“HE'S COMING to Carlton.”

Tinamba, Victoria, Sunday September 30, 2007

On the Traralgon-Maffra Road, about 211 kilometres east of Melbourne in the Shire of Wellington, is the tiny dairying township of Tinamba. There, within a stone’s throw of the old church and the local pub, can be found Wilara, the Henry family’s farm for three generations.

Save for the lowing of a few hundred friesians, Wilara’s muffled surrounds are rarely disturbed. But it was there, on the evening of Sunday 30 September 2007, that the shrill pitch of a BlackBerry pearl suddenly broke the calm.

Carlton’s then Chief Executive Greg Swann, whose in-laws work the property, anxiously reached for his chiming mobile. He noted the number: Chris Judd’s manager, Paul Connors, was ringing in.

Swann, to put it mildly, had hankered for this call. He was but a matter of seconds from learning whether Carlton had trumped 14 other clubs, including the three bona fide contenders Collingwood, Essendon and Melbourne, to win the services of the competition’s best footballer and complete what was probably the game’s greatest recruiting coup since the Greg Williams deal of late 1991. And, arguably, even the Barassi signing of early ’65.

“Paul [Connors] rang at about 8.30 and said, ‘He’s coming to Carlton,’” Swann recalls. “At the time I was standing in a paddock surrounded by all these bloody cows.  I must admit I was pretty pumped. I was just standing there, out in this paddock, because you couldn’t get reception in the house and I wanted to get out of there. It was a dairy farm and there were cows all over the joint, and I just remember looking up to the sky and thinking ‘Ye-e-e-s-s-s-s’.

“I hadn’t been in the job that long but it [landing Chris Judd] became THE priority for me. My view at the time was that it’s very hard to shift blokes and then it’s very hard to get them, so I never used to get too hung up on trying to recruit players from other clubs because it was just hard. But when he [Judd] became available then he had to be the priority.”

For Swann, barely six months into his term at Carlton, this was a stunning outcome. Less than two years earlier, in his capacity as the Chief Executive of Collingwood, he had tinkled champagne flutes with Judd as the pianist tickled the ivories in the Emirates Marquee on Oaks Day. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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“I got to know him at Collingwood, we were obviously sponsored by Emirates and when the Spring Carnival was on their PR people said, ‘We want some players to come to the marquee.’ At that time all our players had gone to Arizona for a training camp ... so I rang up Paul Connors and I said ‘Have you got any guys in town?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, Chris Judd’. I said, ‘Does he want to come to the Emirates marquee?’ and he said, ‘It shouldn’t be a problem, he loves the races’.

“So Chris and Steven Greene came along and I looked after them. That was the year before I left Collingwood. Chris Judd came two years running as it happened and that’s how I got to know him. I practically chaperoned him for the day I suppose, and while there was no vested interest at the time, you just never knew.”

How Christopher Dylan Judd – premiership captain, Brownlow Medallist, Norm Smith Medallist, MVP, All-Australian and dual club best and fairest at age 24 – resolved to pursue the next phase of his immaculate playing career in his home state of Victoria, and ultimately with Carlton, is a remarkable story which really began in Perth almost three weeks before, when Connors and Judd met at the latter’s house in Perth on the eve of the West Coast-Collingwood semi-final under lights at Subiaco Oval.

For months, manager and client had danced around the subject of Judd’s likely return to Victoria. But by the time his Qantas flight touched down at Perth Airport on that Thursday afternoon (September 13), Connors knew in his heart of hearts that his man’s 134-game tenure with the Eagles was over. “I had been preparing for this for a while,” Connors conceded. “When Chris took the captaincy [at West Coast] he indicated to me and the club he would not be a long-term captain. We did not discuss specifics on a day-to-day basis but I thought it was more likely than not his time would end at the end of 2007. Hence I had to prepare. If I’d just got the call from Chris on the Thursday that he wanted to leave I would have been lost without prior preparation. If he wanted to stay it would have been a simple negotiation.”

