Australian Football Celebrating the history of the great Australian game



Over the past half a century the Hawthorn Football Club has made a contribution to the sport of Australian football which, frankly, no other club can match. Some of the greatest players in football history have donned the famous brown and gold colours over the years; players like Matthews, Hudson, Platten, Tuck, Martello, Crimmins, Peck, Scott, Austen, Knights, Moore, Dunstall, Brereton, Ayres, Crawford, Mitchell, Edwards and Wallace, to name just a few. Given the right amount of luck to go with their undoubted administrative expertise and indomitable club spirit there is every reason to suppose that the Hawthorn Football Club will continue to participate with distinction at the highest level of Australian football - that is to say, as a member in its own right of the Australian Football League - for many years to come.

the early years: from 'Mayblooms' to Hawks

Hawthorn Football Club affords a prime example of the virtues and benefits of persistence. After spending the first thirteen years of its existence in junior ranks, the club entered the VFA in 1914, and its performances over the course of the next eight seasons (allowing for a gap for the war) could perhaps charitably be described as undistinguished [^1]. The club's subsequent admission to the VFL for the 1925 season was based more on its reputation for solid administration coupled with a strong support base than on any proven ability on the football field.

Entry to the big time had no immediately positive effect on Hawthorn's fortunes. The club won only 3 matches in 1925 to finish at the foot of the ladder, but despite this spectators turned up at Glenferrie Oval in record numbers, and the mood among players, supporters, and indeed everyone connected with the club was optimistic and cheerful. [^2] Somewhat unusually for the time, Hawthorn boasted a non-playing coach in 1925 in the shape of former Essendon and St Kilda player Alex 'Joker' Hall, who came to the club with plenty of coaching experience, but who faced an uphill task with a team broadly similar to that which had not even qualified for the previous year's VFA finals. [^3]

Further wooden spoons followed in 1927 (1 win), 1928 (0 wins) and 1932 (3 wins), and only once during the period 1925 to 1956 did the club manage more wins than losses for the year. (That was in 1943, when only eleven clubs competed in the VFL, Geelong having been forced out of the competition owing to wartime travelling restrictions; Hawthorn won 9 out of 15 fixtures that season to finish in fifth place.)

Most clubs experiencing long periods of hardship have a tendency to become resigned to their lot, and as a result their problems become self-perpetuating. Not so the Hawks. (The change of nickname, from 'Mayblooms' or 'Mayflowers' to Hawks, which officially took place in 1950, could itself be regarded as a psychologically significant development in the club's emergence out of the doldrums - in the longer term, at any rate. Its immediate effect was less propitious: the team lost all 18 matches in 1950 to finish 5 wins plus percentage adrift of eleventh placed South Melbourne.)

Kennedy's Commandos and the 1961 Grand Final

Under the gruelling commando-style regime based on circuit training which was introduced by Jack Hale during the 1950s, and which John Kennedy, who was appointed Hawthorn coach in 1960, elaborated on and augmented, the players reached a pinnacle of physical fitness that had probably never previously achieved in the history of Australian football. There was no finesse about the Kennedy approach, but no one could deny it was effective. During his first season as coach the Hawks had their first ever win at Victoria Park over Collingwood - the club which, ironically, edged into fourth place at the end of the home and away season ahead of the Hawks on percentage. One season later, however, Hawthorn finished at the head of the premiership ladder with 14 wins from 18 matches, and went on to reach the grand final after a hard-fought second semi final win over reigning premiers, Melbourne.

In terms of pure footballing ability Hawthorn's team in 1961 could only really be described as ordinary, but in spite of this they achieved the ultimate when, on grand final day, they comprehensively outplayed Footscray to the tune of 43 points. With fitness fanatic Brendan Edwards in irrepressible form in the centre, and with strong supporting performances from rover Ian Law, ruckman John Winneke, wingman John Fisher, ruck-rover and captain Graham Arthur, and half forward Ian Mort, the Hawks gave new meaning to the phrase 'pressure football' (a term which, during the 1960s, came increasingly to be regarded as a synonym for 'quality football' - in Victoria, at any rate).

A statistical analysis of the 1961 grand final helps bear this out. The overwhelming majority of kicks (60.1%), by both teams, were wayward, in part because of slipshod execution - the drop kick, in particular, which was used 24.0% of the time, did not lend itself to pinpoint accuracy - but chiefly because the ball carrier was compelled to dispose of the ball hurriedly either in order to avoid being tackled, or because he was already being grabbed by an opponent. This also helps explain what might seem to some to be the surprisingly high incidence of handball in the match. Between them, the teams executed a total of 106 handpasses, but far from denoting any observable adherence to the principles of 'play on' football, this merely reinforced the fact that players were, typically and repeatedly, being harassed into getting rid of the ball as quickly and expeditiously as possible. On only eight occasions during the entire match did players who had marked the ball decide not to walk slowly and purposefully back and take their kick, but instead play on by handballing to a team mate. Moreover, 5 of these instances occurred during the dying minutes of the final term, when the outcome of the match had been determined.

