Should the Hawks trade Alastair Clarkson?

There is little doubt head coach Alastair Clarkson is Hawthorn’s best asset. For a team straddling the upper bound of the league’s demographic limits, and without many traditional assets to speak of, a trade, yes a trade, is at least worthy of our examination.

The Hawks are all in on their midfield core of Tom Mitchell, Jaeger O’Meara and Liam Shiels. The trio represent the centre bounce crew for the next five years – or longer. To assemble it, Hawthorn mortgaged its future, trading away the rights to high draft picks in both last and this year’s draft.

It is too freaking early to be saying this but for the purposes of today please humour me: it hasn’t worked. Shiels, the elder statesman and product of the Hawks’ recent era of success, has been a mostly anonymous figure. Mitchell is on pace to set a new record for most disposals in a year, which is about the most notable thing he can hope to do in 2017. O’Meara’s knee issues have flared up, and after a promising handful of games one would expect him to miss the remainder of this season.

After starting the season on a four game losing streak, and looking as structurally sound as a snowball in summer, Hawthorn has won five of their past nine games with a percentage of 94. From atrocious to merely bad, perhaps the Hawks’ long term prospects are a little more, well, prospective.

Still, there are problems across the playing list, even putting O’Meara’s knee troubles to one side – and boy that’s a big thing to wish away. The Hawks still rely on a number players approaching or exceeding the arbitrary-but-important 30 years of age threshold. Hawthorn has five players set to enter 2018 in their 30 year old season or later: Shaun Burgoyne, Josh Gibson, Luke Hodge, Jarryd Roughead, Paul Puopolo and Grant Birchall. Five additional players are 29, and three further who are 28. Each and every one of those players are either in Hawthorn’s best 22, or have played significant time in the senior team this year.

It’s close to a quarter of their list. A list that sits 16th on the ladder with five wins.

The Hawks have played plenty of young players this year, unveiling the talented Ryan Burton, giving larger roles to Tim O’Brien, Blake Hardwick, James Sicily – among others. All have shown they will be capable professional footballers, a fact Clarkson has referred to a number of times in recent press conferences.

Their most pressing concern from this perspective is a defence which leaks worse than an Ikea sieve. Frawley is already losing a step, Gibson lost his 12 months ago, Birchall remains a positive contributor with ball in hand, Hodge is inconsistent in line with his age. It is old and ineffectual. Ben Stratton has been out with injury, and lockdown defenders always look like a luxury on a struggling team. The Hawks have allowed close to 100 points per game this season (99.6), a figure influenced by some early drubbings but nonetheless the Hawks’ defence has still conceded competitive opposition scores regularly.

Critically, the Hawks’ defence is bound by the same demographic fate. Frawley may be slightly younger than the rest, but the precipice of his decline looks as close as any other in the unit. It is going to require a significant, multi-year overhaul, with a risk of it falling in a heap this year and next.

Over to you, Ryan Burton.

Hawthorn’s midfield is less concerning. Right now it’s not working well: the Hawks are only able to generate 46 inside 50s a game, and they concede about two minutes of extra possession to their opponents per game (admittedly this is a whole team issue). Personnel wise, the Hawks are in a decent spot.

Mitchell has done everything expected of him. Shiels is a fine third banana. Guys like Taylor Duryea, Will Langford, Billy Hartung and the like are acceptable reserve midfielders. Isaac Smith has played a little more inside football this season, and still runs the lines as well as anyone. It could be better, but the team’s back line shows it could be three billion times worse.

The forward line doesn’t have the same demographic challenges as down back. Roughead will finish within the next year, Rioli will be 28 and Puopolo 30. Otherwise, Luke Breust is right in the middle of his prime at 27, Jack Gunston is 26, and with Sicily, O’Brien, Daniel Howe and Burton (unfortunately for Hawks fans, not a clone) can all play at the pointy end.

The point is, the Hawks have some list challenges to overcome from a position of relative weakness. The ability for clubs to trade their future picks was ostensibly a way to assist the academy clubs manage the ebbs and flows of talent flow; ultimately, and correctly, it has given every club the ability to make more interesting list management decisions. It has greased many trade wheels.

What do they do? The Hawthorn players which hold the most currency are those who remain central to their medium term plans. The Hawks could feasibly find a home for Jack Gunston, Luke Breust, Cyril Rioli or Isaac Smith; they are around the age of Mitchell and O’Meara, and so would set back the potential for the Hawks to get into contention as the duo hit their primes.

They could trade one of more of their youngsters, if the return was multiple high draft picks. Flipping Ryan Burton for two picks between the high teens and mid to late 20s gives the Hawks two new opportunities at the top of the draft. But that would require flipping Burton, which is about as likely as me watching A-League on a Friday night. Hawthorn’s other youngsters hold some currency, but only single pick currency, which defeats the purpose of asset accumulation.

Guys outside of these two asset classes won’t make the kind of impact needed. Free agency presents some intriguing options, but with the flurry of player signings in the weeks since the league and its players signed a new Collective Bargaining Agreement it’s impossible to know who is available.

They’re in a bind. Fortunately, there is something we haven’t discussed. Or someone, as it were. Alastair Clarkson.

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Clarkson’s credentials need no introduction. He has graduated six AFL coaches in his time as the chief of the Hawks’ football program, including two grand final coaches (Adam Simpson and Luke Beveridge) and a premiership coach (Beveridge).

More recently, Clarkson has presided over two wins against much more fancied opponents; the Swans in Round 10 and the Crows in Round 14. Coming into Round 14, both teams off the bye, Hawthorn were eight to one underdogs travelling to a ground where the Crows hold a net margin of 44 points against their opponents this season. Clarkson conducted his 22 like the London Philharmonic, cutting off Adelaide’s renowned angles of attack and precision placing an extra defender behind the ball to nullify the Crows’ potent forward set.

Against the Swans, it was a complete aversion to using the middle of the ground. Knowing Sydney love to play the chaos ground game, Clarkson ensured the ball stayed out of the part of the field the Swans love to go to work in. It was tight, but the Hawks prevailed, again against the odds and again away from home.

One of the most exciting features of the first few rounds of the season is looking at the tricks coaches have been working on in the offseason. Clarkson’s wave-running didn’t pay off this season, but it is almost assured he will already be cooking up the next innovation.

The interesting angle here for the Hawks is the relative success of Clarkson’s growing army of former assistant coaches across the league. The teacher is the teacher for a reason, but if they graduate and go on to be teachers themselves? Interesting.

Trading a coach has never happened in the AFL, as far as I can tell. AFL coaches don’t get paid multi millions, don’t have as many job opportunities as coaches or managers, and don’t work in a league with a culture of unconventional thinking as coaches in other global sporting leagues. The AFL Coaches Association are as conservative as they come, and would undoubtedly rule this is a breach of employment law or something.

There is also the small matter of the incredible turnover the Hawks have experienced across their organisation in the past two years. Hawthorn has lost its chairman, CEO and head of football; as best as I can tell the head of football position – the position that Clarkson notionally reports to – remains unfilled. That would make any potential move to shift Clarkson problematic; in a political sense, he has the most power.

But still, the Hawks are in a bind, and could do worse than to ring around to gauge the value of one of the best Australian rules football coaches of all time. What’s he worth? It is almost impossible to say, but multiple draft picks and other considerations – cash, IOUs, souls – should probably be in scope too.

Hawthorn will not trade Alastair Clarkson. But should they? The answer to that is a bit less clear.