Alastair Clarkson: Ghosts of Futures Past

Alastair leaned back in his chair at the Grand Final dinner and gazed at the Premiership Cup and the excited throng of players, coaches and supporters. He closed his eyes for a second and as the intensity of the day, the finals and an exhausting season faded, he momentarily drifted into a dreamy memory of a long past encounter.

He was a young coach just starting out, and the success starved Central Districts club from the far northern suburbs of Adelaide was sounding him out. The interview went well enough even if was 2 more years before they contacted him again to offer the senior coaching job.

But he was always hungry to learn about success; and innovation; and what separated the triers from the achievers.  The week before he had rung and asked if there was any chance of a meeting with the great man while he was in the area.

Now he was seated in the drawing room of a restored Georgian mansion in the green hills above Angaston in the Barossa Valley. Only an hour’s drive from the hard scrabble surface of Elizabeth’s streets and ovals, but as far away from football and sweat and passion as he could imagine.  Or so he thought.

The man opposite was frail but radiated a calm certainty. Wearing the tweed jacket and moleskin boots of a country squire, but Alastair knew enough of his history to know that he wasn’t born to these trappings.  From being orphaned as a 10 year old, he apprenticed as a boilermaker and had built this empire piece by piece with nothing but a good eye, a generous heart and a ruthless determination that “good enough” was never good enough.

“You know my boy David – he’s in Hong Kong now – but he played in an Under 19’s premiership for that club that’s been talking to you. Good people.  Salt of the earth.  But David’s heart was always in the family business, same as yours is.  It’s just that ours is with thoroughbreds and yours with footballers.”

“Athletes just the same. Four legs or two.  Any young ambitious person like you, I tell them all the same thing.  It’s been my motto since I started and it’s never let me down for very long.”

“The future belongs to those who plan for it.”

“You know when I risked everything and moved up here in 1970 from training at Cheltenham racecourse in the city, most people thought I was mad. I’d won a lot of premierships in Adelaide, but a lot of my owners deserted me at the time.  I had 40 horses on my books in town, but only 16 when we first moved up here.  There are a lot of backslappers in life, but not a lot that want to go the hard yards with you.”

“A lot of people know what worked in the past, and want to stick to the safety of that formula, but I knew that if I stuck to just that, I’d always be in the middle of the pack. A follower not a leader.”

“I’d travelled a lot and saw what they did in other countries and in other sports. I wanted to be able to develop my athletes away from the stresses and prying eyes and constant travel of city stables.  They get enough of that on race day.  They are all individuals so they have to develop at their own pace.  I can coax and nurture and sometimes even bully them to do better, but they always let me know when they’re ready.”

“And I wanted to breed my own talent. Sure I had great success with some imports both as racehorses and stallions, but the core of your team is always those you have nurtured and broken in yourself.  They love you for it, and they will always give their best on the big days, whatever their ability.”

Alastair blinked and jerked upright. His eyes came back into focus and he saw his boys.  Not all of them, just his Without Fears, the ones he had broken in himself.  Breust, Birchall, Shiels, Stratton, Smith, Suckling, Rioli, Puopolo and now Langford and Duryea.  They were mostly of a type – long in the cannon bone and able to cover ground with long loping strides.  Some were short in the body, but they all had the explosive speed and ability to deliver that he had seen in them as young colts.

Colin had told him to look for good families and type above fashions and ‘hot’ sires. Breust, Smith and Suckling were all from stout Riverina families.  Fathers played in the tough Farrer and Wagga leagues.  Mothers were leggy netballers and good movers on the dance floor.  But above all they knew what hard work, persistence and teamwork was about from a young age.

He looked at Lake and Burgoyne and remembered what Colin had told him about his hot-blooded imports like Jeune and At Talaq.   Both were stallions and a bit mad.  They often struggled for consistency, and you had to know when to put them back in the spelling paddock, or when to work them harder in the bullring.  But they had that class and brilliance that you just couldn’t teach, but needed on the biggest days on the biggest stages.

Colin said “you forgive them and work them and cajole them, but ultimately they knew that I wanted the best for them, so they gave it when it mattered”.

He looked at Spangher and thought of the story Colin had told him about Tommy Woodcock and Reckless. “Tommy strapped Phar Lap when he was a kid, and took him to America when the horse was weighted out of everything in Australia.  Blamed himself and it broke his heart when the big red horse suddenly took sick and died.  Pottered around with plodders at Mentone for 40 years, then he got a slow maturing stallion out a good family called Reckless.  Bloody thing took 34 starts to win its maiden.  Most people would have sent it to the knackers yard long before.  Tommy had seen something in him and he went on to win Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide Cups in the same year and run a game second in the Melbourne Cup to a good one of Bart’s.  Don’t give up on them if they’ve got heart and ticker.  Some just take longer to grow into themselves – mentally as well as physically.”

