Michael Hartley had a decision to make at the end of last season. Essendon had a one-year contract on the table, but Hawthorn dangled more money and a longer deal in front of him.
With a young daughter and a wedding imminent – he will marry Tegan on January 4 – the decision was not just about him.
And with All-Australian stars Michael Hurley and Cale Hooker holding down the key posts at the Bombers, the time was right for the journeyman defender to look for greater opportunity elsewhere.
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After playing only seven senior games across the past two years, following 37 in his first two years at the club, Hartley delisted himself in November, before spending two weeks training at Waverley Park ahead of the Pre-Season Draft.
Carlton used the first pick in the Pre-Season draft to finally land Jack Martin from Gold Coast, before the Hawks swooped on Hartley, who was sitting at home with his daughter, Adeline, when his new home was confirmed.
“I’m getting pretty old now. I’ve got a young daughter and I’m about to get married,” Hartley told foxsports.com.au in December.
“The Hawks chirped up and offered some good money and a bit extra in terms of years so I thought if I could get as long as possible in the system for my daughter and my missus, I’d do that.
“I loved my time at Essendon, but Hawthorn came along with more security so it was an easy decision in the end.
“We had pretty good communication with Hawthorn throughout, so I was confident. The two weeks (ahead of the pre-season draft) was awesome. When it eventually did happen I was very happy.”
Despite stacking up strong performances in the VFL, Hartley only played in 2019 when Hurley or Hooker were injured, and rarely in the same side as them in 2018.
Hawthorn have budding superstar James Sicily down back and veteran defenders James Sicily and Ben Stratton, but Ryan Schoenmakers retired and they delisted David Mirra and Kaiden Brand, who ended up at Sydney as a delisted free agent.
“It was pretty tough. They are both All-Australian defenders,” Hartley said.
“I just tried to play my role and help the boys win in the VFL; we ended up making it to the prelim in the VFL, which was good for us.
“But at times it did get pretty frustrating. It was always going to be pretty hard to kick players like Hurley or Hooker out of a spot. There was a little bit of an opening at Hawthorn, with some of the changes they’ve made here.”
Hartley knew only one person at the club when he walked in the door for the first time – former Collingwood and Brisbane forward Jackson Paine, who now works in the Hawks’ media department – and played on new recruit Jon Patton in the 2011 under-18 national carnival.
“I actually played on Jonny Patton in one of those games it actually helped me get drafted to Collingwood. I went all right that day and he ended up going No. 1 that year,” he said.
“We haven’t done too much game sim yet and Jonny is working back into the group so I’m sure we will cross paths more at training in the New Year.”
Moving clubs this time is much easier than the last time he left an AFL club.
That was in 2013 when he was delisted by Collingwood after two years on the rookie list, where he didn’t break through for a senior game and was forced to dominate at Coburg in the VFL before earning another chance.
“It is a bit easier to move clubs when you’re older and build connections with guys. I’ve been sitting next to ‘Pops’ [Paul Puopolo] and he has a young daughter as well and so does ‘Chip’ Frawley,” he said.
“When you’re young and raw you don’t have that much to talk about but when you’re older you do. The boys have been great to chat to here.”
Now Hartley is at a club on the opposite side of Melbourne, doing what he has done for the duration of his career – fighting for more opportunity at the highest level.