Whatever the football world thinks of Hawthorn coach Alistair Clarkson – and the spectrum of views is wide – it is united in its concern for him this week after it was revealed he’d been diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an inflammation of the nerves from the spinal cord. The diagnosis means that Clarkson will not be coaching the Hawks this weekend, and the likely scenario is that he’ll sit out the rest of the season as he is treated, and hopefully recovers from the condition.
While not pre-empting any sort of retirement announcement, it’s timely to take the opportunity to reflect on the career to date of a well-respected person in the AFL community. A dual premiership coach with the Hawks, Clarkson is one of the most successful and highly rated coaches of the modern era. He recently became the longest-serving Hawthorn coach, overtaking Allan Jeans, the Hawks’ coach during most of their dominant period in the 1980s.
Throughout his senior coaching career, Clarkson has been one of the more experimental and innovative AFL coaches. In his first premiership season of 2008, he implemented a style of play coined the ‘Clarkson Cluster’ by On the Couch’s Gerard Healy. It focused on protecting the central corridor of the ground by implementing a moving zone. In recent years as it was picked apart, the Cluster has been abandoned and a precision kicking game plan implemented, clearly with equal success given Clarkson’s second coaching premiership in 2013. He’s been one of the few coaches not afraid to try new things on the field to gain an advantage, and one that other coaches invariably follow.
For all his success, it hasn’t always been positive headlines for Clarkson. In fact, he’s attracted a fair degree of controversy along the journey.
As a player he was reasonable (especially for one that stood at only 171 centimetres!), but is perhaps best remembered for his role in the infamous ‘Battle of Britain’, a spiteful exhibition match at The Oval in London, where he king hit his Carlton opponent from behind.
Remember the Matthew Lloyd ‘sniper’ hit on Brad Sewell that sparked a massive brawl between the Hawks and Essendon in 2009? Lloyd got suspended, but Clarkson was also sanctioned after threatening him and abusing an interchange steward who tried to intervene.
More recently, he was suspended from involvement with his son’s under 9s team for abusing an umpire’s advisor. This incident came a day after he punched a hole in the coach’s box wall at the MCG during a match.
And just last year, Clarkson was involved in another controversial incident after reportedly calling a journalist a cockhead at a press conference.
Some suggest these incidents point to a degree of small/angry man syndrome. There may be some truth to that claim, but at a minimum, he’s a bloke who wears his heart on his sleeve and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
AFL watchers will be eager to see the effect Clarkson’s absence has on the team’s prospects this season, as assistant coach Brendon Bolton steps into the role. The likely scenario is that it won’t make much difference at all; the Hawks are clearly one of the best teams in the league and will remain so, Clarkson or no Clarkson.
The main issue the Hawks have is getting a number of injured players back out on the park. Once this happens, the Hawks will resume their rightful spot on top of the AFL ladder which they gave over to Port Adelaide after losing to them on the weekend.
In the meantime, the thoughts of the AFL community are with Alistair Clarkson and his family, wishing him a speedy recovery.
Follow Commentary Box Sports on Social Media!