Rather than being used proactively, as a means to open up or force the play, virtually all the handpasses made during the game were reactive, typically made as a desperate last resort, often blindly, by players either being, or about to be, tackled. As a result, some 33% of handballs ended up going straight to an opposition player. To modern eyes, therefore, much of the football produced in the 1961 grand final appears slipshod, errant and uncoordinated. Players did not so much impose their wills on the game as respond, instinctively, and often almost desperately, to its ebbs and flows. Constructive creativity quite simply never came into play. Only once during the entire game was there a sequence of as many as three consecutive handballs by players from the same team. A player's automatic response upon gaining possession of the ball in space was to kick it as far as he could in a goalwards direction. Short or medium distance kicks aimed at finding a specific team mate did occasionally occur, but so infrequently as to appear anomalous, and so inexpertly as to provoke a singularly unvarying pejorative reaction from the TV commentary team - "Oh no, they're messing around!" Such sentiments presumably encapsulated the contemporary viewpoint, which would appear to have been that any attempts on the part of players to impose order and coherence on the game are fruitless, and hence to be scorned. Thus, in the main, play in the 1961 grand final comprised a relentless sequence of long kicks forward interspersed with frenetic tussles for possession. Hardly any kicks could be categorised as 'passes', and many went either directly to an opposition player, or out of bounds.

None of this is meant to imply that the Hawthorn system was not revolutionary in its way. In particular, its side effects were quite significant. For one thing, as players endeavoured to diminish and counteract the destabilising effects of 'pressure football' they developed noticeably greater facility in their execution of the basic skills. Disposing of the ball speedily and accurately became paramount, which meant that handball - the quickest method of disposal available to a player - became increasingly important. Meanwhile the drop kick, which had been a pillar of the game since its inception, began to be supplanted by the drop punt, which was both immeasurably more accurate, and quicker and easier to implement. In the 1961 grand final the drop punt was used only twice; by the time that the Hawks next claimed a premiership, a decade later, it was the preferred kick of almost all members of the team.

Hawthorn's breakthrough success in 1961 was arguably attributable more to methodology than playing ability, and as such it could not conceivably endure. After dropping to ninth place in 1962 - the biggest ever immediate fall from grace of a reigning VFL premier - Hawthorn recovered briefly to reach the grand final once more a year later, only to be crushed by Geelong. With Kennedy's innovative coaching methods now being almost universally emulated, Hawthorn, which did not possess the champion players of many of their rivals, dropped into the pursuing pack somewhat, although it was nevertheless clear that the side's days as a chopping block were well and truly over.

triumph and tragedy

After seven seasons of fluctuating fortunes, but no further finals appearances, 1971 witnessed a return to glory. In losing only 3 of their 22 home and away matches for the season, the Hawks of 1971 were everything their predecessors of ten years earlier had been, but they also had more than the odd touch of class to reinforce the work ethic. Rover Leigh Matthews, who would go on to become one of the greatest players the game has ever seen, was a 178 centimetre 89 kilo human guided missile, who also possessed supreme all round football skills and an unerring goal sense. Matthews won the Hawthorn best and fairest award in 1971, the first of eight which he was to secure during a seventeen season, 332 game career. Alongside Matthews in the Hawk class of '71 was Peter Hudson, arguably the greatest full forward of all time, who in 1971 equalled Bob Pratt's long-standing VFL record of 150 goals for the season, and but for injury and misfortune could easily have overturned it. Half forward Bob Keddie, ruckman Don Scott, wingman Des Meagher, full back Kelvin Moore, rover Peter Crimmins and back pocket David Parkin were among the other stars in a Hawk line up which made light of a 20 point deficit at three quarter time of its grand final clash with St Kilda to win in the end by 7 points.

A mixture of complacency - that perennial scourge of reigning champions in most sports - and injuries to key players saw the Hawks drop to sixth place in 1972. The most critical loss was that of Peter Hudson, who sustained a torn cruciate ligament in his right knee during the opening round fixture against Melbourne and missed the remainder of the season. Hudson did not return until the penultimate home and away match of the following year, but he was clearly far from fit. (In point of fact it was not to be until 1977 that he would again manage a full season of VFL football, kicking 110 goals to take his final career record to 727 goals from just 129 senior games.) Meanwhile, the Hawks again just missed the finals in 1973 before returning to the September fray in 1974 when they went out to North Melbourne by 5 points in the preliminary final. Season 1974 also saw the Hawthorn leave Glenferrie Oval to play its home matches at Princes Park for the first time. The following season saw the Hawks head the ladder after the home and away rounds only to succumb to a supremely motivated North Melbourne, which was pursuing its first ever VFL flag, in the grand final.

