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How long should a club rebuild actually take?

How much longer will Carlton have to wait before they return to the eight?

All fans want as even a competition as possible, and while the AFL is getting closer and closer to getting every team on an equal playing field, the Rebuild is something they are yet to overcome. Carlton last played finals in 2013. Melbourne haven’t been there in 12 seasons. And the Gold Coast Suns haven’t felt the pressure of the pointy end of the season in their seven-year history as a club. These three clubs have been going through a so-called rebuild for considerable periods of time, and with the exception of Melbourne success unfortunately seems to be no closer for supporters of these clubs.

When clubs enter a rebuild, they aim to overhaul their playing list in the shortest period of time to become competitive again as quickly as possible. After sacking Scott Waters after just two seasons as senior coach, St Kilda publicly said that they would rebuild the list after the 2013 season by drafting 18 players within the first 3 draft round between 2013 and 2016, and also by targeting free agency “very aggressively” from 2016. They called this their “Blueprint for success” and it gave saints fans the optimism that they had lacked since Ross Lyon walked out on the club to join Fremantle, despite a year left on his contract. The reality however, has been very different to what was promised.

St Kilda have drafted only 12 of the 18 players promised, of which only four are guaranteed a spot in their best 22. And the free agency side of the promise has been even less spectacular so far, with only Nathan Brown entering the club from Collingwood at the end of 2016, who has done a serviceable, yet not spectacular job for the Saints so far in his short career at Moorabbin. Even if they had done as they had said and drafted 18 players inside three rounds in four years, from their success record with previous draftees, it is unlikely that they would have contributed any more than six members of their best 22, barely placing them in a better position than they were after the sacking of Waters.

From this St Kilda scenario and from what we already know, we can see that drafting is one of the most crucial element not only to a rebuild, but to a club’s success regardless of how wide the premiership window is. While it took longer to get right than in should have, Carlton seem to be on the right track because of the young guns they have pulled out of the draft and put on the field. 11 players of their best 22 were drafted in the last 6 years and at least 9 of those players look to have cemented their positions in the side for the next decade if they can keep up their current level of development. While many predicted it would be this year that they rise up the ladder, after plenty of microwaved memberships, it appears that Carlton will be well and truly knocking on the door of the eight from season 2019. But does purely rebuilding through the draft take to long?

The senior coach is of course the most important position at any footy club, and while it will pain many footy fans to believe, Alistair Clarkson is comprehensively the best coach in the game at the moment as well as being one of the best coaches the game has ever seen. Unless you are a Hawthorn supporter, you love to hate the Hawks, none of this ‘second favourite team’ rubbish. As much as it hurts to admit however, they are certainly one of the team to beat in 2018. It is also surprising to many, given the recent stars that have vacated Hawthorn such as Luke Hodge, Jordan Lewis and Josh Gibson, among others.  This, and coupled with the fact that the Hawks only have two, maybe three players that would be in contention for an all Australian spot in Tom Mitchell, Jarryd Roughead and Shaun Burgoyne. James Sicily is developing into a solid general of the Hawthorn defense but is not quite there yet, Ben Stratton is a hugely underrated lockdown defender although he provides little offensively, and Isaac Smith could run all day but is hardly considered an elite player. They are in a relatively similar place list-wise to what a team such as St Kilda or North Melbourne find themselves in, with plenty of experience on the list but few players who could be considered stars of the game. The difference between these teams is Clarkson compared to the other coaches.

A footy mastermind.
Credit: Herald Sun

So is the coach possibly the biggest factor in a club rebuild? Despite the draft and free agency often looked at as the two keys to the success of a rebuild, has Hawthorn proven to the footy world that a very good coach is perhaps the only thing that’s needed? Is only one year out of the eight enough to be considered a rebuild? From what Hawthorn have demonstrated over the last 18 months, the answer could well be yes to all three of those questions, despite what we think we know from all the rebuilds that we’ve seen. Clarskon’s game style built on everyone playing their role has rejuvenated what outsiders perceived to be a stale club leading into the 2017 season, and could be what clubs like St Kilda should really look to adopt, due to their lack of superstars on the field.

Despite Isaac Smith unfortunately costing the Hawks a birth in the preliminary final and making Geelong fans the happiest they’d been since their emotional premiership against Collingwood in 2011, the Hawks looked primed to still be there about in 2017. But then came what was one of the bravest, fearful, smartest, stupidest decision ever made in a football club, depending who you ask. He began to rebuild the club while their premiership window was still wide open and well before they needed a rebuild, certainly a challenging concept for other coaches to consider. Alistair Clarkson’s call to move on Jordan Lewis and Sam Mitchell, and from all reports it was completely his call, was unprecedented and dominate the headlines of the footy world for a considerable period of time. After all that, with the Hawks top 8 bound in 2018, after focusing much of their 2017 efforts on this current season, we’re getting closer and closer to saying it was a good call. Not necessarily the right call, but certainly a good call.

