AFL

Jonathan Simpkin: after the final siren

For all that a football off-season heralds regeneration and recycling, removal is a grim reality that visits battlers and premiership players alike. While the latest crop of newcomers are fawned over, the last you hear of many who've been spat out the other end is a mention in the annual delistings column.

Jonathan Simpkin had seen the writing on the wall. He played just one game for Hawthorn in 2015, and in a mid-season sit-down with coach Alastair Clarkson and football manager Chris Fagan, a foreboding message was delivered: "When we get a chance to play someone we've probably got to play a younger guy ahead of you," he was told, "even though you probably still deserve to be playing."

Jonathan Simpkin, Hawthorn premiership footballer who was delisted at the end of the season.
Jonathan Simpkin, Hawthorn premiership footballer who was delisted at the end of the season.  Photo: Simon O'Dwyer

Yet on the morning of the hat-trick-winning Hawks' best-and-fairest night, the 28-year-old's manager received word from the club indicating that they were keen to keep him. A fortnight later Clarkson asked if they could catch up. Good news doesn't need to be delivered in person; he knew what was coming.

Simpkin and partner Harriet are both from Colac, and with five-month-old son Alfie had vacated their Hampton home to spend the holidays drifting between their parents' houses, mixing bonding with invaluable help for first-time parents. He arranged to meet Hawthorn's coach halfway, on the waterfront in Geelong.

Simpkin (right) with Hawk skipper Luke Hodge after the 2013 grand final.
AFL clubs are seeking more money from the broadcast rights deal. Photo: Pat Scala

"We sat down, had a beer, a casual chat, it was pretty cruisy," he says of the end. "It wasn't an easy chat, but it all went pretty well."

Clarkson told Simpkin he didn't want to put him through another year of playing largely for Box Hill when he deserved better. It warmed him to be told he'd always be welcome at Hawthorn, forever part of its history, a premiership player. "That's something I walked away feeling pretty special about."

Harriet and Alfie returned from a bayside stroll, Clarkson greeted them, "had a bit of a cuddle with the little fella", shook Simpkin's hand, and that most particular of bonds - between coach and player - was over.

A few days later Simpkin drove from Colac to Mulgrave, to the football club he could no longer call his, deliberately arriving after the working day was done. "I probably wasn't too keen on running into people at the time." 

He filled a garbage bag with the contents of his locker - boots, runners, a footballer's paraphernalia - left a few messages for teammates who'd just become exes - handwritten, fixed to the inside of their locker doors - took one last look around, and left. "Yeah, it was a bit emotional."

There was no time to wallow. The national and rookie drafts were drawing near, so he threw himself into the off-season program he'd been given by Hawthorn when his future was still unknown. When interest from several AFL clubs amounted to nothing, the wheel instantly turned; from selling himself as a player with something still to offer, he was suddenly swamped by lower-level clubs spruiking what they could offer him.

"You're just hoping a club picks you, and then you've got to pick a club. It's a bit weird."

His options range from several VFL outfits - headed by Box Hill, whose best and fairest he won in 2015 - to Melbourne metro, interstate and country clubs. The familiarity of the VFL is double-edged - he dominates at the level but knows it requires AFL-like commitment, training several nights a week and playing up to 10 Sunday games a year. He'll be adding a "real" job to the mix, too.

Suitors are offering money, and moreover work opportunities. Colac is tugging at his heart strings; brother Lachie plays there, and coach and former Geelong forward Paul Lynch likes the prospect of expanding from one Simpkin to three, adding "Joffy" and brother Tom, whose September axing after six years at St Kilda kick-started a gloomy family off-season.

"That's the decision I'm trying to make - play VFL, which is good footy coming up against good opposition, or take a step back and play locally and try and find a career, get stuck into some work. And have my Sundays to myself to spend time with the family."

He knows he's fortunate to have options; in between stints with Sydney and Geelong before he became a Hawk, Simpkin completed a building apprenticeship while he was playing for Colac. He's not sure if he'll use it just yet, but knows he has a safety net many discarded footballers don't. "A lot of young guys who've only been in the system four or five years who come out, still only 22, 23, still learning about life, they probably find it a bit harder."

He doesn't get angry, knowing through bitter experience that the best recourse is to get on with life. He watched Tom take his delisting hard, was reminded that even seeing it coming doesn't necessarily soften the blow. "It was the first time he's been delisted ... he didn't think he'd react the way he did. He was pretty upset."

Personally, the change has already brought some positives. Simpkin realised he hadn't played cricket since he was 17, and never any sport with Lachie, so has been turning out for Colac West and making a few runs. He's been back "on the tools", helping a builder mate erect some roof trusses. He's begun to reflect on the hard-earned rewards - VFL premierships with Geelong and Box Hill, best and fairests at both clubs, a best on ground in a VFL grand final and a dreamy AFL flag six days later. His memory of that 2013 week is of barely sleeping, laying in bed wondering, "What if they pick me?"

"I've come to terms that my AFL career's finished. It's frustrating not to have played a lot more, but to think that when I was 21 I was running around with Colac ... If I'd known that by 28 I'd have played in an AFL premiership and played 37 games, I would have been pretty happy I think."

He smiles at the irony that the dreaded green subs vest - which he wore in his first and last games and 19 times in all including a winning grand final - has headed out the door with him. "I'd love to be playing without it, but who knows? I mightn't have been picked if it wasn't there, so maybe it might have been my thing."

Hawthorn's physio phoned the other day, asked how his body is, how he's feeling in general, what's next. Players who might not have made contact in the tricky immediate aftermath have been messaging. He's busy enough not to dwell on what they've still got that he hasn't, but images of pre-season training on social media are a rasping reminder.

"They'd be getting stuck into it right now – Wednesday morning, they'd be having a big session out on the track as we speak, getting flogged out at Waverley. And I'm sitting back having a coffee. Life's not too bad."