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Breaking up is hard to do: When clubs should make a player stay and when to let them go

The deal with Neale

When it emerged in August of 2018 that Brisbane were hunting Fremantle midfielder Lachie Neale, the industry handled it in a typical fashion.

“We’re very comfortable where it sits, Lachie’s a fine young man, 25 years of age, been a terrific player for us and got a lot of good footy ahead of him,” then Dockers boss Steve Rosich said at the time.

“He’s contracted to us for 2019 and we’ll remain positive he’ll be contracted to us beyond 2019.”

It is not unusual for clubs to take such a position publicly about a contracted player. But sources inside Fremantle indicated there was concern about Neale’s future.

Neale, a winner of two of the last three Doig Medals, was earning just over $500,000 per season. Nat Fyfe was earning over $1 million.

This is not to say that Neale left for money. Far from it. Fremantle would have, and in fact did, offer him considerably more money than he was on to stay.

But his contract situation had opened the door for a club like Brisbane to stalk its prey.

Lions coach Chris Fagan, football manager David Noble and list manager Dom Ambrogio wanted another gun midfielder. They had the money and contact was made early in the year.

A clandestine trip to Queensland to meet the coach and see their new surroundings sealed the deal.

By the time Neale walked into Rosich’s office to ask for a trade, he had mentally checked out of Fremantle.

Could the Dockers have forced him to stay? Technically. He was contracted for 2019. But practically and realistically, there was no going back.

What about Joe Daniher?

A different situation, entirely. Daniher was very well paid at Essendon. In fact, he was one of the highest-paid players at the club after becoming an All-Australian and best and fairest.

But like Fremantle with Neale, the Bombers were completely blindsided by Daniher’s meeting with Sydney boss Tom Harley.

Essendon initially laughed off any speculation, stating Daniher and Harley were simply old friends catching up for a coffee.

Joe Daniher moved to Brisbane this off-season as a free agent.

Joe Daniher moved to Brisbane this off-season as a free agent.Credit:Getty Images

The club began briefing its Bomber brigade in an attempt to hose down any talk of a trade.

Deny, deny, deny.

We all know what has happened since. Daniher asked to be traded to Sydney and despite the Swans offering an extremely good deal, Essendon wouldn’t budge.

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Sydney’s final offer to Essendon was pick nine and a future first-round pick. Technically, the Swans didn’t actually have pick nine yet – they were waiting to get it from Carlton in exchange for Tom Papley.

But had the Bombers accepted the deal, they would’ve received picks nine and three.

Picks nine and three for a man who had played 11 games in the last two seasons, kicking 15 goals.

The decision to keep him involves more people than just Bombers list manager Adrian Dodoro. Dodoro had to have been advised to keep Daniher, based on an anticipation the club would fix his injury and the risk of letting go a star player and watching him flourish elsewhere.

They didn’t. Daniher played four more games and then walked to Brisbane as a free agent. Essendon received pick seven as compensation.

It is true that everything is easier in hindsight, but given the prestige in which the Daniher name is held at Essendon, the optics of the club holding him against his will were poor. The Bombers should have moved him on and cashed in last year.

Then there’s Josh Dunkley.

As Brisbane did with Neale, the Bombers have spent some time planning to dig out Dunkley from the Dogs.

A premiership player and proven midfielder, Dunkley has expressed his frustration with his lack of time in the middle this season.

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He did, after all, have a brilliant season in 2019, polling 15 Brownlow votes and finishing second to Marcus Bontempelli in the Charles Sutton Medal.

Essendon have offered significantly more money, a long-term deal and the promise of being a starting midfielder week in, week out.

It’s a smart bit of business from the Bombers.

But Dunkley is 23 and has two years to go on a contract he signed less than 18 months ago.

Yes, he is a good player, but he isn’t proven to the extent Neale was when he left Fremantle.

The Dogs may very well let him go, but they’d have every right to dig their heels in and force him to stay.

He hasn’t had a falling-out with the club and contrary to reports, he’s yet to ask for a trade.

Dunkley’s management won’t allow the player to formally request a trade, without knowing to near certainty that a trade can be achieved.

That is the final and crucial point. Can a deal get done?

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