“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” Hunter S. Thompson
Grant Birchall was puzzled why the coach had insisted on visiting his home on a Saturday afternoon in mid-May before an important game against Richmond.
Expect the unexpected: Alastair Clarkson in his early days as Hawthorn coach.Credit:Sebastian Costanzo
Birchall wasn’t lining up against the Tigers, having barely played for two-and-a-half seasons. A four-time premiership player in his 14th season at Hawthorn (2019), he wondered and worried about the motivation for Alastair Clarkson’s house call.
“Is he going to come over and give me the arse?” Birchall asked himself.
Suddenly, Clarkson and his son Matty were at Birchall’s door with an eight-week-old labrador.
“They’ve got themselves a new dog or whatever,” Birchall thought, asking Clarkson about the puppy.
“Not a dog person.” Grant Birchall with Alastair Clarkson.Credit:Vince Caligiuri
“No,” said the coach. “I’ve bought this for you.”
Clarkson’s theory, as relayed to Birchall, was that the veteran defender needed to take the dog for regular walks to heal a troublesome calf.
Clarkson also knew that Birchall was then living alone and figured he needed company. “I’d have a mate to look after, to go on walks to get my calf right,” said Birchall, who would cross to the Brisbane Lions in the subsequent post-season.
There was one hitch, though. Birchall had no history or expertise in pets. “I’m not a dog person.”
He put the puppy in the laundry, wrapping it up in blankets. “I had no idea what to do with it.” The dog was “shitting everywhere and scratching”.
So, Birchall rang Clarkson within 48 hours. “You’re going to have to pick this dog. He’s driving me up the wall.”
Clarkson, having failed with his dog delivery, was back at Birchall’s place soon. “He popped over and picked it up.”
Birchall didn’t want the labrador, but appreciated the thought. “It was a very kind gesture.”
Clarkson kept the dog, which he named “Beav” – short for Birchall’s nickname at the Hawks, “Beaver”. He’s still got it.
THE ART OF THE AMBUSH
The tale of the dog is merely one of dozens that Hawthorn and footy folk tell about the eccentric ways of a coach whose relentless quest for success has driven others to exasperation, but also vaulted his Hawks to the summit four times.
Like many generals, Clarkson relies on the element of surprise. The key difference is that it is his troops, rather than the enemy, that he tends to ambush.
Several tales of the unexpected centre on Clarkson’s willingness to go to almost any lengths to secure a player, to gain intelligence or knowledge that he thinks will improve Hawthorn, while sating his curiosity.
The public’s view of Clarkson has focused mainly on his explosive anger – the hole he punched in the coach’s box just before quarter-time against Collingwood (2012), an exchange with a drunken fan in Adelaide (who berated him until Clarkson pushed him away), the episode in which he ran on to the field at a junior game (for which he was sanctioned).
Luke Hodge recalls the coach “kicking the drink bottle” at half-time and injuring his toe. In time-on of the 2014 grand final, with the Hawks more than 10 goals up, Clarkson exploded in profanity when Brian Lake made a blunder. Luke Beveridge, soon to be the Bulldogs’ coach, turned around to his senior coach.
“Can’t we just enjoy the last three minutes,” said Beveridge. “Yes, you’re probably right,” replied Clarkson.
The more telling tales, however, detail the extremes that Clarkson has traversed.
“There are no lengths that will stop him,” said Hodge, Clarkson’s totemic skipper for three of those four flags, quickly adding, “obviously while remaining within the laws and the rules.”
Enjoying the moment: Luke Hodge and Alastair Clarkson after the 2014 grand final.Credit:Justin McManus
On at least three occasions, Clarkson has either flown to the United States or detoured to another American city when on end-of-season holidays to either importune a player or self-educate.
The most notorious Clarkson American journey came at the end of 2012, after the Hawks lost the grand final, and he flew to Las Vegas for the explicit purpose of quizzing Lance “Buddy” Franklin on whether Buddy intended to leave the nest at the end of his free-agency season.
Franklin, relaxing with teammate Josh Gibson, was none too pleased to see Clarkson turn up while on a private Vegas siesta; unlike the donated dog, the gesture was not appreciated. Buddy duly fled to Sydney on the game’s most monstrous contract (nine years, $10 million).
Alastair Clarkson tracked down Lance Franklin in Las Vegas to try to find out if he was staying.Credit:Sebastian Costanzo
At the end of 2015, when Clarkson was in the States, he tracked down then Essendon defender Jake Carlisle in a Miami hotel room and attempted to cajole the big man into shelving his plan to sign with St Kilda and become a Hawk instead.
Carlisle would soon become the subject of an embarrassing episode and AFL drug strike, having filmed himself (on his mobile) snorting powder in a Vegas hotel earlier in the trip. This footage, uploaded on to Snapchat, was broadcast to the nation on Nine’s A Current Affair a matter of an hour or two after Essendon had struck a deal with the Saints for a trade.
In the days before the trade was completed, Clarkson sought to scupper St Kilda’s plans, having been tipped off by Essendon on big Jake’s whereabouts (the Bombers wanting to create an auction).
Clarkson called Carlisle in his room from outside the front of the hotel. Their initial conversation was along these lines:
“G’day Clarko. I’m in Miami.”
“Yeah, so am I.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m out the front of your hotel.”
