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AFL's deal-maker Gillon McLachlan will be worth listening to

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Hird maintains club's innocence

Essendon legend James Hird blames the AFL for pushing the club to self reporting at the start of the supplements scandal.

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Gillon McLachlan was the AFL's deal maker long before he became the competition's most powerful executive. McLachlan's outcome driven negotiation skills achieved many extra millions onto the game's healthy bank balance through a series of broadcast contracts - the richest in Australian sport.

At the commission's behest he has driven an era of federal and state government funding that remains the envy of the rival NRL, which tried to poach him, and created a network of new and renovated football stadiums across the country.

There was some irony in the fact that McLachlan was the polar opposite of the previous AFL football operations boss Adrian Anderson and was handed Anderson's investigation into the Melbourne tanking affair when Anderson departed the AFL at the end of 2012.

Gillon McLachlan has driven an era of federal and state government funding that remains the envy of the rival NRL.

Gillon McLachlan has driven an era of federal and state government funding that remains the envy of the rival NRL. Photo: Getty Images

Under McLachlan a deal was struck which never found the Demons guilty of tanking but heavily fined the club anyway and suspended two of the key players involved, Chris Connolly and Dean Bailey. There was a strong legal view that the AFL should have called Melbourne's bluff and taken its action to court. Who knows where it would have ended up under the process-driven Anderson?

Certainly McLachlan's explanation of the final outcome seemed a little lame, as did the AFL's deal with Adelaide after that club hid player payments. The player involved, Kurt Tippett, was robbed of six months of football as was the experienced Crows' CEO while Tippett's manager was thrown out of the game for 12 months.

But it's probably worth pointing out that no club seems to be tanking any more, the 2014 home-and-away season seems more alive than ever with just three weeks remaining and as the Melbourne-Greater Western Sydney game approaches this weekend few believe either club doesn't want to win. The Tippett saga, too, remains a cautionary tale even though, in McLachlan's vision, the protagonists deserved a second chance.

And in the context of all of the above, the AFL went easy on Essendon, which suffered draft penalties for its gross negligence in the handling of its players' health and welfare less harsh than those handed to Adelaide.

Again McLachlan achieved the deal, this time with a finals deadline approaching. The backroom jousting and shortcuts and bureaucratic bungling that punctuated the AFL's attempt to achieve an outcome has been exposed by Hird and Essendon in their attempt to prove the ASADA investigation into the club was unlawful. Hird's motive appears more to lash out at how unfairly he was treated than any concerns for his players. 

Hird clearly still sees himself as a scapegoat but that was a corner into which he painted himself. There seems few places for him to go now within the game that once enveloped him as he targets past and present leaders of his club and the competition itself as he attempts to vent his spleen but only serves to fragment the Bombers instead. Paul Little must soon be forced to cut him loose and it would not be a surprise if McLachlan and his negotiating skills are called upon again to help achieve that.

But, in the end, neither Hird nor Little have exposed anything corrupt nor unlawful in what the AFL did. If they truly believed Andrew Demetriou or David Evans had behaved outside of the law, or that their telephone call was in any way relevant to the case then that pair would have been called as witnesses.

No, what McLachlan and his team appear guilty of is being determined to run the AFL competition unencumbered. Not simply driven by commercial concerns but sporting concerns. If the AFL could not put on its show in September then what did it exist for?

It remains disappointing that the AFL was so soft on Essendon, that it failed to sanction the club doctor who failed to do his duty. But after two days of observing just how crazy and distracting this story has become in the grip of the litigious Hirds and Little perhaps we were harsh to judge the competition's governing body.

The Queen's Counsel representing Essendon, Neil Young, must be costing the club $20,000 a day alone. The Hirds' various legal teams must have racked up seven figures by now and yet even the famous and probably costly refugee advocate Julian Burnside could not protect Hird against the "duress, threats and inducements". Just as his public relations advisors could not save his ever-diminishing reputation. How much more money will be sucked out of football before this sorry saga comes to a close?

Should the challenge to ASADA and the AFL fail, the Essendon parties still have two further avenues of appeal. And in the end ASADA claims it will forge ahead anyway. If it does not, then why does Australia have an anti-doping body anyway?

McLachlan's skill at the negotiating table, despite the compromises that occasionally accompanies the agreements he has achieved, seems a lot more palatable today than it did two days ago. What the Federal Court has demonstrated this week as James Hird continues to drag down his club and his sport, is why the AFL prefers to run its own cases.

The new AFL chief McLachlan was unable to clarify over the weekend much of what was revealed in the court documents put forward on Friday by Hird and Essendon. Insisting he would not comment was disappointing in the context of the disturbing narrative but McLachlan has stated on more than one occasion that he will have his say when this story finally runs its race.

Hird used to say that, too, but those words now seem hollow if the past two days are anything to judge him on.

Somehow the prospect of McLachlan having his say on the dangerous Essendon drugs program, its investigation and its fall-out, seems significantly more compelling than anything else Hird has to offer.

6 comments

  • Cutting deals with TV broadcasters commercially is a hell of a lot different from cutting deals with an anti doping agency designed to keep sport clean!

