'Sick in the Guts'

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Playing To Win
A coach's story
By Michael Gordon

Back in 1990, my father wrote The Hard Way, the story of a football club that had transformed itself from the easy-beats of the competition into the power club of the 1980s, a decade when seven consecutive Grand Final appearances produced four premierships.

For 30 years in the VFL, Harry Gordon wrote, Hawthorn had been like some small Balkan country set among the great pre-war powers of Europe: insignificant, there to be brushed aside or easily crushed by the armies of Collingwood, Carlton and Melbourne: “To be a Hawthorn barracker was to be on intimate terms with the wooden spoon.” Then came success: the first flag in 1961, three more in the 1970s and then the decade of domination. 

Nineteen years after The Hard Way, in a sweet twist on the father- son rule, I collaborated with Harry to incorporate his words into an updated history, One for All, a title borrowed from the club song, We’re a Happy Team at Hawthorn. There was one more flag—the club’s ninth, in 1991—to chronicle, as well as the end of that glorious era, the near-death experience that was the push to merge Hawthorn with Melbourne, the promise of a new dawn under Peter Schwab, the arrival of Alastair Clarkson and, finally, the fairytale finish of 2008. 

Playing to Win, another title inspired by the song, picks up the narrative where One for All left off. It is the story of Hawthorn’s 11th premiership, one where anything less than victory would have seen the coach and the team branded as underachievers by some after going close in 2011 and even closer in 2012. But it is also a story about the evolving culture of what may well be Australia’s most successful sporting club. 

Clarkson was an untried outsider at AFL level when he was appointed at the end of 2004. One of the keys to his success has been his ability to connect with the philosophies and values of those who steered the club from that sporting wilderness to where it sits today, the likes of John Kennedy, Allan Jeans, David Parkin, Alan Joyce, Peter Hudson, Don Scott, Peter Knights, Leigh Matthews, Michael Tuck, Jason Dunstall and Peter Schwab. 

Playing To Win is not the story of how a coach formed a footy team into a premiership winner—twice—but it does show how significant is the role of the coach in the modern game. Not, as many expect, as the sole manager of the team's fate, but as one who acts in a multitude of roles—as teacher, as philosopher, as story-teller, as disciplinarian, but ultimately as a manager of men.

All these attributes, and the important roles that senior players, board members, and the coaching staff play in developing change, are well represented in the following excerpt (Sick In The Guts) describing how the Hawks reflected on yet another loss to Geelong, in round 15, 2013.


“The definition of insanity is to keep on doing the same things and expect different results.”


“The ‘Kennett Curse’ is a load of crap. The results in these games have nothing to do with a curse. The simple fact is that Geelong want to beat us more than we want to beat them.”


There was no big bake from the coach when the downcast Hawks filed into the briefing room after their 10-point loss to Geelong in round 15, which ended a 12-game winning streak—just two questions that demanded answers. They were on the whiteboard and Clarkson, without raising his voice, asked the players to break into groups—forwards, mids and backs—and discuss them for a few minutes and then report back to the group. The first question was the most obvious: what stuffed up? The second was more important: how can we do better next time?

The 11th contest between the two clubs since the 2008 Grand Final was conducted in tough, slippery conditions, prompting Clarkson to instruct his players in the pre-match address to kick the ball off the ground more than usual. It would be a game of inches, Clarkson predicted, and the Hawthorn strategy was to force Geelong into what the ancient Romans called a ‘decimation mindset’ through relentless pressure and precision ball use. “You’re not going to get a bullet from me if you try and take the game on,” the coach said. But, for three quarters the Cats held sway, confining the Hawks to just four goals, before the Hawks kicked five goals in nine minutes in the final term to get within a kick. The final margin was 10 points, which extended the Cats’ average winning margin in the 11 encounters from 8.6 points to 8.7.

The captain was the first to speak, on behalf of the defenders, and he reported how the back end had been “under the pump” early and rushing their kicks, instead of using the teammates around them. “Our kicks were going to their spares,” Luke Hodge said, nursing ice packs on both knees. Brad Sewell, speaking for the mids, conceded they had been too one-dimensional in the way they had played, allowing the Cats to accumulate 50 per cent more uncontested marks. Jarryd Roughead spoke for the forwards about the missed chances and the failure of those who pushed up the ground to get back quickly enough to lock the ball into the Hawks’ forward line.

These were fleeting observations from tired players whose night would end a couple of hours later when the recovery session at the Richmond pool was complete. This was not the time for a clinical review of all that had gone wrong and what needed to change, and Clarkson knew it. That wasn’t his purpose. His intention was to start a conversation that would continue well into the next week.

“We’ve been up for a long time,” Clarkson said after a long pause, his tone measured. “We stuffed some things up tonight—we as coaches, you blokes as players—but we’ll have a look at the tape and we’ll try to dissect what went wrong and how we can get it a bit better.

