IT IS late September, 2009. Adelaide has fallen just short of Collingwood in a tight semi-final, but the Crows are optimistic. They have a young, talented list, and high hopes for Patrick Dangerfield, Bernie Vince, Taylor Walker and others. Then there is Kurt Tippett, who has kicked 55 goals in his first full season to become one of the most exciting young forwards in the game.
There's just one problem. In a meeting on the Gold Coast, Adelaide chief executive Steven Trigg and football manager John Reid are told that Tippett is on his way out. The Queenslander is contracted for one more year but has been offered a lot of money to join the new Gold Coast side for its debut season in 2011 and, according to his manager Peter Blucher, is on the verge of accepting it. The deal had been offered in the short off-season window in which the Suns were allowed to broach and reach terms with opposition players.
Adelaide is under enormous pressure not to let Tippett leave. He is only 22 and played just 43 games, but he is one of the club's most promising youngsters. Explaining his departure to a supporter base that has fallen in love with him would not be easy.
The Tippett contract is one of the last that Reid - the man who helped piece together Adelaide's 1997-98 premiership sides - will complete before retiring.
The Crows put a new deal to Tippett, lifting his pay from $400,000 in 2010 to $700,000 in 2011 and 2012, and the club wins its man back over. In a letter to Blucher, Reid confirms additional bonuses and breaks the base payments for the three years of the new contract into three categories: the amount the club will include in the salary cap; additional services agreements totalling $80,000 a year; as well as ''independent agreements'' totalling $200,000, split over 2011 and 2012. It notes that the breakdown may change once the third-party money is in place. But the money is guaranteed.
The Crows make one more promise. Reid agrees that should Tippett wish to leave the club at the end of the new contract - 2012 - it would trade him to the club of his choice for a minimum second-round draft pick. If that club is the Gold Coast, it must be the Suns' earliest second-round choice. It is made quite clear that neither the ''exit clause'' or the underwritten third-party money can be included in the version of Tippett's contract submitted to the AFL.
The Tippetts have since argued that Adelaide, desperate to keep the young player, put the ''exit clause'' to them. The Crows claim Tippett, led by his father Tony, persuaded the club to include it. Whoever thought it up, the letter is what has landed the club, Trigg, Reid, his successor Phil Harper and Tippett before the AFL Commission on draft tampering and salary-cap charges.
From there, the stories start to vary.
Trigg is understood to have told AFL investigators he had a change of heart soon after Reid put the letter in the mail. He claims he called Blucher, telling him the exit clause would not get past the AFL should either party attempt to follow through with it. He says the pair agreed then to void it. If true, the rethink does not appear to have been put in writing.
Tippett's contract was signed, submitted to the AFL and rubber-stamped. On October 3, Reid told the Adelaide Advertiser that while player contracts were necessarily inflated when new clubs were entering the league, the Crows were content with the deal they had struck with their young star. ''We've needed to put up a few bales of hay to keep Kurt, but we've also kept the farm,'' he said. ''We've certainly not sold our soul.''
PHIL Harper was appointed from within the club to replace Reid. From a series of emails unearthed during the AFL's investigation, it appears to have become his unenviable duty to ensure Tippett received his undeclared money, while keeping Trigg in the loop.
There is an email from Harper to Blucher in early 2011, in which Harper says he has ''tipped'' the forward, Dangerfield and captain Nathan van Berlo into an endorsement deal with a construction company owned by former board member Alan Sheppard. These deals were approved by the league at the time, but Harper's use of the word ''tipped'' catches the attention of investigators. Independent agreements are supposed to be just that - not sought, facilitated or set up by clubs.
There are more emails. In one, Harper discusses with Trigg and Adelaide finance manager Grant Rutherford whether the club had room in its salary cap to cover an anticipated shortfall in Tippett's additional $200,000, expressing doubt the club could absorb it. The same concern is broached in another email, sent earlier this year to Trigg, Rutherford, list manager David Noble and general manager of finance and administration Shane Smallacombe, with Harper explaining the Crows were around $50,000 short on the $200,000 and that if they couldn't find other companies to chip in, the money would have to go into the club's salary cap. Adelaide could not afford to not pay Tippett the money, he said, because otherwise the letter might resurface, leaving the Crows facing a hefty AFL fine. The football manager finished with an instruction: ''please delete this email''.
