Sport AFL How high can Alastair Clarkson fly?
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How high can Alastair Clarkson fly?

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It seems inconceivable now that Alastair Clarkson was once an afterthought.

On September 8, 2004, when Clarkson was confirmed as Hawthorn coach, the silence was deafening.

Rebuffed by Rodney Eade and Terry Wallace, the Hawks were thought to have been left at the altar. Then Jason Dunstall appeared, and walked Clarkson down the aisle.

A decade on, ‘Alastair who?’ has become a titan – his third flag in 10 seasons putting him among footy’s immortals.

Contrast that with the record of Mick Malthouse, who took 27 seasons to notch up three premierships. Leigh Matthews took 14, Kevin Sheedy 13.

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Dick Reynolds needed 11, Ron Barassi 10, Norm Smith nine, Tom Hafey eight, while David Parkin is the benchmark for extraordinary starts to coaching careers – winning three premierships in his first six seasons (although it must be said he inherited fair sides at both Hawthorn and Carlton).

If 46-year-old Clarkson keeps up his current pace, there’s no reason why he could not reel in Smith’s six flags. Even the legendary Jock McHale’s haul of eight is not beyond the realms of possibility.

“As long as Alastair’s passionate about it, there’s no reason why he can’t do it for another 15 years if he wants to, and build an imposing record,” dual-premiership coach Denis Pagan – who coached Clarkson at North Melbourne – told The New Daily.

'Honey' Clarko. Photo: Getty
‘Honey’ Clarko. Photo: Getty

“He’s already one of the immortals. If he coaches another 15 years there’s a fair chance he’ll have more success and who knows where he ends up.

“He’s up there with John Kennedy, Michael Malthouse with three premierships. If he gets to four then he joins the elite. Then you start looking at Jock McHale, Norm Smith and those sorts of guys.”

So what makes Clarkson special? There was nothing about his resume that suggested he’d be the AFL’s next great coach.

He played 134 games at two clubs (93 at North Melbourne, 41 at Melbourne), and was then a runner at the Demons in 1998 before moving to St Kilda as an assistant coach.

He had a year in charge of Werribee in the VFL then headed to Adelaide where he led Central District to a SANFL premiership in his first year and was later an assistant under Mark Williams at Port Adelaide.

So what, then, makes Clarkson remarkable?

“He’s very intelligent,” Pagan said. “He’s got a great knowledge of the game, and he’s got a great knowledge of life and people.

“He’s a very good people manager.

“Successful coaches carry a jar of honey in one hand and a jar of vinegar in the other and they know when to dispense.”

Richie Vandenberg, who Clarkson asked to be his skipper when he was appointed Hawks coach, agrees.

“The big thing that Clarkson has the ability to do is manage his playing group. He does that extraordinarily well,” Vandenberg said.

“I haven’t seen a work ethic like his. His attention to detail is extraordinary – he’s across everything, from recruiting right through to selling the right message from a marketing perspective.”

Sydney always receive plaudits (rightfully) for their ability to turn recycled players into stars – their ‘Bloods’ culture is the envy of the competition.

He has a lot of open dialogue with his leaders. He includes them in a lot of the decision making.

But, although they don’t have a name for it, the Hawks are exceptional in this regard too.

In Saturday’s thumping of Sydney, men like Shaun Burgoyne, Brian Lake, Ben McEvoy and Matt Spangher were key, while in 2008 Stuart Dew’s brilliant third quarter was decisive.

“The way that he (Clarkson) builds a core group of players, which develops the culture, and he’s able to plug in recruits from other clubs who then just fit right in, I think is a real strength,” Vandenberg said.

“He has a lot of open dialogue with his leaders. He includes them in a lot of the decision making.

“He won’t accept anything other than the best.”

Dunstall, who was instrumental in bringing Clarkson to Hawthorn, knew early on he’d found the right man for the job.

'Vinegar' Clarko. Photo: Getty
‘Vinegar’ Clarko. Photo: Getty

“He was always one that was happy to challenge convention, and he’s taken the game to new levels,” Dunstall said on Monday night’s episode of On the Couch.

“We sat through a lot of presentations, and I reckon five minutes into his I was thinking to myself ‘this bloke could coach our club’.

“The way he viewed the game, the way he thought things should run – just the whole package, he just ticked every box.”

Vandenberg believes Clarkson’s hunger for success is what keeps him one step ahead of his contemporaries when it comes to tactical innovation.

“He has a real desire to learn from other sports and he does that – he educates himself by travelling all over the world, going to watch basketball and gridiron and soccer,” Vandenburg said.

“He’s definitely at that leading edge because he takes himself outside the game and wanted to learn from other sports.”

Clarkson, a former school teacher, has become a master of delegation – employing trusted lieutenants like Brendon Bolton,  Luke Beveridge and Brett Ratten to carry his message to the players, while he oversees it all.

Speaking on the Channel 7 documentary The Chosen Few, Clarkson said he recognised early on the need to have faith in his assistants.

“I had to change my ways, both for the benefit of the players, the benefit of myself but also the benefit of the assistant coaches – to delegate a lot of responsibilities to them,” Clarkson said.

“If I was going to be a long-term coach at this club, the message needed to be spread.

“Watch me at football training, you’d think ‘how can this bloke be coaching the side?’ I haven’t taken a drill at training for three years.”

For all his ‘people skills’, there is only so far warm and fuzzy will take you as a senior coach.

Clarkson, no doubt, has a mean streak.

The man who broke Ian Aitken’s jaw in the Battle of Britain has always had an air of mongrel about him.

Even now, having mellowed somewhat, he can still be prickly. Have a look at his stinging shut down of Mike Sheahan (see below), after the media veteran declared he was leaving Hawthorn for West Coast last year.

Sheahan, who has seen it all, looked a little uncomfortable On the Couch.

In keeping with Clarkson’s penchant for innovation, he’s taken the blueprint from Pagan and expanded on it: jar of honey in one hand, a grenade in the other.

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