In meeting big Jake, Clarkson was so persuasive that Alan Richardson, the Saints’ coach, flew from Boston to Miami to revive the collapsing trade to St Kilda.
Richardson, who had been doing a short management course at Harvard, literally took matters in to his own hands – grabbing Carlisle’s phone and texting Clarkson to say that Jake would sign with the Saints.
In a sense, Richardson’s intervention saved Clarkson from the Hawthorn coach’s own zealous excesses, averting the snorting footage fallout and from picking up a player who wouldn’t play for 12 months after the suspensions of the Essendon 34.
WHO IS THIS GUY?
But the defining stop-at-nothing story of a Clarkson pursuit in America did not involve a player.
In 2019, during the bye week, Clarkson travelled to Las Vegas to meet Michael Lombardi, a lieutenant to six-time Super Bowl champion coach Bill Belichick at the New England Patriots and a renowned NFL analyst.
Clarkson met Lombardi, who had worked as an NFL scout and as head of player personnel and general manager of NFL teams and authored a book on building dynasties.
Upon discovering that Lombardi was flying to New Jersey, Clarkson booked himself the seat next to the gridiron guru for the four- or five-hour flight.
“I don’t know how he did it,” Lombardi would later recount on his podcast, the GM Shuffle.
Clarkson stayed at the hotel airport and was at Lombardi’s home the following morning at 7.30, grilling him on the secret herbs and spices of Belichick’s Patriots.
Essendon paid Lombardi to come to Melbourne and advise the club later in 2019, when he told board members and influential supporters, including ex-president Paul Little and incumbent president Paul Brasher, all about “this guy Al Clarkson” who would not leave him alone, saying “who the f— is this guy?”
The Bombers, indeed, were mindful of keeping Lombardi away from Clarkson while the former was in town.
Hodge’s 300th game was notable for the Clarkson guitar solo and improvised song that accompanied it, an honour that the guitar-strumming Clarko has bestowed on players for other milestones, including Cyril Rioli’s 150th and his coaching successor Sam Mitchell’s 300th.
“He actually got quite good at it,” Hodge said of Clarkson’s guitar skills.
“He keeps you on your toes.”
Perhaps it has been this capacity to surprise and shock that enabled Clarkson to remain at the same club, as the similarly unorthodox and go-to-any-lengths Kevin Sheedy did at Essendon, for so long, although Clarkson has – as experienced media people know – a tendency to be drone on and can “filibuster” any radio or television interview.
Clarkson liked to punish players for disciplinary breaches with early morning dives off the pier at a Melbourne beach. In 2010, the coach scheduled one such punishment for some players at 5am after the club best and fairest, when some were still intoxicated and Hodge, by his own admission, was inebriated and struggling to make a speech.
Hodge had just taken over the captaincy from Mitchell, too. “He [Clarkson] said, ‘You’re off to a good start’.”
Gillon McLachlan has had his share of Clarkson calls and abrupt lobbying. Once, at 8.30 or so on a Sunday evening, Clarkson called the AFL boss and insisted on seeing him at McLachlan’s home immediately. “It’s important.”
McLachlan, understandably, feared a forthcoming disaster – club bosses who call at such hours, or before 7am, are invariably the bearers of trouble.
They had a beer. Clarkson began. “This is my idea for game development.” No scandals, nor matters of state. The coach merely had an idea that needed ventilation.
Hawthorn folk have experienced similar random downloads. “As soon as he gets something into his head, he acts on it,” explained Birchall.
On a trip to Ireland in 2014, wives and partners were asked to tell stories about one another at a gathering. Clarkson’s wife Karen told the group about an early date in their youth, when Alastair talked so incessantly during the dinner that she kissed him, just to shut him up.
This sheer persistence and willingness to go further – the extra 10,000, not just a mile – has worn out Hawthorn staff, including CEO Justin Reeves, with whom Clarkson fell out badly.
It should not surprise that his vexed relationship with Jeff Kennett reached its logical destination.
‘I’M NOT DOING THAT’
As with other successful coaches, Clarkson’s demands are not always reasonable.
Please don’t make me jump: Alastair Clarkson with long-time offsider Chris Fagan.Credit:AFL Photos
Brisbane Lions coach Chris Fagan, who served alongside Clarkson for almost a decade and whose sage composure acted as counterweight for Clarkson’s excess, recalls a trek in New Zealand’s bush near Wellington, when the Hawks encountered rapids and, at Clarkson’s insistence, were asked to jump from a height into the river’s waters.
It was a long way down. Fagan, a touch scared of heights, didn’t want to jump.
“I’m not doing that,” said Fagan.
“Yes you are,” said Clarkson.
“I’m not doing it,” repeated Fagan.
The upshot? “He was so relentless on me,” said Fagan.
He jumped. “My head was spinning, for about two weeks afterwards.”
Clarkson was misty-eyed when Fagan saw him in Launceston when their teams met in round 21. The emotions of finishing at Hawthorn have been welling up, according to confidants. Next year, he has the unparalleled option of being paid $900,000 to take a break from the game, with the certainty that he will be offered coaching positions after that sabbatical.
Or, if Clarkson chooses, he can very likely coach next year.
What’s next? “I have no idea,” said Hodge.
As his final game as coach of the Hawthorn Football Club arrives, the most intriguing question remains: on whose doorstep will Alastair Clarkson turn up next?
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