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Ball magnet bargain

Watch as Mitchell sets an AFL record for the most disposals in a single match. The Hawks midfielder has set a new league record for the most disposals in a match with 54 against the Pies on the weekend.

For the first half of 2016, Tom Mitchell appeared likely to re-sign with Sydney.

Mitchell, the son of Swans great Barry, opened talks with Sydney in March that year about extending his contract beyond the end of 2016.

Speculation around this time suggested Carlton, which had made a play for Mitchell in 2015's trade period, was circling the midfielder. But from the end of May, multiple reports stated Mitchell was on the verge of re-signing with the Swans. 

In mid-June, the midfielder's manager, Phil Mullen, said he was confident a deal would be finalised during the week of Sydney's round 14 bye.

"We have not agreed on anything specific yet, but I am confident by the end of next week we will have something done," Mullen said at the time.

However, in the week leading up to round 15, Mitchell had put negotiations with the Swans on hold. Soon after, Sydney football manager Tom Harley confirmed those talks would not resume until the end of the season.

From that moment, it appeared Mitchell would leave. That sense grew stronger and stronger to the extent his departure soon seemed inevitable.

Mitchell played his final game for the Swans in the 2016 Grand Final. Picture: AFL Photos

That sense of inevitability was accompanied by an almost universal belief across the football industry that Hawthorn would be Mitchell's new home from 2017, with few, if any, other clubs seen as genuine contenders for his signature.

So it was no surprise when Mitchell told the Swans on the opening day of the 2016 trade period he wanted to join Hawthorn.

But was the on-baller's path to Hawthorn really that straightforward? Was Sydney's bid to keep him really doomed from the moment he put off talks?

Let's start by revisiting how close the Swans and Mitchell got to inking a new contract.

The first point to make here is Sydney genuinely tried to keep him. It tabled a long-term offer for the midfielder – believed to be five years – and put together what it believed to be a fair salary package.

However, in framing their offer, the Swans had to work within a salary cap that was carrying the lucrative long-term deals of Kurt Tippett and Lance Franklin.

They had also prioritised other – seemingly more important – re-signings over the previous 12 months. 

Star midfielders Dan Hannebery and Luke Parker were locked away on lucrative five-year extensions, and then-co-captain Kieren Jack was secured for a further three years.

At that time, all three were clearly more valuable members of the Swans' midfield than Mitchell, as was reigning best and fairest winner Josh Kennedy.

Nonetheless, the Swans rated Mitchell and were confident that, at 23, he would get better. They also realised he could come back to bite them if he switched clubs.

But they were not prepared to pay over the odds to keep him. Especially not when they were expecting budding stars Isaac Heeney and Callum Mills to eventually graduate into the midfield.

The offer the Swans put on the table during the fateful bye week, however, was below what Mullen thought was fair market value for his client.

The Hawks could also offer Mitchell more midfield opportunities. Where he had been required to spend considerable time in attack with the Swans, Hawthorn wanted him to play a leading role in a new-look on-ball division, one that was being rebuilt in the aftermath of the 2013-15 premierships. 

Ironically, Sydney had preyed on the Hawks' midfield depth seven years earlier, when it convinced Kennedy he was better off escaping the large shadows cast by Sam Mitchell, Luke Hodge, Jordan Lewis and Brad Sewell.

Once Mitchell decided he was better off finding a new home, was his move to Waverley the foregone conclusion it appeared?

Perhaps, perhaps not. 

The Hawks certainly had at least nominal competition for Mitchell's signature.

Gold Coast, which was about to reluctantly trade midfield stars Jaeger O'Meara (Hawthorn) and Dion Prestia (Richmond), met with the midfielder.

But Mitchell was set on a move to Melbourne to be closer to family.

Five or six other Victorian clubs pursued him to varying degrees, with Carlton and Essendon believed to have been among them.

That interest would have been even greater if clubs had foreseen Mitchell's stunning transformation from a very good player into a fully-fledged star.

Mitchell has averaged 40 disposals a game so far this season. Picture: AFL Photos

In fairness, the Hawks were probably also not expecting Mitchell to win a best and fairest and All Australian selection in his first season at Waverley, or to rack up a League-record 54 possessions in Round 1 this year and lead the AFL in clearances and contested possessions after Round 4. 

Not that you'll hear any complaints out of Waverley. Why would you, when Mitchell could prove just as good a pick-up as Kennedy has been for the Swans?

As a footnote, it's worth noting Sydney received pick No.14 in the Mitchell trade, a selection they used as part of a subsequent trade that helped them secure Oliver Florent (No.11 overall) and Will Hayward (No.21) in that year's draft.

Anyone sense a win-win trade?

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs