Footy’s never-ending cycle of rebirth begins anew today. It’s a new year, it’s 2020, and we’re set for a season of AFL that will – as always – be infested with intrigue and drenched in drama.
Here’s my early look at the big stories to follow.
Are caretaker coaches the new black?
The AFL’s senior coaching landscape saw two major developments in 2019.
The first was – after no coaching changes in 2018 and only one the season prior – seeing five of the AFL’s 18 clubs swung the axe in the year just past.
If you include Essendon’s announcement of a succession plan, which will see Ben Rutten replace John Worsfold at the end of 2020, then a whole third of the senior coaching staff changed in the space of 12 months.
The second – an unprecedented move – had three caretaker coaches promoted to the permanent job after exemplary in-season performances.
David Hale, who coached Fremantle in Round 23, was the only person to act as a caretaker last year and not get the nod for the full-time job.
Brad Scott was the first coach to depart his position in 2019, finishing up after ten rounds, with Rhyce Shaw – who had only started at North Melbourne an assistant that year – taking the reins.
North pursued past champions Adam Simpson and John Longmire with big-money offers, but after being knocked back by both, settled on Shaw as their best option after he delivered an impressive on-field turnaround.
It was a simillar path for David Teague at Carlton, who jumped into the role after Brendon Bolton was sacked 11 games in.
Teague seemed the most unlikely for the role, but when he struck gold with a winning run of form he gained massive popular support and, like Shaw, became too popular not to appoint.
Brett Ratten’s rise was less dramatic – there’d been an expectation all year that Alan Richardson was likely to depart the Saints at some stage and that he could be a possible replacement. In the end this was an almost organic transition.
No caretaker coach has been given an ongoing appointment since Matthew Primus in 2010 and his results – winning just eight from 40 games after being confirmed as senior coach – were so disastrous it seemed to scare clubs away from such a move.
But in 2020 the approach is being given a second chance, with three former caretakers in the mix, and Rutten set to join the senior coaching ranks through a similar arrangement.
Will they flourish or will they fail? It’s time to find out.
Should I stay or should I Joe?
The most monolithic story of last year’s trade period was the Joe Daniher saga, beginning in August with a coffee at Tom Harley’s house and ending in October with no deal done before the deadline.
You could ask a dozen people and get a dozen different versions of events, but the result is that Daniher remains on Essendon’s list for season 2020, however will have restricted free agent status come trade time unless he signs a new contract.
That means if Daniher still desires a move to the Swans in nine months, he’ll be able to accept an offer from Sydney – or, in what is likely a pure hypothetical, any other club – and leave Essendon with a decision whether or not to match.
If the Bombers match, then Daniher would need to move clubs via a trade, or walk and hope to land at Sydney via the pre-season draft, in the same manner that Jack Martin arrived at Carlton in November.
I know what you’re thinking – this is quite some time away, so why all the extraneous detail? Well, the other consideration is that, if forced to trade for Daniher, Sydney could find themsleves (yet again) in a tough spot.
They will need plenty of draft currency to match bids for academy prospects Braeden Campbell and Errol Gulden, the former being a likely top-ten pick and the latter a reasonable chance to be in that mix also.
Even if the Swans were to get in a good pick for Tom Papley – whose trade ambitions also fell through last year – they still might not have enough currency to take full advantage of that academy bounty while also satisfying Essendon in a trade.
The unknown in all this is whether Daniher will make any significant progress in returning from injury this year. If he doesn’t, then his trade value likely drops, especially given he’d have the pre-season draft up his sleeve.
But if he does, can the Swans afford him? Could he fall back in love with being a Bomber?
The Dons, also, can expect to see speculation around Orazio Fantasia’s future at the club continue into the new year.
The Daniher story is one that you (like me) may be a bit tired of already, having not that long ago listened to roughly 40 hours of discussion on it, wedged in between Soap For Tradies adverts.
But whichever way it goes, expect it to be one of the major talking points of 2020.
Can Collingwood retain a star trio?
Believed to be in possession of one of the league’s tightest salary caps, Collingwood face a difficult task to re-sign three of the most important players on their list.
Contract discussion around Brodie Grundy abounded in 2019, even more than 12 months out from him becoming a free agent (which he’ll do this year, if he doesn’t sign a new deal).
However, that appears to be one the Pies should wrap up fairly quickly – they’ve reportedly acquiesced to his demand of a seven-year contract, so you’d expect this to be formally announced sometime before the season begins.
The futures of Jordan De Goey and Darcy Moore, on the other hand, remain less clear, and it seems likely both will go into the season – possibly deep into the season – without deals for 2021 and beyond.
De Goey has shot into near-superstardom since he signed his last deal and is one of the game’s most dangerous forward-half players.
He kicked 25 goals before the bye last year and seemed bound for an All Australian guernsey before hamstring injuries robbed him of the chance to put an exclamation point on an excellent first half of the year.
