Ben Hudson played at four clubs, but has finally called it a day.

Ben Hudson played at four clubs, but has finally called it a day. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

''Wise men at their end know dark is right'' is a sentiment for Dylan Thomas and the fortunate few who orchestrate their own retirement. But, more than ever, footballers refuse to go gently into that good night. 

Lenny Hayes is one, yet for the vast majority, Jake King's tongue-in-cheek quip, ''I'm only here because the coach made me retire'', follows them out the door like one last, miserable tagger. It has forever been thus, only now, it's so much harder to imagine a life without all those zeroes.

''If you've been around for 10 years, you're talking about half a million bucks [a year] generally,'' one long-time list manager says. ''It's very rare that a player's agent, who's earning 4 or 5 per cent of half a million, says, 'I reckon it's a great idea that you put your hand up and retire'.''

Glenn Archer,✓ now a director and shareholder with Stride Sports, tries to bring the honesty his football was renowned for to these delicate discussions.

''I take the business hat off,'' Archer says. ''If I was to advise a player to go on when I knew he was shot just so I can get 4 per cent of his wage, that's not the moral thing to do.''

It annoys him that some players go kicking and screaming, bearing a grudge against the club that enabled them to live their dream. ''But sometimes, it doesn't matter what the club does to appease the player: if he thinks he can go around again, he's gunna get the shits.''

Often the retiree's public spin masks in-house indignation. Like the 250-gamer whose coach told him, ''Let's talk about what it would be like if I bring you in here a few rounds [next season] and tell you you're playing in the VFL this week ...'' The player said it would be disrespectful and he wouldn't lower himself. The coach replied, ''Well, that's got to be part of your decision.''

At length he retired, saying he'd realised his time had come.

Chris Scott thinks it's the hardest thing a coach does, that only rarely do the needs of the club mirror the wants of the player. ''If I could take one part out of the job, that would be it,'' Geelong's coach says. Success can make the bind even harder. ''Some of our cases are still pretty raw.''

Clear dialogue is paramount. Another list manager says the conversation should start early, during what the club thinks will be the player's swansong season. When it comes to the crunch, multiple voices must deliver the message.

''It's such an emotive issue. Sometimes a player can walk out the door hearing what they want to hear. 'We can't guarantee you a game next year' can be interpreted as, 'I've just been told I'm no good' or, 'They've just sacked me'.''

If some in the club think the player has more to give but the coach is adamant he's cooked, a united front is required, invariably behind the man who picks the team. ''Once the decision is made, you can't say, 'I voted for you and he didn't'.''

There's no handbook, but even when recommended practice is followed, a slip of the tongue can derail a smooth exit. That Steven Baker's 203-game St Kilda career ended in a stink was seen as apt for a player who missed 28 games through suspension. Baker reflects that it was a simple misunderstanding.

''[Coach] Rossy [Lyon] called me in after round nine or 10 and said, 'We're not going to go with you next year','' Baker recalls of his last season three years ago. He figured ''fair enough'', but keen to eke one more year out of his tired body, he entered into talks with GWS.

''Then before the last game, he [Lyon] came out in front of the whole club and said, 'Steve Baker's retiring from football, he's hanging up the boots.' It was a bit of a surprise. I hadn't talked about retirement. I wanted to play somewhere.''

Baker took to social media, said the Saints had finished him up but he was keen to play on. The club demanded he take the post down, he stood his ground, and on best and fairest night, opted to go to a work function instead.

''I haven't been back since, but not because I was angry or pissed off,'' says Baker. He holds no grudge against Lyon or the Saints. ''I was just happy to get out of there.

''The last couple of years were like groundhog day, I was a bit over the whole footy thing.''

It's salutory that some are never over never over it – even the man who played more games than anyone thought he could have. Michael Tuck finished his 426th appearance in a Hawthorn jumper lifting the 1991 premiership cup – his seventh flag and fourth as captain – but was gutted to be told there wouldn't be a 427th.

This wasn't simply a matter of the next crop deserving its chance, but also a club looking out for a legend.

''We thought it was a great way to go out, without jeopardising one of the most celebrated careers in the history of the game,'' one Hawk staffer said of the time. ''Tucky thought he could go on, but that's what clubs do. Whether they're the right or wrong decisions, they've got to be made.''

Baker is happily having a kick in the Bendigo league with Strathfieldsaye, where his old mate Stephen Milne is peppering the goals.

He doesn't miss the nervous faces that fill AFL change rooms at this time of year. ''There's always half a dozen blokes walking around pretty scared towards the end of the season. They know their head's on the chopping block.''

On very rare occasions, Scott says, a club will talk a reluctant player into going on. For this to happen multiple times is ridiculous, but then there's Ben Hudson.

A physiotherapist who became an Adelaide Crow at 25 and then a Western Bulldog, he sniffed the breeze when Rodney Eade was sacked, packed up his young family and headed home to Queensland, only to be lured into a one-year deal at Brisbane.

Looking forward to retirement the second time around, he was drafted by Collingwood, where one season turned into two.

''I think I kept playing more for the thrill of others; people saying, 'You should just keep going, it'd be funny','' says Hudson, who also coaches the Magpies' young ruckmen and reckons he's been ''a part-time footballer'' for the past two years.

He acknowledges that he is a rare case; that not having a ''Whack, it's over!'' ending has softened the blow. Yet he knows he'll pine for the gap in his life when pre-season arrives and he's not preparing to go around again.

Now 34 and recovering from season-ending shoulder surgery, Hudson swears this time it's for real. ''But if there's any whispers around the traps that someone's after an elderly ruckman with one arm who could come good ...''