Footballing Mortality

A few years back at work, I had one of those awkward conversations with my boss. She was afraid that, as I’d been there quite a while, there was a lot of information about the service I manage, and its ins and outs, that was stored in my brain and not recorded anywhere else. She wanted me to document it all, so the next person in my role would be equipped to do it well. She wanted to implement a succession plan.

Whoa… hang on. I wasn’t planning on going anywhere at that point, and reacted like you’d expect – calmly and maturely addressing the situation. Hahaha, no really, I was pretty chill about it externally, but internally, I was wondering whether she had plans for my role that did not include me?

After the initial shock, I came to the conclusion that I probably wasn’t going to be there forever, and that her way of thinking was actually good thinking… though I’d never admit it to her. We started to discuss those already on my team that could be mentored and developed to take the service forward in the future.

It was a sobering experience, but it forced me to view a few of those who report to me a little differently. They weren’t ready just yet, but they would be. And eventually, I’d step aside.

As stoic as some AFL players may be, it must hit like a ton of bricks when you see your replacement sitting across from you in the locker room.

Football mortality stares players in the face at the start of every pre-season. It starts with the off-season surgeries, the delayed starts to the next pre-season, and then, before they know it, their time in the game is up. Careers in footy are not forever – indeed, many are over before they begin, with injury cutting players down before they have a chance to realise their potential.

For others, years in the spotlight can create the illusion that they are indispensable. However, as anyone who’s ever held a job knows, no one is indispensable. Life goes on. How could Sydney possibly function without Lance Franklin? It seems preposterous right now, but with the Swans drafting Nick Blakey, preparations are being made for life without Buddy.

There will come a point in a game, possibly even this year, where Franklin will lead at the ball-carrier, and that lead will be ignored. The ensuing kick will go in the direction of Blakey. It may or may not be the right decision, but in the heat of the moment, Blakey will be deemed the preferred option. It must be sobering for someone like Franklin to know the clock is ticking to the extent that his replacement is already with the team. Buddy has achieved so much, and in many ways, he was the reason people went to watch the Swans after he signed with the team. He has provided them with so much entertainment, even if the flag he wanted for the Swans has remained elusive.

But clubs don’t look back. Forward; ever forward. And looking forward, Franklin’s lifespan in the game appears short, particularly compared to a kid with his whole career in front of him. He has four years left on his deal with Sydney, but in 2018 he looked heavier and started to feel his durable body finally betray him. A foot injury, and a groin injury hampered him, and probably for the first real time in his career, he was forced to confront his football mortality.

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Brendon Goddard found out the hard way that life for a player at the end of his AFL shelf-life doesn’t necessarily pan out the way you expect. Not offered another contract by the Bombers despite competing in all 22 games in 2018, Goddard was dragged, kicking and screaming, to the conclusion he’d have a lot more time to play golf in 2019 when his desire to play on at another club was met with resounding silence. Even Carlton, in more need of a leader across half back with another ACL injury ending Sam Docherty’s year, baulked at signing the veteran. They’d rather put time into the kids. They have stars in the making being groomed for the role Goddard played. McGrath spent time at half back in 2018, as did Ben McNiece. With Michael Hurley being accused at one point of playing the same role as Goddard, the writing was on the wall. Goddard just wasn’t reading it.

Franklin is not the only one looking across the change rooms at those anointed as his replacement this pre-season, with several of the AFL’s tried and true stars entering the twilight of their illustrious careers.

Franklin’s old running mate, Jarryd Roughead had a hard time of it in 2018, his form a far cry from that which took him to a Coleman Medal in 2013. At face value, the Hawthorn forward line seemed like an ideal fit for free agent, Tom Lynch, but with the former Suns captain now at Richmond, it leaves Rough without an obvious heir apparent. The best bet would currently be Mitchell Lewis, who will now be fast-tracked to provide a marking target either across half forward, or deep in attack. Whether he’s ready or not remains to be seen.

The Hawks may have to lower their eyes more often than they did in 2018 – a season that saw both Jack Gunston and Luke Breust awarded All-Australian blazers.

They’ve surely cooled on the Tim O’Brien experiment, which reaped just 3.17 marks and 0.33 goals per game in the 12 contests he graced in 2018. I’ve never seen a player “almost” take so many marks.

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With Sam Docherty down again, and Goddard not considered as an option, Kade Simpson will once again be relied upon to clear the ball from Carlton’s defence whenever they can get the ball to him in space. Whilst Simpson’s 307 games are invaluable down back, there were times in 2018 where he started to look a little… hmmm, shall we say ‘panicked’ as the ball bobbled around the Carlton defence? He was chased down and corralled, forced into making mistakes I wasn’t used to seeing him make. Much of this is symptomatic of playing in a structure that does not afford him the support of teammates in the right spots on defensive 50 exits, yet it was Simpson that was forced to take the responsibility, and on many occasions, it was Simpson that turned it over. Yet with Docherty hurt, who else do the Blues turn to in times of need down back? And with Simpson turning 35 in May, who takes the reins down back?

