Clarkson-Mitchell AFL succession plan leaves Hawthorn exposed

It might have been announced in haste but there is nothing knee-jerk in the thinking behind Hawthorn’s coaching plans. Sam Mitchell has been groomed for the top job and it was a fait accompli he would assume the reins from Alastair Clarkson in time for the 2023 season. This we now know. The only deviation from the script is the Hawks were forced to show their hand earlier than they would have liked.

Hawthorn want their cake and they want time to devour it. Had Collingwood not come knocking for Mitchell, it would have been a tranquil case of as you were at Waverley, with Mitchell carrying on as coach of Box Hill and Clarkson (and the club) batting away rumours and speculation about his future beyond 2022. But now the game is up. It is not how Hawthorn had planned it and it might not end up as they had hoped, either.

Had Hawthorn been allowed to have their way, the words “succession plan” might never have followed Clarkson out the door at the end of next year – and the four-time premiership coach was always on his way out. Club president Jeff Kennett has made noises in the past about 2022 being Clarkson’s last year in charge, hinting last season that “when the time comes we will come to an agreed position and I suspect it will be at the end of this contract”.

Read into that what you will, but the words lose their ambiguity when you consider Hawthorn did not move to shore up Clarkson in recent days, rather his understudy. As incongruous as it might sound, Hawthorn would sooner lose the finest coach of the modern era than they would an untried assistant. “Understanding nothing lasts forever, the decision to finish my time at Hawthorn at the end of my current contract was the best path forward for the club long-term,” Clarkson said. “We are all temporary custodians of the brown and gold.”

There are no shortage of clubs looking for a coach right now, let alone the coach of a generation
By making it official now that Mitchell will coach Hawthorn from 2023 and beyond, the club has exposed itself on two fronts: the Hawks must find a way to make the handover process work and, more pertinently, their greatest asset of the past 17 years is now on the market. Now that Clarkson has an end date, he has become the hottest property in what is a fervent seller’s market.

There are no shortage of clubs looking for a coach right now, let alone the coach of a generation. The Magpies are in pole position to make a move. Clarkson is a better fit for Collingwood than Mitchell and, by design or otherwise, their failed play for the 2008 premiership skipper has served to flush out the bigger fish. Carlton and Gold Coast would also be stirred by recent developments and the potential suitors would not stop there.

It is not a misstep or error of judgment on Hawthorn’s part to want Clarkson to hand-hold Mitchell into the job. It is the best thing for Hawthorn. But it does nothing for Clarkson and little for his successor, who with three years under Clarkson should know by now which of his boss’s traits he adopts and which he leaves alone as he strives to mould his own identity.

The theory of succession plans is sound and beloved of suit-wearing decision-makers, but in practice the process is fraught with difficulty. It was a mess at Collingwood that caused untold friction between Mick Malthouse and Nathan Buckley and not far short of farcical at Essendon, where it was hard to tell if John Worsfold or Ben Rutten was pulling the strings.

If required, Clarkson will see his contract through, but the odds of that happening are lengthening by the minute. As true as Clarkson might be to his club and his word, there is little doubt a man of his pride and achievement would be wounded by Kennett’s readiness to see him gone.

If declining to extend a coach’s contract can be considered a sacking, then this is a sacking. In that context, even if Hawthorn are at pains to stress it is a mutually agreeable parting of ways, Clarkson might have deserved better. “No one’s bigger than the club,” former Hawthorn great Jason Dunstall said on Fox Footy. “But every now and then special people come along that deserve special consideration and I think Alastair Clarkson has earned the right to have a bigger say in the way he finishes his coaching career at Hawthorn. You’ve got this great resource that you’re basically winding up because you’re afraid of losing another resource.”

Clarkson has another rebuild in him but not with his present employers and not as a temporary overseer. He worked wonders back in 2005, improving Hawthorn from 14th position to premiers inside four seasons. His exalted reputation, carved out of that brisk turnaround and the triple premiership group that followed, is well-earned. Right now, any club in the land – except Hawthorn – would want him.

Clarkson will see out his time at Hawthorn as required but if the right offer comes and the Hawks are prepared to budge – which they will be – Clarkson will be gone quicker than last week’s pay.