North reportedly offered him $5 million across five seasons just three years ago, and his stock has only risen since then. Expect negotiations to drag on as De Goey looks to extract maximum value from what could be the biggest contract of his career.
Moore, meanwhile, seems likely to drag on simply due to the uncertainty around his durability.
Rated as a potential All Australian by some, he showed great form in patches last year but that was distributed among repeated hamstring injuries, which left him lacking in preparation going into finals, though he was still among Collingwood’s best in September.
Moore might be the least valuable of this trio on the open market but his value to the Pies is increased by their dearth of key position players.
Moore is Collingwood’s most important tall talent and they simply cannot afford to lose him.
There’s bound to be a way to get it done but all three players could be in line for significant paydays, and even if opposition clubs aren’t able to snatch one of this weighty trio, enough aggression may well shake something smaller loose.
Watch this space.
Which clubs can break their finals droughts?
A handful of clubs – some long removed from September – enter the year just a little more desperate to taste finals action.
St Kilda haven’t played post-season football since 2011, going down to Sydney in their last game under Ross Lyon, who sacked four players in his post-game press conference and presumably changed into purple pyjamas on the drive home.
That’s eight long years without a sniff of September – the longest finals drought in the league – and St Kilda’s proactive offseason made it clear they are desperate for a move back into the top eight.
The Saints landed a quintet of trade targets last October – headlined by Bradley Hill, but also featuring Zak Jones, Dougal Howard, Paddy Ryder and Dan Butler – though they had to farewell Josh Bruce and Jack Steven to get it done.
Despite those losses, St Kilda have set their sights on finals in 2020. Yet, if you were to take a vox pop of the street, I suspect even fans of the club would be pessimistic about their chances.
Carlton have the next longest finals drought, six years in length, but the situation is less dire for them. David Teague still has a honeymoon period to enjoy and fans will hardly riot if they don’t make the eight.
Still, every footy fan has within them that kernel of eternal hope – and after witnessing Brisbane’s boisterous rise up the ladder last year, Blues fans will dream that they could do something similar.
If they do, Teague will be wearing a navy blue halo around his head for many years to come.
Fremantle’s four years out of finals is the next longest drought and the Dockers enter 2020 as one of the league’s most intriguing clubs.
After a lengthy Ross Lyon tenure there’s a fresh face in the box for the first time in many years – Justin Longmuir, a favourite son who has come home to coach a list that has changed as dramatically as any other (except perhaps Gold Coast) in the last two years.
In that time, Freo have lost two of their most elite talents in Lachie Neale and Bradley Hill, but landed one of the competition’s best young key forwards in Jesse Hogan, and brought in three top-ten draft selections this year just past, after taking two in the top five only two seasons prior.
The end result of that switching and swapping is that Fremantle are the third-youngest list in the competition. But they have the new-coach bounce, some terrific young talent, and a rather handy two-time Brownlow Medallist.
Finally, Port Adelaide find themselves only two years separated from September, but could be 2020’s most scrutinised side as the matter of Ken Hinkley’s future at the club inevitably comes to a head.
Hinkley’s contract runs out at the end of this year but contains an automatic one-year extension if he makes it into finals. Hinkley himself has said he expects to lose his position if he doesn’t achieve a top-eight finish.
That’s not written in stone, of course – but having it written in the media is maybe worse.
Port came achingly close to finals the last two years, but after hitting the draft hard over that period and now possessing only the 12th-oldest list in the league, it seems unrealistic that expectations both internally and externally should be so high.
Hinkley will enter the season under more pressure than any of his contemporaries and in desperate need of some cards up his sleeve.
Will 2020 be the AFL’s most compromised draft yet?
During the 2019 trade period and as the draft approached, there emerged greater and greater discussion about the nature of the 2020 pool.
In early September, reporter Cal Twomey suggested it could go down as the most compromised draft in history.
Interest in future drafts is, naturally, on the increase since the AFL began allowing clubs to trade future selections.
Clubs now simply cannot afford to operate without a strong understanding of the types and quality of talent that will be available at the draft in 12 months.
Future trades have been a rousing success, at least through the lens of how much the mechanism has been taken up.
Fourteen future selections changed hands in 2015, when clubs were first given that power, but that number has skyrocketed to 40 picks already traded from the 2020 draft.
That includes five first-rounders, the value of which will be heavily influenced by the nature of the talent pool.
If, as some draft watchers fear, much of the best talent is already pre-linked to specific clubs by academy or father-son ties, then otherwise valuable selections may bulge out well beyond the ordinary limits of the first round.
Of 48 players selected for the AFL’s All Stars match of 2020 drafts prospects, 17 were already tied to clubs. Per the Herald Sun, one anonymous expert claimed 22 of next year’s top 40 prospects were already off the market.
Additional to this is the fact that Gold Coast, as part of an extremely generous assistance package handed down last September, have been given the ability to add academy players directly to their list without needing to match a bid.