Over time, Adelaide officials appear to have become frustrated, believing Tippett was knocking back good offers because they involved too much work, while further emails listed the companies he did reach agreements with, indicating that Blucher had been encouraged to contact them.
One was with Sheppard and another with Amcor Packaging, while resources company McMahon Services paid him between $20,000 and $30,000. The investigation also found a letter from Harper to club sponsor Balfours, instructing the bakery to divert $20,000 to $40,000 from a $140,000 sponsorship to Tippett. In return the forward became a Balfours ambassador, filming a series of advertisements while dressed in an apron and chef's hat.
ALMOST two years after Adelaide talked Tippett into staying, the web began to unravel.
In an article in The Age, published on August 10, Caroline Wilson explained that Adelaide was being haunted by an intriguing clause linking Tippett to the Gold Coast. She wrote: ''It has emerged that Tippett kept his options open when he committed to the Crows on a massive three-year deal at the end of 2009, insisting upon a clause that would allow him to move to the club of his choice at the end of next season.''
Tippett responded by recording a video message for the Adelaide website the following day, hedging his bets. He was a beach boy at heart, he said, but he didn't plan to go anywhere yet.
''I'm contracted until the end of next season and I intend to - and expect to - play out that contract to the very best of my abilities.''
That wasn't the end of it. In fact, more people were being drawn in.
At a board meeting in late August 2011, Trigg was asked for an update on Tippett's contract situation, with the exchange recorded in board minutes. The CEO is understood to have confirmed the existence of the get-out clause, but expressed confidence that Tippett would stay.
Publicly, the Crows claimed Tippett was off the trade table. Behind the scenes they were open to offers. The Brisbane Lions spoke to Tippett, put an offer to him and offered Adelaide its No. 12 draft pick, as well as an end-of-first-round compensation pick, but the Crows wanted one of the Lions' talented young South Australians, Jared Polec or Jack Redden.
The Crows' recruiting manager, Matt Rendell, suspected Tippett would be gone in 12 months and was keen to do the trade, but others were still sure they could talk him into re-signing. The deal died there.
TIPPETT had a frustrating 2012, interrupted three times by concussions. He kicked 39 goals in 21 games then, after a quiet finals series, played a significant part in Adelaide's five-point loss to Hawthorn in a preliminary final.
Still, no one was surprised when, having delayed contract talks all year, he announced he had quit the club.
What did shock the Crows was his intended destination: not the Suns, not the Lions, but premiership side Sydney.
That said, the Crows knew he was likely to leave. Weeks before Tippett made his call, Harper had sent a new, airbrushed version of Reid's original letter to Blucher, from three years earlier, removing the damaging references to the independent agreements and the need to keep them from the AFL.
As the three-week trade period began in early October, Trigg left Adelaide on a European holiday. His instructions to Noble were to chase the best possible deal for Tippett but, if push came to shove, accept a second-round draft pick.
As the Crows and Sydney met on the first day of trading it became clear the Swans knew about the exit clause but weren't desperate to push the situation and were willing to work their first-round draft pick into a deal. But Sydney also wanted Adelaide to take the contracted Jesse White off its hands. Deeper into the trade period, the Swans also asked for two late draft picks in return.
Progress was slow, and the Tippetts were becoming increasingly agitated that a trade had not been done. With Tony Tippett threatening to go public with the illegal exit clause and the family hiring lawyer David Galbally, tension was building.
By the end of week two of trading, White had flown to Adelaide and passed a medical. The Crows didn't really want to take the forward on - planning to take just two live picks in the national draft, the club wasn't keen to delist another player to make room for him - but had been talked around. Tippett had been offered a four-year deal worth $3.55 million to join Sydney, and word that Adelaide was planning to swap its highest-paid player for White and Sydney's pick 23 had raised plenty of eyebrows at AFL headquarters. Trade deals are only approved once salary cap watchdog Ken Wood is convinced they represent clear commercial value.
On Friday, October 19, the paperwork was signed, ready to be lodged. As far as the Swans knew, the deal was done. But at the last minute, the Crows pulled it. Whether Harper went to Adelaide chairman Rob Chapman or coach Brenton Sanderson raised his own concerns, the chairman waited for Trigg to arrive home, picked up the phone and called AFL boss Andrew Demetriou. After three years, it was time to confess.