Trades, Free Agency, and the Small Club ‘Culture’ Syndrome

Ahh trade week. The silly season. The week that is full of shock moves, expert commentary getting things wrong, and couch list managers getting things right. We all get to pretend to negotiate trade deals, and generally treat players in a pretty terrible manner, all while listening to weeks of overt speculation between repetitive ads on streamed radio. It is a peculiar time of the year which somehow enthrals us.

One move that no expert or amateur saw coming was the 11th-hour trade request from Fremantle’s Lachie Schultz. I must admit, as a Freo Fan, this one did hurt, and like many we’ve spent the last couple of days going through all the stages of footy grief: “It’s only a rumour” and “let’s get some stupidly good trade for him” to “bah he wasn’t that good anyway.”

Many people may not be that familiar with Schultz as a player, largely because he plays for the Dockers and largely because he hasn’t done much as a player. That’s not to say he’s not good – he’s very good, if a bit inconsistent, but what hurts about this one is he’s one of those heart and soul guys who makes a football club.

At least that’s what we all thought anyway.

But this isn’t an article about Lachie Schultz, nor is it a salty Fremantle fan attempting to excuse his club’s poor list management. But within the news and constant coverage of this trade, I’ve been reflecting on what I think might be a larger story about the difficulties some clubs face with player retention and player attraction and whether we’re too quick to look inside a club and make assumptions and are too slow to perhaps look at the external factors which surround the club. The areas which make the club less appealing to play for, or which force some clubs to invest more of their salary cap to retain certain players at the expense of losing others.

I’m not at all saying the Dockers, Gold Coast, GWS, and these other clubs haven’t made mistakes or suffered some bad management decisions. The Dockers in particular have definitely made some mistakes, even if they were the logical choice to make at the time – and they’re hardly unique in that category anyway. Hindsight is 20/20, and had they their time again they most likely would have offered Blake Acres a bit more money, but then one decent year from three for a player who came over as the steak knife in a bigger trade, it could be argued he was putting extra effort looking to save his career playing and they’d look a bit red-faced if they had offered him mega-money just to find out that one good season was it.

He wouldn’t be the first player to disappear after a lucrative extension. Hindsight would also tell them that keeping a guy like Schultz on a rookie contract for two years going into his third was probably a bit long for a player who has been among the first selected every week. The rookie offer itself made sense at the time, and they probably thought there wasn’t much point rushing as he’d already turned down other offers. So they get the bigger deals done first and wait until they need to for his extension. But Collingwood swooped in like the Magpies they are, and took the Dockers blind.

Since 2017, the Dockers have lost 14 players with another two (Henry and Schultz) who are awaiting trades this year. Whilst most clubs seem to lose one, maybe two players a year, this definitely seems excessive, especially when compared to their local rivals West Coast only losing three. But if you were to look at the history of trades, you’d notice that certain clubs are closer to Fremantle’s number and some are closer to West Coast. Think about your own club, and consider how they’ve fared. People of course will say that GWS and Gold Coast have been wracked with early picks, and managed many players they can’t reasonably afford. Surely the same goes for other teams who haven’t made finals in five, six years or longer, which perhaps puts removes the chance for GWS who are now ten years into a fairly successful existence from that conversation.

The first thing people always go to is club culture. This is incredibly lazy. Using buzzwords like ‘culture’ is simply an easy way for people to pretend they can externally find and solve an issue without even needing to look at what that issue might be in the first place. Culture is and will always be a meaningless word when thrown around arbitrarily and without explanation of what a good culture actually is. For instance, teams talk of a winning culture – but what even is that? Hawthorn had a winning culture, then they lost all their good players and have to rebuild Do they still have one? West Coast had one too – but also a drug culture. Which culture was which?

Do some teams have a losing culture? I doubt players and coaches rock up to training and games not caring about the result. Sure, it may look like they don’t care at times, but we’re probably just confusing that with them not being very good. I’ve even heard people blame culture for injuries – as if that makes some kind of sense. Pretty much the easiest thing you can do to celebrate or criticise a team is use the word ‘culture’ with some vaguely related adjective attached to it, because then you don’t need to go into any further analysis.

No. Blaming “culture” is silly. Largely because if players were leaving a club due to a bad culture, it wouldn’t take large contracts to get them out of there – any alternative would do. Consider here your own work environment. If your workplace is terrible and you’ve got the chance to leave, you’re not signing a contract extension and then waiting for more money to come around. You’re taking the first opportunity that presents itself.

Could we then blame a lack of success for retention?

