Like he was in 2019, Joe Daniher looms as a major player movement storyline for the back-half of this season.
The difference in 2020, though, is the trade narrative surrounding him has swung dramatically.
AFL pundits last year salivated over the prospect of the injury-prone yet talented Essendon forward moving to Sydney and teaming up with Lance Franklin for a few years before eventually becoming the Swans’ No. 1 forward 50 target.
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Now, out of contract in an already unpredictable year, Daniher’s trade worth is a genuine mystery as doubt grows over how much footy he’ll even be able to play footy in the short-term, let alone whether he can ever regain – and sustain – the scintillating form he showed in 2017.
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After rejecting a Swans deal that would’ve seen two first-round picks fall into their lap in exchange for losing Daniher, the Bombers could lose the gun free agent at season’s end without him playing a game in 2020 — and receive just a second-round compensation pick back.
“It’s a disastrous state of affairs for the Essendon Football Club, given it worked so hard to rebuff that trade with Sydney last year,” Herald Sun reporter Jon Ralph said on Fox Sports News’ AFL Tonight.
“There’s a lot of water going to the bridge here, but right now it’s very hard to see a situation where both Sydney and Joe Daniher and of course the Essendon Football Club all win out of this situation.”
What’s the Daniher state of play?
The Bombers’ Daniher dilemma was thrust into the spotlight on Tuesday when coach John Worsfold said his club hadn’t put a date on the key forward’s return. More concerning was the fact Worsfold couldn’t confirm whether Daniher would even feature at all this season.
After a career-best 65-goal campaign in 2017, Daniher was limited to just 11 games across 2018 and 2019. He now hasn’t played an AFL game since Round 9 last year due to groin issues.
Worsfold told reporters Daniher wouldn’t feature in Round 2 and was still a “fair way off” reaching the training intensity required to push for selection.
But the Bombers coach stressed Daniher’s injury rehabilitation wouldn’t be “linear”, saying the next step was reaching a point where he could participate in main training for at least “a couple of weeks”.
“We’re not too concerned about saying ‘get him back as quickly as possible’,” Worsfold said.
“We’re just following the protocol because … this is about long term for Joe, (to) help him absolutely get over this so his career progresses at the rate we want, rather than trying to get him back one or two weeks earlier.”
How hard should Essendon and Daniher push a 2020 on-field return?
In the short-term, this is Essendon’s biggest Daniher conundrum.
As pointed out by Fox Footy commentator Dwayne Russell, if interchange bench numbers don’t expand in a year when most players will be expected to play more quality game time than ever before, bringing Daniher back in 2020 could be a big risk for Essendon.
Daniher could be one of the players that suffers from the AFL’s decision to ban players from competing in second-tier competitions during the coronavirus-affected season. It means, unlike previous years, Daniher wouldn’t be able to ease his way into a senior re-call by playing 20 minutes of VFL footy one week then 35 minutes the next week.
Add in Daniher’s lack of match continuity over the past two years, Western Bulldogs games record-holder Brad Johnson said the Bombers must show extra care when deciding whether to unleash the key forward in 2020 or not.
“The fact the Bombers rushed him in a way last year … and now he hasn’t really played since that point, they would be very cautious in their approach to Joe at this point,” Johnson told Fox Footy Live.
“I would seriously wait until he has a month of no pain. You might feel something still but you go ‘I’ll be right’ because you know you can get through. (But) if Joe feels something tiny, I wouldn’t even be risking him.
“I don’t think 50 per cent game time will stack up this year. You have to be 75 per cent or above for each player that you bring into your team. You can’t carry someone at 50 per cent this year.”
Conversely, there’s an argument the Bombers and Daniher should be bold and push to play as many games as possible.
Fremantle legend Matthew Pavlich said clubs “don’t want to waste a year with someone who’s such a talent”, adding a fully-fit Daniher was a match-winner that could help Essendon play finals.
“My advice would be to do everything you can to get him out there,” Pavlich told Fox Sports News’ AFL Tonight.
“If you’re an Essendon fan, you want Joe Daniher out there for the 2020 season and have him up and going. He’s a game-winning forward when he’s at his best.
“He’s had two years of horror injuries, whether it was knee or groin issues, but you’d be doing everything in your power (to get him on the field). That may mean getting experts in and as many opinions in to help him get him ready for the season.”
Pavlich added the more games Daniher played, the greater his value should he wish to leave the Bombers at season’s end.
“There’s a bit of currency with this. You have to get him playing and if he does go as a restricted free agent then it does come down to what that team, if they are trying to get him, are paying him as a base salary,” he said.
“Make sure you get the best out of him this year and also allow yourself some currency if he does want to leave.”
Will the Bombers now have mad trade regret?
