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Torn free

Essendon's Sam Lonergan is still a chance to be picked up by another club, but it's very precarious.

Essendon's Sam Lonergan is still a chance to be picked up by another club, but it's very precarious. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

SAM LONERGAN is 25 and without a contract for next year. No one is talking about what might become of him.

He isn't quick like Alwyn Davey, who has been offered one year by the Bombers. He isn't tall like the star-crossed Scott Gumbleton, who has also been offered a one-year extension. He doesn't kick the ball vast distances, doesn't have a fancy sidestep.

But Sam's hard. He puts his squat frame in the hurly-burly of midfield trenches. He's a football version of one of those stoic soldiers from Saving Private Ryan or another American war movie, in which humble kids from small towns bleed for their mates, salute their commanding officer and never complain about their lot as they trudge through mud.

Lonergan has played 79 games since 2006. Fittingly, he was among Essendon's best on Anzac Day, when prime movers Jobe Watson and Brent Stanton were missing in action. Last year, his career appeared to be finally established when he hurt his knee and missed the last nine games; this year, he managed 14, but seemed to fall from favour late in the season.

Essendon has just acquired Brendon Goddard, the most accomplished free agent to change clubs. The Bombers are determined to bring more white-collar class to a King Gee midfield. Lonergan, the apotheosis of blue-collar in the AFL, is therefore expendable.

The Bombers are in no hurry to re-sign him, Ricky Dyson, Brent Prismall, Henry Slattery or the talented but flighty Kyle Reimers. Gumbleton might go or stay, but he will play somewhere in 2013. Davey will get a year, too - probably at Windy Hill. David Myers and Leroy Jetta did enough to receive two-year contracts.

Lonergan is still a chance to be picked up by another club, but it's very precarious. He's been at Essendon seven years, not the required eight, to earn him his freedom. He will only be unchained if he's discarded, at which point every player becomes ''a free agent'', in the same way that guys standing on the corner with signs saying ''work wanted'' are free agents.

Ricky Petterd is in a similar position at Melbourne. A more gifted footballer than Lonergan, he's also brave, having almost died when his lung collapsed in his ninth senior game. Like fellow Demons Matthew Bate, Neville Jetta, Lucas Cook, Liam Jurrah, James Sellar and Clint Bartram, he's yet to be offered a contract for next year. Lynden Dunn is blessed to be in negotiations for one, while Jared Rivers will get a pretty penny from another club (Geelong most likely).

Rivers has currency, Petterd does not. In the new economy, Rivers, a good third man in defence, has the right skills.

Why are so many Dons and Demons in limbo? Each individual case is different, but the upshot is that just as players have greater freedom and flexibility in this new system, so do the clubs. The clubs will sign the players they cannot afford to lose first, and then cast the net to see who's available, before they decide whether the Lonergans and Petterds are surplus to requirements.

Previously, the clubs couldn't be quite so cavalier about foot soldiers. There mightn't be enough depth on the senior list to risk private Lonergan decamping to another club. But, in the new order, they can shop around; they don't have to worry about a messy trade. They can go down to the corner and pick up a willing worker.

''Be careful what you wish for players,'' was the comment of one senior club official, noting how the mid-range and lower-end player - especially those in their mid-20s like Lonergan, Petterd and Bate - have become more insecure in their employment. They no longer have to be traded to get to another club if they're unwanted. But equally, their clubs are taking advantage of this newly flexible labour force - they can replace one Lonergan with another of his ilk, if they wish - and are keeping their options open.

One day, you might be in the second midfield rotation at Essendon. The next, you'll be temping at the Saints, on a one-year contract for $120,000 plus match payments.

Freedom in the labour market is a two-way street. As one player manager noted yesterday, perhaps 10 per cent of seasoned players were in limbo in years past; today, it's more like 20. The AFL workforce is becoming more mobile, the clubs more brutal. The sheer length of this trade and free agency period - it's almost a month long - has encouraged clubs to keep larger numbers of players in a state of uncertainty.

''We might want you, son. Or we might need a back-up ruckman. There's only a few spots on the list left. We'll let you know by October 31. You can keep training with us, if you want, and we'll pay you the minimum weekly training fee - think it's about $650 - but you can look around, see if there's any nibbles. Port might be interested.''

The new, freer market for players is fairer in the sense that it gives a fair accurate measure of what a player is worth. Previously, Chris Judd and Barry Hall could determine where they would go - the high demand for their services meant they could force a trade to their preferred club. As the players' association observes, free agency allows this freedom to lesser players, who are no longer as reliant on the negotiating skills/failures or unrealistic stances and draft greed (''we will only accept a first-round pick'') of clubs.

