Could Alastair Clarkson become the best coach of all-time?

Date: October 2, 2015 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

ClarksonCome Saturday evening Alastair Clarkson may well be a member of a very select group of men to have coached four VFL/AFL premierships.

Through 19 decades just 11 men have notched up four or more flags.

Collingwood supremo Jock McHale leads the way with seven, Melbourne great Norm Smith won six while Frank Hughes (Richmond and Melbourne) and John Worrall (Carlton and Essendon) captured five. The remaining seven led their sides to four premierships.

A win by Hawthorn in this week’s decider against Fremantle would see Clarkson complete a hat-trick following on from his maiden win in 2008.

To date, only four men have secured a hat-trick while McHale led the Magpies to four successive flags in the 1920s.

Win or lose this year, Clarkson at 47 years of age, has plenty of time to add to his existing résumé.

Of the four-time premiership coaches, only Dick Reynolds did not coach beyond his mid-50s – Kevin Sheedy (65), Ron Barassi (59), Allan Jeans (58), Tom Hafey (57), David Parkin (57), Leigh Matthews (56).

Clarkson, like all great coaches, has the ability to reinvent himself, and by extension, the team he is in charge of.

I can remember sitting alongside former Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett at a luncheon a few years go and discussing Clarkson with him. He pointed out a reasonably little known fact that ahead of the 2008 season Clarkson flew several times to Perth to pick the brain of inaugural Fremantle coach, Gerard Neesham.

Looking back now Neesham’s coaching philosophy, borrowed from his second sporting love water polo, and based around a chip and draw style is now commonplace across the AFL.

At the time Neesham tried to implement the style with the early Dockers squad he lacked players with the requisite skill base to perform such a high possession game regularly under pressure.

Clarkson saw something in the Neesham philosophy and realised that he had the players within his group who could execute it. His belief culminated in a premiership in 2008.

The following year the Hawks dropped out of the eight, a bitter pill for those at the club to swallow.

It was time for Clarkson to again recalibrate the team’s playing style.

He now commands a team that is a joy to watch with a mix of attacking and defensive abandon when the situation requires.

The success of this era of Hawks was literally built from the ground up. In Clarkson’s first two years at the helm the club finished 14th and 11th.

The decision was taken to rebuild through the draft rather than to enter trade battles to find quick-fix experience which is the trap that many clubs have fallen into.

From the enigmatic Cyril Rioli to the hard-nosed reliability of Josh Gibson, the team possesses the full gamut of players that are required to succeed.

Each of his premiership winning teams has achieved success as a result of a series of well-calculated tweaks.

Each off season Clarkson wends his way overseas where he visits other successful sporting clubs in an attempt to pick up what he can and mould it to the game of Australian Football.

An MBA and a Bachelor of Sports Science are testament to the energies that Clarkson puts into his job.

Like Jeans, Hafey and Denis Pagan, Clarkson was not a star on the field in the mould of a Matthews, Dick Reynolds or Malcolm Blight. His 11-year, 134-game playing career with North Melbourne and Melbourne resulted in just five Brownlow Medal votes.

He showed during his time as a player that he possessed a ruthless streak, something very much displayed in the infamous ‘Battle or Britain’ post-season game at The Oval in London in 1987 between the Kangaroos and Carlton. A king hit on the Blues’ Ian Aitken left him with a broken jaw and Clarkson with a four-week ban.

His temper has at times earned him unwarranted headlines as a coach too – a $15,000 fine for confronting and threatening Essendon’s Matthew Lloyd after an on-field incident involving Brad Sewell; a four-week ban as a runner for his young son’s football team as a result of abusing a teenage umpire having the day before punched a hole in the wall of the MCG coaches’ box.

But while his temper may sometimes get the better of him he has the ability to remain cool and calm when the moment arises in the heat of battle.

His players – past and present – speak glowingly of him as do many of the men who have shared the coaches’ box with him.

Like Hafey and Jeans before him he has helped spawn the careers of many current-day coaches. One of them, Adam Simpson who spent four years as an assistant to Clarkson, will coach against him this Saturday in the season’s grand finale.

The man adjudged by the AFL Coaches Association as its best this season, the Bulldogs’ Luke Beveridge, is yet another disciple of Clarkson.

Clarkson boasts a 62.2 per cent success rate in home-and-away matches but more tellingly his success rate in finals is 71.4 per cent. The latter number, according those who frame the markets, will increase further after Saturday.

If it does Clarkson will move a step closer to greatness as a coach.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 1 October 2015