Maybe. There will definitely be some players who want to chase a flag, particularly in the twilight of their career, but largely I don’t think that’s always the case. Firstly, the Melbourne Demons seem to be losing players at a fair rate of knots and they won a flag not too long ago; Collingwood is losing Adams; and certainly other premiership teams have lost players during successful periods. Ultimately, no one can predict the future, so choosing a club based on past performance seems fairly short-sighted. Furthermore, for teams like Freo, GWS, Gold Coast, even Carlton, North or Essendon, surely there’s some appeal in being part of the team who breaks the drought and makes history? Freo’s Caleb Serong has listed that as a goal, and I doubt he’s in isolation there. I’m certain the 2017 Richmond players will go down in Punt Road folk law a little longer than some of the 2019 players. Or perhaps not.

Some Fremantle fans have turned their eyes towards Perth-based player manager, Colin Young, stating he has it out for the Dockers. I’m normally pretty quick to disregard these conspiracies – let’s face it, Dockers fans have also had it out for Dean Margetts, the AFL, the WAFL, pretty much anyone they can except blame their own club’s failings and a very small amount of that might carry a small amount of truth. But I did become a little more interested when respected Perth-based sports reporter Mark Duffield wrote “We’ve all got our theories on that, but there appears to be some angst between Colin Young and Fremantle.” I still don’t fully buy into the theory, but Mark Duffield isn’t traditionally one to make baseless claims. Colin Young has also publicly stated in the past that Fremantle are “going nowhere unless they make changes.” With Acres, Lobb, Henry, Hamling, and Logue and Brad Hill all on his books, perhaps he’s just trying to make the changes they need to make in order to go somewhere. Again, I’m not buying into this theory, but if we’re looking at circumstances around the club, we have to consider all avenues.

I think a bigger issue is likely the simplest, if the most painful. Honesty. Some clubs, like the Dockers, are simply small clubs, nowhere near Melbourne – or even near a large football base, who have few friends outside their own supporters, travel a great deal more than most, and play in front of a passionate but not impressively large crowd, usually on a Sunday afternoon or some other inconvenient timeslot. These clubs are often in the shadow of a much larger, older and more successful club, They can be forgotten, ignored, and harshly treated by the media and broader football community, often simply because of their existence. History of their own mediocrity aside, they just don’t seem to be particularly appealing clubs to be part of, and even the smaller clubs within Melbourne can get lost in the shadow of the bigger four, so while they may not have the burden of travel or isolation, they become less attractive for a player seeking to return to the state.

We look at these smaller clubs and they all have fairly poor player retention rates, seem to need to pay more money than seems reasonable for players to come or stay, and seem to need to give up a lot more than what seems fair in trades to make them happen. Why? Because they too are small, out-of-the-way clubs, with few friends in the broader community. This may be because of poor marketing, a lack of PR, or simply a lack of success – but probably not, at least not entirely. The Dockers live in the Perth fishbowl, where they’ve always been in West Coast’s shadow – and they always will be. They’re the little guys. And they’ve got themselves to blame for that a little bit as off the back of needing to beg, borrow and crowd-fund their initial side, they decided to market themselves then as the underdogs. They’ve been playing catch up ever since.


Finally there’s the football media to contend with. The Perth football media, largely driven by The West Australian and 6PR radio, loves a villain, as do many aspects of football media around the country. They love to kick a player or a team when they’re down. Certainly, the Eagles have had their fair share of negative press this year, as have the Dockers – and rightly so. But we all know when there’s not much to report about, they need to make stories. So they go searching and they find heroes and villains. Everyone in Perth knows Nic Natainui has been the hero for the last decade: We know when he’s had children, when he’s taken them to the beach. We know he got a Play Station for Christmas one year. We also know all the great things he’s done as a footballer and an ambassador. To be honest, if I was Nic Naitanui, I’d be exhausted, though I suspect he has become used to it. But then there’s always the villain. Those players who might have done something super minor off-field which provides the opportunity for stories to be written left, right and centre. Not only would this be terrible to have to manage as the player, but because it reflects on the “culture” of the club, it would be exhausting to have to see and hear on a constant basis.

Let’s take Jesse Hogan as an example. Jesse Hogan came over to the Dockers a high-profile player, which was justified. But he’d also come over both injured and having committed the heinous act of being seen smoking a cigarette. For the few years he was at the Dockers, he was given almost no space from media harassment. He was slammed on the back page because he got drunk at a Christmas party several years before arriving at the club. He was in a car crash and while no details were given, the story was still written as if it was some reflection of both him and the club. And yes, he wasn’t without fault, the final straw came when he broke Covid restrictions to invite a girl over, yet other Fremantle players had gone partying and that story was tiny and dealt with quickly. West Coast players went clubbing, breaching their own club’s restrictions, and it got some air time, but not nearly as much. I’m not at all of course saying it’s only the small footy clubs that get targeted, but it just seems they get targeted more often.