As so often seems to happen, the taste of grand final defeat worked wonders in terms of spurring the team on during the following season. Allied to this, tenacious club skipper Peter Crimmins was seriously ill with cancer, and a desire to win a flag "for the little feller", as coach John Kennedy referred to him, was overwhelming. When Hawthorn confronted their 1975 nemesis North Melbourne twelve months later in the '76 grand final it was the fifth meeting between the clubs for the year: during the home and away season the Hawks had won by 22 points at Princes Park and 8 points at Arden Street; the clubs had also met in Adelaide in the final of the inaugural NFL Championship series, when Hawthorn had won by 48 points; and, just to reinforce their superiority, the qualifying final at the MCG had seen the Hawks emerge 20 points to the good, so that if ever a team went into a grand final deserving of premiership favouritism, it was Hawthorn in 1976.

Football is full of stories of teams which overturned the odds and made a nonsense out of pre-match predictions, of course, but North Melbourne in 1976 was not to prove to be one of those teams. From start to finish Hawthorn gave their opponents a football lesson as they steamrollered their way to a 30 point win, which but for inaccuracy in front of goal would have been much greater. Best afield in the 1976 grand final was spectacular blond haired centre half back Peter Knights, whose consistently brilliant displays throughout the season had seen him finish as runner up to Essendon's Graham Moss in voting for the Brownlow Medal. Others to shine included full forward John Hendrie (who booted 2.7), back pocket Brian Douge in the last of his 91 games for the club, and centreman Barry Rowlings. In addition, Matthews was still very much in the thick of the action, as indeed he would be for a further ten seasons, contributing 2 goals as well as abundant energy, determination and purpose to the Hawthorn cause.

In the midst of the euphoria surrounding the Hawks' success an element of tragedy intervened just three days after the grand final, when Peter Crimmins lost his fight against cancer; it was a sombre and perhaps timely reminder that all triumphs, of whatever kind, are transitory. Peter Crimmins always nursed an ambition to captain Hawthorn to a premiership, an ambition that remained unfulfilled. However, it his hard to deny the assertion that, by his inspiration and example, Peter Crimmins achieved much more

After the by now familiar premiership hangover in 1977 under new coach David Parkin (the Hawks finished third, losing the preliminary final to eventual premiers North Melbourne by 67 points) things reverted to what was increasingly coming to seem like normality in 1978. After finishing in second spot on the ladder at the end of the home and away rounds, Hawthorn scored victories over Collingwood in the qualifying final and North Melbourne in the second semi to win through to their third grand final in four seasons. The opposition was once again provided by North Melbourne and, just as in 1976, the Hawks proved much too accomplished; after a hiccup or two in the second quarter they raced away to a commanding 22 point lead at three quarter time, and the fact that a few late goals brought North to within 18 points at the end did nothing to disguise the fact that Hawthorn had been eminently comfortable winners. Young Robert Dipierdomenico, without the handle bar moustache which would become his trademark in later years, starred on a half back flank to be most people's choice as best afield; he was closely followed by Leigh Matthews, who bagged 4 goals in a typical all action roving display, full back Kelvin Moore, ruck rover Michael Tuck, and centreman Terry Wallace.

David Parkin had made a quick impact as coach and, at least in part, this may have been due to the fact that, while he shared his predecessor Kennedy's passion for fitness and hard work, in terms of personality he was very different. Whereas Kennedy was very much the disciplinarian, whose word was law, Parkin adopted a more modern, consensus based approach in which the views of players were always welcome. Ultimately, however, he may have been a little in advance of his time: Hawthorn struggled in 1979 and 1980 (10 wins each year) and when, at the end of the 1980 season, Parkin crossed to Carlton it was neither an entirely unexpected nor a particularly amicable divorce. Just by way of demonstrating that there was nothing wrong with his coaching methods, Parkin immediately took the Blues to back to back premierships, and he subsequently went on to prove himself one of the most highly respected and successful coaches in the history of the game.

fast, fierce, uncompromising, and ruthlessly efficient...

Allan Jeans was a man with a formidable coaching pedigree. During a sixteen year stint at St Kilda he had masterminded that club's most successful ever period, including a first (and to this date only) premiership in 1966, and two other grand final appearances in 1965 and 1971. In 1980 Jeans was forty-seven years old and was coaching the New South Wales state side. Hawthorn President Ron Cook had earlier worked with Jeans when both men had had connections with the Victorian state side, Jeans as coach and Cook as chairman of selectors, and Cook was extremely keen to see Jeans appointed to the Hawthorn post. Other names bandied about by the media included Peter Hudson, and former Richmond champion Kevin Sheedy, but in the end it was Cook's judgement which held sway. "We wanted a fresh face, but someone mature and stable, someone who was terribly keen, who wanted to prove himself again," [^4] said Cook. As subsequent events were to show, the Hawks got precisely what they wished for.

