It is shocking to see what has happened to Hawthorn. More so because it’s happened so quickly. After finishing third on percentage last year, the Hawks were a straight kick away from making another preliminary final.
With four losses to start 2017, Hawthorn has crumpled. It’s their worst start to a season since 1998, when Ken Judge was coaching. On the back of two consecutive finals defeats last year, they have lost six straight games.
On paper, the Hawks look much better than they’re performing. A host of old stars. Eight All-Australian players. Quality. On the field, they’re not giving a yelp. Everyone knew Hawthorn would falter at some point, just not in 2017.
Their additions, Ty Vickery, Jaeger O’Meara and Tom Mitchell can’t fill the void left by Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis. The recruits haven’t sparked Hawthorn’s aging list.
In years past, games between Hawthorn and Geelong were compelling vision. They set the heart racing, even for a neutral supporter. Expectation matched the hype and excitement. The rivalry was set alight by the 2008 grand final. It was fuelled by Jeff Kennett’s brag about Hawthorn’s mental strength and it festered on Geelong’s refusal to lose to the Hawks, ever again.
On Monday, I listened to the game while digging seedlings into the vegetable patch. As the game went on, I was overcome by disappointment. The match was ordinary. Neither side could kick straight. Geelong should’ve dusted the match by half-time. When the Hawks rallied in the third quarter, I thought here we go…
The rally was brief. Hawthorn leaked 11 goals in the final term. Their play exasperated the commentators. The inability of their veterans to impose themselves on the game was a talking point.
It’s over for Hawthorn, I thought. As the margin blew out to 86-points, I was blown back decades, to 1983, when North Melbourne finished on top.
I wasn’t yet a teenager. But I understood football. Finishing on top guaranteed nothing but the week off. North were prohibitive favourites to win the premiership. In my mind, a premiership beckoned. It was Patsy, my Mum, who warned me against my unbiased hope.
‘They have to beat Hawthorn first,’ Patsy said.
North couldn’t do it. They barely fired a shot in the finals, losing the semi-final to Hawthorn by 40-points and the preliminary final to Essendon by 86-points. It was the worst form slump possible, at the worst possible time.
It was inconceivable that North could play so badly after finishing on top. It was pure exposure, as only finals football can. A club’s frailties laid stark. The disappointment took a long time to settle.
It would get worse. I had no idea what would happen in 1984. I figured North would bounce back. Our team looked too good on paper.
North’s team to play Carlton in round one at VFL Park featured David Dench, Gary Dempsey, Wayne Schimmelbusch, Gary Cowton, the Krakouer brothers, Ian Fairley, Stephen McCann and Donald McDonald. It contained 11 men who lost the preliminary final to Essendon.
Six months after finishing on top, North lost to Carlton by 137-points. The season was over. Just like that.
There would be a host of victims. Cowton never played again after the loss to Carlton. Dench retired after the Round 2 loss to Richmond. Gary Dempsey was gone after Round 8.
The veterans had gone on a season too long.
By season’s end, North’s coach, Barry Cable had played at least six debutants, including Peter German, Matthew Larkin, Ross Smith, Mark Arceri, Darren Steele and David Dwyer. He also recruited Darren Crocker, who debuted in 1985.
In another era, all of those players could’ve been premiership players. Only Crocker made it to a premiership. Cable didn’t make it to 1985. North finished second last in 1984, on percentage to St Kilda. Cable quit and went home to Western Australia.
North’s demise, from top to second last in one season remains one of the worst comedowns in football history.
Years later, Cable was interviewed about 1984. He said North was too reliant on its ageing stars.
‘They worked so hard to finish on top,’ Cable said. ‘They had nothing left for the finals.’
Last year, Hawthorn worked damn hard to finish third. Had a few results gone their way, they may have finished on top. In the qualifying final against the Western Bulldogs, the Hawks looked old and tired, without pace. They weren’t bullied by the Bulldogs, they were outrun.
On Monday night, I watched the Hawthorn–Geelong highlights. I was stung by how slow the Hawks looked. In boxing, fighters can get old overnight. In football, players get old over the pre-season. Six months is a long time to go without playing. Age rarely hides anything. One year the All-Australian ability is there, the next it isn’t.
That’s football. That’s life. In football, it isn’t the future.
There has been much commentary about Hawthorn and their loyalty to the aged. Four of their stars, Luke Hodge, Shaun Burgoyne, Josh Gibson and Jarryd Roughead are older than 30. Much has been said about Hawthorn’s disregard for keeping first round draft picks and their love of trading in established players. It has worked for years. Suddenly it isn’t.
This is how eras come to an end. When players and coaches realise they can’t do it anymore. It’s been one year too many.
But there is good news for Hawthorn. After finishing second last in 1984, North Melbourne made the finals in 1985, beating Carlton in the elimination final before losing to Footscray in the semi-final.
And this is Hawthorn. One lesson I learned from a mate is never trade with Hawthorn. They’re too good at giving up nothing for great return. It’s too easy to believe their coach, Alastair Clarkson, has another sucker punch up his sleeve…