The Jury is still out on whether moving these two on was the right call.

Geelong was also in a similar scenario after the 2015 premiership season, after finishing 10th and missing the eight for the first time in nine years. The hierarchy at Geelong then had the option of taking the road taken by clubs such as Carlton and Melbourne, and knuckle down for a long 6-8 year rebuild by completely rejuvenating a stagnant list through a reliance on the draft. Instead however, they made the same decision made by the Hawks exactly two years later, and set the season up as a full tilt at the premiership by shedding a decent degree of experience in Steve Johnson, Matthew Stokes and James Kelly, and charging head first into the trade period, eventually emerging triumphant with Stephen Wells holding the signature of prized recruit Patrick Dangerfield. Just like Hawthorn, while many expected a slide down the ladder, instead they were able rise back to the top four, after just one year out of the eight.

North Melbourne are also another club looking to follow the Hawthorn blueprint for rebuild success, after losing a huge wealth of at the end of 2016 through the delisting of club legends Brent Harvey, Drew Petrie, Michael Firrito and Nick Dal Santo, before they really needed to do it and while the club had still finished inside the top eight the previous season. Like Hawthorn and unlike Geelong, this led to a season where the Roos were stuck lamenting at the bottom of the ladder, and while it’s too early to tell this year, it appears that the few superstars in Ben Brown and Robbie Tarrant are being very well supported with a team that features plenty of level headed experience with a large injection of youth, the model that seems to be working so well at the moment.

Ben Brown’s form has been a Barometer for North Melbourne so far this season(Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

The optimism these three teams have created for the future is surprising, considering is looked like they might be headed for an extended stay towards the bottom of the ladder while rebuilding through youth from the draft. But that is not the way they went, and maybe the way Carlton should not have gone?

Does this mean that the way a rebuild is carried out should change then? While it is harsh on senior players who have given terrific service for their club and probably deserve to go out on their own terms, it does seem to be working. Contrary to what these teams have proposed, Carlton rebuilt almost exclusively through the draft, and haven’t gone after a famed “big fish” in the recent trade periods gone by. While playing youth now will of course hold the club in good stead for the next 10-15 years, with the likes of Charlie Curnow, Sam Petrevski-Seton and Zac Fisher among many others about to break out, it has significantly cost the club. Carlton is one of just a few clubs who’s current member count is actually lower than what it was in 2013, highlighting that the club has gone backwards in that time, and while success will bring back members in their droves, the Blues have been too terrible for too long for this rebuild to be classified a success. Five years out of the eight for a proud club such as Carlton will leave many saying it’s too much in today’s competition, and this should be an indicator to any and all future clubs who experience the inevitable drop in form that 5+ years is too long for a rebuild, and clubs will now know that they cannot rebuild simply through the draft, or risk losing plenty of memberships.

The clubs that have experienced the shorter rebuild period in Geelong and Hawthorn how flawed Carlton’s blueprint is. The replacement of Hodge and Mitchell with Tom Mitchell and Jaeger O’Meara has allowed Hawthorn to remain highly competitive with the rest of the competition, and the inclusion of more experience in Ricky Henderson and Jarman Impey, while not huge names, provide more experience on field and suit Hawthorn’s game style and have allowed them to add youth immediantly to their list, instead of relying on the draft over multiple seasons in what Carlton has done. Geelong also chased the experience that has allowed them to stay relevant for so long in the trade period, where along with Dangerfield, Zac Smith, Scott Selwood, Zach Tuohy and Gary Ablett have all come to the Cattery. Not all these recruits are big names, but they can all provide the on field leadership that teams such as Carlton seem to be lacking currently.

These two are powering Hawthorn back to the eight in 2018.

While Carlton’s drafting has been top notch, and they have a fine coach, which is possibly the most important part, they have continuously failed to make a statement at the draft table, and this is where they have possibly let themselves down. Hawthorn have proven to us how the drafting of young guns in James Siciliy and Daniel Howe in recent years, who are starting to play important roles for the team, a mastermind at the helm in Clarkson and fine additions during the off season, is exactly how you pull of one of the best rebuilds ever seen.

Hawthorn and Geelong have taught us that the playing list can be rebuilt within 1/2 years, while Carlton has proven that more than 5 years is too hefty for a rebuild. North haven’t even been rebuilding for 24 months yet, and with a pretty decent coach in Brad Scott steering the ship through this unfamiliar time, the Roos should soon become the 3rd team in half a decade to have demonstrated how this blueprint has worked in much shorter a period than what was expected, and could become the future ‘normal’ rebuilding time for a club. It’s something even Gil will be very proud of, in his never ending quest for a completely even competition.

Gil would certainly be smiling if a club rebuild only took one season.

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