Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Building of a Flawed Flag Favourite


2012 was looking like it would be a lot of fun for Hawthorn fans, as the season approached you were able to open a newspaper or watch one of the now ubiquitous football panel shows without being made aware that the Hawks were one of the favourites for this year’s premiership. With the main players from the 2 Hawks superdrafts of 2001 and 2004 now well and truly in their primes and a bunch of the younger players now approaching the 25-50 game mark things were looking great for the Brown & Gold and the footy world were falling over themselves to crown them as champs before a ball was bounced. However, as any Hawks fan who has been paying attention knew, outside of 2001 & 2005 a host of draft missteps that have haunted this team since the 2008 premiership would continue to cause pain for us in 2012.

As mentioned, 2001 was where the myth of the Hawthorn list management genius was born. The Hawks had suffered through the doldrums of the post Dunstall years, suffered the indignity of seeing Lockett break the 1300 goal landmark whilst our hero was retired on 1254 goals after missing time in his late career with knee injuries as well as missing games in his peak with a fractured skull. This meant that even the small pleasure of seeing a Hawthorn Champion as the Goals record holder was taken from us. From 1998 to the end of the 2000 season this was all we had to think about as the product the Hawks put on the field was underwhelming despite a plucky elimination finals win in 1999 and the bitterness of Melbourne Hawks battle still was fresh in the minds of all fans. However then came the magical 8-0 start to the 2001 season. After a classic opening game win over Collingwood, this plucky young Hawks team led my Nathan Thompson up forward and with Jade Rawlings & Jonathan Hay forming an amazing combination down back rolled through the next 7 weeks, a major scare against North Melbourne survived when Hay made one of the all-time great tackles seconds before the final siren to stop a certain goal and secure the win.

Suddenly, for the first time in years the Hawks were back page news again. Trent Croad got the full double page spread treatment in the immortal "The Business of Being Trent Croad" article in the Herald Sun. The major highlight of the article was a story of when Dermie (who we were told had become a mentor to Croad) had seen Croad smiling and laughing with Matty Lloyd while the Hawks were getting belted by the dominant Essendon team of the late nineties. Dermie grabbed Croad after the game and told him that next time Lloyd wanted to have a chat on the field that Croad was to 'turn around, spit in his face and say 'don’t talk to me or I’ll break your jaw" '. This article, coupled with the fact that our hated historic rival Essendon were dominant during that whole period combined with the giddy unexpected joy of the start to the season meant the Round 9 clash with the Bombers received an epic build up. When the Bombers refused to move the match to the MCG from Colonial Stadium, meaning that 30-40,000 Hawks fans, (including myself) had to watch the game on TV only added fuel to the fire of the pre-match build-up. In the end though it was a colossal disappointment. In a 100 point flogging of West Coast the week earlier Hay had injured his ankle in the last minutes and a sense of foreboding fell over any Hawks fans who were paying attention. Matty Lloyd was at his velvet sledgehammer cheating best in 2001 and Hay was our only hope to stop him. Within minutes of the start of the game Lloyd had milked 2 cheap Free Kicks, taken a couple of huge marks and all but put the game out of reach. Hawthorn left the field that night humiliated and all the hopes that had been raised in those first 8 weeks were replaced by real doubts about what this team could accomplish. When we went winless for the following 3 weeks those doubts only deepened.

Eventually the team did shake off the psychological scars of that night but the confidence that had propelled the team through those improbable first 8 weeks was gone, never to return. Rounds 16 & 17 were the only back to back wins that Hawthorn managed from the remainder of the regular season and when the Hawks lost their last 4 games heading into the finals including a humiliating loss in Round 22 versus a 4 win St Kilda team coming just 5 weeks after losing to the 2 win Fremantle Dockers there was very little faith amongst Hawthorn Fans when looking ahead to the upcoming Finals campaign.

Then the incredible happened, after belting Sydney in the first elimination final the Hawks went across to Adelaide to face the all-conquering Port Adelaide team. At this stage Port Adelaide hadn't gained their September chokers tag as yet. To pessimistic Hawks fans heading into that game they were just the team that had belted us 7 days after the Essendon debacle and were ready to repeat the dose. Instead in one of the all-time great Hawthorn performances a team that talent wise did not come close to matching up with that great Port Adelaide team went into enemy territory and shocked the AFL world coming home with a gutsy 3 point win.

