional athlete, but these benefits were secondary to the experience itself.

We were there to gain respect, perspective, and most of all, gratitude.

The experience forges bonds amongst players and staff, and formed the blueprint for the direction that Clarko took the club over a decade ago.

So let’s take it back to the end of the 2004 season, which is where – for all intents and purposes – the decade of dominance truly began. Hawthorn were in dire straits when Clarko was appointed, and his first task was an enormous one – he was to completely rebuild the club’s culture.

The Hawks at the time had the highest wages in the competition, as they’d been opting to use the entire salary cap (plus a bit extra) to pay their players.

Clarko had to make some room on the books, and fast. He knew that he would have to remove the club’s older, higher paid servants within 12 months, while somehow retaining the competitive beasts who would do anything to achieve success.

By ‘competitive beasts’, I am of course referring to Chance Bateman, Shane Crawford, Sam Mitchell, Campbell Brown and Luke Hodge.

While nobody could have predicted Hawthorn playing in five grand finals in a decade, from day one their focus was one-dimensional. I was never in any doubt as to how eager these boys were to win, and difficult conversations were a non-issue.

My first wakeup call came on day one at Clarko’s house, where we had gathered for the 2005 draft day BBQ. I was in the process of reaching for can of coke in the esky when Sam Mitchell barked at me:

“We don’t drink soft drink mate, you’re here to help win me a premiership!”

The hard work payed off.
The hard work payed off.

And at the conclusion of my first season, Campbell Brown took me for a coffee to lay the law down.

“From the beginning of pre-season, you’ll drink when I drink. Simple. If I’m not drinking, you will stay sober and train your arse off.”

The 2007 pre-season proved very quiet for me, as I soon realised that Browny wasn’t a drinker.

In my eyes, culture and expectations at a successful club are set by the coach, and governed by the players. Banning me from nights out and soft drink were for no other reason than to strengthen a developing culture – and eventually win a premiership. From my very first conversation with Sam Mitchell on, there were countless ‘hard’ conversations had amongst teammates; we were responsible for each other, and never afraid to call each other out when necessary.

However, Clarko’s influence and authority would occasionally be needed to realign the team and its values if someone fell short of expectations.

Enter Josh Gibson.

Gibbo was an extremely talented player who turned out to be an absolute champion of the Hawthorn Football Club, but it wasn’t always smooth sailing.

Fresh to the club and settling in, Gibbo had made some questionable decisions early; nothing major, but certainly not “team first”. The playing group had assembled in the lecture theatre to address the issue, and a steaming Clarkson made his sentiments known:

“Gibbo, fit in or f***off”

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Clarko would have followed through with his threat, had Gibbo not turned it around.

Culture aside, Clarko was also intent on drafting stars like Lance Franklin, Jarryd Roughead, Jordan Lewis and Grant Birchall, developing the kids, and supporting the veterans. He also knew that to do this, he would need the right offsiders.

Clarko’s gift for identifying football talent stretches to coaching and support staff – and the proof is in the pudding.

Luke Beveridge, Damien Hardwick, Chris Fagan, Leon Cameron and Adam Simpson are all graduates of ‘the Clarkson Academy’, and all are proof that development and coaching are prioritised and invested in at Hawthorn.

In recent weeks, Clarko has been in the media for negative reasons – something he is no stranger to. Personally, I love hearing journalists try to analyse Clarko’s actions or behaviour, because 99 per cent of the time, they are completely off the mark.

Does Clarko like the media? Probably not. But his actions usually serve a purpose: when a negative story appears about Clarko, you can usually be sure that something else is happening behind the scenes.

In my days at the Hawks there were countless occasions that he would front up and defend his players so fiercely that the media pressure would shift from the players onto himself. This was a deliberate move, pulled off by a coach who is the absolute best in the business at protecting his charges.

Don’t get me wrong, occasionally he did some astonishing things. Punching himself in the face, watching ballet in a team meeting, studying Chinese rice fields, and countless dust ups with the media and supporters come to mind…

But not once has he failed to own his mistakes.

Not once has he hung a player out to dry.

And not once has he rested on his laurels, satisfied with his greatness.

The culture Clarko has built, coupled with his game planning and preparation has the team believing that the Hawthorn way is unbeatable. And for nearly a decade, it almost always was.

This is why the Eagles should not get complacent ahead of this weekend’s clash.

You can never write off the Hawks, or the great Alastair Clarkson.

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