Trade Period captivates and stresses out the AFL world each year but many of the critical machinations happen many months before. AFL.com.au has spoken to club list bosses and player agents to give fans a sneak peek at what happens behind the scenes.
IN BASEBALL, they're called closers – the player entrusted with finishing a job well done.
Closers are paid mega-bucks despite often pitching only the last inning, because everything is on the line in that moment.
The equivalent football role is the senior coach when face to face with a potential star recruit, after the club's list manager and, perhaps, the pro scout helped kick-start the process.
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And the best at it, according to many in the industry, is four-time Hawthorn premiership coach Alastair Clarkson.
Clarkson helped seal the deal for some of the game's biggest names, including Tom Mitchell, Chad Wingard, Jaeger O'Meara, Shaun Burgoyne, Jack Gunston, Ben McEvoy, James Frawley, Tom Scully and Jon Patton.
"We met with 'Clarko' and within the first five minutes I knew it was all over," one player agent whose star client now plays for the Hawks told AFL.com.au.
"He puts the player at ease and just has a bit of a joke with him; talks a bit about himself, where he's going – it's a really personal start before he even talks about football."
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Melbourne coach Simon Goodwin was the final piece of the puzzle when the Demons lured Jake Lever from the Crows, after they first reached out to his then-manager Ned Guy a year earlier.
Alex McDonald, of Hemisphere Management, replaced Guy when the latter accepted Collingwood's list manager position and controlled most of the negotiations from Lever's end.
Once Lever met with Goodwin post the 2017 Grand Final, the coach presented him with results from a Melbourne player survey that overwhelmingly showed how much they enjoyed being at the club.
This is a modern recruiting pitch, although clubs still fall back on old reliables such as putting recruits up in penthouses with a full bar fridge or flying them to a secret destination on a private jet.
"All 'Goody' cares about is the team and what the squad can do for the football club, and I really believed that before I met with him," Lever said.
"That was the decisive factor with 'Goody'. He kept speaking about it, and the other key thing was the environment.
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"He gave me a survey the Melbourne players had taken about the culture of the footy club and how they loved coming into training and getting better and competing with each other."
It also helped, in some small way, that the Demons' national recruiting manager, Jason Taylor, and then-list boss, Todd Viney, developed a strong rapport with Lever in the 2014 draft process.
How far out do deals begin?
That often-crucial final meeting with the player, which isn't necessarily as late as on Telstra AFL Trade Period eve, is not always the first time coaches are involved.
There's been significant debate in the last few years about wantaway footballers sitting down mid-season with rival coaches.
Free agency is viewed as the catalyst for this development. And if you don't like that, then you might want to look away now.
Coaches have even met with prospective recruits in the off-season, while clubs have also been known to orchestrate interstate catch-ups with a player and agent to coincide with games.
Regular phone contact between coach and potential player is common, too.
The origins of a deal are commonly about 18 months in the making (the mid-season break is a popular period) – and even up to two years once you factor in the agent's thinking.
"Clubs aren't just looking at who is out of contract at the end of this season. They're looking ahead to 2021 as well," one agent said.
"I'm the same. I'll ask my player about two years out. Do you want to go home? What is he worth? What are (the clubs in the player's home state) willing to pay?
"We start looking at and analysing clubs to see what positional needs they have, which will give me an idea. I'll also see which clubs have the most money for this year's Trade Period."
Who starts the trade process?
It's not always the player who initiates a trade – just ask Ryan Burton when he was caught up in Hawthorn's pursuit of Chad Wingard.
Club list management teams, somewhat similarly to agents, prioritise their needs and figure out which players of their own they consider to be expendable to help acquire that need.
They keep close tabs on the football landscape: who's out of contract, who's disgruntled, who's not getting opportunity, who's playing out of position, who has links to certain players, who is on the move, where is the gap in a club's age demographic.
Tip-offs come from multiple sources, including agents, to your club's footballers, to discussions with other list management teams, to people from the disgruntled player's state league or junior club team.
List managers are even savvy enough to know which club people speak to certain journalists and can read between the lines through media reports.
The balance of power, of course, depends on how good a footballer is and the demand for them elsewhere.
Discussions between clubs about players occur a long way out from the Trade Period, where the shell of a deal is regularly established.
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This is paramount for most deals to go through later, and it's often why a player or agent will select one club over another – the confidence they have in said club to get a deal done.
Do they have the picks or players to satisfy the other party? Are they willing to part with their first-round selection? Are they obsessed with the AFL Draft Value Index that attributes points to each draft pick?
"There are clubs I won't deal with in Trade Period, and there are clubs I'm wary of, because there are too many chefs that will spoil the broth," one agent said.
"With the better clubs, you have a strong relationship with that list manager and you're confident they'll come through.
"Many of the new-age list managers are too concerned about swapping picks 70 and 80 to even the points, whereas the essence of a trade is you pay more for something because your demand is greater."
All this is as vital in a player's decision as the five-year dossier clubs might present to agents about where they hope to be, which players will retire, who will develop and where their player fits in.
Agents are even known to watch state league football to view a prospective club's young brigade to help with their assessment.
How often do clubs and agents speak?
Victoria is the hub of the AFL world and where the vast majority of list bosses are based, including from non-Victorian clubs.
That means interstate agents' mobile phones get a serious workout but also that they clock up frequent flyer miles and engage in a form of football speed dating when in Melbourne.
They will always catch up with list and/or football bosses when Victorian clubs travel for interstate games, then might meet with double-digit teams in two days on the road.
"We try to get to Melbourne every four weeks to see our players – and certainly in the off-season," a leading agent said.
"That's when you also double up and speak to clubs."
One list boss estimated each club would do about 20 player contracts per year across potentially as many as 15 different managers.
Those deals evolve across many months of conversations that are sometimes as simple as an agent touching base to see how a player went because they didn't watch them at the weekend.
Other managers tune into all nine matches each round.
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"I watch every single AFL game – you've got to do it," an agent said.
"You need to know if they played your guy out of position and to be able to combat the conversation, or you might pick up on something a commentator says about a team."
Moving a contracted player
The toughest of the trades to orchestrate.
An uncontracted player who hasn't reached free agency still needs to be traded but at least has options, whereas a contracted footballer needs to make things happen.
One experienced list boss described it as "the triangle", where two clubs and a player all need to agree.
The introduction of free agency has made this process easier and created the term 'pre-agency', where a club will trade a player one year before they reach free agency to gain a higher value.
Even then, teams might back themselves, such as in Essendon's case with Joe Daniher or Sydney with Tom Papley, to change the player's mind on leaving.
This is where an agent earns their money and is responsible for "driving" the deal to make sure it happens, which can translate to some forthright conversations with list and football managers.
"What I do is I plan what I have to say and I get, not aggressive, but pretty cold and would have to work myself up into that sort of space," one agent told AFL.com.au.
"It's not really emotional, it's all planned. You're smashing (the club) from different angles, breaking them down and trying to force them to do things – but that means a lot of terse phone calls.
"You need to get things moving and to a point where the club realises, 'Geez, we have to get this done now'."
Without reaching the point where you're confident enough both parties will agree to a deal, it's always dangerous for a player to publicly request a trade.
As another agent said: "You should never go to the altar with a club if the bride's not turning up."
On the flipside, Lever – who didn't contemplate leaving under contract – said list managers and coaches needed to answer a key question when denying a contracted player's trade request.
"A contract doesn't really mean anything if a player wants to go home or doesn't want to be at your footy club," Lever said.
"Do you want someone to come back for pre-season who doesn't want to be there?"
And that's ultimately what it comes down to most of the time.