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.