If ever a week was a long time in football then the coming out of AFL coaches and chief executives anxious to get in Wayne Carey’s ear has seen the supposedly washed up champ now recruit of the year! It was always going to be so, as Hugo Kelly reports.

Retirement made sense at the time but more as a strategic withdrawal than a final declaration.

For the widely acknowledged most dominant player of the ’90’s, the call went out that “the King” was indeed dead. His AFL career was in tatters and his critics wrote him off as damaged goods beyond repair or rehabilitation. “The Duck” was dead meat with sponsors, the media and AFL clubs or so the script was supposed to go.

Well for a start from the get-go his major media sponsor Foxtel stuck and they reaped the benefit for their loyalty, as they will all the way to the Grand Final (see Crikey subscriber newsletter about his return to the Fox Footy Channel).

While post “retirement” he went away and tried to repair his marriage and the whole fabric of his life that had until that point revolved around being the game’s most celebrated current player, the media had a field day speculating on what the future held for a celebrity well and truly caught with his pants down.

It seems Aussies love nothing better than to catch a sporting idol caught with his pants down in every sense of the word. Well that’s what many parts of the media thought but there were some interesting exceptions. For every fan who thought it was not only dumb but an ultimate act of betrayal of a friend and team mate, there were just as many fans who were more forgiving, and for some even the thought that “there but for the grace of God goes I”.

Wayne Jackson AFL chief executive was also publicly sympathetic of a player who before his fall had done as much as any player with the possible exception of Gary Ablett in the last 20 years, to thrill and excite fans with his sheer talent that could literally see him win games single-handedly down through the years. He was the first to popularise a slogan that is now applied to teams and franchise player’s who would be thought of by their club as indispensable. “No Carey, no North” was a tag line the media fed fans for years.

At the weekend the current nominee was “no Buckley, no Collingwood”.

It’s of morbid curiosity that arguably the two most dominant players of the past two decades fell from grace so spectacularly and each in their own way presented tragic personal scenarios worthy of any Shakespearian plot. While Ablett’s personal demons are far more profound, Wayne Carey broke no law other than a few unwritten ones and for that he has paid a price. He had his life as he knew it snatched away from him (albeit he pulled the trigger), but there seemed an extraordinary imbalance by a self-righteous media when weighing his misdeeds against what he had given to the game since the early ’90’s.

Jackson in some ways was quite heroic in that while naturally not condoning Carey’s conduct, as both head of his sport with one eye on the turnstiles and the other as a fan who knew just how much Carey meant to his club and the game, was devastated to see Carey disappear from the AFL’s centre stageor at least its playing arena. His earnest hope was that Carey had not played his last game and deserved to return to football and in doing so, ultimately leave the game with some dignity restored to his tarnished reputation. That he should ultimately be remembered as a champion of the highest order first and foremost, and the flawed character hopefully a distant second.

Carey retreated from the media and the gaze of the world in disgrace following his announcement to a shocked media that he had resigned from the Kangaroos over a personal matter and was now retired. Since then he has only presented himself in the media via a carefully stage-managed one-hour “clearing the air” special as the stellar opening attraction for the launch of the Fox Footy Channel. The Melbourne Herald Sun followed him all the way to Las Vegas shortly after to basically tell us bugger all other than he just wanted to get away from it all and enjoy a break with a couple of mates with a few photos showing Carey relaxing at a bar and by the pool.

But again it was emphasised he was retired and had no thoughts of playing again.

Other than that he’s said nothing beyond second hand reports from either his manager Ricky Nixon or former Kangaroos teammates. Until now Carey has steadfastly avoided all attempts to engage with the media despite some huge offers, with 60 Minutes trying as hard as anybody to get to either him or his wife Sally with whom it seems he is now reunited.

From the start of the scandal his one message was that his singular goal was to repair his marriage and nothing else mattered. Playing football was the furtherest thing from his mind at that point. We have also had to endure a false alarm of turning out for his brother’s team in Wagga at one point and the speculation of where he would end up in the AFL should he come back? The one incontrovertible fact we have been presented with is the realisation that the umbilical chord that seemed football’s most unbreakable bond between club and its favourite son, was and is irreconcilable.

But few who know Carey doubted that he would at some point again play AFL. The only question was with whom? But before that can ultimately be decided there is considerable unfinished business between Carey and the Kangaroos. In recent weeks the likes of Caroline Wilson, chief football writer for The Age, have posed an interesting question. If Wayne Carey had resigned from North Melbourne after his affair was revealed, how come he was negotiating for a massive pay out. A figure media variously estimated in excess of $1.25 million and at the bottom end not much change out of $800,0000 when factoring an additional log of clams from possible long service leave entitlement to marketing money allocated as a legitimate part of the club’s marketing budget and allowed under salary cap provisions.

There was also complicated special clauses relating to benefits arising from equity and a directorship in a North Melbourne travel agency upon retirement also alleged to be tied up in finalising his financial pay out. This financial commitment to Carey has been viewed as something of an intolerable albatross around the neck of a football club teetering on the brink of insolvency.

Wilson has long contended and seems to continue to believe that Carey didn’t resign but was pushed out of the club by a vote of his own teammates. Glenn Archer and others at North have continually denied this and said it is complete hogwash. So Wilson figures ‘ok if he wasn’t pushed then why are the Kangaroos who are already a financial basket base, getting even more dangerously into hock by paying out Carey’s contract if he did walk?’

