The biggest AFL trade news to break on Thursday was that Josh Dunkley has officially requested a trade from the Western Bulldogs to Essendon, following on from weeks of speculation around the midfielder’s future.
It’s a move that makes a lot of sense for Dunkley, who plays his best football as an inside midfielder, but doesn’t seem likely to get that opportunity on a consistent basis at the Bulldogs.
He had a breakout season with them when moved to the middle in 2019, being voted best on ground in the AFLCA MVP five times after Round 8 that year and was named in the squad of 40 for the 2019 All-Australian team.
But he seemed to fall out of favour this year, the Bulldogs preferring to put Bailey Smith and Tom Liberatore on the ball – both recording more than twice as many centre bounce attendances as Dunkley in 2020.
Dunkley’s form clearly suffered. He got votes from the coaches only twice and averaged ten fewer disposals per game than in 2019.
And with the Bulldogs’ preferred inside mids all in the primes of their careers, it seems unlikely that the club can offer him the opportunity he needs to get the best out of himself as a footballer.
It would be a very different story at Essendon, a club that has been crying out for a big-bodied inside midfielder since the retirement of Jobe Watson.
The Bombers’ top four players for centre bounce attendances in 2020 were Dylan Shiel (182 cm), Andy McGrath (180 cm), Zach Merrett (179 cm) and Darcy Parish (180 cm). Suffice to say that 190 cm Dunkley would be a very real point of difference.
Essendon does have other options if they want to find a big-bodied inside mid this trade period. They’ve been linked at times to Gold Coast’s Will Brodie, and could also look at players like Connor Blakely or Charlie Constable.
But none of those has a track record at AFL level that’s even remotely comparable to Dunkley’s. In him, they’d be getting a possible future All-Australian or even Brownlow contender, who at 23 has all the best years of his career still ahead of him.
And due to the departure of Joe Daniher and the impending departure of Adam Saad, the Bombers should – so long as they’re willing to stump it up – have more than enough currency to trade for him. Perfect timing.
It’s a great fit for Dunkley and a great fit for Essendon – where it breaks down is for the Bulldogs.
Under ordinary circumstances I’d argue that trading Dunkley could be a straightforward decision for the Bulldogs – they have an excess of players in that inside midfielder role, and will probably need to let one go eventually.
That being the case, doing it now while Dunkley’s trade value is probably higher than it’s likely to be in the future if he stays makes sense – they could demand as much as two first-rounders and then use those to fill more pressing list needs.
However, the scenario is complicated by their Next Generation Academy access to indigenous key forward Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, who is expected to attract a bid as early as Pick 1 or 2 in this year’s draft.
Even if the Dogs were to receive say Pick 6 in the draft from Essendon, it would be chewed up by matching the Ugle-Hagan bid – making the selection of little worth when they could just as easily match with later picks.
And even if that wasn’t so the Bulldogs might also feel, given the position of their list, that they need to seek out mature talent rather than another generation of high draft picks. I don’t necessarily agree, but it’s a reasonable position to hold.
If the Bulldogs are to turn a Dunkley trade into a win for them, they either need to get something different out of Essendon or find a follow-up trade that allows them to turn Essendon’s picks into an asset that benefits them.
The path to doing so is unclear. There are certainly players on Essendon’s list the Bulldogs would be interested in, but whether the Bombers could be cajoled into including them in a deal is an entirely different discussion.
Essendon’s 2021 first-rounder will come up in discussions also, but the Dogs will want to consider the fact that Dunkley’s arrival could be just the thing to boost Essendon back into the eight – and that pick might not be a good return.
If the Bulldogs can win the commitment of a mature player from another club they could then do a Dunkley deal and on-trade the selections to make that happen – but they haven’t really been linked to anyone in that capacity as yet, and it’s unclear whether they could manufacture something on such short notice.
So, it’s easy to understand why the Dogs are reluctant to let Dunkley go. At a different time it might well make sense, but right now, unless they can find the right deals to fit around it, it doesn’t.
Mark Stevens has consistently reported that the Dogs have no intention of trading Dunkley, but their statement released on Thursday night stopped short of being quite so emphatic.
“The club has been in frequent dialogue with Josh and his management over the past few weeks, and reiterated its intention for him to remain a Western Bulldogs player,” says the statement.
“Accordingly, the Bulldogs remain committed to improving our playing list through the Trade Period and the National Draft, to build on back-to-back seasons of playing in the AFL Finals.”
It’s a bit of a word salad but for mine, it says the door is open just a crack – so long as any moves made can make a material improvement to the Bulldogs list.
They must choose between two ways to go about it.
The first would be to pick a target or targets from other clubs – perhaps Essendon themselves – and pursue them aggressively and immediately, as they did once upon a time with Tom Boyd following Ryan Griffen’s trade request.
If they could convince say Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti – who they pursued last year – or Zach Merrett – who was the subject of trade rumours until recently, – to come to the club, then game on.
The second way is to lean back and put the onus on Essendon to offer a suitable deal and make it clear that otherwise Dunkley will stay put.
That’s language the Bombers will understand, even if they don’t like hearing it. They made the same move with Joe Daniher last year and are signing the same sort of tune about Orazio Fantasia in 2020.
Dunkley is after all contracted for another two years – if the Bombers can’t conjure up a worthy offer, holding onto him for another 12 months is by no means a bad outcome. Given the NGA circumstances, the value of trading him then might be no worse than the value of trading him now.
The trend in recent trade periods is that clubs are becoming more and more willing to insist on big returns for contracted players or hold them to their commitment. I expect the Dogs to do the same – and that could mean this one goes down to the wire.
Of all the deals on the table as we near the end of the first week of trades, this one appears the most uncertain. If it gets done – and it’s a big if – there could be some significant twists and turns along the way.