As the refrains of “he’s coming home” echoed throughout Arden Street after Alastair Clarkson was announced as North Melbourne’s new coach, over at Windy Hill north — otherwise known as Tullamarine — things were imploding at Essendon.
New president David Barham stumbled through a press conference that had been a gilt-edged opportunity to back Ben Rutten as their senior coach, but instead left Bombers fans clutching at both their jaw and their guts following the one-two punch of both bad news and bad messaging.
But is there any good news at Essendon? Is there hope they can bounce back from a season that started with Mick Malthouse predicting they would win the flag? Will the Clarkson appointment even work for North Melbourne?
Let’s start with the biggest name in all of this.
The Clarkson factor
As much as the Clarkson appointment can be seen as an on-field victory for North Melbourne given his Hawthorn pedigree, the public relations win is a rare Aaron Edwards-like screamer for a club that’s most often associated with the noise ‘meh’.
When the Kangaroos went through their conscious uncoupling with David Noble as coach in July after a string of 14 losses, there were reasonable objections around the decision.
Noble had been a long-term idea. Rather than being the interior decorator that was there to pick the ash or the charcoal tile for the second bathroom, Noble was at North Melbourne as a no bullshit chippie, who was there to lay the slab and start building the foundations. Wins on paper were meaningless, as long as the losses came with a sprinkle of hope.
But after a 112-point demolition at the hands of Geelong at Kardinia Park, the home-owners decided it was a tear-down job.
They didn’t want a chippie. They wanted an architect.
And Clarkson was quietly sitting off-site with his blueprint ready to go.
When the announcement was made, North Melbourne fans and non-Essendon fans with a soft spot for the Shinboners jointly celebrated.
The Kangaroos had made a very non-North Melbourne decision. Bold. Confident. Big.
The on-field impact is yet to be seen, but the marketing impact was immediate.
Will the whole Clarkson thing get results?
As it stands right now, only Michael Voss at Carlton and Brett Ratten at St Kilda have been head coach at other clubs before the team they’re currently at.
Unlike the merry-go-rounds of years gone by, this crop of coaches has wandered into the AFL carnival and taken a quiet stroll down Sideshow Alley, hurling the occasional ball at a clown here or there and mostly avoiding the rides that could bring back the Dagwood Dog from the dead.
But Clarkson’s appointment itself is less stomach-churning thrill ride than it is a gentle tumble around the teacups.
This is all preparation for what’s to come.
On the back of just nine wins over the past 60 games, Clarkson is treading the well-worn path of a veteran coach taking a young list and setting them up for success.
The legendary Ron Barassi joined the Sydney Swans in 1993 and registered one victory. In 1994, it was four wins. In 1995, he had doubled it to eight.
By the time Rodney Eade took over construction in 1996, Sydney had reached the grand final, and were on track to become one of the most consistently high-performing teams over the next 25 years.
It’s also a role Paul Roos executed perfectly at Melbourne from 2014 to 2016 before the Demons snatched their drought-breaking flag in 2021 — but Roos inherited a strong list of high draft picks and potential.
Will Clarkson benefit from the same set up?
The North Melbourne list
In the words of ABC Sport’s Cody Atkinson and Sean Lawson, patience is the key at North Melbourne for several reasons — including a pretty rubbish draft hand.
“The players North Melbourne have drafted have performed at roughly the level expected of their draft positions over their careers to date, with a handful of clear successes and failures,” they wrote in this excellent article from May.
“The Kangaroos have not drafted and developed their talent badly, but they have lacked sheer draft capital in this time.
“This has also been the case this year. However, the club has not really dug into the top end of the draft in the same way the two most successful recent rebuilds — Melbourne and Brisbane — have done.”
In simple terms, the North Melbourne list is a mix of promising talent from mid-range picks, club veterans, and journeymen on their second or even third club.
It’s a talent cluster that Clarkson is going to need to sort out, and while it may seem like a mammoth task, the building blocks already exist.
In Nick Larkey and Ben McKay, the club has two tall pillars around which they can build structures in both the forward line and back line.
In Luke Davies-Uniacke, they have a midfield bull who can both accumulate the ball and hurt the opponent with it.
And in the likes of Jy Simpkin, Curtis Taylor and Bailey Scott, they have a group of 20-somethings that can provide the support beams that hold up the entire structure.
With hopes that the Clarkson appointment will entice number one draft pick Jason Horne-Francis to stay in Melbourne, the list is good enough to build something special.
But would Clarkson have had an easier time at the Bombers?
The Essendon list
It’s easy to forget that Essendon played in an elimination final before this whole pandemic mess you might have heard about went on its stadium world tour.
They lost, keeping their unenviable 15-year streak of finals heartbreak intact, but there was reason for hope.
But the Essendon list of today looks distinctly unlike the Essendon list of that day in 2019.
Ten players from that 55-point defeat at the hands of West Coast will be gone by the end of round 23, and at least another three are likely on the way out. Devon Smith and Joe Daniher, who were sidelined with injury and didn’t play in that game, have also departed.
Even still, the current Bombers list looks special on paper.
Zach Merrett, Darcy Parish, Dylan Shiel and Andrew McGrath are strong bodies to build around, with younger teammates like Archie Perkins and Nic Martin showing plenty to get excited about.
Their tall stocks look promising too, with Sam Draper’s mullet flapping gloriously in the breeze as Peter Wright clunks them next to Harry Jones up forward, while Nik Cox develops himself as a 199cm utility in the same way Mark Blicavs has filled a bunch of holes at the drop of a blue and white beanie in Geelong.
So why wouldn’t Clarkson pick Essendon?
The Windy Hill wobbles
As much as the list looks alright, and despite the fact Clarkson has some old school North Melbourne links, the off-field situation at Tullamarine feels distinctly less settled that of North Melbourne — and that’s really saying something.
In Sonja Hood, the Kangaroos have found a leader with a calm, clear vision for the club, that understands the visuals of footy are just as important as what’s happening on the field when a rebuild is in progress.
After letting Noble go, and with her team on the brink of an unlikely victory over premiership-fancies Richmond, Hood made a beeline for Ben Cunnington, who had missed the entire season while undergoing treatment for testicular cancer.
It was a powerful moment, but one Hood had no doubt thought about before it happened.
Meanwhile, at Essendon, the club is the midst of a messy divorce with outgoing president Paul Brasher, while incoming president David Barham made what could only be described as a three-course meal of his press conference after Clarkson had been revealed as North Melbourne coach.
“It [pursuing Clarkson] certainly hurt him [Rutten] and it hasn’t helped [relations],” Barham said in a frosty response to reporters.
“And I’m not happy about that, but at the same time if I’m the president of Essendon and the best coach of the past 20 years has expressed an interest to come to Essendon and I don’t go and see him what will the members and fans think of me?
“We have obviously got a plan B, we will meet as a board on Sunday and put that plan into action.”
He went on to question the entire Essendon system.
“What I would like is some direct comparison to other clubs as to how we’re going,” he said.
“Why does Geelong have eight preliminary finals in 12 years, and we’re not making the finals?
“I want to know what are Geelong doing. What’s Collingwood done this year? What happened with Richmond — why’d they turn it around?
“I just want some of that data, to add to internal data, so we’ve got a full a picture. … I think our list OK, but I’d like a little bit more advice on whether our list is really good.”
They are fair questions, but they came at a time when the Bombers had just missed out on Clarkson, and potentially alienated their current coach in doing so.
So where to now for Essendon and Rutten?
The discussion has always been whether the club had faith in the coach.
But now, the question surely has to be whether the coach has any faith in the club.