In 2002 then-Brisbane Lions coach Leigh Matthews, frustrated at the prospect of his club losing its premier 1998 draft pick Des Headland to Fremantle, lashed out not at his departing player, but at the AFL – with a warning.
“We cannot survive as merely a developer of young talent which, when developed into top-grade players, are then induced to go home,” Matthews said.
“If every one of our young players who comes up here for a couple of years, we develop them and they go home, quite clearly our club is consigned to the bottom of the heap.”
Fast forward to 2014, with the Lions sitting at the bottom of the ladder after a crushing loss to Fremantle in which they kicked just three goals and had only 17 entries inside their attacking zone for the match, and Matthews’ words look prescient.
Supporter group The Lions’ Roar today has a graphic showing that since 1996,the Lions have lost more than half of their first-round draft picks since 1996 – 10 out of 19 – to “homesickness”. The beneficiaries of the go-home factor have been mostly powerful Victorian clubs – Carlton, Collingwood and Geelong.
It’s a staggering figure, even allowing for the fact that four of those – Jared Polec, Billy Longer, Sam Docherty and Patrick Karnezis – chose to leave at the end of last year during a particularly difficult time for the club. The Lions also lost a second-round pick, Elliott Yeo, to the Eagles.
The Lions, so dominant between 2001 and 2004, shape as the AFL’s forgotten pride, and Queensland its lost frontier.
Brisbane lost its retention allowance at the end of 2003, not least due to pressure from Eddie McGuire, after the Collingwood was thrashed in the decider for the third of the Lions’ famous “three-peat”. Concessions to the club were deemed no longer required.
Yet the Gold Coast Suns, Greater Western Sydney and the Sydney Swans all have their retention allowances. GWS already has lost two players going home, Dom Tyson and Taylor Adams. The Suns have lost Josh Caddy.
Now McGuire is complaining about NSW and Queensland having priority access to the kids they develop in their own football academies. Collingwood has drafted the equal most players from those academies of any club, three versus the Lions' one. They were Jarrod Witts, Trent Stubbs and Tom Young.
Contrary to expectations, the Lions’ hegemony in the early part of the noughties has not led to an upsurge in AFL talent from the northern states. Just four players have been drafted from Queensland since 2010. The average pick used for them is in the 70s.
Of draftees between 2011 and 2013, only 3 percent came from NSW, Queensland and the Northern Territory combined. Just 15 percent of players on the Lions’ senior list are local.
Matthews, who has returned to the Lions as a board director in arguably their hour of greatest need, had a blunt reminder for the AFL, 12 years after his comments regarding the loss of Headland.
“I think one of the things that the AFL in Melbourne have failed to realise is that the four northern-states clubs are all expansion clubs, and at different periods of their evolution they will be more self-sufficient than others, financially and on the field,” Matthews said.
“They’re always going to be expansion clubs, because the northern states in the foreseeable future are going to be outside the AFL heartland, and any thought that we’re going to take over from [rugby] league and [rugby] union is just ridiculous.
“People who live in the AFL heartland don’t understand what it’s like in NSW and Queensland. They think they do, but they don’t really.”