Alastair Clarkson and Ross Lyon. Pictures: AFL Photos

IT WAS late August 2022 when North Melbourne confirmed its move, and late October the same year when St Kilda followed.

The two struggling football clubs made dramatic, desperate calls at the top, going all-chips-in on proven senior coaches with long-established connections to their operations, the Roos handing control to Alastair Clarkson and the Saints to Ross Lyon.

Both organisations were convinced the decisions would drastically improve performance. But a season and a half into those arrangements, little has changed, and worryingly, the explosion of excitement in supporters at the times of the signings has reverted to the too-normal states of doom, gloom and apathy.


Clarkson and Lyon were never going to fix their broken clubs inside two years, but their experiences in 2023 and 2024 have proven forever that a coach is only as good as the players on his list.

While there are good footballers at North Melbourne and St Kilda, as well as some younger players who may develop into outstanding ones, neither club has anyone who obviously resembles Lance Franklin, Nick Riewoldt, Luke Hodge, Lenny Hayes, Sam Mitchell, Matthew Pavlich, Jarryd Roughead and Nat Fyfe, players who helped Clarkson and Lyon reach their lofty coaching statuses.

Ross Lyon and Nat Fyfe before Fremantle's clash with North Melbourne in round five, 2017. Picture: AFL Photos

One can only imagine what Clarkson has endured privately since allegations of racism were levelled against him, and made public in September 2022, by First Nations players he had coached at Hawthorn. That issue is yet to have a legal line drawn under it, and only this week was terminated by the Australian Human Rights Commission, leaving open the possibility of a hearing in the Federal Court.

The stresses attached to it saw Clarkson miss 10 matches of the 2023 season, meaning while the club has won three and lost 31 matches since he was appointed coach, his personal record in charge is 3-21.

North Melbourne has conceded 100 points in all 11 matches this year and has a percentage of 55.9. It is in as big a mess now as at any stage of the past five seasons. In 2020, after North had exited Brad Scott as coach and replaced him with Rhyce Shaw, it won three matches. Shaw barely lasted the season before he too was replaced by David Noble, who was sacked a season and a half later. In 2021, the Roos had four wins and a draw, and in 2022, won just two matches with a percentage even lower than this year's.

The Roos' obsession with securing four-time premiership coach Clarkson was understandable, and while club officials will argue strongly that internally Clarkson's imprint has been significantly positive across all operations, there is no way of spinning what is a dramatic failure, to this point, in his main area of responsibility.

The St Kilda story post late-2022 has been more positive. A finals appearance last year was a very good outcome, but Brett Ratten, who was humiliatingly sacked by the Saints board just 100 days after being re-signed to make way for Lyon, oversaw an elimination final win in 2020.

Like Clarkson at North, Lyon doesn't have a lot to work with at St Kilda. His midfield is mostly bland, he needs a key defender, his forward line is inconsistent. Teams coached by the defensively focused Lyon traditionally don't score heavily, and this current Saints team has reached 100 points just once in 2024 – against, of course, North Melbourne. After 11 rounds, the Saints sit 15th, at 3-8.

There were myriad reasons behind the decisions of Clarkson and Lyon to accept their current roles, with past connections to the clubs being among their rationale. Clarkson played with North Melbourne from 1987-95; Lyon coached the Saints to the 2009 and 2010 Grand Finals.

Lyon also steered Fremantle to the 2013 Grand Final, which he lost to Clarkson's Hawthorn, when both coaches had access to some of the AFL's greatest-ever talent.

Alastair Clarkson and Ross Lyon shake hands after Hawthorn's win over Fremantle in the 2013 Grand Final. Picture: AFL Photos

Clarkson is as competitive a person as anyone in the club's history. But so too were Mick Malthouse and Denis Pagan. And as storied as their coaching talents will forever be regarded, Malthouse and Pagan's respective stints at Carlton left sizeable dints on both their ego and legacy.

Ratten has coincidentally emerged as a link in all of this. He coached the Blues in between Pagan and Malthouse. He coached the Saints before Lyon. He filled in for Clarkson last year at North, and is now working under Sam Mitchell, whose elevation at Hawthorn led to Clarkson's exit after 17 seasons.

Clarkson and Lyon are realists, and both knew in late 2022 that they were entering daunting situations.

One common reality is, though, that their clubs under their watch have not become better. And that improvement, if it is to come, will not be seen anytime soon.