Why some old flames burn brighter after swanning off with another club

It’s not you, it’s me. Break-ups are dastardly things, particularly if you have an ex who goes on to become a Hollywood star or marries a billionaire app developer. True stories, both happened to some friends-once-removed of mine.

In football parlance, there is a particular form of split which seems exceptionally cruel as it leaves one side wondering what more they could have done.

Consolation questions loom for Swans fans: why didn’t we get that versions of Aliir? How come we didn’t look that happy in our photos together?Credit:Getty

Take the recent success of former Swan Aliir Aliir, named All Australian in his first season for Port Adelaide and putting in a near best-on-ground performance in his team’s week-one finals win.

I can hear the Swans faithful now taking comfort in the arrival of Tom Hickey. No, no, it was mutual, it needed to happen.

Hickey has been phenomenal but, beneath the veil of consolation, questions loom: why didn’t we get that Aliir? How come we didn’t look that happy in our photos together? Where was our anniversary hot-air balloon ride?

Alas, this is not a piece on Aliir, but rather the post-mortem of a necessary break-up seen time and time again.

Much of Aliir’s incredible story is unique, but there is something familiar to his situation. Within Swans alumni alone, one need only look at the successes of Tom Mitchell (traded 2016, Brownlow Medal 2018), Toby Nankervis (traded 2016, premierships 2017, 2019, 2020) and Shane Biggs (traded 2014, premiership 2016) to see a pattern.

Football clubs are peculiar places, harnessing the inertia of continuity as an antidote to the chaos of the game. The same seats in meeting rooms, the same physios on the same tables replay the same unspoken ritual of “stirrups and sixers” before the same gentrified patterns of cones are laid out on the track each week.

Sure, much of the predictability of things has changed in the past two seasons, but it extends beyond the lay of the land. The in-joke vernacular at clubs of reciting the same old stories is a cultural artifice transported wherever the bodies who know it go, and the value of routine permeates into the psyche of players. It’s observable through pre-game superstitions: the player who has to be the last out of the race; who has to have two bottles of orange Gatorade before each game; who believes they will only play well if they wear their lucky pair of tattered red jocks.

Control the controllables, remove as many variables as possible. While all is done to ensure success, this same force which cements some players as reliable fan favourites also creates, as we in the industry call them, the “Cloggers”.

To be a Clogger is to sit within spots 18 to 30 on a list of 40. Here the line is blurred between the motivation of “just keep knocking down the door” and that definition for insanity, where repetition naively expects a different result. Certain players, no matter their potential, get caught in a holding pattern of “almost there, not quite, try again”. It’s a tattered existence compounded by the impatience of fans, coaches and teammates.

When occupied for some time, this sporting no-man’s land accrues a form of psychological baggage. It’s an unavoidable subconscious distrust formed by seeing the ease at which your name is moved off the field to the eight or so on the side that are “in the mix”.

Overcoming the roadblock isn’t as easy as one might think. In a meeting circa 2013, I recall guest speaker and Australia’s former men’s cricket coach Darren Lehmann saying his solution for one player caught in this loop was to assure them they would play for six months without being dropped. But the dynamic doesn’t work as such. Teammates seeing a player stay in without merit tips the scale the other way, as disgruntled talk of favouritism litters conversations.

In the great machine of a football club, with all its spindles and gears, some simply become that piece whose function is to leverage the chosen ones up, to live out the unfortunate dark side of those often-repeated lines: “There is no ‘I’ in team and no one is bigger than the game”. Stars exist because there are non-stars. The pH of a change room relies upon this balance, as do salary caps. Over time, however, one may become fixed in their role and to break the machine is too large an ask. Ergo the revitalising power of a whiteboard that does not know the back of your name magnet, and hallways which do not know murmurs of that spray copped two pre-seasons ago.

To broken-hearted football fans still asking “why?″, you can delete the folder of photos on your phones. It’s time to let go. Greater forces were at play and a fresh start was the only way.

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