Imagine you are in Alex Witherden’s situation.
You are a Victorian and you were drafted to a club in another state where you have no family connection. You had your teething problems early on and wanted a trade, but you have since settled in well at the club and formed some lifelong friendships.
As a rebuilding club, they show a lot of faith in you and back you in to succeed, giving you a lot of chances to develop into an AFL player and continuously selecting you for the team. In your second year at the club, you come third in the Rising Star Award and have put together 59 games across four years.
In 2019, you sign a three-year contract keeping you there until the end of 2022. You buy a house and become best mates with one of your teammates (Cameron Rayner), while you receive some important mentoring from senior figures (Luke Hodge).
But then, suddenly, the club is no longer rebuilding. Now, the club is in the premiership window. They’ve recruited a veteran with premiership experience (Grant Birchall) and they have brought in an exciting young player to add pace (Callum Ah Chee). To top it off, an era of high draft picks means that there is a backlog of talent (Zac Bailey, Brandon Starcevich) who are hungry to hold down a senior spot.
As a result, you may be a casualty in the club’s quest for a premiership and your spot is no longer secure.
So, you’re in and out of the senior side. You put in some good performances and some average ones. You don’t want to leave but, with senior players playing on, and younger players proving to be essential cogs in the 22, your path back into the senior side isn’t assured. Still, you’ve got runs on the board. Enough to attract the interest of other clubs who think you’re gettable.
As it happens, the club that shows the most interest in you (West Coast) is on the other side of the country and you’ve got no prior association with it or friends or family in that state. Still, you’ve moved states before and, most importantly, they see a clear role for you in succeeding one of their veteran players (Shannon Hurn) who is at the backend of his career.
The catch? This other club isn’t willing to pay you on your current salary, so you would have to take a pay cut to join them.
Here comes the difficult question. Do you stay at your current club where you have a contract for two years and a decent salary?
As I said before, you have played a decent amount of senior footy before recently falling out of favour and senior players (Birchall and, possibly, Daniel Rich) may retire in the next few years, and you could be well-positioned to play consistent senior footy in the near future. Or do you take a chance at this other club who seem to have you in their plans and you could be playing senior footy from Round 1, albeit for less money?
On one hand, your club has been fairly indifferent to keeping you and there’s no guarantee that, when senior players retire, other players (Jack Payne and Deven Robinson, potentially) won’t be favoured as their replacement.
Also, at 22, playing regular senior footy might be more of a priority than earning good money. Besides, if you stay at your club and don’t make it back into the senior side then, by the end of your contract, your value could be significantly reduced.
Potentially, you could sign a modest deal at this other club with triggers that would entitle you to a pay rise or you could take a risk, back yourself, and sign a short-term deal with the hope that a fresh start and more senior opportunities will help you earn better coin down the track.
On, the other hand, abandoning a contract for lesser pay is risky and moving interstate is expensive. Also, as a general rule, clubs are less interested in the development of players they have recruited through trade than those that they drafted. If you don’t deliver for this new club on what you were recruited for, then, potentially, your career could be over.
Theoretically speaking, your career could be over at the end of your contract at your current club too, though if you request a trade and then don’t succeed at the second club, the question is raised whether it is in fact you that is the problem and not the club.
What about a third option where you stay at your club and try to make it back into the senior side while being open to a trade in twelve months or two years if you are unable to get senior opportunities? This way you can keep your options open while having the security of a contract to fall back on.