It you accept Archer’s total repudiation of Wilson original reporting then you would wonder on what grounds Carey and his club would happily entertain paying out a contract invalidated surely by his resignation? Crikey has learnt that the Kangaroos and Carey and Nixon (it seems contrary to views expressed by Wilson in her Sunday Age column this week: “The signs this week were pretty clear that the Wayne Carey-Ricky Nixon partnership has ended,” she wrote) are negotiating Carey’s contact on a different basis to that touted in the media.

We believe that the figure Carey and the club are discussing is more in the vicinity of $320,00 to $350,000 and is for all money owed per contract for the five months of his employment prior to his exit. As to whether this also includes possible super component or that is independent of this figure or even being sought we cannot say. If that is indeed the case then Carey has every right to that money and considering what he has given North over the years who could possibly begrudge salary owed for work already undertaken with a full pre-season and Wizard Cup participation?

What we do know is that Wayne Carey continues to remain an invaluable asset of North Melbourne in this year’s post-season player trading. In fact from one month ago when many media were seriously questioning Carey’s future worth as a player or his trade value, let alone that doctor of behavioural sciences Jason Akermanis, they kept good company with quite a few AFL clubs. It is interesting to see the herd mentality (no pun intended) since Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy and Hawthorn’s Peter Schwab started to put Carey’s real market value into perspective by showing a genuine enthusiasm for recruiting him.

Sheedy, as the doyen and sage of AFL coaching, was always going to see Carey for what he represents to any club. Salary cap permitting and a player group ready to make accommodations that can afford a much less financially demanding Carey, he represents nothing remotely like the risk player that Akermanis sees as too old and over the hill. If there is a silver lining for Carey’s absence personally it is a year out of the game from which his battered body has a chance to fully recuperate. He might be a year older but his skills and reading of the play make him still potentially one of the top 10 players in the AFL if he returns body and mind refreshed.

Understandably his old coach Dennis Pagan thinks the break could see Carey productively produce for possibly another three or four years.

Even more importantly as Carey has shown throughout his career is his mental strength and motivation and now he is world best motivated to show the footy world again why he was “King” Carey and in the process enthusiastically embrace the Ted Whitten philosophy of “stick it up ’em”. In Carey’s mind that can include everyone from rival fans from next year to media, to any club’s who didn’t want to know him. For him motivation of this kind must be in such abundance that the likes of Sheedy and his player’s would surely be salivating at the prospect of watching Carey answer the knockers in the only way he knows best, assisted for the first time in years by a pre-season that should ensure he is bursting with good health and fitness.

So for North and Carey their negotiations are not rooted in acrimony but in the mutual realisation that at the end of the day he wants to control where he goes and play for a club with a reasonable shot at winning a flag. In return they want to negotiate some sort of discount on their legal obligations to him, and so between him getting to the club he wants and them settling his account and a suitable player trade in return, both sides need to give each other an “assist”.

It seems Carey has little problem in remaining in Melbourne, which is not good news for the likes of Sydney and Adelaide, while an earlier favourite Carlton could be ruled out as imminent flag material. All of this puts Essendon and Sheedy in the box seat given that Collingwood has foolishly declared they’re not remotely interested (stay tuned on that one if they’ve got the guts to admit a bad early call). Richmond would surely feel tempted by a possible trade of Mathew Richardson to North for Carey and perhaps a draft selection. Dennis Pagan might even see that as equitable but why would Carey go to Richmond?

Without going through it club by club if Collingwood isn’t gong to be Paul Keating’s idea of a true “jelly back”, Essendon would ideally appeal to Carey. Their two superstars James Hird particularly, and Nike companion Matthew Lloyd know Carey as well as anyone outside the Kangaroos. If they approve the Bombers biggest problem is not so much fitting Carey in on a much reduced salary which he can afford to cop late in his career as a trade off for the one thing that truly counts above all other considerations – that victory lap on the last Saturday in September.

Essendon is bound to lose at least one if not more established stars in the next trade enticed by probably more money for either than they would pay Carey. How the playing group generally will feel about robbing Peter to pay Paul in return for the dream of one or more premierships if Carey was around is the hard sell that Sheedy and CEO Peter Jackson would have to accomplish for a start. But North hate Essendon and may feel strongly enough that in the end they can accommodate Carey ending up at say Hawthorn, but then who or what draft picks do the Hawks trade? But it’s also likely that any Carey deal will not simply be a straight swap between the Kangaroos and his final destination, it could well involve a more typical three or four club swap.

There is also the fascinating prospect of someone like Wayne Jackson, keen to bolster the prospects for Carey to go to Sydney that would provide the Swans with the kind of massive shot in the arm on and off the field that Carey could uniquely provide. It would also very much suit his major media employer Foxtel to have him based in Sydney to fill a variety of tasks both while playing and then in retirement if he can persuaded to remain in the big smoke and not head back to Wagga as he always said he would do on retiring.

So if you want to frame an early market try these for size as Carey’s new club: Essendon just ahead of Hawthorn in Melbourne (Collingwood a smoky), Adelaide and Sydney both mad keen although thoughts of a flag in his time left in Sydney would be fanciful rather. Michael Voss has a generosity of character of a true champion that would regard it as something of a crowning achievement to have Wayne Carey playing under and alongside him so maybe Brisbane aren’t a scratching just yet. But reality suggests Brisbane face enormous cap problems themselves without Leigh Matthews being directed to make more of a marketing decision, as he would see it.

Then again you can’t help thinking why would Carey want to join a club that had Akermanis for a member even if “Crackers” ate his own words?

Essendon v Hawthorn for mine with Carey wanting to be a Bomber but Pagan happier he become a Hawk, and the AFL doing its best to get Sydney into the frame? Whatever it’s bound to be all food for thought for the Duck and the media will dine out on it for months to come!

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Peter Fray

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