Alastair knew that he had been gifted some good ones – Hodge, Mitchell, Roughead – had all been top class from the first time they strode onto the paddock. But Colin had told him to always hope for the best and plan for the worst.  “Top class athletes have fragile egos and finely tuned bodies.  You never know when one will go to another stable or break down permanently.”

Colin’s head dropped and voice faltered for the first time in the conversation.

“Dulcify – he was the one. Won two Derbies at three and beat the best in the country by seven lengths in the Cox Plate at four.  Broke his pelvis and had to be put down in the Melbourne Cup two weeks later.  Broke my heart but not my spirit.  Just taught me never to rely too much on one star alone.”

Alastair thought how that advice had helped him plan for life without Buddy all through 2013 and still win a premiership with him playing bit roles. This year they were a better rounded side without him.  “Stars can be the icing, but they’ll never be the cake,” Colin had warned.

Then he rose from his seat and proffered a shakey hand. “All the best young fella. I can see you’ve got the eye and the heart for the battle.  Sorry I can’t chat longer, even talking tires out this old ticker of mine these days.  Hope I get to see you win a flag for the Bulldogs one day.  But remember none of us are here forever and none of us is irreplaceable.  I’ve got 2 boys that I’ve passed on all I know to, and I’ve always hired the best people as assistants.  Loyal, hard working and keen to succeed on their own patch one day.”

Alastair hadn’t thought about that part of Colin’s story since he woke up in hospital mid-season with monitors and tubes attached to him after collapsing with back pain. He thought it was stress and tension.  The doctors called it Guillane-Barre syndrome, and explained that it was inflammation of the nerves in his spinal column.  He might coach again, he might not.  He might walk again, he might not.

Alastair looked across the room at Bolton, Ratten, Beveridge, Bruce, Yze, Monkhorst and the other assistants, recruiting and conditioning staff. “That was when I knew we would win the flag this year,” he thought.  “When we lost me and a whole lot of our experienced players for long periods and the whole club just kept ticking along.  What we had built was bigger and stronger than any of us.”

He allowed himself a rare moment of self-congratulation. There is always someone coming to knock you off your perch, but now he understood that it didn’t always come down to just him.  He was a better coach, leader and person now that illness had forced him to delegate and smile a bit more.

As he walked him to the door that day Colin said “don’t build good footballers. Any coach or trainer can find a good player or a good horse.  There are always plenty of those.   Have the courage to blaze your own path and build a dynasty.”

“Build it and flags will come.”

The club president nudged him back to alertness. “Come on you’ve got to give your speech now.  What’s the matter?  You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”


  1. Earl O'Neill says

    Great piece, Peter. You’ve nailed the core of Clarko’s genius. I’ve never liked the Hawks but my respect for them grows every year, mostly due to Alistair Clarkson.

  2. PB.
    A real beauty.
    So much to like about this story.
    Super craft. Well played.

  3. Peter Fuller says

    Brilliant, Peter. The genius of Lindsay Park has plenty to offer anyone involved in athletic endeavour – even now, when he is long gone. Clarkson’s constant enthusiasm for an edge, and his imaginative openness to the insights of so many other sports suggests he will be ultimately be seen as one of the most influential figures in the game’s evolution. You’ve offered such a plausible flight of fancy.

  4. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Ripper PB.

    I prefer to think that Centrals taught Clarko to coach, but there was a good story in the ‘Tiser on the weekend about how well drilled the Doggies were when he was there.

  5. Interesting allegory PB, I’d be keen to understand Sewell’s characterisation in such a tale. And McEvoy. And Whitecross. Hawthorn’s recent success is entwined with it’s greater story and Clarko is a servant to that. Would Clarko have had the same success rate at another club? I’m not sure. What he has brought to the Hawthorn story and legacy is nothing short of brilliant. Your allegory makes for an appealing prism through which to see how he developed his side to the greatness they have achieved.

    The Buddy story is the most difficult to convey simply. Watching Buddy play this year (his best since 2008) makes me wonder just how much better the Hawks would have been had he stayed. If the Hawks could do what they did this year (and in the GF) then they would have been a terrifying prospect with him still on board.


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