Leon Cameron coached his last game on Sunday. He choked up as he addressed his players beforehand. He told them he had no silverware, but no regrets. “I’ll tell you the same thing I told you on day one,” he said. ‘She’s on.” But when Carlton slammed on four goals in the first 10 minutes, she was over. Afterwards, Cameron limped through a guard of honour of the league chief executive and both teams. He looked relieved. He looked exhausted. He is nearly 50, and has worked full time in football since he was 16. Coaching was “zapping”, he said. It was time to do something else with his life.

The end of coaching tenures aren’t the savage affairs they used to be. They used to come with years of recrimination and bitterness. Wounds would never be healed. Many men were completely lost to football. These days, they’re cleaner. They’re mutual decisions. The coach isn’t sacked, and doesn’t quit. All parties read which way the wind is blowing. The departing press conference is amicable. Brad Scott’s departure at North Melbourne was in many ways the template, and at times almost felt like a job application.

Cameron’s record was very good. He had lots of injuries and homesick players. But the Giants contended year after year. They were so close in the 2016 preliminary final, narrowly going down in one of the great games of the modern era. They were never really a ‘system’ team, particularly down back. But when they were really humming, they played some exquisite football. At times, it was like watching a flawless training session. They were an uncompromising, hard-nosed, line-pushing lot. In several finals – against Sydney in 2016 and the Bulldogs in 2019 – they brutalised their opposition. They had a knack of winning finals when no one gave them a prayer, most memorably against Collingwood in the 2019 preliminary final. In the dying minutes, they defended like crazy men in the puddles at the Punt Road end. When the siren sounded, the crowd groaned, an almighty brawl broke out in the Olympic Stand, and the Giants celebrated the most significant win in their history to a silent and sullen MCG.

Leon Cameron
Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

But they’ve been paddling this year. They put Adelaide to the sword a fortnight ago, but have otherwise been flat, unconvincing and in desperate need of a reset. Toby Greene’s brain fade in Tasmania last year cost them dearly. Against Geelong in Canberra, Cameron said they were boring. That was the game where he and the club knew it was the end of the road. They came to a mutual agreement. This is an industry, as the Giants boss said, that “death-rides coaches”. But his was a dignified end. The entire playing list, friends and family gathered around him. They’ve always been a club with a purpose, a hard edge and an identifiable brand. A lot of the credit for that should go to Cameron.

In terms of securing a new coach, GWS now has a head-start on the competition. Nathan Buckley ruled himself out on the weekend. Astonishingly, James Hird is seen as a serious contender. But Alastair Clarkson is the name on football’s lips. At times, the obsession with Clarkson can be a bit much. Football history is littered with examples of coaches who were seen as Messiah figures, were lured with bucketloads of cash and didn’t work out. Some believe he lost his way in his final years at Hawthorn, that he gutted the list and their football was at times bordering on unwatchable.

“I’m only coming back for another premiership,” he said this week. He reckons all 18 clubs are capable of winning a flag in the next few years. It’s a big call for anyone who watched Essendon or North Melbourne on the weekend. Essendon, in particular, looked like a team which could use a few Clarkson home truths on Saturday night. They registered a paltry 30 tackles. If he was coaching them, you suspect he’d have them leaping off freezing piers at five in the morning.

Right now, Clarkson is having a whale of a time. He played Jeff Kennett and Hawthorn like a harp. They’re still paying him handsomely to swan around the world – studying, spruiking the game, rubbing shoulders with some of the best coaches in America. He can name his own price at any number of clubs. He has months to figure out what he wants to do, where he wants to live and whose playing list he fancies shipping into shape. A short man, he looms large over the entire competition.