When Connors and Judd met that night, Judd confirmed his intentions to return to Victoria; news that would shock West Coast’s General Manager Football Operations Steve Woodhouse and Chief Executive Trevor Nisbett. Clearly, Connors and Judd needed to bring forward their plans so that the grim tidings could be conveyed, sooner rather than later, to the Senior Coach John Worsfold.

Connors and Judd resolved to advise Worsfold the following Tuesday but, when the final siren signalled the Eagles’ exit from the 2007 finals series on the Friday night, Connors thought it best that the coach be told within the next 24 hours.

“[Then] after picking ‘Juddy’ up on the Saturday morning from the club, we decided it was best he sleep,” Connors recalled. “He had already pulled ‘Woosh’ [Worsfold] aside and said he wanted to meet him at midday on the Sunday, and Woosh said to ‘Juddy’ afterwards that it was at this moment he knew it was going to be bad news.”

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With West Coast out of the finals series, Connors’ mobile phone suddenly went in to meltdown as anxious club recruiters sought to ascertain whether persistent rumours of a Carlton-Judd “done deal” were actually true. Essendon’s List Manager Adrian Dodoro was particularly stressed by the Carlton scenario, and Connors allayed his fears by guaranteeing a future hearing.

In other words, join the queue.

Co-incidentally, Connors caught up with Collingwood’s National Recruiting Manager, Derek Hine, in Perth, as Hine was in town to take in a WA colts fixture. Hine took the liberty of talking to Connors in person, and it was as a result of this conversation that Connors became convinced of how serious Hine’s club was in securing Judd. Word was that the Magpies would offload one of their own to secure a top 10 draft selection, which they would then package with another player in exchange for the Eagles’ captain. Connors thought it plausible at the time, as Judd hadn’t entered into discussions with anyone, even if Carlton – with selections one and three at the impending national draft, and its then President the country’s third richest man – held some aces.

With Judd booked in for an appointment with an orthopaedic surgeon in Melbourne on the morning of Thursday 20 September, Connors thought it opportune for his client to meet with the four suitors he (Judd) had identified: Carlton, Melbourne, Essendon and Collingwood, in that order.

In the lead-up to the Thursday afternoon Carlton summit, Judd arranged for Connors to email a series of preliminary questions to Swann and the club’s General Manager-Football Operations, Steven Icke. As Connors noted in his diary, “It proved to me that Chris is different to the rest; he is a very intelligent person who just happens to be able to play footy a little bit”.

But Swann had been completing due diligence of his own, on the strength of another conversation he’d had with Connors. “Halfway through that year, when I came to Carlton, Paul Connors rang me and said, ‘Without having spoken to Chris, I think he is good chance to come home,’” Swann said. “So Dick [Pratt], ‘Sticks’ [Stephen Kernahan], Steven Icke and myself met with John Murphy [Visy’s CEO-elect] in at Visy to try to formulate a plan as to how we would get him. There were no whiteboards. It wasn’t that elaborate because at the time I still wasn’t convinced that he would come, even though Paul said he might be coming. He [Connors] obviously had an inclination but it wasn’t that definitive.

“We put together a concept as to how we would approach it but it got thrown out when Paul and Chris decided that they’d go through the interview process. We didn’t think that it would happen, although I always thought, in talking to Paul, that we were one of the leading contenders, if not THE leading contender. A lot of that was because of my relationship with Chris. He knew me, but he didn’t know anyone else that he was coming back to.”

Captain Chris Judd leads Carlton out in his first game in Round 1, 2008. (Credit: AFL Photos)

And so the stage was set, and what a stage: Raheen, the 19th century Italianate mansion in Studley Park, once the residence of the Melbourne Archbishop Daniel Mannix and, since 1980, the domain of then-Carlton President Richard Pratt and his wife Jeanne.

“We had the famous lunch at Raheen,” said Swann. “Chris came along with Paul Connors, John Murphy from Visy was there, obviously Dick and Jeanne, Anthony Pratt was in town, myself, ‘Ratts’ [then-Senior Coach, Brett Ratten], Sticks and Steven Icke. That was a pivotal moment. We spoke to him a lot about life out of footy. He has a very strong green element in his life, he’s a genuine tree hugger, Visy wanted him to share in its vision and he liked what Visy was doing.”

