Why Carlton Needs To Stay Away From The Alastair Clarkson Cookie Jar
Last Friday the AFL was greeted with one of the biggest bombshells of the modern era when Hawthorn relented on its succession plan, effectively allowing Alastair Clarkson to become a free agent.
While Sam Mitchell will take the reins in 2022 and beyond, the future of Clarkson’s employment is a lot less clear with a media frenzy erupting with speculation as to the 4-time premiership coach’s next port of call.
At the moment, the front runners appear to be Carlton and Collingwood. For now, Collingwood is plugging its vacant coaching hole with Robert Harvey, while the Blues are putting the finishing touches on an extensive, club-wide review which may or may not endorse its current coach, David Teague, and perhaps insist it look elsewhere.
And should the Blues indeed decide to cut ties with Teague the appearance of Clarkson on the market would on the surface make for a logical marriage between the two parties.
With that said, there’s no guarantee whatsoever that 'Clarko' would be a good fit at Princess Park, with plenty of reasons why the winners of a league-record 16 premierships should think very carefully about their next step.
A match made in heaven?
Clarkson has been an outstanding coach at Hawthorn, helping to add 4 premierships to their trophy cabinet while making a massive mark on the very way the sport is now played. He’s the only active AFL coach to have won at least 200 games, while the fact that there’s five other current head coaches who served directly as an assistant to him speaks to his profound effect on the league.
With that said, shoehorning him into a club without appreciating the overall context is a very dangerous endeavour, the likes of which Carlton ought to be highly cognisant of.
For starters, the Blues need to evaluate what Clarkson can offer, while being highly aware of the current complexities of its list.
While yes, Clarkson’s an experienced, highly successful coach, the reality is it's been a while since his teams have been truly relevant, while he’s been widely criticised this season for implementing a subdued game style at the 17th placed Hawks- a club who hasn't won a single September game in six years.
In recent years he’s been reluctant to embrace a full youth-focused rebuild, the likes of which has meant the Hawks have only had 3 top-20 selections at the draft over the last ten years, of which only two players (Will Day and Denver Grainger-Barras) remain on the list.
Clarkson’s also been strongly criticised for his short temper and exhausting professional demands, which wouldn't make for an ideal fit for a list, whom while talented, is still quite young, while it’s also one that’s experienced very little success in recent years and would be sure to test that famous temperament of his.
Are we sure David Teague isn't the right man?
David Teague has only been in the job 2 years, first taking over in the latter part of 2019 and in the aftermath of Carlton sacking Brendon Bolton.
His 6-5 finish to that season had a massive sway in him winning the job at season’s end, while his first full season in the role was in a highly disrupted 2020 season, the likes of which would have been particularly challenging for an inexperienced coach.
It’s also worth remembering how seriously bad of a state Carlton was in when Teague took over from Bolton with the club going 19-69 between 2015 and 2018 while collecting a couple of wooden spoons in the process.
Any notion that Teague should by now have already magicked the Blues into finals contention is fanciful, while the fact he still has the club in striking distance so soon is perhaps overlooked within an industry that's borderline obsessed by coaching intrigue.
History lesson time
The modern AFL is no place for upstarts with the competition increasingly rewarding the kind of clubs who have put in the hard, consolidated yards in every facet of their organisation. Of the last 7 premierships coaches, it's taken on average 4 years at the helm to achieve their flag breakthrough.
Richmond, the AFL's most recent leviathan, is a perfect example of patience and hard work shining through. Damien Hardwick inherited a Tigers team who had missed 13 of the last 14 Septembers and would miss another three straight in his first three years going just 24-40. While Richmond didn't make finals until his fourth year, it wasn't until season 8 when Richmond finally won a finals match.
As well as patience and planning, there's also the 'homegrown' factor to consider. Over the previous 16 years, 10 of the last 11 premiership winning coaches have been at their first coaching stop, with Mick Malthouse the only exception, having previously coached at West Coast and Footscray before winning the 2010 flag with Collingwood. And even then, it wasn't until Malthouse's 11th season with the Pies until he was able to secure the club its 15th flag.
While shopping externally isn’t necessarily the wrong thing to do, Carlton already have a ‘homegrown’ coach in Teague and who is already 47 games into what’s been a so far decent stint in charge.
Would the Blues be willing to throw that in, especially as they experienced a situation almost exactly like this not all that long ago.
In 2012 the Blues had their own homegrown Brett Ratten at the helm and whom in his first five seasons had taken Carlton to 3 Finals series after breaking the club's 7-year September drought. Yet, just as Clarkson has suddenly become available, so too did Mick Malthouse at the end of 2012 owing to Collingwood’s succession plan and elevation of Nathan Buckley.
At the time Carlton was unable to resist the lure of the 3-time premiership coach and decided to sack Ratten. The decision to turf an excellent coach who'd help transform the club in exchange for Malthouse remains one of the most perplexing decisions in football memory, while it's one the Blues are still fighting to recover from.
There’s the old saying that if you don’t learn from history you're doomed to repeat it, which are words Carlton should at least consider when thinking about their coaching situation.
On paper, Clarkson to the Blues seems like a dream scenario, after all, it's not every day a 4-time premiership coach is waiting at the bus stop and ready to be swooped up.
However the reality is that elite sport is a lot more nuanced with success more often coming down to fit, context and club continuity.
These next few weeks could absolutely define the next decade for the Carlton football club, and the Blues need to tread very carefully.
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