The Giants knew Dylan Shiel had a propensity to spray some of his (mainly long) kicks, but this was never noticed by the football media – nor the public at large – until he played under the glare of Friday night lights against the Demons and then on Anzac Day.
And Tom Lynch was paid about $2 million over two seasons at Gold Coast when he carried a knee injury and wasn’t terribly productive after a stellar 2016. Yet it wasn’t until he became a Richmond player that he would be described, in Matthew Lloyd’s words earlier this season, as “a liability” to his side.
When Lynch was weighing up his free-agent future, the Suns did indeed warn him that he would face new levels of scrutiny if he left the club and went to a Melbourne club.
Adam Treloar, too, has been criticised for his sometimes shoddy kicking (by this columnist too) since he was a Collingwood player, having evaded that accusation during his formative years with Greater Western Sydney.
In a week when Tom Boyd has walked away from footy and from another $2m or so, it’s worth noting that “the go home factor” – the phrase Leigh Matthews coined many years ago as Lions’ coach – has a flipside that the northern market clubs are peddling to players: “The left alone factor.”
Giants players used to congregate at a pleasant local pub in Concord in Sydney’s west to have a few quiet beers and relax. Not once, from what one can gather, were they hung, drawn and Facebooked by a prying public. The locals wouldn’t have recognised any of them – not even if Toby Greene had danced on the bar.
The Swans have long sold the concept that players will be bothered much less in Sydney, where they can disappear into the background, than in the footy fishbowl of the southern metropolis, Adelaide or Perth.
Tony Lockett was a trailblazer on multiple fronts. One of the most telling subplots of the Lockett story was that, as a Ballarat boy who wanted to be left alone with his greyhounds, he found peace in the relative anonymity of a city that didn’t care much for footy, albeit Plugger, like “Buddy” Franklin, would never be completely ignored.
Boyd wasn’t left alone. His decision to exit the Giants and take an incredible contract from the Bulldogs had all manner of consequences, positive and negative, and it is clear that the scrutiny he faced – from journalists, including this one, and from the media’s bastard child of social media – contributed to his mental health struggles. Who knows how much?
As Steve Coniglio weighs up the offers from GWS, Carlton and Hawthorn, he must know what he’ll be giving up if he wants to play on Broadway. The same applies to Jack Martin, a less proven commodity who’d find that everything from his kicking to his hairstyle would be under forensic examination on Monday nights, in the sports pages and online. The nexus between scrutiny and mental health has been a major focus within AFL lately, the pressures increasing with the advent of the unregulated social media zoo.
Obviously, anyone who departs a club for a very large contract will feel more heat, and the temperature rises if the player leaves one of the northern teams for a Melbourne club. Arguably, it’s hotter in the furnace of the big, blockbuster clubs, although the experiences of Boyd and Jack Watts suggests that geography, draft cost and size of contract – not club – is what counts.
Nathan Buckley chose to be a Collingwood player, rather than a Lion (or Kangaroo), a decision that cost him premierships and brought considerable scorn and schadenfreude. But I’m sure he doesn’t regret his choice, which has been beneficial to his post-playing career and given him the platform to be a statesman.
Buckley and Chris Judd, though, were well-suited to deal with the pressures of joining Collingwood and Carlton as messiahs; that their clubs couldn’t win flags was beyond their control.
Some players will have the right psychological make-up for Broadway, others will be better to ply their trade quietly, far from the madding crowd. The northern teams must locate and retain those players who just want to play with mates, retain some anonymity and get on with their life, without frenzied scrutiny or constant adulation.
The go-home factor and the lure of Broadway remains far more potent than the countering force of the “left alone” lifestyle. GWS have lost an incredible number of players (albeit many to salary cap pressures), the Suns are doing all they can to exercise border control and the Lions have, sensibly, adopted a policy of drafting country Victorians, whose actual home is far from Melbourne.
Michael Voss, like other champions from the north, wouldn’t have minded playing even once before 90,000 on Anzac Day, as his peers Buckley and James Hird routinely did. Ultimately, Voss was sated by team success, which is forever the easiest way to retain and recruit quality players.
Boyd would have lived a different football life had he remained a Giant and not left on a giant contract. Certainly, the cameras would not have followed him to the VFL.
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age. He writes news, commentary and analysis on a variety of other sports.