Judd and Connors were, not surprisingly, impressed by the whole experience.

“After initial pleasantries we sat down to an amazing buffet lunch which was prepared, I assume, by their [the Pratts’] full-time chef,” Connors said. “Jeanne informed us that they have two functions a week, pay for all the food and beverages, and raise somewhere between 200-300 million dollars a year. That is amazing when you think about it.

“Then, after a very impressive presentation by John [Murphy] about Visy and their desire for Chris to be involved in their environment program in some form, and also some footy talk, Chris and I got a quick tour of the house by Jeanne, who has put a lot of time and devotion into the house. She has certainly maintained a lot of the old rooms as they were when Archbishop Mannix lived in the place.”

At the conclusion of lunch, the guests were whisked away on what was a short 20-minute drive through the heart of old Collingwood, and on to Royal Parade. There, Judd and Connors were led on a tour of the Carlton facilities and the ground by Swann (the moment captured by an opportunistic newspaper photographer), before a conference involving Ratten and Icke was held in the boardroom on the first floor of the since-demolished George H. Harris Stand.

“We brought him [Judd] to Carlton to show him what was going to happen here. At that stage we were still a mile away from the ground’s redevelopment, but we assured him that it was going to happen,” Swann said. “We then took him into the board room and we put up a team with him in it. He’s not a footy nut and there was one good example where he said of one of the players ‘He’s just about had his time’. We said, ‘No, he’s only 20 years old’ and he said, ‘I thought he was 25 or 26’.

“We were pretty clear on how we’d trade for him as well, because he had asked that, and one of the things that came about was that he wasn’t so sure that some of the other clubs could actually do the deal, and he wanted to hear how. He had input into that too. We said, ‘Look, we’re going to give up [Josh] Kennedy and pick three, but we don’t want to give up 20, and he said, ‘No, don’t give up 20’ because he thought that was a fair deal. He obviously wanted to leave on reasonable terms, but he didn’t want us to sell the farm in a sense. So we ended that discussion and then he went to see Melbourne, Essendon and Collingwood.”

Judd and Connors met with Melbourne heavies in the boardroom at the MCG the following morning (Friday, September 21). In attendance was Coach Dean Bailey, Chief Executive Steve Harris, former players Jim Stynes and Garry Lyon, Physical Preparation Manager Bohdan Babijczuk, and the General Manager Recruiting and List Management, Craig Cameron (who earned a lift in Judd’s hire car from the Junction Oval).

The 2010 Brownlow Medal was one of a number of honours Chris Judd won in his time at Carlton. (Credit: AFL Photos)

As the Juddmobile completed the 10-minute trip from St Kilda to Jolimont, Cameron asked Judd how he was bearing up. “Chris told Craig that he knew it would be over soon and he just had to get through it,” Connors recalled. “He just doesn’t understand how anyone can get satisfaction from seeing themselves on TV or in the papers, because he certainly doesn’t.”

Connors and Judd were genuinely taken by Melbourne’s presentation, and club officials had every right to believe they’d made the right pitch. Connors considered Bailey’s performance “super impressive, and for a while I think Chris flirted with the idea of playing for the Demons”. But it was never going to happen, even given the post-meeting rumour that a punter had taken Sportingbet’s 8-1 odds in plonking 30 grand on a Judd-Melbourne marriage.

On the morning of Sunday 23 September, Connors and Judd turned their attentions to Essendon. The parties had initially resolved to meet at Windy Hill on the previous Friday, but coaching interviews had taken priority since the departure of Kevin Sheedy. The club’s captain, Matthew Lloyd, together with his predecessor James Hird, fronted with Chief Executive Peter Jackson, Chief Operating Officer Travis Auld, High Performance Manager John Quinn, and Dodoro.