After improving slightly in 1981 (13 wins for the year and sixth place on the ladder), the Hawks re-joined the September action in 1982 when they got as far as the preliminary final before succumbing to eventual premiers, Carlton. The Hawks were looking ominous again, and their achievements over the course of the next decade were to outstrip anything previously accomplished. By 1983 the Jeans roller coaster was hurtling along at full throttle and, in the grand final of that year, Essendon were the hapless recipients of a record 83 point mauling. Club captain Leigh Matthews led the way with 6 goals from a forward pocket, while pacy Tasmanian on-baller Colin Robertson won the Norm Smith Medal for best afield. The half back line of Russell Greene, Mick McCarthy and John Kennedy Jr. was virtually impassable all day, while ruck rover Michael Tuck, centreman Terry Wallace, full back Chris Mew and back pocket Gary Ayres were others to star. The 1983 premiership was achieved by a side playing a brand of football which summarised Jeans' attitude to the game; every issue was contested to the ultimate, and the Bombers were almost contemptuously knocked out of their stride by a team which functioned like a well-oiled, impeccably serviced machine. It may not have been pretty football in the classical sense, but there was no denying it was impressive, at times almost awesome, to watch.

Ironically, much the same words could have been written after both the 1984 and 1985 grand finals, but on these occasions it would be the Bombers who would earn the kudos. Once again, as in the early sixties, the Hawks had established a new benchmark and other clubs - or, in this case, one specific other club - had been swift to emulate and then overtake them.

The 1985 grand final marked the end of an era in some respects in that it was champion rover cum forward pocket Leigh Matthews' final game for the Hawks. During a 332 game career over seventeen seasons Matthews kicked 915 goals (a record for the club until overhauled by Jason Dunstall in 1994, and an all time VFL record for a non-full forward) and won the Hawthorn best and fairest award on a staggering eight occasions, a total which would have been impressive in any era, but is rendered all the more so when you take into account the calibre of many of his team mates. Needless to say, Matthews was also a regular participant in interstate football, representing the Big V on fourteen occasions. Many astute judges rate Matthews the greatest post war VFL footballer, but by 1985 the feeling was that he was some way past his best, and the club would do better to concentrate on developing younger talent.

That this decision was the right one was shown almost immediately. Hawthorn set the stage for what was to come in 1986 with a 30 point triumph against Carlton in the final of the Fosters Cup night series. Eighteen wins from twenty -wo home and away matches saw the Hawks comfortably secure the minor premiership, but events did not go according to plan in the second semi final against Carlton, the Blues getting home by 28 points. In hindsight, however, this may have been just the jolt Hawthorn needed, as when the two sides met again in the grand final a fortnight later the Hawks gave a display of football which epitomised their creed: fast, fierce, uncompromising, and ruthlessly efficient, they smothered the life out of a Carlton side which, man for man, was arguably the more talented combination, but which on grand final day was at times made to appear inept and uncoordinated. Prominent players for the Hawks included Norm Smith Medallist Gary Ayres, half forward Gary Buckenara, full forward Jason Dunstall who ruined Carlton great Bruce Doull's last game by booting 6 goals, veteran ruck rover Rodney Eade, and gutsy centreman Terry Wallace.

A 33 point loss to Carlton in the 1987 premiership decider was disappointing, but by no means a disgrace, and in 1988 the Hawks bounced back with arguably their, and indeed any club's, most devastating ever grand final performance. The opposition was provided by Melbourne, making its first grand final appearance for twenty-four years, and the eventual winning margin was 16 goals, which remained a league record for a premiership deciding match until 2007. Hawthorn was coached this year by Alan Joyce, who stood in for Allan Jeans while the latter was recuperating from major surgery after suffering a brain haemorrhage. Full forward Jason Dunstall kicked 7 goals in the grand final, while Paul Abbott and Dermott Brereton chipped in with 6 and 5 respectively. After a closely contested first fifteen minutes the Hawks were unstoppable, with second time Norm Smith Medallist Gary Ayres, forwards Brereton, Abbott and Dunstall, rover John Platten, and Brownlow Medal winning wingman Robert Dipierdomenico particularly impressive. (Incredibly, after more than sixty seasons in the VFL, Dipierdomenico was the first Hawk player to receive football's highest individual award, although later the league would confer retrospective Brownlows on players who had earlier tied for the award but lost on countback; in 1949 Hawthorn's Col' Austen had been one such player, making him technically the club's first Brownlow Medallist.)

getting older, getting slower - and still winning...

Allan Jeans returned to Glenferrie in 1989 with one goal in mind: to lead Hawthorn to the first back to back premierships in the club's history. On no fewer than six previous occasions the Hawks had had the opportunity to accomplish this rare feat, but each time they had failed, sometimes quite dismally. In both 1984 and 1987, however, the Hawks had gone to within an ace of gaining back to back flags only to fall at the final hurdle. Jeans was determined not to let history repeat itself and it was with almost fanatical resolve that his team fought its way through to the 1989 play-off to confront Geelong.

