What’s that on loyalty?


As Buddy Franklin wrestles with staying a Hawk for life or becoming the 2419th multiple-club player in the history of the game, it’s a good time to reflect on that oft-heard lament, ”There’s no loyalty in football any more”. Actually, the signs are that perhaps there’s more than there used to be.

If there’s a facet of the game’s 117-year history that you can put numbers to, there’s a fair chance AFL historian Col Hutchinson has a spreadsheet that covers it. Immersion in the document headed, ”AFL Players With AFL Experience With Two Or More Clubs” is not only a titillatingly nerdy way to kill a couple of hours, it reveals a trend among modern players towards football monogamy that puts some of their supposedly austere forebears to shame.

Over the 115 seasons to the end of 2011 (taking into account that players who began their careers in 2012 haven’t had time to get delisted and redrafted yet – or in the case of the good ones, to be bought by GWS), an average of 21 players have turned out for a second, third, fourth or even fifth club each year. Breaking the musical chairs down by decade indicates a swing back to staying put since the start of the new millennium, after a stretch through the debaucherous ’80s and ’90s when players sashayed around the AFL neighbourhood like footballing concubines.

Appearances in new colours by players who began their careers from 2000-09 dropped to an average of 18 per season, and sits at 16.4 since 2000. From 1990-99 it was 36 – the highest of any decade in history – and from 1980-89 it was 35. The ”one-club player”, for so long thought a quaint relic of the past, could be making a vinyl record-like comeback.

On second thoughts

Actually, hold that thought. Many who made their debut from 2000-09 are still playing, and approaching or in the forbidden fruit-like window of free agency. That trend towards loyalty might not last until the last of them has retired.

Already, Hutchinson reports that 34 men have played for their second club for the first time in this season’s 10 rounds – including free agency trailblazer Brendon Goddard – which could tilt the average back towards free-love territory when Hump Day revisits this project in about 10 years’ time.

Another five have become three-club players – Brent Moloney, Stephen Gilham, Nick Lower, Matt Spangher and, on Monday night against West Coast, Aaron Edwards – bringing their number to 288. Meanwhile, Ben Hudson has become the 25th player in history to represent four clubs. Having not played for anyone when he blew out the candles on his 25th birthday cake, it seems only a matter of time before ”The People’s Beard” finds a fifth home, joining Dale Kickett, Les Hughson and Les Abbott in this exclusive club of footballers who really got around.

(As an aside, some lists found on that unreliable resource known as ”the internet” include Adrian Fletcher in the five-club club by counting the Brisbane Bears and Brisbane Lions as separate entities, as if he cleaned out his locker at the end of the 1996 season, and moved back in again for the 1997 pre-season with the recall of a goldfish.)

Short and sweet

There are always groups within such groups, and the three-clubbers are headed by a band of six whose entire careers amounted to just three seasons. At the top of the pile is the man who started it all, Denis Lanigan, who in playing for Collingwood, Melbourne and Carlton in a career that lasted only from 1897-99 took only the VFL/AFL’s first three seasons to become football’s first three-club player.

Kevin Caton, who played 18 games for West Coast, Fitzroy and Brisbane in 1988, ’89 and ’90, was the last of a sub-set that, thanks to more forgiving contract lengths, will never grow.

Vic Nankervis would have joined them if he’d stepped away after his first three seasons, spent at Geelong, Footscray and St Kilda, yet the uncle of famous Cats Ian and Bruce offers a window to a major factor of influence among long-ago multi-clubbers – the wars.

Firstly, the 10 seasons from 1910-19 accounted for the second-greatest number of two-or-more-club players. Despite the competition itself thinning to as few as four teams in 1916, 358 men who debuted in that decade swapped clubs at least once – just short of the 360 of the 1990s, which began with 14 clubs and ended with 16.

The trend continued during World War II, with Nankervis one of a team’s worth of Geelong players who went elsewhere for a kick when the Cats couldn’t compete in 1942 due to war-time travel restrictions – all on the condition that they be released back to Geelong when it returned to the competition. It did so in 1944, Nankervis came home for two seasons, won the goalkicking, and finished at South Melbourne in 1946. His career amounted to 46 games, 68 goals and four changes of club in just six seasons.

In a category all on his own is Dinny Dowd, who represented three clubs – Fitzroy, South Melbourne and North Melbourne – in a two-season career. His 18 games came between round four, 1931 and round 13, 1932, making him a three-club player in just 14 months.

Triple treat

Tony Thiessen is one of the three-club crew, having almost found his way from Sandy Bay to St Kilda via a Tassie connection with Ian Stewart, before playing for Melbourne, Carlton and North Melbourne in the 1960s. Like many multiple-club players, he is proud to have played at all, but would also love to reflect on a long career in one jumper. ”At least I’m in one club!” laughed Thiessen.

Best on ground on debut, he had his front teeth punched out in his third game, on his 21st birthday, and lost confidence. Ron Barassi’s shift from Thiessen’s first to second clubs didn’t help his cause, and after a year at North he returned home to a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry. His son, James, played in Adelaide’s 1998 premiership. ”I’ve got no regrets, it was beaut to have had the experience,” Thiessen says. Of the notion of loyalty, he is comfortable to have knocked back money offers on returning to Tasmania to again play for Sandy Bay. ”I think it’s disappointing that loyalty doesn’t mean much these days.”

Asked what he thinks will happen with Franklin, whether Buddy will stay in the roughly 20 per cent of the 12,245 men who have played AFL footy who have done so at one club, he is hopeful. ”I would prefer to see players of his calibre stay with the club he starts out with, from a loyalty point of view. I think that’s good for the club and good for the supporters.”

And good for the loyalty trend.

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