Why Hawthorn FC are the best team in the AFL
The recent trades of Hawthorn stalwarts Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis to West Coast and Melbourne respectively had everyone from AFL journalists to the nobodies of Twitter flabbergasted. It’s easy to understand why, they are two of the best midfielders in the comp, let alone their team, and what Hawthorn got in return amounts to practically nothing. The picks they did receive have in past years picked up players like Josh Tynan and Justin Bollenhagen. Who are they? I don’t know. They weren't very good and that’s the point. The trades are far from fair to Hawthorn on paper, but that’s not what the club prioritise, they’re more concerned with what’s fair to two of their most respected players. Both of whom having contributed to securing those four premierships, Mitchell captaining one.
In defence of what most would say are drastic trades, Clarkson recently held an interview that was sent to all members and posted on the Hawthorn website to explain the reasoning behind the two trades and more broadly Hawthorn’s player management ideology. This gave Hawks supporters and the football community (IMPORTANT) a greater transparency into the machinations of the Hawthorn Football Club and comes across as an invaluable piece of video. In the 15 minute interview Clarkson emphasises two ideals that Hawthorn truly embrace, respect and realism, and communicates his messages stressing them; ‘If we could facilitate it (the trades), we would like them (Mitchell and Lewis) to participate’ and another going something along the lines of controlling their own destinies. Both quotes hold special meaning through inferring Hawthorn care so much more about their players after they've left the club (especially off field), because the plain reality was that Hawthorn weren't prepared to extend either players contract and in contrast the Eagles and Demons could offer lucrative ones, a player into coaching role for Mitchell and another two years for Lewis. That’s almost a re-birth of a career for both, and another 2–3 years where they don’t have to worry about how they’re going to support their families with the added bonus of doing it through a means they love. The realism comes through Clarkson and his team acknowledging that football players and even coaches are ‘temporary custodians’ instead of football heroes that fans would almost categorise as family — you only have to look at the scenes after the Bulldogs won the Grand Final to know that what I’m talking about and more personally significant to me the hysteria when the Demons do the same. There is a good chance Melbourne Park will flood like it did in 1995 on centre court at the Australian Open, except this time the water will be salty and a million Kleenexes won’t stem the ducts (St. John’s should also be on standby). What’s real and what Hawthorn accepted a long time ago is that the fairy-tale of a one club career whatever the capacity, be it coach or player, really does equivocate to a fairy tale — it’s an added reason why the 08’ Grand Final was considered so special re Crawford (that’s what Lewis said in his induction video to MFC anyway). The fact that Hawthorn nurture their players with utmost integrity and professionalism but somewhat ironically recognise them as ‘temporary custodians’ goes a long way into explaining recent successes and the lay bed for future successes (it’s been proven 3 times since 08’).
Clarkson tearily stated in the interview that the shock of those trades transpiring wasn’t in the process of them being worked out but rather the fact that both trades happened so close to together and not years apart. The stark reality is Hawthorn definitely didn't want both of them to go at the same time, they blatantly said that, but they valued Mitchell and Lewis too much as persons instead of dispensable commodities with football skills to simply refuse their departure (keep in mind that didn't have to let either player go). He also spoke about how the coaches are always very upfront with their players and presumably always try to facilitate a trade that suits both club and player first, and then the club that they’re dealing with. I can only speculate on what Mitchell and Lewis felt through that decision making time, but I would bet they both clearly understood the club’s foresight and longer term goals. And despite both trades coming as a shock (probably more so for Lewis), both would have foreseen something like that happening, just not to themselves at the same time. After all, those trades are emblematic of what Hawthorn is about in terms of investing in their off-field culture and can be added to the list of noteworthy trades that Hawthorn have made under Clarkson.
Back in 2004 when Clarkson took the reins as coach, Hawthorn were a rabble to put it frankly. They did have the talent though and rapidly forged an eight year plan to get some silverware. The plan toiled so well they reached footballs highest heights three years premature in 2008, a premiership nobody saw coming even on the day — if that’s not testament to good coaching, I don’t know what is. A key to that off field plan which has rolled past the eight year mark was to bleed youth, utilise experience, trade with reason and treat everyone with respect. The makeup points of this plan affect each other and also facilitated two of the most astounding trades in that era — Josh P Kennedy first and then Buddy Franklin to the Sydney Swans. Despite the Buddy deal being significant, you could see it a mile off with everyone presuming it to be the lure of GWS’s salary accessions only to be trumped by Sydney’s ludicrous contract offer that still gifted Buddy the Bondi sands to roll around in and more importantly, in hindsight, a refuge from Melbourne. The Kennedy trade however was something more as Clarkson eluded to, where the club that bore growth to two of Hawthorn greats who combined for a total seven premierships, John Kennedy Senior and John Kennedy Junior, trades away that Kennedy bloodline simply due to there being a lack of room in an already star studded midfield back in 2010, despite Hawthorn knowing that Kennedy will be a superstar as he’s turned out to be. Now that was a valiant act, and together with Buddy, Matt Suckling, Ben McGlynn and now Brad Hill, all constitute departures attributed to Hawthorn being understanding to their own– Hill was traded upon request to be closer to his family and brother Stephen at Fremantle.
Despite the trades of their big name players being monumental, Hawthorn wouldn't have done it if they didn't know they were capable of challenging the other 17 teams in the years after these trades, because they know they have the players with the same size feet to fill the shoes of their legendary teammates before them. If they were to make the trades without being ready, it would be akin to football suicide, something that clubs have done before and has turned out horribly wrong a la Melbourne Demons circa 2007. Clarkson readily admitted that it wasn’t ideal how both Mitchell and Lewis simultaneously left because there were plans for at least one of them to play tutor to Hawthorn’s existing youth and only just traded in Tom Mitchell and increasingly likely Jaeger O’Meara. But as Clarkson also admitted, things don’t always go as planned and that’s just football — a random game.
Now before I mentioned that Hawthorn got virtually nothing in exchange for the Mitchell and Lewis trades and that’s obviously still true to the extent of player or draft pick value, there were no hidden clauses as far as I’m aware. The value of that trade was what Hawthorn were able to say to the football world by making such bold trades. It figuratively goes something like this:
If you play at Hawthorn you will be treated as a person, not just a player, and we will do everything in our power to make you into the best player you can be. If things don’t work with us, we will also do everything in our power to get you to another club that will enable the continuation of your AFL career. Oh, and we win premierships regularly because we have a habit of being really really good.
This strategy has worked. You only have to look at their recycled players to know that. In fact if you look hard enough, above Waverly Park there is actually a halo with the engraved words ‘Destination Club’ written in beautiful French Script (if you don’t know what French Script is, think of the handwriting on the ring in Lord of the Rings). It’s that halo that attracts the best of everything, be it players or coaches. T Mitchell and O’Meara have seen it, ask them what the halo looks likes if you can’t be bothered to see it for yourself.
All these thoughts came flooding into mind over the last 24 hours and I felt an urge to get them out. I made it a priority to get to a café in the La Candelaria district of Bogota so I could view the Clarkson interview over a coffee. The café unsurprisingly enough was owned by an Australian and a bloke named Tommy from Alice Springs believe it or not was my waiter. I must of seemed anti-social because I rudely ignored the chatty Tommy to watch the interview and then left. Upon leaving Tommy asked me what I had been doing and I replied I was doing some research on an article to explain why Hawthorn is the best club in the AFL. To that he retorted ‘They’re not any more, they just traded their two best players’ to which I quipped back ‘exactly’.