The Cats in many respects represented a direct antithesis of all that Hawthorn, under Jeans, stood for; individualistic where the Hawks were totally team-orientated, placing the onus on flair rather than efficiency, capable of almost dazzling feats of artistry and brilliance, they effectively ensured that the 1989 grand final would be billed as a classic confrontation of styles.

Needless to say, this was an over-simplification: Hawthorn, too, possessed players of undoubted ingenuity and flair, while, as events in the 1989 grand final were quite emphatically to prove, the Cats were by no means incapable of looking after themselves when the going got willing. Indeed, it was the Hawks who came out worse in the physical exchanges, with Dermott Brereton being felled by Mark Yeates at the opening bounce, John Platten leaving the fray at quarter time with concussion, and Michael Tuck, Robert Dipierdomenico, Scott Maginness and Darrin Pritchard all playing on despite sustaining debilitating injuries. The final siren saw Hawthorn, with barely a dozen fit players, clinging to a 6 point lead, after Geelong had kicked 8.5 to 3.5 in the final quarter; Jeans' dream had thus been dramatically fulfilled. If 1988 witnessed the Hawks at their most awesome, 1989 saw them display a level of resilience almost unparalleled not only in their own history, but also in the entire history of the game. Thirty years earlier, the Hawthorn Football Club had been an apparently rudderless ship adrift on a tempestuous sea; following the 1989 grand final there could be absolutely no doubt that the Hawks had become the pre-eminent football force in the land, a state of affairs it was hard to see changing in the immediate future.

Part of the allure of Australian football at the highest level, though, is its unpredictability. The 1990 season, which proved to be Jeans' last as coach, saw the Hawks bow out of the finals at the first hurdle against Melbourne. Twelve months on from perhaps their greatest ever triumph all the talk was of a side which was now past it as a major force. Looking at the squad which fronted up for the 1991 AFL season it was difficult to refute this point of view: skipper Michael Tuck, a veteran of 405 league games, was approaching 38 years of age, while others, like Gary Ayres, Chris Langford, John Platten and Greg Dear had all reached ages when the majority of their best performances could reasonably be expected to be behind them.

Oblivious of this, the Hawk machine clicked into gear right away to put in one of the most impressive pre-seasons by any side in recent times. Wins by 79 points over Footscray, 49 points over Brisbane, and a staggering 102 points against Essendon set Hawthorn up for a Fosters Cup Final showdown with North Melbourne in which the brown and golds proved much too experienced and powerful, winning by 49 points, 14.19 (103) to 7.12 (54). It was Hawthorn's fourth Fosters Cup win in seven seasons, and a record seventh night series triumph in all.

Once the 'real' stuff began, however, the wheels threatened to come off the Hawk steamroller altogether, a mammoth 14 goal loss to the fledgling Adelaide Crows in round one being followed by a series of stuttering performances which saw the side on 6-5 and out of the finals placings at the half way mark. Critics were claiming the Hawks had been found out: "too old, too slow" was the catch cry, and even as they built up a sequence of 8 successive wins during the second half of the season they were rarely convincing. However, achievements during the weekly grind of the home and away season are ultimately of little consequence except in so far as they establish a platform for finals participation. Ultimately, it is premierships which count, and as the 1991 play-offs approached it was noticeable that the Hawks were starting to show signs of a return to their spectacular pre-season form.

Hawthorn warmed up for the finals with a 98-point drubbing of Carlton in the penultimate round, followed by an 80-point triumph over Essendon a week later. This left them with a season's record of 16 wins out of 22, and earned them a qualifying final date with ladder leaders West Coast at Subiaco. Three weeks earlier the Eagles had downed Hawthorn by 4 goals at the same venue, but this time the stakes were higher. Playing a superb brand of finals football the Hawks withstood all the home side could hurl at them during a torrid opening quarter, and thereafter gradually assumed control to emerge a comfortable 23 points to the good.

The following week Hawthorn's wealth of experience was instrumental in their overcoming Geelong by two points in the second semi final. The Cats saw more of the ball during the decisive final stanza but, typically, the Hawks used it better to secure an instant passage to the 1991 grand final.

Hawthorn's opponents in the premiership decider turned out to be West Coast, which to many people's surprise had seen off the challenge of the Cats in a low scoring, bruising preliminary final. The match was scheduled for VFL Park at Waverley because the MCG was undergoing extensive re-construction work which had reduced its capacity considerably.

During the week leading up to the grand final crowds of 10,000 turned up at Glenferrie to watch the Hawks training - more people than had attended a number of home and away matches during the season (none involving Hawthorn, but a couple featuring the Eagles). In general, though, there was less fervour about the build up to this particular grand final than was usually the case, with the intense parochialism of many Victorian football supporters, who perceived West Coast as 'invaders' of 'their' tradition, probably being the single largest cause of this. However, the fact that the match was taking place away from the traditional Mecca of Australian football, the MCG, may also have had a detrimental effect on people's expectation level.

