THIS time last year, Brett Ratten was preparing to plant 3000 Japanese Maple Trees on a mate's farm with a Ryobi Bluetooth radio for company after St Kilda made the stunning decision to sack him as senior coach, just three months after re-signing him for two more seasons.
Ratten planted every single one of them before joining Alastair Clarkson's football department at Arden Street at the end of November. Life has tossed up more change since then. The three-day per week gig he signed up for at North Melbourne became much more when he stepped up as caretaker coach for 10 weeks midway through the season.
Now the 52-year-old is getting his hands dirty again. He has been back on the farm, planting another 3000 Japanese Maple Trees. Collingwood great and veteran ruck coach Damian Monkhorst stopped by the other day to lend a critical eye. Next week the landscape gardener-turned-career coach returns to Waverley Park to officially start a second stint.
The last time Ratten joined Hawthorn was in the months after Carlton sacked him less than 12 months after the Blues great led the club to an elimination final win in 2011, despite having a year to run on his contract.
Chris Fagan was Hawthorn's head of coaching – before he became Hawks GM and then Brisbane senior coach – at the time and signed him as an assistant coach. The pair worked together as assistant coaches at Melbourne in 2004, back when the Demons were based out of a crumbling, dimly lit base at the Junction Oval. Fagan rated him, wanted him, and got him.
More than a decade on, the Victorian who played 255 games and has coached 198 games at the highest level is about to start a new chapter at the Hawks as head of coaching and development, joining a coaching panel that he has deep connections to.
Senior coach Sam Mitchell and midfield coach David Hale played in the famous three-peat between 2013 and 2015 when Ratten was an assistant coach. Head of football Rob McCartney was head of development at the time. Ratten played with assistant coach Adrian Hickmott at Carlton and coached backline coach Kade Simpson at Princes Park.
"This was the role I was looking for. The part of being a line coach again didn't appeal as much. I've done that before – and for a long time – so to help players and coaches and manage people, that's the bit that interests me," Ratten told AFL.com.au at Waverley Park this week.
"The role is about supporting the coaches and help guide them and be the one they can lean on Monday to Friday to help take some of the load off Sam and Rob. I'll work really closely with the coaches and the IT department as well, making sure we are getting everything right with their growth.
"Coaching is not just a one-man show. Coaching has become much more than that. It is hard to be there for everybody as the senior coach, so most clubs are looking at this setup now. The part I don't want to lose is coaching as well. I still want to get my hands dirty."
Ratten could have stayed at North Melbourne. Other clubs asked the question of the former Carlton and St Kilda senior coach. But he chose Hawthorn because of the position and the direction of a club building from the bottom up through a commitment to youth.
"The role was a significant part to it and where the club is going," Ratten said. "They are still developing as a team. The finish to the season was very encouraging. Will they continue that? That's the challenge. When I walk around the place there is 30 or 40 per cent of staff still here, so that is great. Probably 10 players are still here. I had a meeting with Rob, I had a meeting with Sam, and it just felt right, it just felt like a great fit."
It has been nearly 35 years since a teenager from Yarra Glen arrived at Carlton for pre-season training for the first time and would eventually depart as a Hall of Famer after captaining the club, winning three best and fairests, two All-Australian selections and a premiership in 1995.
The next phase started at Melbourne under Neale Daniher in 2004 and then involved two seasons as coach of Norwood in the Eastern Football League, before returning to Carlton as an assistant coach in 2007. When Denis Pagan was sacked with six rounds to go, Ratten became interim coach – the first of three stints in the role – before spending five years at the helm.
Six seasons at Hawthorn during the Clarkson era followed before Ratten joined St Kilda at the end of 2018 as an assistant coach, stepping up as caretaker coach when Alan Richardson resigned midway through the following season. After three full seasons as the Saints' senior coach and 10 games in charge of the Kangaroos in 2023, Ratten believes his time in the driver's seat is finally over.
"I think I'm done with it. This is the next phase for me. The game can spit out anyone at any time and where you fit in the game can be questioned. This is another stage for me," he said, knowing that he thought the same thing this time last year.
"I enjoy being around people and enjoy helping people, so this feels like the next progression for me. Where does it lead to? I'm not sure. But you go from senior coaching and you have a bit more left. I'm looking forward to being more of a support person for the senior coach and other people in the footy department."
Ratten knew Mitchell was going to be a senior coach when he was last making the 25-minute commute from home to Waverley Park on a daily basis. It was clear in everything he did as a player, Monday to Friday, away from the club, and on weekends in winter. He has enjoyed watching the four-time premiership player make an impressive start to life as a senior coach across the past two years, amid a challenging handover and savage list reset.
After three weeks travelling from the bottom of Vietnam to the top, starting at Ho Chi Minh City and climbing up via Hoi An to Ha Long Bay and ending in Hanoi, Ratten has had the opportunity to reflect on everything that has transpired since St Kilda CEO Simon Lethlean and president Andrew Bassat summoned him to a board meeting at RSEA Park in October year.
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"It's good I've had a decent break before I start this role," he said as he finished his long black. "Because it has allowed me to reflect a bit on the last 12 months but take a bit of time to reenergise before getting into this. I've moved on from what has happened [in the past 12 months] and ready to tackle this new challenge. I can't wait to get started."
There are more Japanese Maple Trees to come, plus a renovation at home. Ratten likes getting his hands dirty. Now he is back at Hawthorn and ready to get to work.