All of a sudden the team that had lost its last 4 games of the season, that had lost to two teams with a combined 6 wins just a few weeks earlier was suddenly preparing for a rematch with Essendon and a place in the Grand Final. This time there was no flogging, Hay held Lloyd magnificently and when down by less than a kick with moments left in the game Trent Croad let fly with an amazing torpedo from inside the square the entire Hawthorn Army was planning their trip to Melbourne for the Grand Final parade 6 days later. Unfortunately as we all now know the ball drifted late in its flight, struck the post and Essendon went coast to coast to kick the sealer and go the Grand Final to face a Brisbane team that had just demolished Richmond.

What does all this have to do with 2012 you may ask, well it’s the way the Hawthorn brains trust responded to this joyous, surprising, frustrating and ultimately confusing season that set us on a path to the sustained relevancy of this current Hawthorn team and also ensured that the Football Department at Hawthorn would have its many draft mistakes papered over by a pliant football media.

The 2001 draft class had been talked about as an amazing talent pool all year, unfortunately for the Hawks there surprising season meant they would be picking in the teens when the future superstars would all be long gone. Trent Croad who had took us to the brink of an unlikely Grand Final was a fan favourite, a key position player (always tough to find) and phenomenal talent. He was also our best trading chip. When rumours started to circulate that the Hawks were considering trading the hero of the preliminary final hero, there were literal protests at Glenferrie Oval, talkback was lit up by enraged Hawthorn Fans and the general consensus was 'we were a drifting ball away from a Grand Final, let’s go win it next year' or 'Croad is top 10 player in the competition (he wasn't, not even close, but his trade value was never higher) so we should not trade him'. In an amazing display of leadership the Hawks football department ignored all the noise emanating from the fans and the media, knowing full well that if they were wrong it was the end of their careers in football. However, they stuck to their guns and made the trade. Trent Croad and the up and coming tall defender Luke McPharlin for the Overall Number One pick along with picks 20 and 36. The Hawks turned those 3 picks into Luke Hodge (1) Daniel Elstone (20) and Sam Mitchell (36) along with their own picks which went on Rick Ladson (16) Campbell Brown (32) and Simon Cox (48).

This was an amazing haul. Yes the Hawks could have picked Chris Judd who is now the consensus top player in the competition and a Brownlow Medallist but there is not a Hawthorn Fan who would trade Hodge for Judd straight up today, Hodgey is beloved by Hawks fans and as a Premiership Player, Norm Smith Medallist and current club captain who leads by example there is little doubt why the love is there.

Daniel Elstone is the one miss on that list, he never played a senior game for the club, Simon Cox played 2 seasons as a senior player draftee and finished 2nd in our Best and Fairest in his 1st year after being picked in the 3rd round.

The remainder remains one of the great draft day hauls in AFL history. Ladson 150 game premiership player still going strong, Campbell Brown the cult figure tough nut defender, premiership player now sadly moved on to the money on the Gold Coast and finally Hodge and Mitchell, both have Captained the club, Mitchell a premiership captain, Hodge the heart and soul of the place for a decade, both amazing leaders and both integral to our 2012 season. The Hawks had committed to youth and were prepared for the short term pain, in stark contrast to Richmond who topped up on mature aged players and consigned themselves to a decade of irrelevancy as a result. More than consigning themselves to irrelevancy the failures at Tigerland helped deepen the belief in the genius of the Hawthorn brains trust, every Richmond loss only served to reinforce in the minds of the lazy football media, locked into their narrative that Hawthorn had been brave (they had) and picked wisely (they had) and were to be given a free pass on any mistakes that might follow (they shouldn't).

So the Hawks entered the early part of the millennium with a fan base who would slowly forgive the Croad Trade and amazingly be prepared to show patience as they watched this young team grow together. There would be more pain to come in the next few years but it was all part of the plan and it all lead to a great day in September 2008. However, as we will see in the following columns there were serious missteps along the way that may mean that 2008 will remain an isolated island of joy in an ocean of missed opportunities.


COMING UP - PART 2 - The Purge of the heroes of 2001 continues and Buddy and Roughie arrive on the scene.

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