Once grand final day itself arrived, however, the atmosphere was little different from normal, except for the unbalanced nature of the crowd's support, with somewhere in the region of 90% of those in attendance barracking for Hawthorn. Buoyed by this support, the Hawks might reasonably have been expected to hurtle out of the blocks, but in fact it was the Eagles who kicked the first 4 goals of the game after a number of unaccustomedly undisciplined errors by Hawthorn defenders. Thereafter, the brown and golds enjoyed the lion's share of the possession, but still entered the quarter time break 9 points in arrears. However, from the second term on it was clear that there was only going to be one winner as the supposedly 'past it' Hawks ran their younger opponents ragged. Underrated forward Paul Dear capped an outstanding finals campaign with an all action display of aggressive running and powerful high marking to secure the Norm Smith Medal. Dear's 11 possession 6 mark second quarter was particularly impressive and, in the context of the game, decisive. With crumbers John Platten and Darrin Pritchard impressively outpointing their Eagles opposite numbers, a winning ruck courtesy of Steve Lawrence, and sterling efforts from the likes of James Morrissey, Jason Dunstall (6 goals) and Andrew Gowers, Hawthorn gradually gained control of the match before 'exploding' in the final term to add 8.4 to 1.3 and win comfortably by 53 points, 20.19 (139) to 13.8 (86). Some predictably insisted on seeing the game as a triumph for Victoria over Western Australia; in reality, however, it was just another impressive chapter in the history of one of Australia's outstanding sporting clubs.

the long fall from grace

The Hawks of 1992 were arguably as strong if not stronger than in '91 and their convincing retention of the Fosters Cup attested to this. However, once September arrived they suffered the misfortune of being paired with the Eagles at Subiaco in week one of the finals in a sudden death replay of the previous year's grand final. West Coast had learned from their failure of twelve months earlier, and, backed by a fanatical crowd, provided opposition of the highest order. Nevertheless, the Hawks were a trifle unfortunate to lose, with the eventual margin being only 13 points.

At times in both 1993 and 1994 the Hawks appeared as awesome as ever, but there were also a number of uncharacteristically brittle performances. Alan Joyce's stint as coach came to an abrupt end after the Hawks' disappointing loss to Adelaide during the first week of the 1993 finals series and he was replaced by highly respected former player Peter Knights.

Knights' brief tenure proved disastrous, however, as in 1995 the Hawks finished a dismal fifteenth, bringing to a conclusive end the club's AFL/VFL record of reaching thirteen consecutive finals series. There was much doom and gloom at Glenferrie, and merger speculation began in earnest.

The merger speculation continued in 1996 under Knights' replacement, Ken Judge, but the doom and gloom was gradually dissipated as Hawthorn defied all the odds to clinch eighth spot on the ladder and a finals berth. Many observers then believed that only an injury to champion full forward Jason Dunstall prevented a continuation of the fairy tale at the SCG against minor premiers Sydney. As it was, the Hawks lost by a goal but, buoyed by the improvement shown by their side, coupled with the determined resistance to the merger concept voiced by former Hawk greats like Don Scott and Dermot Brereton, the Hawthorn members rejected a proposal that their club amalgamate with Melbourne (the Demons' members meanwhile voted 'yes').

The 1997 season brought record membership numbers but, unfortunately, a dismal on field performance. The Hawks ultimately finished fifteenth after at one stage looking probable finals participants. The following season appeared likely to yield an even more dismal return as the side endured a concerted spell on the bottom of the ladder, only to recover significantly over the course of the final few games to proffer a measure of hope for the future. After starting the 1999 season promisingly with an impressive Ansett Australia Cup grand final defeat of Port Adelaide, the Hawks failed to maintain consistency during the home and away rounds, and ultimately finished ninth. Hawthorn's final match of the season was also the last ever AFL fixture at Waverley. An emotional crowd of 72,130 turned up to bid farewell to the ground and also to make a statement about the league hierarchy's intransigence over the sale of the ground. In the event, Hawthorn's 23.15 (153) to 11.2 (68) demolition of the Swans provided, if anything, an even more eloquent statement.

Prospects for that future were bolstered somewhat during a 2000 season which saw the Hawks return to finals contention for the first time since 1996 and, more importantly, actually win a finals match for the first time since the 1991 grand final. Hawthorn's victims in the first elimination final were Geelong, but, in the broader context of club survival, brown and gold celebrations may have been tempered by the realisation that, in the supposed hotbed of Australian football, fewer people chose to attend the match than turned up at a rugby union international on the same ground a few days earlier. The Kangaroos ended Hawthorn's premiership aspirations a week later with a hard-fought 10 point win.