This year, the media tried to go at Luke Jackson after two reasonable but not impressive games, and Peter Sumich has spent the better part of the year trying to drag Sean Darcy to Geelong. Consider this: how many times have you seen a journalist say “This player is too good for this team. They should seek a trade to Collingwood, Carlton or some other large club.” It happens a lot – and it happens only to certain clubs, when those clubs are struggling. Does it make the trade happen? No, but it creates a conversation that must get inside the player’s head and make them doubt their choices or their current contract. Some will laugh it off, but others may not have the maturity or support around them (outside their club) to do so.

And then it makes sense why Gold Coast has struggled so much with their retention of players, too. If Freo get it bad, the Gold Coast have got it really bad, with commentators actively questioning every decision, looking for every excuse to send that team down to Tasmania.

So put yourself in the position of a fringe player who’s been drafted from Melbourne to Fremantle. You’re toiling away in the seconds, which means you’re playing games in Mandurah (a place that produced Hayden Ballantyne and very little else that’s useful) for a team that’s existed since 1997 and is barely acknowledged by the WAFL, which is a historical competition you’ve never really heard of. You might have managed to scrape a few games at a half-filled Optus stadium, which has a good atmosphere and it’s great and all. You love training, you enjoy your teammates, Perth is a nice place to live. But there’s something missing. There’s an absence you can’t put a name to, or you can, but that name “culture” doesn’t seem to fit.

I hope again this doesn’t sound like a whinge, like I’m trying to deflect blame from my own club, or I’m just salty supporter trying to come to terms with the bad life choice I made as a six-year-old. I want to reiterate that I am simply writing this to suggest some issues which may exist and may be overlooked by turning to the club for answers but not really knowing what’s happening in there, and not really knowing what question we’re asking. My point is, the accumulation of several small things that are thrust upon a club, whether it’s external or internal, would become pretty draining, especially when you’ve had to pack your life up in weekend and have to navigate life as a person and as a professional sportsman. So, when a team like Collingwood offers you crowds of 80k, media protection from Eddie (assuming you don’t do something totally stupid), and a strong, historical club with rich history, in a city where you’ve grown up. It’s likely a much, much more appealing offer.

No, I just don’t think playing for a team that has to constantly justify its existence and defend every decision it makes would leave much to be desired as a player to either stay or to seek out.

Returning to Fremantle, many of the players who have recently left have gone for greater opportunity or more money: Logue was in and out of the side, Tucker never really made it, Meek was never getting another game after Jackson joined, and Crozier was on the fringe, Henry is chasing money and now so is Shultz. I can’t blame them really. It’s a short career and you should milk it for what it’s worth. But why can’t their team match or beat the contract offered to them?

It may go back to those external factors. To the fact the team just isn’t that fun. It’s that these smaller clubs probably need to pay their key players a little bit more than the bigger sides in order to keep them. I remember a few Geelong players about a decade ago taking pay cuts to keep their list together. I imagine this is a much easier decision for some clubs than for others.

The fact Fremantle this year have signed Cox and Amiss until 2030 is probably a testament to the fact they’re concerned about their exodus. Amiss is probably the first player who’s signed such a long contract with only 25 games to his name. Sure, he counts as a local lad and there’s usually some security there – but he’s from Busselton about three hours away, so Perth still isn’t “home” for him and a move to Melbourne or Sydney may not seem quite as big. Cox is a good player, but hardly a superstar either, and this extension came as a surprise. But again, he’s an integral part of the Dockers and will have suitors from other teams.

Simply put, the Dockers need to secure their better players for as long as they can, which likely draws money away from the middle and lower tiers players, meaning a player like Shultz might have to stay on a rookie contract a year longer than he should, Hamling (who’s played six games in four years) only gets a serviceable one-year contract to see if they can get some games into him before committing further.

Larger, stronger teams might have the opportunity to sit on a player like Amiss for a few years to ensure he develops as they hope before offering him big money. And they may not need to keep salary cap space for their midfielders’ future contracts, knowing that they’ve got an appeal that will keep most those players there – or they’re the kind of club who can readily attract a player of equal or greater quality in replacement.

So is there a solution to this?

Is this something the clubs can control?

Better PR might do the trick, sure, and winning more games definitely helps too. But it is difficult to win consistently when your team is never settled and PR is difficult when you’re trying to win over people who simply don’t care about your team or don’t want them to exist in the first place. Could something come from the AFL? Sydney had a cost-of-living allowance, could there be a “cost of being a small, mediocre club who needs a bit more support” allowance. Gold Coast got extra picks to help with their struggles – but to paraphrase their list manager when he used pick two to buy Fremantle’s Lachie Weller, they’ve had plenty of pick twos come and go, it’s worth it just to bring in someone who’s actually going to buy into the club and who genuinely wants to be there. Hindsight as it is, Andy Brayshaw, who Freo grabbed, seems to have turned out to be the fairly loyal type. but then the Suns easily could have grabbed Cerra instead and rued both his absence and the missed opportunity for Weller.