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If you love him, don't set him free

Touch of the Fumbles

After Patrick Dangerfield picked up five goals and 33 touches, Tom Richardson finds the dark cloud behind the silver lining.

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Let me preface this by saying I love Patrick Dangerfield. Love the bloke.

In addition to being one of the most explosive, dynamic and kamikaze-brave players in the league, he also displays a maturity beyond his years and just seems like a jolly nice guy to boot. Plus, of course, he spurned the promise of lucrative contracts and the lure of living and playing near family and friends to stay in Adelaide.

Part of this state’s collective inferiority complex requires an element of disbelief when a star interstate player actually wants to continue his career in Adelaide. From the minnows (such as Fergus Watts, who spurned a promising role in Adelaide’s forward line to play a solitary game for St Kilda) to the premiership-winning likes of Stenglein and Gunston, the Adelaide Football Club’s brief history is littered with go-home failures.

And, in terms of the knock to the already fraught psyche, the chaotic 2012 exit of the man whose name we do not speak here at Fumbleland was pretty much the football equivalent of the State Bank collapse. Not only did this 202cm key forward-cum-ruckman passionately want out of SA, he didn’t even end up leaving for family reasons, as he’d so often hinted. He just didn’t want to be here. (I’m told he now plays for Sydney, although I’m yet to see much evidence of it.)

The fact that he all but crippled the club on his way out didn’t make the parting any sweeter. Back in his breakout year of 2009, after he had kicked seven goals against Essendon in Tyson Edwards’ 300th game, I spotted the soon-to-be want-away forward out and about, and pointed him out to my soon-to-be wife, who I don’t think even bothered to feign interest. “You see that guy?” I gestured conspiratorially. “He’s the future of the Adelaide Football Club.” Yes, I may have had a few drinks. And unfortunately, it turned out I was right.

Much like the team itself, it would be three years before he hit the heights of 2009 again. And it would be more than three years before he played a game to rival that day out against Essendon, and it turned out to be his last in Adelaide colours, against Hawthorn in the 2012 preliminary final.

But the worst aspect of his departure wasn’t the bloody denouement; it was the interminable lead-up. The shadow over the otherwise-excellent 2012 season cast by the endless speculation about his intentions. The morale-sapping uncertainty.

It wasn’t that way, of course, with Paddy Dangerfield. Because he’s a good bloke. When he inked a new three-season deal in May the same year, he explained it was “good to have it out of the way – we can now focus on team rather than individuals”.

“The speculation, the hype that generates has become a negative on the group,” he said at the time.

That decision, shunning entreaties from Geelong (who only narrowly missed a Grand Final last year and look good things to get there again this year), allowed Adelaideans another three years of seeing Paddy’s exploits, wearing Roo’s old number 32, and emulating his bullocking crashes through the packs. But he is perhaps more redolent of another club great, Andrew McLeod, when he snatches the ball from the centre bounce, ignites the turbo charges and streams down the field to kick a running goal from 50 out, as he did so deliriously well on Saturday.

It caused no small controversy when Adelaide drafted Danger with its number 10 pick in 2007 (back in the days before He Whose Name Shall Not Be Spoken, when we still had first round draft picks). It was expected we’d instead go for local football royalty in Brad Ebert, who ended up at West Coast with pick 13, before seeking a trade back to Port Adelaide in 2011.

Despite flashes of brilliance, it took Danger some time to truly flourish – 2012 was his breakout season. Through circumstance rather than form, his possession stats were slightly down last year, as he was forced to pinch hit in a depleted forward line. This season, he has started slowly, but was best on ground on the weekend by a country mile, with the kind of performance that only a handful of current AFL players could turn in.

Ebert, meanwhile, has become an integral part of what’s becoming a highly successful team at Alberton. Five rounds in, his 2014 season is his best so far, averaging more than 24 disposals and a goal a game from the midfield. There is little to separate Ebert and Dangerfield on paper; there were even born only three days apart, in 1990. Ebert may lack something of Dangerfield’s game-turning magic, but he is an elite player.

Yet if there was something intangible that recommended Dangerfield to the Crows over Ebert, there is a nagging something that similarly can’t be quantified that suggests, even now, it may have been the wrong call.

Ebert, as demonstrated when he walked out on West Coast, wants to live and play football in South Australia. He isn’t going anywhere.

And now, with Dangerfield’s contract set to expire next year, that familiar morale-sapping uncertainty is set to again become a fixture as the Crows’ collective fortunes wax and wane. The 2014 co-captain has made it clear he won’t be deciding his future before 2015, and when he does “it will be a decision based on success not on money”.

He did little to alleviate fans’ concerns when he continued: “Clearly there has been a lot of talk here about the problems we’ve had. We lose (He Who Shall Not Be Named) for nothing and then you lose first-and-second-round draft picks for two years and it makes it a lot more difficult to have success.”

Of course, this could all be contract diplomacy, but it doesn’t bode well. And it certainly means we’re in for another year of will-he-won’t-he intrigue. Based on performances like he turned in against GWS, Danger could be one of the best AFL players of his generation; but that matters naught to me if he sees out his career in another team’s colours.

Frankly, much as I love the guy, and I really – really – hope he re-signs, if I still had the choice between an elite speedster with unparalleled toughness, versatility and uncanny ability to read the play who is likely to be wooed by every Victorian team with a chequebook and a dogged midfielder who is a consistent performer that you know will still be playing for your club in three years time … well, I’d probably be going for Ebert.

Tom Richardson is InDaily’s political commentator and Channel Nine’s state political reporter.

On Mondays during the AFL season he will be found in InDaily’s sport section, writing this lament – or chronicle of triumph. Time will tell.

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