That allowed them to add some notable talents in Connor Budarick and Malcolm Rosas Jnr to their list this off-season, and will net them a likely first-round prospect in Alex Davies come 2020.
It’s not hard to see where the doom and gloom comes from. But it might be too early to upgrade the DEFCON status just yet.
While there are a lot of academy or father-son players in the mix for next year’s draft, only two – Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, tied to the Western Bulldogs, and the formerly mentioned Sydney Academy star Braeden Campbell – appear more likely than not to be top five or ten selections right now.
Depending on how the stocks of different players rise and fall, this draft may not prove that much more compromised than that of 2015, where five of the first 16 players selected were tied to academies.
Regardless, it’s bound to bring to ahead the ongoing discussion as to how the AFL’s drafting and trading mechanisms should work now and in the future.
They have evolved at a rapid pace and the league’s oft-reported interest in introducing extra trade periods mid-season, post-season, post-draft, pre-season and presumably also in between every shortened 15-minute halftime break indicates no forthcoming decline in acceleration.
Regular readers will know it’s one of my favourite topics and one you can expect to hear plenty on in 2020.
Who will be Gillon McLachlan’s successor?
It might be one of footy’s more under-the-radar plot lines, but the competition is on in the hunt for a second-in-command to succeed Gillon McLachlan, suggesting the current CEO’s days are numbered.
McLachlan has been in the position for about five and a half years, a tenure that has seen more than its fair share of drama.
He put major feathers in his cap early, the biggest being a landmark $2.5 billion TV rights deal signed after just over a year in the role, and will for a long time be able to hang his hat on the establishment of the AFLW.
But neither of these silver linings is without its cloud. That TV deal expires at the end of 2022 and there is growing concern that it will be one of decline, a departure from the pattern of consistent expansion and increased profit the league has enjoyed during the professional era.
The competition could face a decision between remaining with its existing broadcast partners in Seven, Foxtel and Telstra, or pivoting towards something newer and more innovative – but that’s more likely a hot topic for 2021.
As for the AFLW, the reality is that McLachlan and the AFL have been as much criticised for the lack of support and promotion of the competition as they have been praised for its introduction. Whether the criticism is fair or not, it’s certainly unlikely we’ll remember McLachlan as the feminist CEO.
Further to these matters, McLachlan’s relationship with fans has taken a battering over the last two years over the issues of rule changes and the policing of fan behaviour.
The AFL’s intention to tweak rules and increase scoring was a major topic of discussion during the 2018 season but proved only to generate significant angst for no reward, as clubs scored on average three points fewer per game in 2019 than the year previous, hitting the lowest level since 1968.
The competition also copped significant flack this year past for what appeared to be increased attempts to police crowd behaviour. This debacle proved to be the proverbial orphan, and any genuine clarity over the who or why of the matter was never really achieved.
One wonders, then, what a presidential approval rating of McLachlan’s tenure would look like, were it to be conducted – but the gut feel is it would be unfavourable. And the rumblings about a successor adds a genuine heft to the speculation.
Essendon CEO Xavier Campbell recently knocked back an offer to become McLachlan’s 2IC and presumptive CEO-in-waiting, announcing his recommitment to the Bombers at Essendon’s annual general meeting.
Richmond CEO Brendon Gale is the other name that has been regularly touted – and he would be a fine appointment if you feel like asking me about it.
Right now it could be fairly labelled the biggest story that nobody’s talking about – but in 12 months that will no longer be true.
And of course… who’s going to win it?
Premierships are what all our speculation boils down to in the end, and the race is as much alive in this season as it has been in any other.
Richmond, of course, have won two of the past three flags and are deservedly the early favourites with the bookmakers on that basis.
It’s hard to argue against them after such incredible dominance in the grand final – a standout performance in a still otherwise stupendous finals series – but it would be harder still if they were expecting to retain the services of the recently retired Alex Rance.
While the Tigers have scratched off one of their biggest names in pen now rather than pencil, their closest rivals and 2018 premiers West Coast have added Tim Kelly, a top-five Brownlow finisher in 2019.
Kelly cost the Eagles more arms and legs than we knew they had, but it will all be worth it if he can take them to another flag, and at the very least justifiable if he can get them within striking distance of that goal.
Despite owning the last three premierships, Richmond and West Coast haven’t met in a final in that time – and haven’t met in one ever, in fact – and haven’t played each other twice in a season since 2009.
That will change in 2020, with the Tigers and Eagles to do battle in Rounds 5 and 14 this year. Could they meet a third time in September, as well? It’s a salivating prospect.
Of course, if recent years tell us anything it should be to widen our gaze.
All clubs would believe they’re capable of moving up the ladder and at least ten should be thinking of themselves as possible premiership contenders.
Two hundred and seven games from now, one – and only one – will stand above the rest. Welcome to 2020.