I’ve got a mate who doesn’t believe in the word “culture”. He doesn’t believe in a lot of words actually, he’s got a bee in his bonnet about abstract concepts like “leadership” actually existing. He works in a corporate environment, so I can understand the aversion to management speak. I’ve suggests he try German or French and see if words in those language also give him the pip. This mate of mine’s into his fantasy footy, like we all are, so this article at the Guardian potting statistics in general, as well as a few drive-bys at the fantasy community of which I am a Z-grade celebrity member, made me think of him. Troy Wheatley of AFL Power Rankings fame had a lash at a rejoinder, but I think there’s more to be said on the subject of why Hawthorn is winning this year while losing is so many key statistical categories.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Craig Little’s piece is the obscurantist obscurity of the definition of culture when it comes to a football club. Just because innovation and culture are intangible doesn’t mean they have to be illegible. Little brings up the phenomenon of dynastic sides agreeing an masse to take pay cuts relative to their worth on the open market, which is undoubtedly one aspect of a winning culture in a salary-capped industry, from the Hawks back to the Cats and Lions at the beginning of the century. Wheatley is on the money, nevertheless, when he complains about how difficult it is to identify specific on-field effects of culture.
Speaking as a lifelong Hawthorn fan steeped in the club culture by my dad who switched away from Collingwood after attending the 1971 Grand Final – thanks again Dad! – I have spent a lot of time marvelling at this thing called the Hawthorn culture. If you want to know which of the five main types of Hawk fan I am, it’s always and forever number 3, the pessimist. Be prepared to be infuriated for the rest of this article if that is your wont, because I am going to explain why my pessimism is not actually fake, despite my team being a game clear on top of the ladder shooting for its fourth flag in a row. As George Costanza would say: “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”
First, to the statistical argument. Yes, Hawthorn regularly get spanked in contested possessions, inside 50s and clearances, which heretofore were thought to be vitally important to winning games at AFL level. The Hawks are indeed in the bottom half in a lot of well-regarded stats, as Little highlights. It was pointed out on Fox Footy coverage prior to one of the Hawks’ recent matches that when you look at the granular data, this discrepancy in totals is often concentrated in a few short bursts of 10-15 minutes where the Hawks get blown away by teams. This has been happening for a couple of years now, e.g. the Port and Essendon games last year where the first quarters were completely one-way traffic for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Those two games ended up in close losses for the Hawks. The same thing has happened at times this year, as Q2 and Q3 of the Bulldogs game, and Q2 of the round 9 Swans game, not to mention the entire first half against the Giants (and let us not mention it ever again). The Hawks have gone 5-0 in close ones and went 1-4 last year, and that’s pretty much the only difference in our ladder position as Wheatley underlines.
So, was there some ineffable cultural superiority at play on field this year as opposed to last? No. It was the culmination of hundreds of dice rolls with ever-changing factors, and the Hawks could very easily be scrapping with North and Port for that last finals spot if the last rolls in a couple of those games had been snake eyes rather than a natural. This is why I am always a pessimist as a Hawthorn supporter. I know how thin the razor’s edge is between first and eighth, especially this year. It’s very easy after the fact for non-Hawk footy lovers to pot Hawk fans post-match for their pre-game Danny from Droop St routines, but there was no magic wand that Cyril or Silk pulled out to invoke the ghost of Crimmo to get us over the line.
The difference with Hawthorn is off the field to enable the team to get into those positions where the dice can fall your way. There are two aspects of this. First and foremost is the coach Alastair Clarkson, and the second is the culture, which existed long before Clarkson came to the club and will live on (hopefully) long after he retires.
There was much hoo-hah made in 2008 about the Clarko’s Cluster gameplan by Gerard Healy, who loves to make up buzzwords for these things. Footy coaching culture is full of buzzwords – you only have to listen to Ben Dixon when he forgets to flip the switch back to English in his boundary reports. Dicko used the word “referencing” four times in a sentence during the Suns game last week, and I still don’t know what it means. It is a signifier, I think, that Jedda hasn’t been able to think of a single way to characterise the current Clarko strategy. (Having said that, I haven’t watched On The Couch since Sheahan left so maybe he’s all over it and I just haven’t heard.) How can you sum up a gameplan where you seemingly don’t worry all that much about losing almost every key statistical category in the game? Rope-A-Dope Footy? Clarko Park Rangers?
There is at least one key stat where the Hawks are #1 though, and that’s in forcing forward half turnovers. This is not surprising when you have two of the top 5 players in that stat in Rioli and Puopolo, with Breust and Gunston chipping in as well plus Burgoyne on his occasional stints forward. But does anyone think that Clarko sat down at the start of the season and planned this all out in advance? If he did, I’d be flabbergasted. He would have known from last year that the Hawks did have a tendency for good teams to get hold of them for periods during games, and it would probably be impossible at this late point in the team’s development to guarantee that wouldn’t happen again. He and the team have ridden their luck to a large extent in that 5-0 run in close games, so it would be folly to credit Clarko with some secret formulation that ensured victory in close ones.
It has been mentioned occasionally in the media about how Clarkson has nursed his older players through the season by letting them play different positions out of the heat of the battle. Mitchell can go long periods without attending centre bounces. Burgoyne is a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency kind of player these days. Cyril’s dodgy hammies might not have pinged lately but they’re always being managed. Hodge can play forward pocket. All of the small forwards earn rotations in the guts. This is part of the player management strategy, but it’s also a delicate balancing act not to accidentally engineer one of those run-ons which can be so damaging on the scoreboard. That this hasn’t happened is testament to the preparation put in over many years in making sure every Hawk can take at least two different roles on with AFL-quality contribution levels – and that’s down to the coach.
Now, I realise that the coach and the culture influence each other. There are no Chinese walls with these things. However, I would distinguish the effect of the two on what happens on field and what happens off field. When Sam Mitchell has the ball and assesses his options at halfback, or Puopolo wins a hard footy in the forward pocket, they don’t have leadership meetings or bonding sessions on the Kokoda Track in their minds. They think about the coach’s instructions. You can’t see culture on field, that’s the coach’s domain.
Off field, culture is about – to invoke a tired yet still truthful cliche – how they “go about it”. That hackneyed phrase refers to a set of behaviours expected from everyone in the organisation, and how they stick to the principles come rain, hail or shine. It means no one letting the side down, from list management to player management and media management. (You thought I was going to say bootstudder, didn’t you. Wait, I did. Bugger.) Being a big club means you can pay top dollar for good managers, and for quality executives to keep those managers performing. You know, those boring yet necessary things that keep organisations strong.
It’s hard to barrack for a boardroom, though. Brendan Bolton can try to drag Carlton out of the muck and into a Clarksonian future, but he can’t kick the footy out there himself. The players are who we cheer for, the embodiment of the club and, yes, its culture. Statistics do matter, and wins matter most of all. I suspect things will turn around in finals and suddenly contested footy will be the new black again. Or, more accurately, brown & gold.