    Mclachlan has a lot to lose.

    The AFL could have let 2013 run its course with Essendon allowed to participate until the full truth had come out from ASADA. Instead an incomplete 'interim' report was used.

    What would have been wrong with handing out EFC clubs penalties this year if it was found guilty? Why did the AFL(and government) push so hard for it to finish so soon, and why was it all made public until they could actually lay charges.

    The investigation should have never been made public. This is the AFL and Essendons fault. The grand standing press conferences were a joke, the ALP screwed the AFL and Essendon by demanding it happen before/during an election as a distraction

    Blackest Day in Sport should have been when charges were ready to be laid.

    The Labor government is at fault here of ruining a very important investigation. I would rather here from Demetriou, the ACC and Kate Lundy conversations.

    Commenter
    Barney
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    August 13, 2014, 10:54AM
    • Wow Caroline, you must be watching a different trial. The surprising thing revealed so far is why Essendon didn't go to court last year.

      Prior to self reporting the AFL & ASADA agreed on how the investigation would run and just for good measure the AFL Integrity Officer asked for an Interim Report to be produced so that the AFL could hand out the agreed penalties BEFORE ANY INTERVIEWS HAD BEEN CONDUCTED. How's that for a goverance failure?

      This case is about lack of process. Andruska says that joint investigations happened before, but according to Richard Ings the past CEO that is not true. Andruska says that politicians and media advisors sat in on meetings as did the AFL, how's that for keeping things confidential and in house? The ACC as much as told Andrew Demetriou and Gill what club was under investigation in reply to Gill's question of is it Essendon when their investigator said "Say no more". Kind of puts to bed his line of "I didn't know which club" doesn't it?

      Organisations that are totally results driven often find themselves responding differently to similar situations and in truth they waste resources and leave various stakeholders unsure of an organisation's direction and sometimes results in a boy's club mentality that you usually seem to rail against.

      Essendon obviously did make mistakes and it would appear that their controls could have been tighter but their failures seem to pale into insignificance compared to ASADA letting the AFL and the previous government control and publish their investigation, all for improper purposes according to the Act.

      By the way has anyone investigated any of the other 11 AFL clubs that had poor goverance processes around their supplements programs, or other AFL clubs where some of the people under investigation worked?

      Commenter
      MaxPower
      Date and time
      August 13, 2014, 1:54PM
      • What I want to know is what does all of Hird's whinging, whining and blaming have to do with whether the AFL and ASADA conducted a legal investigation of whether Essendon used 'banned' substances? It seems like he is using the court case as a forum for 'woe is me - poor little golden boy with feet of clay'. It is doing nothing for his image and is not adding anything of value to what the court case is supposed to be about. I used to admire his football prowess but this performance is leaving me cold.

        Commenter
        OzMum231
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        August 13, 2014, 4:10PM
        • Good one OzMum, you have obviously been following the trial intently.

          Can't remember Hirdy whinging and whining and blaming too many people with his answers although do you have any comment on how the investigation was run? Like AFL and ASADA getting together prior to reporting or the AFL Integrity Officer wanting an interim report before any interviews were conducted so they could hand down their punishment which had already been decided.

          How about the bit where about the meetings with government ministers and media advisers where additional money and resources were offered so that Essendon could be found guilty before the finals.

          No wonder all Hird wanted to do was have the whole lot heard in an open court where the facts could be presented. How bad it that, or it is best to have it all decided by the boy's club in a back room?

          Commenter
          MaxPower
          Date and time
          August 13, 2014, 4:39PM
        • The "whinging, whining and blaming" were not opinions given but responses to questions, which had absolutely everything to do with the legality of the investigation. If you pay attention to this case you can see the facts emerging. The AFL wanted a specific outcome: to have Essendon players be allowed to play for the look of the AFL brand, but, in order to be seen as tough on the issue, they needed significant scalps from the coaching and support staff. Hird made it clear on the stand that he was told not to say anything about the investigation, while we learn in the background they were planning how to get rid of him for months, releasing bits that were important to their own case but leaving out anything that didn't look so good. Natural justice? This came about as a result of an investigation that shared information with the AFL, while the AFL then hand balled it to various journalists, the author of this article included. It is clear what their motivations were and Hird's testimony went a long way to showing that. Sadly most people have already chosen a side with this issue and will not take a step back and see this for what it is.

          This article is so strangely timed - it reads like a love poem to the new CEO. Meanwhile in court we learn that he and Andrew D have lied about their knowledge and their approach to the sanctioning of the club and its support staff. Why would the author be so firmly behind the CEO I wonder? What does she have to lose/gain?

          Commenter
          Cal
          Date and time
          August 13, 2014, 5:39PM
        • OzMum321 - This wasn't a press conference, it is a court hearing. He answered questions as put to him. You will notice that his "whinging, whining and blaming" were in response to questions asked of him by lawyers for ASADA, under cross-examination; not by his own lawyers. He was under oath and required to answer honestly.

          Commenter
          qwonkers
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          August 13, 2014, 6:08PM
      Comments are now closed

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