From a market perspective, it mightn’t matter how many games Daniher plays in 2020, as it’s tough to see his value reaching or superseding the same level as October last year — a time when Essendon had a golden opportunity to cash in but, ultimately, opted not to.
The Bombers could’ve received Pick 9 and a future first-round pick from Sydney in exchange for Daniher. But they rejected the offer – the Bombers wanted a Swans player to be part of any deal – that subsequently forced Daniher to see out the final year of his Essendon contract.
Now, it appears the Bombers would more likely snare a second-round compensation draft selection if they lost Daniher – a potentially dramatic drop considering they had two first-round picks staring them in the face seven months ago.
Reflecting on the snubbed deal, dual premiership Kangaroo David King said it was a ‘bird in the hand, two in the bush’ type scenario.
“Looking back, it’s easy. We’re all list managers for one week of the year in trade week, (but) we all knew the cards were on the table in trade week,” King told Fox Footy Live.
“They’re the sorts of decisions that make or break your list, let’s be honest. If you over-assess what you’ve got on your books or over-assess what you’re bringing in and what you pay for them, it shapes your whole list.”
Legendary Hawthorn goalkicker Jason Dunstall said considering Daniher’s “long-standing, deep-seeded issues”, it’s hard to see why and how the deal wasn’t struck in October.
“When you sit back and think what they could have got when that deal with Sydney was going on … and I understand you don’t want to let good talent go, but sometimes it can be win-win,” Dunstall told Fox Footy Live.
“Sometimes a player that’s had a lot of injuries, for whatever reason, thrives in a different environment and tends to get better and able to play again. Maybe that might’ve happened, changing the environment for Joe – and why he wanted to go.
“If you’re looking at it from a logical point of view, you’d sit there and say … it looks a good deal, doesn’t it?”
Where to from here? And what would Daniher’s true worth be at season’s end?
As Daniher is eligible for free agency at season’s end, he doesn’t have to be traded to move clubs, should he wish to leave. Instead, he can nominate the club of his choice and, should the Bombers choose not to match the rival clubs’ offer, walk out without a pick or player being sent to Essendon.
Ralph told AFL Tonight it appeared “almost certain” Daniher would request a move to the Swans later in the year – a statement supported by Johnson and triple All-Australian Nick Dal Santo.
If another Daniher move request came, there would be ample eyes on the compensation pick process.
King said Daniher would be worth a “second-rounder at best” – “how could you give anything more than a second-rounder for him?” – while Dunstall added the pick would be “nowhere near what (the Swans) offered last time”.
As Ralph pointed out, the possible Essendon compensation pick which would be heavily determined by the base salary of the contract being offered by the rival club. And considering he’s played just 11 games in two years, it’s hard to see him commanding big bucks.
“Sydney, if they are to secure first-round free agency compensation for the Essendon Football Club, would have to offer him something like four or five years at $1 million (per year),” Ralph said. “Now, I think that they’re more likely to offer him two or three years at $400,000 or $500,000 with a lot of incentives built in.
“That would mean that Essendon would only be able to secure second-round compensation. Maybe Pick 30, 35 in a draft with a lot of academy and father-son picks that eventually could push back to the mid-40s.
“As Gary Buckenara has said, it would be reckless for (the Swans) to offer too much for him right now – and that means, of course, that Essendon might be left with very little.”
One way Essendon could consider extracting more compensation for losing Daniher would be to match the rival club’s offer – something the Bombers could do as Daniher is a restricted free agent, not unrestricted.
“My understanding is that they would still potentially match a free agency bid and from there they might be able to get a better compensation if they secured a trade with Sydney … there’s a way, even if he left, for both of these teams to win,” Ralph said.
Is there any chance Daniher could stay at Essendon?
Until he tells them otherwise, the Bombers won’t give up on Daniher, as they believe he can play a crucial role in their system and fortunes in future years.
And if the Bombers this season can get Daniher fit to play – particularly if they’re pushing for a finals berth — it might entice him to stay.
“Their best chance of getting him to stay is getting him healthy first, because at the moment he can’t achieve it in their environment – whether that’s Joe or the club – but he cannot feel good at the moment with the surroundings he’s in,” Johnson said.
But Dal Santo said for the Bombers to truly capture Daniher’s heart beyond 2020, they’d have to do more than just ‘get him fit’.
“For Joe to stay, he needs to be healthy and fit to be able to get out there, he needs to perform and feel like there’s some sort of future here – which means they have to win,” Dal Santo told Fox Footy Live.
“We know when you’re in a losing environment and the club’s not going well, you don’t want to be there at the best of times, let alone if you’ve got this little man on your shoulder saying ‘Sydney’s not a bad place to be’.”