Season 2001 saw Hawthorn merely fall into the finals after some lack lustre end of year performances but once there that renowned Hawk toughness and resolve re-surfaced. Victories over Sydney by 55 points and Port Adelaide at Football Park by a nerve-tingling 3 points were full of merit, as was the Hawks' eventual elimination from the finals race against reigning premier Essendon. Trailing by 36 points at the long break Hawthorn dug deep in the second half to fall short by only 9 points at the finish. Unforced skill errors late in the game cost the Hawks dearly but there seemed little doubt overall that the side was moving in the right direction.

Sadly, the 2002 and 2003 seasons either disproved this impression, or at very least provided a substantial hiccup, as the Hawks endured two frustratingly inconsistent years to finish mid-stream, and out of the finals race. Moreover, in 2004 things got even worse, with the side managing just 4 wins for the year, and missing the wooden spoon only on percentage.

the resurgence of the mighty fighting Hawks

With the appointment in 2005 of Alastair Clarkson as coach and Jeff Kennet as President the following year saw the Hawks setting out to rebuild the club from ground zero on and off the field. After low ladder finishes in 2005 and 2006, the hard work started to bear fruit and in 2007 the side for a time seemed capable of giving the premiership a real shake before falling in something of a heap late season. The 2008 team, on the other hand, played strong and consistent football all year, suprising few by making the grand final. However, up against reiging premiers and raging flag favourites Geelong, who had only lost one game for the season, the Hawks were widely rated as underdogs. However, they shocked almost everyone to post a 26 points victory over the wayward Cats. Hawthorn managed to keep their noses in front for most of an entertaining first half, and after half time they added 10 goals to 5 to leave no one in any doubt of their entitlement to the premiership. Their defence was superbly marshalled by Norm Smith Medallist Luke Hodge, aided by an outstanding quartet of on-ballers in Xavier Ellis (28 disposals), Brad Sewell (27), Michael Osborne (26) and veteran Shane Crawford (25), and a forward line inspired by a spirited cameo from the rotund Stuart Dew.

Lance 'Buddy' Franklin also claimed the Coleman Medal after kicking 113 goals. He also kicked 88 behinds, to become the first player since Gary Ablett in 1995 to manage more than 200 scoring shots in a season.

After that, the 2009 season was a major disappointment as the Hawks performed so inconsistently they ultimately became the first club in ten years to fail to qualify for the finals the year after winning a flag. The following year brought marginal improvement as the Hawks reached the finals but their involvement was fleeting as they lost in an elimination final to Fremantle by a margin of 30 points.

The team improved significantly in 2011 and were within touching distance of reaching the grand final, having led Collingwood for much of their preliminary final, but committed some bad errors in the final quarter, falling an agonizing three points short.

The 2012 season began with Hawthorn installed as premiership favourites, although inconsistent early form raised questions about the team's bona fides as a genuine contender. But with the likes of Lance ’Buddy' Franklin, Cyril Rioli, Luke Hodge, Sam Mitchell, and Jarryd Roughhead in the lineup, the Hawks were capable of beating any team on their day, as they proved by recovering during the second half of the season to qualify for the finals in pole position. They then comfortably accounted for Collingwood in a qualifying final with scores of 20.15 (135) to 15.7 (97). Adelaide in a preliminary final provided tougher opposition, although the Hawks undoubtedly added to their own difficulties by some slipshod kicking for goal. They ultimately won by just 5 points, 13.19 (97) to 14.8 (92).

The Hawks were opposed by Sydney in the 2012 grand final, a match which saw the initiative change back and forth continually. Ultimately it was the Swans, with the last 4 goals of the encounter, who edged home by 10 points meaning that Hawthorn had lost a grand final for the first time since 1987.

They were quick to make amends. Having topped the ladder again after the home and away rounds the Hawks defeated Sydney easily and Geelong with considerable difficulty to qualify for the 2013 grand final. Opposed by Fremantle Hawthorn dominated a tight, tense first half to lead 5.5 to 1.6 at the main interval. Thereafter, the Dockers made a semblance of a fightback which saw them get to within 10 points at three quarter time, but the Hawks steadied and, with 3 last quarter goals to 2, eased to victory by 15 points. Imposing defender Brian Lake was awarded the Norm Smith Medal for best afield after taking 10 marks, 7 of which were vital interceptions preventing probable Fremantle scores. Lake also suffered the indignity of being reported. Jack Gunston, who started the match on the bench, was another to catch the eye, as were wingman Jordan Lewis (26 disposals), rover and skipper Luke Hodge, dynamic half forward Cyril Rioli and half back flanker Grant Birchall (26 disposals).

Hawthorn continued to produce magnificent football in 2014, qualifying for the finals in second place before comfortably overcoming Geelong in a qualifying final by 36 points. The preliminary final against Port Adelaide was a much closer affair with the Power, down by 23 points at the last change, coming home with a wet sail to get within three points at the death. In two years of finals football it was the closest the Hawks would come to losing.

