THE sting was in the beginning, so easily missed as the full import of what Essendon president David Evans was saying slowly sunk in, and so completely overlooked later in the breaking storm.
''Over the last 48 hours,'' said a grim-faced Evans, ''the Essendon Football Club has received information about supplements that have been given to our players as part of their fitness program in 2012.''
Read to the letter, it appears that the news that jolted Essendon's hierarchy was not that players were taking supplements, but the nature of the supplements themselves. Since the Bombers immediately called in the AFL and the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, their concern can only be about the legality of the supplements. They would scarcely be asking ASADA for advice about a companionable wine.
Coming clean: Essendon chief executive Ian Robson (left), club president David Evans and coach James Hird face the media yesterday. Photo: Wayne Taylor
Asked if he was fearful that Essendon had an issue with performance-enhancing drugs, Evans said: ''No.''
Asked then why it had volunteered itself to the AFL and ASADA, and made this unprecedented pre-emptive media strike, Evans said: ''The information we've gathered over the past 24, 48 hours is slightly concerning and we want to dig a bit deeper, but we want some experts to help us with that.''
That was what he said. But all the while, a sub-text flashed. None of Evans, coach James Hird or chief executive Ian Robson wore Essendon ties, nor was the backdrop the usual montage of club colours, emblems and sponsors. In the AFL, this could never be merely oversight. Evans and Hird spoke of the paramountcy of Essendon's integrity, but for now, their way of protecting that integrity was to keep the club at arm's length.
Nor was it just body language. ''I'm shocked to be sitting here,'' said Hird, twice, and plainly, he was.
The implications would turn any football person to stone. Speculation centres on something called peptide. On ASADA's list, it is banned as a substance, in and out of competition, but permissible as a ''product''.
Last year, says ASADA's register, three Queensland amateur rugby players were caught in possession of, using and/or trafficking peptide, and suspended for two to four years.
ASADA makes no allowance for the unsuspecting. ''Athletes are responsible for any substance found in their body,'' said an addendum to a release last year. ''There have been cases where … athletes have been sanctioned after they have used supplements that they thought were OK, but which were actually contaminated with prohibited substances.''
Of course, this is going straight to the last page that Evans, for one, hopes and says will not be written. But it was also patently clear yesterday that even he, Hird and Robson are turning the pages apprehensively. They refused all questions on what they now know, batting away one about a claim that players had signed waivers, for instance.
In the public domain, this much is evident. For two years, Essendon has been vexed by injuries and the management of them. Player conditioning was overseen by Dean Robinson, a controversial and remote figure. Late last year, Stephen Dank, a colleague of Robinson's at several previous clubs, left the Bombers. Rumours of irregularities have bubbled since the middle of last year, but were dismissed by the club as recently as Monday evening.
Then something changed. On Tuesday, the Bombers threw up their hands, not in surrender, but as if to say: ''Damned if we know what's going on. You tell us.''
Soon enough, ASADA will.