The curious case of Leon Davis

As published in The Roar, 31 Oct 2011.

It’s difficult to know what to make of the Magpies’ rather odd announcement that Leon Davis has ‘retired from the Collingwood Football Club’.  Then again, it’s hard to know what to make of Davis’ career, let alone the hazy circumstances around his departure.

Few players in Collingwood’s history have polarised fans and critics quite like the born again rebounding defender.

Perhaps not even the infuriatingly inconsistent Rene Kink, the flawed genius Phil Carman, the political scapegoat Peter Moore…or even Chris Tarrant in his earlier incarnation as a high flying forward with a wayward boot and wavering commitment.

Over his 225 game AFL career ‘Neon Leon’ consistently set the crowd alight, compiling a highlights reel of few comparison.  Throw in two well deserved All Australian gongs in seasons where fitness and freedom from the difficulties of life as a small forward aligned.  And, as The Age’s Martin Flanagan suggested, Leon put the black into black and white at a time when the club desperately needed to purge itself of an embarrassingly tenuous relationship with the indigenous community.

But on the flipside has come the notorious finals failings for which Pie fans and media want etched on his tombstone.  Even the goal in the drawn Grand Final which helped keep the Magpies’ 2010 Premiership campaign afloat, and a much improved finals series this year (including a similarly crucial Preliminary Final goal), have not won forgiveness if the indifferent response to Maj’s final disappearing act is a guide.

Leon’s career has been a strange one indeed.  Technically an AFL recognised Premiership player, but to all intents not so according to his club.  A crowd favourite one day, a fansite forum whipping boy the next.

After some typical player agent posturing by Liam Pickering, Davis belatedly set the record straight as to his ‘official’ reason for leaving the nest, and despite speculation to the contrary, he appears to have left on good terms, gracious for what the club has provided over the years.

And yes he has a lot to be grateful for, Collingwood having provided ample support and patience over the journey.

After a forgettable 2010 when Davis appeared to be on his last legs, at Mick Malthouse’s inspired behest and Scott Watters’ tutelage, Davis found something neither he, nor anyone else expected, becoming a defensive weapon in a time where precision disposal and running flair from the back half has never been a more pressing concern.

So as a matter of principle, surely it must have been galling to be asked to accept a substantial pay cut after 12 years of loyal service, of which the most recent was a career best.

Perhaps Leon had come too close too often to a bona fide Premiership medallion to endure another year in the Collingwood fishbowl, where expectations will doubtless run just as high in 2012.

We can only speculate, but the money issue must have made the family based decision much, much easier.

Davis isn’t the only Magpie player of course to have been offered well under their market value.  Collingwood’s list management right now is a precarious business.  Across the board player payments are wildly inequitable with the long standing pressure of the salary cap on successful clubs, and the introduction of two new teams inflating the pay packets of unproven young players with potential, and unlikely players of strategic marketing value.

Yet I can’t help but think it absurd that a player who finished fifth in the club best and fairest and was so crucial to the Collingwood cause this season came to be offered just $250K, reduced down, down Coles style from $350K.

Undervalued and underappreciated.  That is the two words that come to mind when reflecting on the curious case of Leon Davis who, like Benjamin Button, in some ways is playing out his (football) life in reverse.

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