“We’ve been going at it for a long period of time and getting that shit feeling in your guts from losing a game of footy isn’t such a bad thing, I can guarantee you. But naturally enough, we’re all disappointed because we went into this game thinking we were a big chance to knock these guys off.”

One modest consolation was that Hawthorn had played poorly by its own standards, while the Cats had executed their game plan with a greater proficiency. As Clarkson expressed it, “You look at their game plan and think to yourself: did they get rebound? Yep. Did they get that little pocket that they create to get overlap? Yep. Did they get their half-forwards from half-back just turning around and bolting down and getting full transition goals? Yep.

“So, over the course of the night, they played to their game plan probably 70 to 80 per cent as well as they can. We played ours to about 30 per cent and we lose by 10 points.

“What I’m trying to say is, let’s stick fat. We’ve been a good side for a long period of time, but let’s try and work this out together because we’re going to have to beat this mob to win the flag. Who’s the pressure on the next time we play them? If it’s a final, the pressure might be on them. Who knows? But they know that it’s going to break at some point in time. I don’t mind if it’s a final, but we’ve got to play better than this.”

Ever since the 2008 Grand Final, and ever since Kennett’s declaration that Hawthorn had the psychological ascendancy over the Cats, the club’s mindset had been, more or less, that these games were always close, that Hawthorn always had its chances, and that, inevitably, victory would come if everyone focused on playing his role. The Age’s Rohan Connolly went outside football to characterise the run: “The laws of probability suggest that if you toss a coin and continue to call tails, sooner or later you’re going to get it right. Which is how Hawthorn must feel when it comes to playing Geelong.”

But in the aftermath of the 11th straight defeat came the revelation that Hawthorn did have a problem with Geelong, and, in Clarkson’s words, the failure to recognise it was “just like we were putting a band-aid on a big wound”, one that would ultimately open up. It was articulated in plain language by Chris Fagan in a paper he shared with Clarkson and the players’ leadership group on the Monday morning.

“I wrote these notes early Sunday morning because I couldn’t sleep after another Geelong loss. They are random thoughts, but might come in useful the next time we play them, whenever that is,” it began. What followed were 15 observations, beginning with the impression that Geelong appeared to have more desire to win when they played Hawthorn, while the Hawks were either relying on the Cats having a bad night or good luck to turn the tables.

“It’s not like Geelong can’t be beaten,” he wrote, pointing out that since the 2008 Grand Final the Cats had lost to St Kilda, Fremantle, West Coast, Brisbane, Essendon, North Melbourne, Collingwood, Carlton and the Swans.

“Geelong seem to be in our heads—maybe that’s why we seem to miss easy shots against them—we are more worried about missing than getting excited by the fact that here’s a chance to put another nail in their coffin.

“The ‘Kennett Curse’ is a load of crap. The results in these games have nothing to do with a curse. The simple fact is that Geelong want to beat us more than we want to beat them. Let’s not kid ourselves. It means more to them so they get the job done.”

He concluded by repeating Clarkson’s observation that Hawthorn would probably have to beat Geelong in the finals if they were to win the premiership:
“Don’t forget the disappointment from this game— don’t let time and other victories wash it away. Use it as a driving force to win next week, the week after that and the week after that until we get a chance to beat them again. When we get that chance WE MUST TAKE IT.”

The next day at the club, the players conducted their own exercise, pondering another question posed by their captain: what would the Geelong players be saying about their Hawthorn counterparts behind closed doors? “What would Paul Chapman be saying? Or Stevie J (Johnson)?” Hodge asked. The answers were collected, to be reproduced before the two teams next met. They did not paint a flattering picture. One of the most common responses recalled the phantom tweet sent by the Max Rooke imposter before their round 19 clash in 2012: “Got those bunnies again”. “We’ve got them covered,” said another.

A day later, Clarkson summoned the six members of the leadership group to the room that serves as his office — called ‘the fishbowl’ because it is a glassed-in enclosure within the gymnasium and, like a goldfish, he can always be seen when he is inside. Sewell, the former Crimmins medallist and Hawthorn’s best player in the 2012 finals, would be dropped from the side to play Port Adelaide the following week, he told them. Sewell, who had never seen Clarkson so wound up and dejected, was disappointed, but not altogether surprised.

Twelve months earlier, Sewell had spoken with striking candour about the role he played at Hawthorn. “Everyone brings different attributes to the side, and if you’re not exceptional in one area, you’re not going to be an AFL player,” he explained.

“For me, it’s hunting the ball and intensity around the contest, and if I’m not doing that well, other guys can come in and play that role. You need to have the strong inside mids, if you like. They’re the guys that have as big an influence as any come September, and we’re fortunate we’ve got three or four guys who have the ability to play that role.

