Cost of Wang-gate may yet run into millions
ESSENDON'S unfathomable and dangerous decision on Saturday afternoon to fly its team in two light planes to Wangaratta during a storm of ''biblical proportions'' could prove far more costly in club terms than the damage of two or three days of embarrassing publicity.
The Bombers are precariously placed right now in terms of finances. This time next year they hope to be training at their massive new home at Tullamarine and yet the club is still almost $5 million short in projected state government funding.
The cavalier manner in which it treated the people of Wangaratta could not have been worse timed and the accompanying disgust of the Victorian Sports Minister, Hugh Delahunty, was not lost on anyone involved. This was a weekend that had been two years in the planning for the town. The Bombers could not even bring themselves to spend one night there.
Essendon players at the "Flight Plan" launch last year Photo: Paul Rovere
Essendon's bid for the crucial millions required to complete its ambitious new facility - boasting a ground the size of the MCG and another the size of Etihad Stadium - is being scrutinised by the Baillieu government as the May state budget approaches. How telling that the Bombers' funding campaign has been underlined by the club's claim to community commitment.
It is true that Windy Hill once led the way in the AFL in its youth education projects, and chairman David Evans and chief executive Ian Robson have lobbied for the government funding - $4.8 million to be exact - stating their dedication to establishing a community facility at Tullamarine with a strong emphasis on the Sudanese families in the area.
They are also rattling the tins at supporters and members.
To charter flights for a pre-season game that would have taken 2½ hours to reach by bus was - at the very least - a bad look.
But the fiasco was about more than a bad impression, although it is true that the AFL's image was tarnished as a result. It spoke volumes for the disconnect between the public and the modern footballer that was communicated loud and clear during last year's player pay dispute and the big numbers - earned by footballers and the men at head office - constantly thrown around at the time.
Community camp funding has been slashed. No. 1 draft picks leave struggling clubs and become instant millionaires. Fans are being pressured more than ever to pay for memberships as well as their subscriptions to watch Fox Footy.
The Geelong president said last year club members had to get used to the idea of not being guaranteed a seat at a game but simply being part of the club experience. Just ask the good folk of Wangaratta who bought more than 10,000 tickets how they found the Essendon ''experience'' on Saturday night.
The AFL has learnt some harsh lessons from Saturday night. And Essendon? You certainly had to feel for Robson, who was forced to defend his team's management and who sensibly had driven to the game by car.
The growing evidence suggests Robson is being rolled by his football department on key club decisions. And yet there he was being forced to say with a straight face that his club had chosen to fly in and out of Wangaratta because of accommodation issues. Please.
Essendon has known about this fixture since last October. Robson then pointed to the difficulty presented by the quick turnaround between the Saturday night game and Friday night's NAB Cup clash with Sydney at Etihad. Again with a straight face.
If Robson had truly been convinced by his crack fitness team that such smash-and-grab tactics were important to aid team recovery then what more proof is required that sports science and its influence on the game has moved out of all sensible control. Did those same training experts notice that some of their expensive cattle struggled to sit up straight given the size of one of the planes concerned?
We keep hearing about how professional the game has become, but there is nothing less professional than a no-show.
Essendon is not the only club sweating on the forthcoming state budget.
North Melbourne's Ballarat ambitions, Collingwood's costly renovation at the Westpac Centre and Melbourne's foray into the Docklands precinct have all been built with the hope of Victorian government funding and even with the $6 million it has already received from the federal government, a knockback for Essendon would see it forced to carry significant debt for the first time in decades.
It was probably lucky then for the Bombers, given the mood of Delahunty and his team, that a meeting scheduled for late yesterday involving AFL boss Andrew Demetriou and Premier Ted Baillieu was cancelled due to the ongoing floods threat.
And what a difference a month makes. In February the Bombers turned the first symbolic sod at Tullamarine with a big public launch attended by their federal member Bill Shorten. But no one from the AFL turned up, a fact that so upset the club it made its displeasure known to the most senior men in the game.
Essendon was also concerned at the no-show by Victorian Sports Minister Delahunty. Touché.