Australian rules football is a curious sport, where antiquated notions of loyalty are still clung to by fans like shipwreck survivors to flotsam.
It’s a game where fans from opposition clubs can mingle in the outer, drink beer and not kill each other, and where the concept of a ‘one-club player’ is feted.
Indeed, I don’t think I’d ever encountered the term ‘one-club player’ before I started following the sport in the late 1980s, but the idea is a romantic one that I – and countless others across the country – have embraced.
From the legendary EJ Whitten at Footscray, Robbie Flower at Melbourne, Matthew Richardson at Richmond to modern day loyalists like Nick Riewoldt at the Saints – one-club players are hailed, and so they should be.
It’s one of the saddest sights in footy – a club legend over 30 running around in a jumper that doesn’t fit in a grab for cash.
There was nothing right about seeing Doug Hawkins in a Fitzroy guernsey, or watching Wayne Carey hobbling in Crows colours a shadow of his former self. (Carey’s final resting place, of course, had more to do with his roaming eye than any desire to represent Adelaide.)
Buried towards the bottom of Wednesday’s AFL press release about their new equalisation measures, which generated headlines of a ‘soft cap’ on football department spending and the scrapping of the controversial cost-of-living allowance offered to Sydney teams, was the news the league’s veteran’s allowance would be gone come 2017.
This move goes against everything footy fans hold dear.
I remember being devastated in 1997 when news broke that Peter Matera would leave my beloved West Coast and head east to Melbourne.
What happened? Eagles skipper John Worsfold rounded up a posse, headed round to chez Matera and played Tony Soprano, informing the mercurial wingman that ‘no one leaves the family’. Matera stayed put.
Is there any chance Dale Thomas will be remembered as anything other than a Collingwood player, or Nick dal Santo a Saint?
Sure there are men who successfully straddled club divides: Paul Salmon is 50 per cent Hawk and 50 per cent Bomber, while Chris Judd has spent the bulk of his magnificent career with Carlton but perhaps never revisited the heights he scaled in the west.
These, however, are exceptional cases.
The way the AFL is headed, with free-agency in full flight, men like Dale Kickett –who played for five clubs – will become more typical, and we’ll end up with a nomadic culture similar to that of the NBA or EPL, where men chase dollars and deals wherever they are offered.
Forget abolishing the veteran’s allowance – it should be broadened (make it available to players who have been at a club, say, eight years) and increased.
The concept of loyalty may already be on life support (Lance Franklin, Gary Ablett, Kurt Tippett etc), but by making it even more difficult for clubs to retain long-time servants, the plug may have been pulled.
Footy is big business, and clubs have to manage their stocks more carefully than ever. The cruel laws of nature dictate that a team like West Coast should be spending more on Nic Naitanui than Dean Cox, but that doesn’t mean they don’t owe a debt to the latter. The allowance is a way of repaying that debt.
Disgruntled footy fans are the norm nowadays when you listen to talkback or jump on an online forum. People don’t like the way the game is being officiated, attendances are down.
The equalisation argument against the veteran’s allowance is that poorer clubs will be unable to pay it.
But if that is the case, surely the AFL should just implement an even more socialist policy with the gate receipts from the wealthier clubs, maybe even using that money to fund veteran payments for clubs unable to do so.
The abolition of the veteran’s allowance will make clubs keener to tie up future talent and less likely to offer new deals to favourite sons who may then be tempted to jump ship over dollars.
As typified by the wonderfully unique father-son rule, the game needs every bit of romance it can find. Let’s not have kids picking numbers off the back of their jumpers any more than absolutely necessary.
This move is just one more way in which the game is changing, and another little bit of its soul will disappear in 2017.