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The many dimensions of the McCarthy situation

The Sydney Swans and Greater Western Sydney Giants face off in Round 3. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)
Expert
31st January, 2016
100
3189 Reads

The Giants’ loss of a promising key forward is one of many dimensions to the Cam McCarthy crisis, and is arguably the least significant in this year of football.

In case you missed it, 20-year-old Greater Western Sydney forward McCarthy was granted indefinite leave from his club on Friday, allowing him to travel home to Perth.

According to the press release and subsequent press conference with the higher ups, McCarthy was struggling with both homesickness and the “day to day demands of being an AFL footballer”.

The statement released by the Giants hardly painted a flattering picture of their goal-kicking prospect – there were more shots fired than during a Hawthorn rout.

I’m not close enough to make judgements about his personal circumstances, but reading between the lines of that statement released by the Giants leads one to think this may be an escalating game of chicken. For example, note he was referred to as Cameron McCarthy, not Cam McCarthy as he has been in almost everything else in his time in Western Sydney. That might be nothing, but I’d wager it’s something.

Josh Elliott covered the McCarthy situation from the perspective of Cam himself, and what this may mean for him, over the weekend.

Let’s not trace those steps again here. All I will add is that this all smacks of a player that really, really wants to ply his trade in his home state, and he is being advised – for better or worse – to do what he can to help make that happen.

McCarthy’s manager, Colin Young, dropped a reasonably large bomb during October’s trade period in requesting his charge be traded to Fremantle, before a two-year extension that his client had signed before playing a game had even kicked in.

The Dockers tabled what was very close to a Godfather offer: two first-round picks, which would have been handy for the academy points that those picks included.

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The Giants refused mostly on moral grounds, but also because a forward line of McCarthy, Jeremy Cameron and Jonathon Patton would be as powerful as the Star Killer Base from The Force Awakens within a couple of years. The thinking was McCarthy’s sudden desire to move back home was fleeting, and once he was kicking bags in orange during September the lure of the west – the one on the other side of the country – would fade.

Well, apparently not. And so it is that the Giants are now without their third tall forward for a time that could stretch anywhere from one round to the full season. McCarthy provided 35 goals in his 20 games for the Giants in 2015, playing as a full-time forward. Entering his 21-year-old season, McCarthy would have expected to play the foil to the athletic Cameron and the hulking Patton, a position that may now go to near-Blue Adam Tomlinson or newbie Matthew Flynn.

Either that, or the one-and-done Steve Johnson does his thing with a two-prong tall setup. That was the look the Giants were forced into for most of the year, with Patton out for all but the three games towards the back end of 2015.

That could be a downgrade, but as far as we know McCarthy’s 2015 season was less signal and more noise. Therein lies the problem for Fremantle, who in their quest for a key forward were content to spend a large portion of their future to get McCarthy. The 195-centimetre prospect was just that last year, a prospect, and he now comes with the additional question marks that a period of indefinite leave for personal reasons brings (rightly or wrongly).

Cam’s strengths lay as much in his ability on the ground as they do as a marking forward. In his best game – Round 11 against a then-rampant Collingwood at the MCG – all but one of McCarthy’s direct scores (4.1 on the day) came from ground ball gets, rather than leading mark and set shots.

His skill is a lethalness with the ball in hand, which combines with good athleticism for his size and a nose for the play. He could be a great key forward, but he could be a great second or third banana. He could be a bust – there’s no way of knowing based on a 20-game sample, and he won’t get a chance to solidify his strong start while on leave.

Will Fremantle go after him in the 2016 trade period? Given how the past few days – and really, the past few months – have unfolded it would be strange for them not to. But the price tag may have a bit of red pen on it come October.

Those are the most pressing and obvious elements to this story. The others have more to do with what McCarthy’s situation presents at the aggregate level. In this year of all years, with the AFL Players Association and the AFL set to renegotiate the league’s collective bargaining agreement, the McCarthy situation could be a flashpoint in relations between the buyers and sellers of footballing labour.

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There’s been silence from both sides to this point in negotiations, which is somewhat surprising given the ascension of Paul Marsh to the AFLPA throne, and the emergence of a big wad of cash in the central pot in the form of a new broadcast agreement. The current collective bargaining agreement technically expires on October 30 this year, but a provision states that a new agreement should be prepared by June 30.

For the uninitiated, the CBA is arguably the most important document in the league. It governs everything from player salaries and contractual terms to listing, de-listing and re-listing protocols.

