Hawks and Crows, a tale of two cultures

Culture is a word which gets thrown around a lot at AFL clubs. But in a football context, it's arguably also the most difficult phrase to define.

When teams perform well over a sustained period of several years, culture is inevitably cited as a major reason. When they struggle for as long, the attempted explanations as to why will generally cite the lack of a successful culture. But is that often just a convenient and "sexier" way of describing wins and losses?

Perhaps it's sometimes not even as much about players, coaches and what happens on the field as the particular characteristics of the masses of supporters who follow a club from the grandstands. But certainly, it's a delicate indicator, one which if disrupted or shaken too vigorously, consciously or not, can be a very difficult thing to recover from a previous state.

It's something I've been pondering given events over the last couple of days in the football world. The AFL is this week announcing a series of new inductions to the Australian Football Hall of Fame. And on Monday night came the most important, the elevation of Hawthorn legend John Kennedy senior to official Legend status, just the 29th man to achieve the honour.

It's debatable whether anyone in the game's history has shaped an entire club in his image as Kennedy has the Hawks. Hawthorn was almost a standing joke in the VFL when Kennedy began his playing career in 1950, in 25 seasons since the club's inclusion in the league having only once finished any higher than eighth in a 12-team competition.

Kennedy had a big enough impact as a player, winning four best and fairests and captaining the Hawks to their first finals appearance in 1957. But his imprint as coach, a role he assumed straight away upon retirement in 1959, would be far weightier still.

There was little science about Kennedy's coaching methods. But his instilling of some basic values like courage, commitment and selflessness in his charges, and the inspirational manner in which he was able to communicate those values via his magnificent oratory, are traits from which Hawthorn has never since deviated, and which have served it brilliantly.

Kennedy coached the Hawks to their first premiership in 1961. And to their second and third in 1971 and 1976. And no club can claim anything like the success the Hawks have over the past 50 years, 12 of their 13 flags having come between 1971 and 2015, a strike rate of better than one premiership every four years.

Hawthorn's culture is unmistakable. It resonates through everything the club does. And is passed seamlessly from one generation of Hawks to the next. And those cultural values have also proved easier to maintain because their rewards are tangible, sitting stacked in an ever-burgeoning trophy cabinet.

It's been a lot harder for new clubs in a new football era to deliver on that word culture, particularly those built from nothing and competing against rivals long-established. Which is why comments made this week by arguably Adelaide's greatest player, Andrew McLeod, will have caused those charged with running the Crows now much concern.

McLeod, a dual Norm Smith medallist, dual premiership player and Adelaide's games record holder with 340 appearances, has maintained a close relationship with the club since his retirement in 2010. But that didn't prevent him on a podcast airing some strong reservations about the culture of the club now.

"If you asked me if I felt comfortable walking back into the football club, I'd say no," he said. "For me, it doesn't really have that vibe, it doesn't have that vibe where it feels like you're really welcome there. I've done some work there with my programs and whatnot. But it's not a place that you feel like it embraces you as a past player."

Adelaide Crows senior coach Matthew Nicks looks on during the round 1 AFL match against the Sydney Swans at Adelaide Oval on March 21. Photo: Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images

Adelaide Crows senior coach Matthew Nicks looks on during the round 1 AFL match against the Sydney Swans at Adelaide Oval on March 21. Photo: Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images

Over 30 seasons since entering the competition in 1991, Adelaide has largely proved adept indeed at maintain a harmonious and successful environment. The Crows reached finals in their third season, and had won two flags by the end of their eighth. They've consistently sat in the top half of the ladder and played in finals more years than they've missed out.

Just three seasons ago, they headed into a grand final clearly the best-performed team of the season. But an ordinary performance that day and heavy defeat at the hands of Richmond seems to have affected the psyche of an entire club ever since.

The controversial and much-discussed pre-season training camp which followed that loss clearly drove deep divisions between a playing and coaching group and administration which many would argue are still being felt.

The coach of that group, Don Pyke, has departed, replaced by Matthew Nicks. The playing list of 2017 looks substantially different headed into 2020. But little, it seems, ticks over at Adelaide now as smoothly as it had for so long. McLeod's comments, disturbingly, hint not at playing philosophies, recruiting or list management, but at a less definable atmosphere pervading the whole organisation. Or dare one say, its culture.

It's an interesting contrast. As the 2020 AFL season resumes next week, Hawthorn will be picking up the pieces concerned only about winning its next game, secure in the knowledge its long-standing and successful values will again be adhered to.

Adelaide, under its new coach Nicks, will be working hard to build a new system and a new era on the field. But now, as it ponders some damning criticism from its own club legend, it might not have quite the same sense of security that what surrounds that part of the operation is definitively on track. Culture in football can be an intangible and elusive quality. Which, if it is lacking, makes it that much harder to correct.

This story Hawks and Crows, a tale of two AFL cultures first appeared on The Canberra Times.