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How much is Clayton Oliver worth... and who's the best fit? Five burning questions over looming AFL trade bombshell

4th October, 2023
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4th October, 2023
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Whether you believe it’s going to happen or not, the news that Melbourne and Clayton Oliver are at least entertaining a parting of ways is set to be the biggest story of the upcoming Trade Period.

Not since Lachie Neale flirted with and then abandoned a plan to try and return home to Fremantle two years ago has a star of this magnitude been even mooted to be heading elsewhere – and while the reaction to early reports was sceptical, with every passing hour the rumours grow stronger that neither club nor player are fully happy with the current state of their relationship.

So, will it happen, what would it look like if it did, and what would the Dees be out to get in return for arguably their greatest midfielder in 60 years?

Here are five burning questions from what could be the trade bombshell of 2023.

» Check out the full list of AFL trade rumours here

Is this real?

The honest answer is… we won’t know until the trade period concludes on Wednesday, October 18.

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Oliver isn’t your typical player around whom trade rumours swirl: not only is he a clear top-10 player in the game, if not higher, but he’s barely 12 months on from signing a lucrative contract tying him to the Demons until 2030.

Contracts of this magnitude are rare, but rarer still are trade rumours this early into them – Brodie Grundy at least got three years into his seven-year deal with Collingwood before parting ways, and it’s surely impossible that the Demons’ salary cap, or their relationship with Oliver, has deteriorated to the extent they’d be willing to shunt him off for cents on the dollar like the Pies did with Grundy.

The current state of affairs, as has been reported by SEN‘s Tom Morris among others, is that the Demons aren’t impressed with Oliver’s approach to rehabilitating that long-term hamstring injury that cost him most of the middle of 2023, while Oliver too is upset about how the club’s medical staff handled it, to the point he chose to visit an external medico when a knee injury flared up in the lead-in to the finals.

Much as we love to accuse those in the media of exaggerating or flat out fabricating these sort of things, the truth is that there’s rarely smoke without fire in the trade game, and while the initial reaction to Oliver’s trade request, with the caveat that Oliver hadn’t requested a trade nor had the Dees put him on the table in any sense, was one of derision, the further detail that has since come out about the state of play now has to be taken seriously at least.

Clayton Oliver of the Demons and Jy Simpkin of the Kangaroos look on.

Clayton Oliver of the Demons and Jy Simpkin of the Kangaroos look on. (Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)

Will Oliver be elsewhere in 2023? It’s possible, and depending on where you sit it might even be likely – though it must be said that the Demons hold all the cards here, and would be mad to trade such a significant asset without something major coming back their way.

But as to whether it will happen or not… well, only time will tell. There are more variables in this mooted trade than any I can remember.

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Are the Crows the best fit?

Oliver is a good enough player that he could walk into any team in the competition and instantly make them better – I’d be surprised if any team, even the ones with zero room in the salary cap of a swathe of gun midfielders already, weren’t at least making inquiries as to how slim the chance of picking him up for a song really is.

According to reports, the two biggest early suitors for Oliver’s services are Adelaide and Essendon – and the former, at least, makes perfect sense.

The Crows’ biggest weakness might be their defence, especially with Tom Doedee heading to Brisbane, but another inside bull to complement Jordan Dawson’s brilliant foot skills on the outside would be a superb acquisition, and they don’t come much better in that regard than the Demons’ number 13.

The Bombers aren’t exactly short on midfielders, with Zach Merrett and Darcy Parish entrenched, Will Setterfield showing great signs to start 203 before injury struck and youngster Ben Hobbs seemingly being groomed for a full time on-ball role in the years to come. Could the huge price tag Oliver will surely come with, both from a trade and salary cap perspective, be better elsewhere?

Geelong would be an obvious fit given their dearth of star midfielders, but it’s doubtful they have anything that would pique the Dees’ interest; West Coast, meanwhile, have the biggest carrot in the land in the form of pick 1, and with it the rights to the most hyped pick 1 in a generation in Harley Reid, but at ground zero of a long and painstaking rebuild would Oliver really want to go there?

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Oliver is apparently close friends with North Melbourne captain Jy Simpkin, though that surely means next to nothing in the grand scheme of things; the Kangaroos do have pick 2 to entice the Dees with, plus the benefit of Oliver not having to move states, and maybe a slightly more advanced position in their arduous rebuild than the Eagles.

Hawthorn, too, are an interesting dark horse in the race: while their midfield is developing nicely, they’re reportedly willing to give up pick 3 for Bailey Smith, a substantially lesser player than Oliver. Could that, plus perhaps some extra picks and maybe a Denver Grainger-Barras-type steak knives player (I still haven’t lost faith in him being an AFL-standard player), be a package sufficient enough to tempt Melbourne?

And because it’s a trade rule, I have to mention Sydney here: whenever there’s a big trade, usually the Swans find a way to at least ask the question.

They’ve certainly got a dearth of strong, inside midfielders, with Luke Parker entering the final stages of his glittering career, and the retirement of Lance Franklin means some extra cash on their hands; plus their position in the premiership window would surely be appealing to a player of Oliver’s calibre.

Clayton Oliver of the Demons celebrates a goal

Clayton Oliver. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

But it’s been a long time since the Swans have gone after a big fish, and at any rate their number one focus seems to be on another Demon in Brodie Grundy; until the size of the salary chunk the Swans will be taking of the Dees’ hands for the ruckman is known, any other deals will likely have to wait.

» Get to know the full list of AFL free agents for 2023 here

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What would the Dees want in return?