The players have never been so free to choose their own destiny, without interference, intransigence and regulation.

But so are the bosses.

20 comments so far

  • This is all a bit precious. As much as I love my footy, and as much as I understand the effort it takes to play senior footy, it is in the end, a form of manual labour played for half a year and for only 2 hours each week. From football some players will become rich. Rich enough to live well, if they are not stupid, for the rest of their lives. Some, who go on to coach or into the media will become very rich. Lotto rich. This is not the era when footballers played for pocket money and often left the games with injuries that cost them more over their lives than they ever got from the game. This is an era when even a peripheral squad member, if he is retained for more than a few years, will have had his house paid for by the game, while the rest of us are taking decades. Not saying they don't deserve the money, but asking for my sympathy as well? Pull the other one Jake.

    Craig More
    Date and time
    October 14, 2012, 1:06AM
    • it wasn't the Sam Lonergan's of the world who wanted free agency.

      the moon
      Date and time
      October 14, 2012, 1:38AM
      • Good article Jake you have told the story well. But a lot of these guys will still get contracts but maybe not be as long as the past. Take Essendon. They aren't going to be using their last few draft picks on unknowns (they are in the 100s) before signing Lonergan and the likes. You're points are valid but I do like the new rules. Need some refinement still. Free agency should mean free. Not compensation picks to clubs where guys leave. Come on!

        Date and time
        October 14, 2012, 2:43AM
        • Good article Jake. I wonder if it will lead to young players (in final year of contract)demanding big contract extensions after a big year? They may think well i may not have a year like that again so tie me up for longer or I walk to the draft. Final yearof contract is going to become mre contentious as happens in american sports.

          Date and time
          October 14, 2012, 8:19AM
          • Two facts you seem to have "forgotten" to mention:
            - Liam Jurrah has quit the club.
            -Jared Rivers has a contract offer from Melbourne on the table and is choosing to look to other clubs (presumably Geelong) for other offers.

            Date and time
            October 14, 2012, 8:40AM
            • Free trade sounds just great but the reality is that very few will benefit and a lot will suffer in one way or another. I am old enough to remember when it was rare for a player to move to another club. Those were the days when there were no zones and most players played for the team they had followed since they were little kids. There was this quaint old thing called loyalty, a word that has simply become a thing of the past in the football world. The game is now a business and it is dominated by big money and big interests. Scruples and ethics are laughed at as old fashioned and out of place by most of those who are now in charge so it is no wonder that they have finally ended up with free trade. The big question is whether this great game is any better for the changes that have taken place? I don't think it is but then why should anyone pay any attention to what one longtime fan thinks. People like me who make up the crowds who watch the game each week are not even on the radar of those who are running this big "business".

              Date and time
              October 14, 2012, 9:40AM
              • "Free trade sounds just great but the reality is that very few will benefit and a lot will suffer"

                Completely wrong. Players win because they get to play where they want. Clubs win because they get the player they want. And even if a star walks out you have more salary cap room to chase a guy who wants to be there. You say loyalty is dead but 5-10 players get delisted from every club every year. yet it's rare to lose more than one player during trade/free agency unless the club is a basket case who doesn't look after players.

                Date and time
                October 15, 2012, 4:10PM
            • This is the bloke all the essendon faithfull thought was great and a hero after breaking carrazzo's shoulder.What you have dumped him now went out and Bought goddard surplus to your needs now,dont think Brendan has it in him for dog acts tho .Oh well typical weak effort from Essendon i suppose you supporters are used to that by now

              Date and time
              October 14, 2012, 10:56AM
              • Great article Jake. Finally got it right on the money for a change. Yep the players asked for it, but unfortnately the 'system' only favours the top bracket. Those who are unwanted by other clubs dont get any say at all! As you rightly assessed, that includes upwards of 20% of all lists, I'd say the real number may be even closer to 25% pushing up to 30% in the next few years. Better the devil you know HeY! FWIW. I wouldnt mind Lonergan & Petterd at Hawthorn. God knows we need a good tagger, as evidenced in the GF when O'Keefe & Hannebery got off the chain! Go get em Hawks!

                Date and time
                October 14, 2012, 11:28AM
                • Job security, loyalty. Three words missing from the modern AFL dictionary.

                  Date and time
                  October 14, 2012, 11:53AM

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