Connors had forewarned the Essendon party prior to this meeting that while the club did not feature in the top two vying for Judd’s services, it very much remained a chance – more of a chance than Melbourne, according to Judd himself, who was once again impressed with the presentation.

On the following Monday morning, less than 36 hours after Collingwood’s harrowing five-point preliminary final loss to Geelong at the MCG, Connors and Judd sauntered into the Lexus Centre, up the road at Olympic Park. They were greeted by a cast of thousands: President Eddie McGuire, Chief Executive Gary Pert, Senior Coach Michael Malthouse, Senior Assistant Coach Guy McKenna, Chief of Football Operations Geoff Walsh, Conditioning Coach David Buttifant, National Recruiting Manager Derek Hine and West Australian Recruiting Manager Neil Ross.

Connors, together with Connors Sports Management Player Agent Lucy Mills, followed McGuire, Walsh and Hine into the boardroom, as Malthouse and Buttifant took Judd on a guided tour of the steel and glass edifice. Judd was blown away by Buttifant’s spiel and the Lexus Centre itself, so much so that at an afternoon de-brief in his room at Crown Casino, he asked Connors if Collingwood could orchestrate a deal.

“But I just did not know how the hell a deal was going to be done,” Connors said. “Chris put the same question to the whole group at the end of the [Collingwood] meeting. But the stock answer to that one was, ‘Declare us as your choice and we’ll get the deal done’, as the black and white brainstrust wanted to refrain from bandying players’ names about before Judd had actually committed.”

On Grand Final eve, Friday 28 September, Connors again met with Walsh and Hine, this time at Crown. He advised the pair that while he wasn’t completely sure of Judd’s thinking, his gut feel was that the player had narrowed the field to two: Collingwood and Carlton.

Connors also advised that, while it was proper for representatives of both Melbourne and Essendon to be respectfully told their clubs were no longer in the running, the news would not be conveyed until the Monday after the Grand Final had been run and won. But it was on that momentous Sunday that Swann, acting on a gut-feel, crucially took the initiative for Carlton.

On the morning of September 29, Swann drove from his home in Williamstown to the Sandringham locale of Judd’s parents, Lisa and Andy, where Judd was convalescing after groin surgery, in a bid to reinforce his club’s message. “Everybody likes to put their best foot forward, as should happen, but as is often the case whoever gets to him last might have had the biggest impact,” Swann said. “We were still very much in the mix but perhaps we weren’t as clear as we were beforehand [and] I was fearful that after everyone else had quite rightly made good presentations we might have been forgotten.

“So I rang Paul and I said, ‘Look, we really need to get in front of him again’. He [Connors] wasn’t so sure. He said, ‘That’s unfair, everyone will want a second go’. I said, ‘Okay, but what are his movements?’ and he [Judd] happened to be in town.

“So on the Sunday after the Grand Final I went to his parents’ house in Sandy. I just knocked on the door about lunchtime and there he was, he’d just had his groin op [an abductor release in Newcastle], so he asked me in and I had about three quarters of an hour with him. At that stage it had probably come down to the two, Carlton versus Collingwood, so I went through it all with him: how we had a good young list, all those things. I then went off to my in-laws’ farm that night.”

As the shadows lengthened on Sunday afternoon, Judd finalised his decision. It would be Carlton over Collingwood ... and not for the first time in football history either.

Connors well remembered the conversation. “He [Judd] just blurted out matter-of-factly that it was Carlton,” Connors said. 

“It wasn’t, ‘I’ve chosen Carlton for this reason or that reason’, it was just ‘Carlton’. No mention that it was a bloody difficult decision or anything, just simply ‘Carlton’."

“I drove to his parents’ house in Sandringham at around six o’clock in the evening and we met in the front room and discussed how this would be played out. We decided to knock off Melbourne and Essendon on the Monday, and I was keen for him to leave it for 24-48 hours before we advised the Pies, just in case he changed his mind.

“I was pretty sure Chris’s decision was final, but as was the case before I thought it important I gave him time to sleep on his decision, and that it was not a knee jerk reaction to ‘Swanny’s’ visit.”