They have Weitering down there, but he is basically playing the same role as Liam Jones, and two into one just don’t go. As a result, we saw Weitering struggle in 2018. He isn’t exactly the player to run the ball out of defence and kick with poise, is he?

With a plethora of mids in the mix, perhaps turning one of them into a dashing half back is the answer? Whilst Walsh and Dow will occupy midfield minutes, the returning Setterfield might be the ideal candidate. Those legs of Simpson can’t keep going forever, and with Setterfield returning from a knee injury, being out of the hustle and bustle of the middle may be the ideal scenario for him to ease in and fill a void that Simpson will inevitably leave. How about Jack Silvagni? For mine, he is solid, but he doesn’t do anything spectacularly well. Perhaps a role where he’s giving Simpson a breather is the role he needs? It sure as hell beats the 6.4 return he had in front of goal in 2018. Maybe Cam Polson can go back and make a name for himself?

Simpson may be one who is asked to go on again after 2019 simply because there is no one ready to fill the role. He is screaming out for an heir apparent.

If you’re a Geelong supporter, you’d feel quite comfortable with Harry Taylor nearing the end. Jack Henry slotted into the Geelong defence seamlessly in 2018, complementing a stingy bunch consisting of Bews, Blicavs, Stewart and Kolodjashnij (thanks AFL app – I have never once spelt that name correctly from memory). After just eight games in 2018, and turning 33 during season 2019, Taylor is staring down the barrel of what could be his final year. He was there for the glory days, but with that back six looking solid without him, Harry’s time as a top-level defender may be past him.

Reports out of Geelong are Harry is in tremendous nick, but you hear that every year about many players every year. If he is, having Taylor down back at the moment is a luxury, because the future has already arrived in Geelong, and his name is Jack Henry.

The situation at Richmond is quite unique. Coming off a Coleman Medal, Jack Riewoldt should feel quite secure in his role up forward, but the Tigers evidently have one eye on the present and one eye on the future. Tom Lynch is the man earmarked to work with, then take over from Riewoldt. He has four years on Jack, and should be about to hit his peak should everything go to plan.

But will it go to plan? The Riewoldt/Lynch working relationship is one of the more interesting subplots to the looming 2019 season. Can they co-exist? Will Riewoldt be ready to defer to Lynch? If Lynch struggles, will Riewoldt be so willing to share the spotlight? The Tigers took a big gamble in obtaining Lynch and changing up a forward structure that wreaked havoc in 2018.

But you don’t win flags by NOT improving, and whilst the acquisition of Lynch makes the top end at Richmond better, it’s also a clear indicator to Jack that nothing lasts forever. I can’t wait to see this play out.

Aaron Naughton brought a smile to the faces of Bulldogs fans in 2018, and he did it in a season where there was precious little to be happy about. The 2016 premiers will have Dale Morris go round again, and they’ll have their fingers crossed that captain, Easton Wood can play more than the 12 games he managed last season.

Learning from both these veterans is Naughton, who showed flashes of brilliance in 2018. Having just turned 19, making him the fourth youngest player in the game last season, he has plenty of time to develop, and will require a lot more strength to contend with gorillas in the goal square. If Morris can hold on and impart his wisdom, second-year recruit Jackson Trengove can provide support, and Wood can stay on the park, the Dogs are looking at a star in the making in Naughton. They just have to be wary of throwing too much at him, too soon.

Of all players in the 2017 draft, he may turn out to be the best. Yep, I rate him that highly.

There are others that are staring the end right in the face. Luke Hodge extended his career with Brisbane after looking to have hung the boots up at the conclusion of the 2017 season. 2019 will undoubtedly be his last year.

Jordan Lewis endured much criticism of his game, foot speed and leadership in 2018, but will be out there again for the Demons in 2019. With so many budding stars at Melbourne, Lewis’ place in the team will be under constant scrutiny.

Jarrad McVeigh re-signed with the Swans despite reported overtures from the Gold Coast which would have probably extended his time in the game, but with younger players like Mills, Lloyd, Melican and at times Florent occupying the roles of running half back, he must see the end of his time reflecting in their emergence.

The end comes for all in the AFL, and it is a pressure that has to eat away at players. Even the most calm and collected champion of a club can be a little reluctant to say goodbye. History is littered with players who went on a season too long, or a just could not come to terms with the fact their time was coming to an end.

As teams look at youth policies, and plan for the next five years (thanks Terry Wallace), put yourself in the shoes of those who know the end isn’t too far away. Every day they front up to training and watch as young, hungry lions look to usurp their place.

It cannot be easy to deal with, and is a constant reminder that in the AFL, nothing is forever.

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