“You genuinely have to enjoy the contest, the fight and the physicality of it, but for me as much as anything it’s quite simple: if I’m not doing that, I’m not getting a game. So I guess there is an element of fear in it. You want to play footy for as long as you can at the highest level, and the only way I’m going to be doing that is if I’m contesting the ball in close, in stoppages and clearances and tackles and all those little things.”

Now, he was to be dropped from the side still favoured to win the premiership, and a question mark hung over his future. While others had adapted to secondary roles, such as playing on the half-back line in the case of Sam Mitchell and Hodge, Sewell understood that others could play these roles better than he could. He was, more or less, a one-trick pony, and it didn’t matter one jot that his trick was the toughest and most demanding in football, or that he took particular pride in performing best when it mattered most, on the MCG in September.

As Clarkson expressed it in a media conference, “We have got guys underneath who are challenging for positions and we just can’t keep them hanging on for guys who haven’t been performing to the level we know they can.”

The previous week, Sewell had jarred his back in the warm-up on a cold afternoon in Tasmania and, in the lead-up to the Geelong game, had spent a couple of hours a day in the spa, applying heat to his back. “By the time the (Geelong) game came around I was zapped,” he said. “The heat of the spa had taken my energy and I didn’t play well and the side played poorly as well and something had to give and it was me.”

Hawthorn’s next opponent was Port Adelaide at AAMI Stadium, but much of the week was devoted to the question of how to beat the Cats. As Mitchell recalled, “We didn’t talk about Port Adelaide until just before we played them basically, because we were still reviewing the Geelong game and talking about how we could get the monkey off the back and stop losing to them.”

One of the main conclusions drawn was that playing Lance Franklin deep in the forward line was an error that should not be repeated. As Hodge recalled, “In past games, Bud had played into (Tom) Lonergan’s hands. He’d go deep, and Lonergan’s a very strong person, especially when you’ve got blokes like (Corey) Enright, (Andrew) Mackie, (Harry) Taylor around him. Their whole game is reading the play, dropping off and chopping out for their teammates.”

The finding was summarised in a note penned by Hodge: “Bud can’t play deep. Got to get him up high and move him around.”

Another conclusion flowed from the recognition that, inevitably, clashes with Geelong tended to ebb and flow. The biggest imperative was not so much about converting Hawthorn opportunities, important though that was, but limiting the damage Geelong could do when the Cats held sway.

The players and coaches were not the only ones who recognised that the way they approached Geelong had to change. Fagan also met with president Andrew Newbold and CEO Stuart Fox, who agreed that their ‘messaging’ within the club and to supporters about the rivalry had to change. As Newbold put it, “We had to get rid of this notion that we love the rivalry and they’re always great games—and be much more that we don’t think there is a rivalry when you lose 11 straight.”

Fox, the former deputy CEO at Kardinia Park, could only agree. “I cannot express how frustrating it was for me to be sitting among Geelong people at president’s lunches and dinners on game day and endure loss after loss after loss,” he said. “It was like Groundhog Day, waking up and the same thing happens to you every time.”

When the board met a couple of weeks after the loss, vice-president Geoff Harris, whose nine-year term on the board would end in December, arrived with a short document headed ‘Sick in the Guts’ that proposed his own 10-point plan to ensure a different result next time and victory in the Grand Final, which could be the next time the two teams played. Harris had played footy in his youth and didn’t like losing. His aim was to ensure that the coaching staff had explored every conceivable avenue for improvement, particularly against the Swans, who had denied Hawthorn the flag in 2012, and Geelong, who had won every encounter since 2008. “The definition of insanity is to keep on doing the same things and expect different results,” Harris told the board.

“For me, it was just a way of focusing their minds on the enemy at that stage,” he said. “It’s not for board members to tell football people how to suck eggs. They’re the experts. It was just me saying, ‘Here are my thoughts. If there’s one thing you haven’t thought of, that’s great. Go ahead and do it.’”

At the board’s next meeting, Fagan outlined all the things that had been done differently from 2012. Among them were the steps taken to improve accuracy in front of goal that would lift Hawthorn from 11th to third in the competition in this area; the simulated tight finishes that had helped reduce to two the number of close games lost (both against Geelong); more flexible team structures and more versatile players; and the introduction to the team of five new players, compared with just two in 2012. The five included Sam Grimley, who joined the ranks of those AFL players who have kicked a goal in their first AFL game, and Will Langford, son of one of the club’s greatest defenders in Chris Langford. There was also a lesser reliance on Franklin as an inside-50 target, down from 36 per cent in 2012 to 27 per cent in 2013; and more.

The significance of the Harris note wasn’t so much its content but the message it sent: that the board was every bit as hungry as the football department for success in 2013.

Playing To Win, BY Michael Gordon, is available at the special price of $20.00 from http://bit.ly/SMGPTW2014

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