Gifted key forwards are among the least traded commodities in the AFL, and for good reason. There’s an old adage that big forwards win big games/finals, and clubs almost never trade reliable goal kickers.
As such, it’s not often that a 26-year-old key forward suddenly becomes a viable trade target, but that’s exactly what has happened after former Melbourne forward Mitch Clark declared he would “love” to end his retirement and return to the AFL.
Just five months ago, Clark surprised many when he announced his immediate retirement from the AFL, citing his ongoing battle with depression. The decision came after a debilitating foot injury limited the talented tall to just 15 games in the first two years of his lucrative four-year contract with the Demons.
Clark’s desire to return so soon after revealing his year-long mental health issues has certainly raised eyebrows in the media and wider football world, as has his push for a fresh start at a new Victorian club. As someone who does not claim to know much about mental illness and depression, I’m not going to attempt to delve into his frame of mind and what may have triggered his change of heart.
What’s more pertinent to this blog is where Clark may play footy in 2015. More than one prominent media personality has suggested that St Kilda may have already spoken to Clark to gauge his interest in a switch to the Saints. But should St Kilda look to recruit him? Let’s investigate.
Where did he come from?
Mitch Clark was a highly touted junior prior to being drafted with the ninth pick in the 2005 National Draft by the Brisbane Lions. Notably, Clark was the fourth tall player taken in the draft behind Josh Kennedy (Carlton), Beau Dowler (Hawthorn) and Paddy Ryder (Essendon). Even more notably, Clark, Kennedy and Ryder were all recruited from WAFL side East Fremantle.
Like many players of his size, it was not immediately known whether Clark would ultimately settle as a key forward or ruckman. That decision was seemingly made exactly one year later, when the Lions drafted Matthew Leuenberger to be their ruckman of the future. Unfortunately, Clark’s first three seasons were exceptionally injury-plagued, as the big man managed just 24 games due to a combination of osteitis pubis and other leg injuries.
Clark finally broke through in 2009, playing every game and helping the Lions achieve their first finals appearance since their 2004 Grand Final loss. That year, Clark actually carried much of the ruck load as injuries cut down Leuenberger and veteran ruck Jamie Charman, and was even named to the 40-man All-Australian squad. In his final two years with the Lions, Clark predominantly shared the ruck duties with Leuenberger, although in 2011 he finished as Brisbane’s leading goal-kicker with 27 goals as he increasingly spent time in the front half.
After six years with the Lions, Clark demanded a trade to his native Western Australia, where he loomed as a perfect fit for Fremantle and its newly-minted coach, Ro$$ Lyon. But after the Dockers were unable to adequately compensate the Lions, Clark stunned both clubs by accepting a lucrative four-year offer from Melbourne. Then-Demons president Jim Stynes subsequently handed his number 11 guernsey to Clark, whose arrival was supposed to herald the dawn of a new era.
Early in his stint with the Demons, Clark took his game to another level yet again, emerging as virtually the lone shining light under new coach Mark Neeld. Playing almost exclusively as a target man up forward, Clark booted 29 goals in 11 games in 2012 before suffering a season-ending foot injury. That injury would return just four games into his second season, ending that campaign and ultimately his Demons career.
There’s no doubt Clark’s career was trending up with the Demons, even as the team floundered during Neeld’s ill-fated tenure. Prior to suffering his debilitating foot injury, Clark was dominating defences almost single-handedly and quickly emerging as one of the competition’s dominant big men.
Why chase him?
The primary reason any team would chase Clark is scarcity. As mentioned, talented tall forwards are rarely stumbled upon and are almost always developed in-house. Additionally, they are almost always destined to become one-club players – or, occasionally, mercenaries – as they invariably become the highest-paid, and most irreplaceable, players at their respective clubs. There are certainly exceptions to the rule, but there’s a reason teams like the Western Bulldogs have been unable to procure a dominant big forward for the best part of two decades – clubs simply don’t trade/lose them.
With that in mind, you can understand why the Saints would cast their eyes in his direction, especially with the looming departure of Nick Riewoldt either next year or in 2016 and the inconsistent form of Rhys Stanley. Adding Clark, who at 25 should still have several years of good footy ahead of him barring injury, would bolster the Saints’ structure by giving the side a legitimate target man inside the forward 50. It would also spell trouble for Stanley and possibly Tom Lee, who is increasingly approaching bust status.
Additionally, the Saints hold leverage in the form of the first pick in the upcoming National and Preseason drafts. While The Herald Sun has reported that Clark would be forced into the National Draft if the Demons cannot find a suitable trade for him, if Clark were to nominate St Kilda, he would get to Seaford one way or another. Negotiating power increasingly lies with the players in this free agency-driven world.
Why not chase him?
Did I mention that Clark is injury-prone? Seriously, look at some of those ailments that have plagued his career. Osteitis pubis and Lisfranc (midfoot) injuries are not standard AFL injuries, and can and have curtailed and ended careers before. One of Clark’s primary assets has been his athleticism, but nobody truly knows how significantly his recent foot troubles may have curbed that part of his game.
Additionally, even if the Saints were to sign Clark, they’d still be miles away from contending for a top-eight berth, let alone a premiership. This is a long rebuild, and I’d query why Clark would swap one rebuilding team for another, big dollars notwithstanding. With that in mind, maybe the Saints would be better off rolling with Spencer White and (potentially) Paddy McCartin or Peter Wright, or even chasing another young key forward from Sydney’s west.
Finally, his frame of mind has to come into consideration. Clubs will no doubt conduct all manner of psychological testing prior to offering Clark a contract, but his wellbeing must come first.
At several points throughout his career, Clark appeared to be one of the AFL’s dominant big men. Moreover, he approached the top of the sport in two positions – as a ruckman with Brisbane and key forward with Melbourne. That’s rare in a footballer and demonstrates Clark’s prodigious talent. But you have to wonder how big of a toll his recent physical and mental issues have taken on him.
To my mind, St Kilda is not the ideal landing spot for Clark. The Saints are too deeply mired in a rebuild that will still take several years, at which point Clark will be approaching 30 if he’s still in the AFL. His injury history is wretched, and even if he were to front up in Round 1 next season, it will have been nearly two years since Clark crossed the white line on the AFL field.
I certainly would not trade an asset of real value to bring Clark to the Saints, and feel he’d be best served joining a team with designs on success in the nearer future. Of course, should Clark end up at Hawthorn, Collingwood or another powerful club, it would raise more questions as to the effect free agency and player movement are having on the competition. But ultimately, that’s where footy is right now.
Vote NO on Clark.
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