AFL chief becomes a hard act to follow
Gillon McLachlan is the hot favourite to take over from Andrew Demetriou. Photo: Arsineh Houspian
ANDREW Demetriou's eyebrow-raising decision to absent himself from more than 25 per cent of the AFL home-and-away season is significant on several fronts.
First, because of the obvious fact that the AFL boss has chosen to miss such a large chunk of a season in which a new club has been introduced with a high-risk element as demonstrated by the struggle for Greater Western Sydney to find an audience.
For all the strength of Demetriou's executive team, he remains the integral face of the competition at a time when even his chairman has declared he has ''unfinished business''.
That both he and his football lieutenant Adrian Anderson were both away this week and no face from the AFL was put to the competition's statement about the Richmond scandal and wider controversy about dangerous medication was also unusual, although in fairness Anderson remained on call and would have intervened.
And it is true Demetriou's long break - which includes a fortnight representing the AFL in London for the Olympics as a guest of Australia Post and Foxtel - has been the subject of some sensitivity at AFL headquarters this week. More than one staffer was vague when asked about the length of Demetriou's absence.
But more significant in the context of the AFL hierarchy has been Gillon McLachlan's seamless ascension to the role of acting CEO. For some time there has been pressure on Demetriou to promote successors and give one of them time acting in the job. Demetriou has made no secret that he wants McLachlan to succeed him and the prevailing view is that the CEO could leave the job within two years.
Clearly McLachlan is the hot favourite to take on what now stands out as the top job in Australian sport. But the commission is determined that when the time comes, there will be a strong field from within the organisation and without.
And it won't be Demetriou's call. Chairman Mike Fitzpatrick reminded the football world just who called the shots when he was interviewed on Fox by Eddie McGuire in May. It would be the commission, said Fitzpatrick, who would tap Demetriou on the shoulder when it was felt his time was up.
Fitzpatrick has made no secret of his admiration for Anderson, who has revolutionised the football department, and there is no doubt Dave Matthews and Andrew Dillon should also be among the contenders. Both have been integral players in the establishment of Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney.
Matthews is the former game development boss - Dillon now holds that role - who boldly lured Karmichael Hunt and Israel Folau to a foreign code and convinced both the AFL and Kevin Sheedy that the latter would be perfect for GWS.
Matthews stepped in as the GWS acting CEO when the club was in crisis late last year and has moved mountains.
He will soon take on the role full-time, but there is clearly a story behind his delay in signing a contract.
The Saturday Age understands there has been some question as to whether Matthews would remain on the AFL's books or those of his club. If on the club books, Matthews would want an assurance he could return to the AFL. If you asked the AFL right now which club bosses could possibly be groomed for the key top job along with Matthews they might also add Brendon Gale (Richmond) and Travis Auld (Gold Coast) to that list.
The AFL's unofficial No. 2 slipped into Demetriou's regular 3AW chair on the Neil Mitchell program yesterday, and today headed to Hobart for the North Melbourne-West Coast clash. Disappointingly, neither Demetriou, McLachlan nor Anderson went to Hobart for the Kangaroos' home debut at Bellerive Oval earlier in the season.
Outlining his AFL history on 3AW - where he was portrayed as the next AFL CEO - McLachlan took calls from the public about fixturing, Taylor Walker's tackle and ticket prices.
There have been concerns in the past about McLachlan's elitist image: that the polo-playing St Peter's College old boy could struggle to be seen as a man of the people.
Those concerns are gradually eroding, an image change for which Demetriou would take some credit, although in fairness to McLachlan's footy credentials, the 38-year-old St Kilda supporter did sit on the board of the University Blues for a decade.
If McLachlan won plaudits for his integral role in the AFL's $1.125 billion five-year broadcast rights agreement and the more recent establishment of the expanded media department; less well known has been the work achieved behind the scenes last year for the then largely rudderless Giants including the 10-year multimillion-dollar deal with the ACT government and the Queensland government funding of Metricon Stadium.
Back to Demetriou, currently enjoying the Italian summer with his young family. For every club CEO and AFL commissioner who has defended his six-week mid-season break, there has been another who agreed it was unusual in the context of general company practice and also given the timing.
This is not a criticism but, the chief executive, who celebrates nine years in the top job come September, pushes his standing to the limits when it comes to his own terms and conditions.
Against that, those terms and conditions now take into account a long-service leave component. Demetriou joined the AFL in 2000 and under Victorian legislation he is entitled to almost nine weeks' leave each year. The view of his board is that it is more crucial for him to be omnipresent from late August through the September finals, key strategic decision time over October and November and then for the national draft.
The competition will hear about it when Demetriou returns. Even his detractors, significantly diminished over the years, admit he has been a high-achieving and very successful chief executive.
It cannot be denied that Demetriou's is the top job in Australian sport, but that was not the case when he took it on.