Sport Analysis

Coaching question mark hovers over Hinkley

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AFL Port Adelaide coach Ken Hinkley (Image by Flickerd | Wikimedia Commons)

This year, Port Adelaide's Ken Hinkley became the fourth coach in VFL/AFL history to embark on a tenth season at his club without delivering a flag, writes Ronny Lerner.

TEN YEARS at any workplace is a long time, especially if that workplace is a footy club — and especially if you're the coach.

That period of time seems even longer if you're a coach who is yet to achieve the ultimate success with your club.

Prior to season 2022, only three coaches in VFL/AFL history had embarked on a tenth season at their club without delivering a flag — Neale Daniher (Melbourne), Brad Scott (North Melbourne) and Nathan Buckley (Collingwood).

This year, Port Adelaide's Ken Hinkley became the fourth such coach. And ominously for him, none of his three predecessors saw out their tenth season, sacked before it concluded. Following the Power's start to the year, Hinkley's hot seat has already gone up a few more degrees.

Granted, Port Adelaide put up a good fight in round one against premiership contenders Brisbane at the Gabba, leading by four goals before being overrun by the rampaging Lions. But their second outing was alarming. Returning to the scene of the crime where they blew a golden opportunity to qualify for a grand final last year, the Power turned in an almost identical performance in round two.

After being obliterated by the Western Bulldogs in last year's preliminary final at Adelaide Oval by 12 goals, Port Adelaide, in their very next game at their home ground, got walloped again — this time by 11 goals by an upstart Hawthorn outfit. Capping off this dismal spectacle for the Power faithful was the fact that it was a tribute game for club legend Russell Ebert who passed away in November last year.

The fact that the Power got smashed by the Hawks was symbolic, considering Hawthorn is now being coached by Sam Mitchell after the club's messy separation with Alastair Clarkson who held the reins at Waverley Park for 17 years.

The Hawks finished 14th last year and not too many pundits expected them to avoid a bottom-four finish this year.

And while it's still far too early to say whether Hawthorn will avoid that fate, what cannot be denied is the enthusiasm, excitement and new lease on life that their players (especially the veterans) seem to be enjoying under Mitchell.

As the old saying goes, a change is as good as a holiday. Anecdotally, former AFL players often talk about how listening to the same voice for an extended period of time made them stale.

The Port Adelaide hierarchy – including a visibly despondent chairman David Koch who Channel Seven cameras failed to miss during his team's pummeling – no doubt would've looked on thinking that maybe there is some merit to following in the footsteps of the very team tearing their team to shreds in front of their faces.

And Hawthorn isn't the only team experiencing a "sugar hit" at the start of this year following a coaching change. Like the Hawks, Collingwood finds itself 2-0 under new mentor Craig McRae who is Buckley's full-time replacement.

Granted, the Magpies have had a softer start to the season than the Hawks, with wins against 2021 bottom-ten sides St Kilda and Adelaide, but it's the way they're going about it that is bringing big smiles to the faces of supporters and club staff alike.

They've adopted an exciting and bold game plan under McRae – in stark contrast to the one that Buckley had been employing – and so far the players, including the veterans who were at the club for the duration of the Buckley decade, are responding.

And to a lesser extent, Carlton has also hit the ground running with a coaching change. Under Michael Voss, the Blues are 2-0 for the first time in a decade, with wins against modern powerhouse Richmond and reigning grand finalist Western Bulldogs already under their belts

But Carlton is a different case to Hawthorn and Collingwood because the latter two clubs had only just parted ways with long-term coaches last year.

The Power hierarchy must be looking on at what's happening at Hawthorn and Collingwood and pondering what could be at their own club, especially with all the talent they still have on their list.

Hinkley has done a solid job at the Power, leading them to three preliminary finals, but on the flip side of that, they became the first non-Victorian club in VFL/AFL history to lose back-to-back home preliminary finals in the last two years.

When you consider that the Power were one of the least impacted clubs by the pandemic – getting to stay at home largely throughout the 2020 and 2021 seasons while many of their fellow premiership contenders were uprooted and forced on the road for extended periods – they really should have made at least one grand final. It was all set up for them, but they failed to capitalise.

Hinkley is contracted until the end of 2023, but it's not unusual for a coach to part ways with his club with a year to run. And with the Power in their premiership window, if things don't start turning around – beginning with a crunch showdown against arch-rivals Adelaide on Friday night – the Port Adelaide board might conclude that a fresh voice is also what is required down at Alberton as they chase their second AFL flag.

Ronny Lerner has been a sports and music journalist/editor since 2006. Follow Ronny on Twitter @RonnyLerner.

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