When he took that now famous call from Connors at Wilara, Swann was sworn to secrecy for at least the next 24 hours. “I couldn’t say anything because while Paul had announced that it had come down to two, he didn’t want to declare straight away that Chris had gone to Carlton. Out of respect for Collingwood he just needed to play that out for another couple of days,” Swann said. “I then rang Paul on the Tuesday and said, ‘Look, we can’t hold out any more, we’ve got to get it out there.’”

Connors duly rang Geoff Walsh, who in another life served as Carlton’s Recruiting Co-ordinator, to deliver football’s equivalent of the Jeff Browne sandwich. Instead he copped a recorded message. “He [Walsh] then rang back and I said something like, ‘This is not the call I want to make,’” Connors said. “Collingwood had done everything right. Chris’s head said the Pies and his heart said the Blues. It was just a gut feel.

“Was it Greg Swann’s visit on the Sunday? I think it certainly played a part, but no doubt Chris’s desire to be a part of something from the bottom up, in addition to the Blues’ ability to do the trade, all played a factor in his final decision.”

On the Tuesday afternoon, Swann authorised a release declaring that Chris Judd had nominated Carlton as his club of choice. Barely a week later, the terms of the trade with West Coast were finalised. Josh Kennedy was the reluctant pawn and by Wednesday 11 October, it was official. The game’s most respected footballer would now be wearing Navy Blue.

Swann was first to admit his club’s disappointment in having to part with Kennedy. “But ultimately you’ve got to give up something to get something good. So we gave up pick three, Kennedy, swapped pick 20 for 46 and kept the priority, pick one, which was a massive plus because we got the best player in the draft and the most outstanding kid [Matthew Kreuzer] in the one year,” Swann said.

“That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity where you had a 24 year-old player, the best player in the competition at that time, wanting to come home. He [Judd] is a good guy, he’s an interesting guy, and if you spoke to him about why he chose us I reckon a lot of it would be that he thought we could get the deal done.

Chris Judd is unveiled as a Carlton player in October 2007. (Credit: AFL Photos)

“The Barassi thing is probably a bit bigger in that he came as an untried captain-coach, but having said that not too many champion players have left their club and come home. Chris would be the first one and how it plays out will be really interesting. It’s quite correct to say that we were on our knees when Chris came to Carlton, just as we were when Barassi came to Carlton in ’64. It took a couple of years for him [Barassi] to turn it around and you’d like to think that we improved enough to say that Chris has made that big an impact on the playing group with his professionalism.”

Notwithstanding his understanding that Carlton could actually get the deal done, Judd himself was genuinely enthused by his newly-adopted club’s medium to long-term prospects both on and off the field.

As Swann also observed: “Collingwood had just missed out on a Grand Final by a few points and the added pressure of him going there to be the Messiah to take them to the Grand Final was probably a harder thing for him to cope with, rather than joining a team starting from the bottom and going up with a young list”.

Later that Wednesday, Judd held court at a mass gathering of reporters in the John Nicholls Room on the second floor of the Carlton Social Club. As he purposefully and methodically addressed journalists’ questions, floor-to-ceiling posters of Judd sporting a superimposed Navy Blue guernsey flanked the future Carlton captain. “I didn’t have huge doubts that the deal would get done,” Judd declared as the television cameras slowly rolled. “I can be part of something from the ground up ... that’s the exciting part of it for me.”

Eleven months to the day later, Judd would again take centre stage, as Carlton’s latest recipient of the John Nicholls Medal. “For us, Judd coming to Carlton was enormous,” said Swann.

“You couldn’t begin to fathom what impact he was going to have on membership, merchandise and corporately. You knew he would help but you didn’t know how much, and there’s even been a flow-on effect. Robbie Warnock chose Carlton over his brother’s team because he wanted to play with Chris Judd, and the same with Ryan O’Keefe, even though we couldn’t get the deal done.

“Not so long ago you couldn’t get a player in the joint. That is why Chris Judd has been enormous for Carlton and will continue to be so.”