I spent a great deal of my childhood in Moorabbin’s ‘animal enclosure’, one of the most filthy, feral and feared stands of all the suburban VFL football grounds.  In the days of beer cans at the footy I would stand on top of them to try and get a view of Plugger or Winmar or Loewe, or, in one of our all too regular floggings, walk around with a black garbage bag, navigating my way through legs, collecting them for the can man.  Every Saturday night my brother and I would return home with our socks and pants cuffs smelling of stale beer and a few dollars in our pockets.

Although I don’t remember, I would have seen the late great Trevor Baker playing for the Saints.  One of the most famous stories about Trevor Barker is that he donated a car, which he won as club champion, back to the club because they were in such dire financial straits.  Barker played in arguably the worst ever era for St Kilda.  He came to the club in the mid 1970’s as we entered a downward spiral after many years of playing finals, yet he was never tempted to leave for an Essendon or Hawthorn or Carlton where he surely would have played in premierships.  Barker is loved, respected and immortalised not only at St Kilda, but in the AFL, because of his loyalty, commitment, skill, sacrifice and love of club and jumper.

The view from Moorabbin’s animal enclosure, 2009

Fast forward to 2011 and the game today is almost unrecognisable from my childhood memories.  No longer are loyalty, commitment and love of club and jumper prominent.  Maybe I’m out of touch.  Maybe I’m in denial.  Maybe I’m a romantic, yearning for a past that never really was.  But just because something isn’t, does it follow that it shouldn’t be?

In the wake of Tom Scully’s move to GWS, Ross Lyon’s defection to Fremantle and the ongoing squabble over player payments, it is worth reflecting on where loyalty, commitment and money fit in today’s game.

Loyalty is an interesting one.  Who owes who loyalty?  Does a player like Tom Scully, who was given a chance to play league football, owe any loyalty to Melbourne, the team who gave him that chance?  After all, he would have been snapped up by 15 other clubs, if they had the chance, Melbourne simply happened to be in the right place at the right time.  Does a player like James Podsiadly owe more to Geelong than Tom Scully did to the Demons?  On the other side of the fence, how far does club to player loyalty run?  Hawthorn has shown great loyalty to Max Bailey, who underwent three knee reconstructions in four years, only now are both parties starting to reap the rewards.  After a serious knee reconstruction, Joel Smith was traded from St Kilda to Hawthorn (*correction – Smith left St Kilda after being offered a longer contact at Hawthorn).  St Kilda’s lack of loyalty became a lost opportunity, with Smith becoming a very good player for the Hawks.  Finally, Carlton showed great loyalty (and patience) with Brendan Fevola before finally running out of the latter.  With the average life span of an AFL footballer being around four years, does club to player loyalty only run as deep as the player’s talent, or potential talent?

With a player like Tom Scully I would argue he does owe Melbourne some loyalty.  Despite the fact they happened to have pick number 1, they invested two years into him, gave him jumper number 31 and had him in their long term plans.  Despite their good faith, Scully has shown that he is more loyal to his bank account than any football club.  The argument that he is moving for opportunities or new challenges is rubbish.  Ablett might be able to get away with that, but Scully cannot.  He would have a mountain of challenges and opportunities at Melbourne.  Those who defend him and equate his move with ‘switching the same job for more money’ or ‘setting himself up for life’ don’t understand the difference between football and the private sector.  The emotions of an everyday 9 – 5 office job cannot equate to those of a football club.  Football is, at least I think it is, worth more than money.  Football is about history, culture, romance, success, failure, people and passion.  A 9 – 5 office job is not.  Furthermore, if Tom Scully cannot set himself up for life on the millions he would have earned at Melbourne then he should go back to year 10 accounting.  Most 9 – 5ers scrape by on far less than the annual $400,000 – $600,000 he was reportedly offered by Melbourne and they manage ok.

GWS recruit Tom Scully

What about Ross Lyon?  I would argue a similar case for Ross’ loyalty to St Kilda.  The Saints gave him his first chance at senior coaching, after years of being an assistant.  To use and paraphrase Lyon’s own argument on Luke Ball leaving, Lyon had a contract on the table at St Kilda and he walked out.  Why did he walk out?  For the money.  St Kilda offered Lyon a four deal, Freo offered Lyon a four year deal.  The only difference is the amount of zero’s.  Ross Lyon feels his integrity is sound and argues it was not his position to create the job vacancy at Fremantle.  Surely Lyon is not so naïve as to not realise what the consequences would be once he confirmed his interest.  To quote Serena Williams, Ross Lyon is ‘unattractive on the inside’.  When Mark Harvey pulls the knife from his back not only will there be purple fingerprints, there will also be Lyon’s.  I doubt Mark Harvey will sending Ross a Christmas card this year.

Et tu, Ross Lyon?

The player payments issue is one I am struggling more and more to sympathise with.  In 2009 the average player salary was $221,000.  Almost a quarter of a million dollars.  For one year.  Now while the players should get their fair share of the AFL’s bullion, as the negotiations drag on I am beginning to wonder just how much is enough?  Even if you halve that salary and space it over the average AFL life expectancy of four years that is still over $400,000 for four years employment.  I don’t know how many 9 – 5ers are on that sort of money and complaining they need more.

Less than thirty years ago Trevor Barker was playing for free and donating prizes back to the club he so loved.  Money was not a motivating factor in his football life.  In addition to his sublime talents on the field he was a man of integrity, loyalty and commitment, who understood that football and a football club, is worth far more than cash.  That is why he is immortalised at St Kilda.

Loyal footballers do still exist in the modern era – Chris Grant stayed at the Western Bulldogs despite huge offers from other clubs, Matthew Pavlich has remained at Fremantle, Joel Selwood will likely be Geelong’s next captain, and as much as it pains me to say something nice about Collingwood Dale Thomas, Scott Pendlebury and Dane Swan have signed with the Magpies and not moved north of the Murray.

Imagine if Tom Scully becomes the player he promises to be, imagine if he did it at Melbourne, in Barassi’s number 31.  Scully would go down in Demons history as a player who turned his back on money for his love of the club.  He would be hugely respected, a legend of the club, maybe even a premiership captain.  Sadly, even if he does reach his promised heights he will always be remembered as someone who chased the money over the club.

You poach, you pay – http://www.theage.com.au/afl/afl-news/you-poach-you-pay-20120322-1vmwi.html