Prior to the grand final clash with Sydney much was made of the fact that former Hawks forward Lance Franklin, a much feted footballer, would be lining up in Swans colours. Despite being arguably the Swans best player he would endure a disappointing afternoon as Hawthorn dominated almost from the outset, leading at quarter time by 20 points, by 42 points at the main break, and 54 points at the last change. They eventually romped home by 63 points, 21.11 (137) to 11.8 (74), thereby emulating their illustrious predecessors of 1988 and 1989 who had been the first Hawks combination in history to claim back to back premierships. Captain Luke Hodge had 35 disposals to claim his second Norm Smith Medal for best afield in a grand final. Others to shine included Jordan Lewis on a wing (a match high 37 possessions), half back flanker Sam Mitchell, centre half forward Jarryd Roughead (5 goals) and full back Brian Lake.

This particular Hawks combination would ultimately go one better than their 1988-89 predecessors, but their route to the 2015 ‘hat trick’ flag would be somewhat more tortuous and troublesome than in either of the previous two seasons. Third after the minor round, the Hawks faced a difficult trip to Perth to take on West Coast in a qualifying final. After a close first quarter Hawthorn wilted in the cauldron like atmosphere allowing the Eagles to impose themselves on the game, and ultimately triumph with some comfort. Final scores were West Coast 14.12 (96) to Hawthorn 9.10 (64), a winning margin of 32 points.

The defeat meant Hawthorn would need to win three successive matches if they wished to create history by capturing three successive flags. First up, in a semi final played at the MCG, were Adelaide, whom the Hawks brushed aside with contemptuous ease, doing more or less as they liked en route to a 74 point triumph, 21.9 (135) to 8.13 (61). The reward for this victory was another trip to Perth, this time to take on minor premiers Fremantle. During the home and away rounds the Hawks had handed out a 72 point hiding to the Dockers, their heftiest defeat of the season. That had been in Launceston, however; surely in Perth the Dockers would be favourites. If they were, nobody appears to have told the Hawthorn players, who dominated from the start en route to a 27 point victory, 15.4 (94) to 10.7 (67). Many now viewed the following week’s grand final re-match with West Coast as a line ball proposition, but once again no one apparently told Hawthorn. The loss to the Eagles might never have happened, so energetic, purposeful, aggressive and dominant were the Hawks. After trailing very slightly in the opening minutes of the game they assumed almost complete control, easing off only minimally late on when the result was assured. Final scores were Hawthorn 16.11 (107) to 8.13 (61), a victory margin of 46 points. Best for the winners were half forward Cyril Rioli (Norm Smith Medal, 18 disposals and 12 marks), 30 possession on-baller Luke Hodge, full forward Jarryd Roughead, half back flanker Grant Birchall, centre half forward Ryan Schoenmakers and wingman Bradley Hill.

Hawthorn again qualified for the finals in 2016 only to suffer a disappointing and unexpected fade-out as they bowed out of premiership contention with straight sets losses to Geelong in a qualifying final and Western Bulldogs in a semi final. Things went from bad to worse during a 2017 season which saw the Hawks tumble out of the finals places and ultimately finish twelfth, their worst return since 2005. In 2018 Hawthorn returned to the finals arena when they finished the home and away rounds in fourth place and seemingly in good form having won their previous six games. However, their finals performances were poor, and they exited in "straight sets" at the hands of Richmond and Melbourne.

It would be hard to refute the suggestion that Hawthorn are the greatest Australian football club of recent times. Since capturing their first VFL flag in 1961 the Hawks have added another dozen. No other club in the competition comes anywhere close to this record, and yet a couple of decades ago the club was facing extinction or the prospect of either having to merge with Melbourne or relocate to Tasmania. If this seems hard to credit it probably should not; rather, it should afford a sobering reminder to all football supporters: success on the field is no longer a guarantee of survival. That said, it is hard to imagine a future football landscape in which the Hawthorn Football Club does not constitute a prominent and imposing feature.


Note: This article was written by John Devaney and subsequently updated with additonal material from writers.

  1. Hawthorn played a total of 140 VFA matches for a success rate of 41.4%. Only once, in 1923, did it reach the finals, bowing out at the first hurdle on that occasion to Port Melbourne. Perhaps the club's single most memorable achievement during its VFA tenure was its feat in kicking a competition record 30.31 (211) against Prahran, which managed just 6.9 (45), on 5th August 1922. Hawthorn's score in this match remained an Association record for seventeen years. 
  2. When Hawthorn played host to Richmond in the opening round of the 1925 season the match attracted a crowd estimated at 22,000, which was far and away the biggest in the club's history to that point.
  3. Hall, who had been a member of Essendon's 1891-2-3-4 premiership sides, later coached Melbourne (1907-9 and 1912-14), Richmond (1910), and Williamstown (1915 and 1919).
  4. The Hard Way by Harry Gordon, page 190.


John Devaney - Full Points Publications


* Behinds calculated from the 1965 season on.
+ Score at the end of extra time.