We’ve reached the biggest hair in the soup – the price.

Triple M and AFL.com.au journalist Damian Barrett was adamant when asked his opinion: “It’s pick 1 overall in the draft that you are going to have to get your hands on, as a starting point and a starting point only,” he told AFL Trade Radio.

Pick 1, of course, means guaranteed access to Reid, and seems more up for grabs than in most years: not only are there concerns over whether he’d be willing to commit to a long future at West Coast without a Jason Horne-Francis style homecoming, but the Eagles have a viable alternative in the form of WA gun Daniel Curtin, a versatile utility who fits the club’s list needs perfectly.

A trade between the Eagles and Kangaroos in which picks 1 and 2 trade hands, along with some of the Roos’ other picks as part of either their Ben McKay free agency compensation or the AFL’s recently announced assistance package, has long been mooted; but Oliver’s looming availability could well spark a bidding war from other clubs for that precious first pick.

Put simply, no player currently on the market would interest the Dees as anything more than steak knives in an Oliver deal; this is a trade period that seems likely to deal in quantity more than quality.

The Western Bulldogs could, for example, give up pre-agent Tim English, out of contract in 12 months’ time, to the Eagles in exchange for that pick, and then on-sell it (plus maybe another, later pick) to the Demons for Oliver, but given the Dogs’ abundance of midfielders, plus the Eagles a good chance to have access to English for nothing as a restricted free agent next year, even that three-way blockbuster trade is reliant on two rival clubs doing a marked about-face on their currently communicated plans.

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If Barrett’s belief is true that Reid rights are the only thing that will convince them to let Oliver go, and the Eagles remain steadfast in holding it, then we’re at an impasse.

That being said, it wouldn’t be unheard of for the Demons to fold and accept less, especially if they’ve really soured on Oliver. Do that, and North’s pick 2 and Hawthorn’s pick 3 suddenly come right into play, as do Adelaide’s picks 9, 21, 24, possible end of first-round compensation for losing Doedee and a wantaway small forward in Shane McAdam whose nominated home is, you guessed it, Melbourne.

As for players? The Crows have a pair of young forwards under contract in Riley Thilthorpe and Darcy Fogarty that would appeal to the Dees’ desperate need for talls in attack.

Under contract for another seven years, Oliver’s fate is entirely in the Demons’ hands, and they can certainly drive the toughest of bargains. That makes it hard to fathom them moving him on with pick 1 – and Reid rights – seemingly out of their reach.

Their choices are twofold then: keep him and try to mend the relationship, or offload him for plenty but less than he’s properly worth. I know what choice I’d be making.

What would losing Oliver mean for the Dees?

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At least for midfielders, the Demons’ list bats deep, and they were able to cover Oliver’s absence for much of 2023 to good effect.

Christian Petracca is at least on and possibly exceeding Oliver’s level, Angus Brayshaw moved seamlessly into the midfield after a few seasons on a wing and at half-back, Jack Viney was arguably unlucky to miss the All-Australian squad, and Tom Sparrow, Trent Rivers and Kysaiah Pickett are among the lesser lights who could certainly move up a tier or two in the pecking order.

Melbourne went 7-3 without Oliver in 2023, which both afforded them the chance to build a working structure without their superstar and envision a world without him.

That’s not to say his departure wouldn’t leave a gaping hole… more that the Dees are better placed to fill it than most, especially if it brings in return a high pick that they can use on, if not Harley Reid, than a Zane Duursma or Colby McKercher.

Oliver was also one of the key culprits behind some of the Dees’ sloppy ball use heading into the forward line during the finals series; he contributed 10 of their 69 inside 50s against Collingwood in the qualifying final that netted just seven goals, and for a player of his status loves a blind bomb into attack. His ball-winning skills and clearance power on the inside are just about irreplaceable, but filling the breach with a Rivers type more suited to delivering inside 50 might leave the Dees with a better balance.

Geelong famously won the 2011 premiership despite losing Gary Ablett to Gold Coast the year prior. The Demons have a talented enough list to do the same should they give up Oliver – and they’re far better placed to get much more in return than what the Cats received for their favourite son.

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… and what would bringing him in mean for a rival?

In one word? Everything – especially if it’s the right home.

For Adelaide, an Oliver and Dawson-led midfield might be the one-two punch that lands them a premiership next year; certainly, it would turn them from a finals hopeful into a top-four frontrunner overnight. The Bombers, too, would surely benefit from the arrival of the superstar inside midfielder they’ve lacked (with respect to Setterfield) since prime Jobe Watson.

As for the Kangaroos and Eagles, what better way to fast-track a rebuild than to bring in one of the game’s premier players? Look at what Lachie Neale’s arrival did to Brisbane; after nine consecutive years of double-figure ladder positions, including a 15th-placed finish in 2018, the Lions have finished in the top four in four of five seasons with him, and made a preliminary final from sixth in the other.

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Neale wasn’t even as good a player as Oliver now is when he crossed from Fremantle; his dual Brownlow Medals and superstar status came with his trade to the Lions. Imagine if Oliver had a similar increase in output!

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Virtually nothing is certain about this trade – whether Oliver will go, whether the Demons can be convinced to part ways with him, even what resources his biggest suitors can compile to make an offer.

But you can guarantee this: Clayton Oliver is clearly a player good enough to throw the kitchen sink at trying to attain if there’s even a glimmer of hope of bringing him in. No doubt over the coming fortnight, we’ll see more than a few teams do just that.

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