AT THE outset of its search for yet another coach, a fourth in four years, North Melbourne will engage exclusively with Alastair Clarkson.
That process has effectively started. Kangaroos chair Sonja Hood spent 10 minutes with Clarkson's manager James Henderson in Hobart last Sunday – as the Roos were losing their 16th match of the 2022 season and 34th of the past 40 – against Hawthorn at Blundstone Arena.
Henderson was there as a guest of Cricket Tasmania, and seated in the main function room alongside two former Australian cricket captains, Ricky Ponting and Tim Paine.
"I can confirm I had a conversation with North Melbourne in Hobart," Henderson told AFL.com.au on Wednesday.
It is expected Hood, within the next week, will meet with Clarkson – who will have returned to Australia from yet another bucket-list attendance at an international sports event, the British Open won by Cam Smith at the iconic St Andrews – to gauge his 2023 football intents and interests.
No conversation with four-time premiership coach Clarkson is ever a simple one, but North Melbourne will be prepared to hear everything he wants to say about the club at which he began his extraordinary AFL journey as a player in 1987.
Only after the Roos have thrashed out that conversation will they contemplate their next move – to get even more serious with Clarkson, or to begin dialogue with other proven coaching options.
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All other potential candidates for the North job will need to respect that process. If Clarkson is keen, and the Roos are prepared to meet his many and varied demands, then there is an understanding that the job would be his.
Getting to that point is certainly not a given, and it will not be smooth. In Clarkson's eyes, North may simply have too many problems – and may be too broken given it has churned through three coaches (Brad Scott, Rhyce Shaw, David Noble) in four years – for him to take on at this stage of his 54-year-old life.
And Clarkson would, definitely, have people around him demanding that certain North people in current senior positions be removed to make way for people of either his own selection, or at least suggestion. That causes immediate complications on so many levels.
Clarkson churns through chief executive officers. At Hawthorn, he once put Ian Robson up against a wall, made it known to many he wasn't impressed with Tracey Gaudry and by the time the end came for him at Hawthorn late last season, he had had years of frostiness with Justin Reeves.
It would be fair to assume that Clarkson, before he may engage truly meaningfully in talk about a future with the Roos, would have people seek for a watertight commitment from the AFL that a priority NAB AFL Draft pick be granted.
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Having spent 2022 on Hawthorn's money, an overhang of the contracted $1 million he had to coach the Hawks this year, Clarkson is known to be even more edgy than normal. He has loved his time away from the game. But not that he needed evidence, the absence has convinced him he wants back in.
As it stands, albeit with some question marks still hovering over the senior coaching jobs at Port Adelaide and Essendon, there are only two jobs for him to consider.
And the alternative to North, GWS, has taken a very different approach since parting with nine-season coach Leon Cameron. The Giants have engaged in meaningful conversations about their job with at least a half-dozen candidates, who are both tried and untried senior coaches. To this point, Clarkson is merely one of those candidates.
Depending on who one talks to, there could be a form of "distance" between Clarkson and Giants' CEO Dave Matthews, and again depending on which version one chooses to focus on, there are varying takes on who is the driver of that "distance". And whether that actually means anything, anyway, is also debatable.
GWS will conduct a second round of conversations with its candidates from next week. Its process is moving into the formal stages and has, unfortunately for it, gleaned that one of the prominent options for the job has ruled himself out.
The highly respected Ashley Hansen – West Coast premiership player, nine-season assistant coach at Western Bulldogs – now at Carlton under Michael Voss, has made it known that right now for personal reasons he will not be in a position to leave Melbourne. James Hird, working closely with interim coach Mark McVeigh, is also not in the running.
Matthews, general manager of football Jason McCartney and football director Jimmy Bartel have been driving the Giants' coach-search program, and like Collingwood last year, they will be methodically wading through all scenarios with no time limit.
Where North's biggest negatives right now revolve around the degrees of brokenness related to the past four years of poor decision-making, GWS's major problem is the bursting salary cap that is carrying massive contracts with players who may already be past their best, and which will also need to shed at least $800,000 of commitments in the very next trade period.
While Clarkson would seek a massive deal for his signature, there is a ceiling on the number. At North, that number would max out at $1.2 million a year (each club's soft cap will increase from $6.2 to $6.95 million in 2023), and possibly a whole lot less. For context, three-time premiership coach Damien Hardwick's deal sees him earning less than $800,000 in 2022 (before bonuses). Highly credentialled assistant coaches are always required in a successful team's hierarchy, and obviously senior coaches need to take less money in order to have access to high-end assistant coaching intel.
At GWS, Clarkson may get access to more dollars via an AFL ambassador role linked to promotion of the game in the northern states, but there has been no communication of that nature to this point.
At the end of all his discussions and deliberations, Clarkson may simply choose to say thanks but no thanks to both North and GWS, and wait for better options in 2023.
From a North perspective, only then would official approaches be made to Don Pyke, Ross Lyon and Mark Williams, and almost certainly (even though they are contracted for 2023 respectively to West Coast and Port Adelaide) Adam Simpson and Ken Hinkley. The Roos know that after the Shaw and Noble debacles, they need a proven person in the role.
Back to this week. The North Melbourne job is not yet Clarkson's. But right now and for some weeks to come, it will be his to say "no" to.