It’s the document that could see the 12 WADA-banned Bombers players still at the club delist themselves on account of Essendon’s breach of Victoria’s occupational health and safety regulations.

It sets the draft age, the salary cap, and the rate at which the salary cap will increase from year to year. For all intents and purposes, it represents the parameters within which the players live their professional lives, play the game, and are paid.

One of the critical pieces of regulation in the CBA is how it deals with young players; for the purposes of this article I’ll call them rookie contracts. The 2014 mid-term CBA states that players are to be offered a standard two-year contract with certain retainer and match-based payments at a level commensurate with their position in the draft.

These are standard contracts, with no wriggle room for the clubs (as far as I understand).

A club is free to offer their players extensions – let’s call them sophomore contracts – at any time. These are wholly market-based contracts; the basic terms are set by the CBA, but length and dollars, and exotic provisions, are between the club, the player and the AFL. That’s the type of extension McCarthy would have signed with the Giants in 2014, and one which would have come into effect on November 1 last year.

Everything is up in the air with a new CBA, and the players are clubs could use McCarthy’s situation to work things in their favour.

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The clubs could argue that players should be locked into their first deals for longer, to guard against this ‘go home’ factor which has emerged in recent years. Players shouldn’t be able to nominate and then force clubs to trade after spending less than a couple of years in the AFL system – before they’ve earned their stripes, as it were.

The hidden side of this argument is that the longer a club has initial control over a player, the more time it has to see what he’s worth before having to test the market. Adding an extra year or two onto the rookie contract of all players would make it much more difficult to give out bad contracts – it doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen, of course, but having an extra 22 or 44 games available to see what you’ve got helps.

That would permeate throughout the rest of the AFL system, making players on their sophomore or later deals more valuable.

On the other side, the players would argue for more freedom of movement. I wouldn’t think there would be much consternation about the current two-year standard rookie contracting period – it offers a player-friendly balance between job security (being injured in your first year doesn’t mean you’re cut straight up), while also allowing market forces to kick in suitably early for the cream to rise to the top. Where they could look at using the McCarthy situation for leverage is in relation to the introduction of trade/no-trade clauses, which are strictly illegal under the current CBA.

The Kurt Tippett situation – where the key forward had a clause hidden in his contract that stated his former club Adelaide were bound to accept an offer for a trade to the club of Tippett’s choice so long as that club offered a second-round draft pick – is common in global sports, but is a no-no in our native game.

The players could, and perhaps will, argue that introducing these sorts of provisions into contracts gives players an extra piece of bargaining power that they can hold over the clubs to help free up the movement of players.

Despite the different tact both sides could take, it’s not as if there has been an explosion in the number of very young players moving around in recent years. In 2015 some 40 players moved clubs, nine of whom were aged 21 or under in the last football year (22 per cent). In 2014, five of the 24 players traded were aged 21 or younger (21 per cent); in 2013, it was 13 of the 28 (46 per cent). There’s nothing to suggest age is a barrier, either on the high side or low side, to player movement. If a deal can be done, it is quite often done.

However there are pockets of trouble. In recent years, Brisbane’s list management turmoil has been largely the result of the ‘go home’ factor for a number of their high draft picks – most notably Jared Polec, Sam Docherty and Eliot Yeo, who all returned to their home states after being taken inside the top 30 in 2010 and 2011.

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But Brisbane recently rebuilt their list with more mature-aged players of Queensland origin; Dayne Beams and Tom Bell come to mind. Swings and roundabouts.

Lurking in the background of this is the prospect of an increase in the AFL draft age. Cam McCarthy was just 19 years old when he signed his sophomore contract with the Giants, having moved to the suburban oasis that is western Sydney at the age of 18 and six months.

He was drafted to play professional football, not drafted to go fight in a foreign land, so let’s pump the breaks a little here. But would the homesickness factor have been as front and centre if he was, say, 19 and six months when he was drafted? Or 20 and six months, as he is right now, seemingly making decisions that he sees are in his long-term interest?

Would an extra year plying his trade in a state league, perhaps with the support of a part-time, AFL-run academy to help him ease into the life of a professional AFL footballer, have made life in western Sydney more palatable?

While we sometimes take our football a little too seriously as fans on the sidelines, the pressures of being one of the performers must be immense. A lot is asked of young men, and perhaps some need a little more time in the oven before emerging as a fully baked AFL player.

Perhaps that is the good that can come out of the Cam McCarthy situation. Right now, the game is down one of its bright prospects; the impact could, and perhaps will, resonate farther than meets the eye.