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.
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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.
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.
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.