Date with disaster
The scoreboard tells the tale of the game between the Cats and the Demons last year. Photo: Getty Images
THE perfect storm that wiped out the Melbourne Football Club as it was, took place at Geelong's Kardinia Park on Saturday, July 30, 2011. Some would say dark clouds had been hovering for almost two years but the tempest was set in place just five days before the Demons' historic defeat.
On the Monday before the game, Melbourne's then captain Brad Green was a guest on Fox Sport's On The Couch. Green was struggling for form and clearly aligned, like the rest of the club's on-field leaders, with coach Dean Bailey. Former Demon Gerard Healy asked Green about reports of a relationship breakdown between the football department and the administration. All year Melbourne had denied that Bailey had fallen out with chief executive Cameron Schwab and football boss Chris Connolly. In fact, the club was deeply divided and relations between coach and Schwab and Connolly had become poisonous.
Green's televised response was non-committal at best. For Don McLardy, who in practical terms was standing in for the ailing president Jim Stynes, alarm bells rang immediately. The next day, the popular vice-president who had orchestrated Stynes' takeover in 2008, walked into a meeting at the club between Bailey and his leadership group. McLardy's stated purpose was to discuss the forthcoming Foundation Heroes' dinner. But then he asked the captain what was behind Healy's question and Green's disturbing response. As Green began to revisit his On The Couch exchange, McLardy demanded the truth. Green looked around to fellow on-field leaders, who included vice-captain Aaron Davey, Nathan Jones, Brent Moloney and Jared Rivers. He began to outline misgivings with the way football department business was being conducted.
Demoralised: Skipper Brad Green and teammates leave the field after the thrashing at Geelong. Photo: Pat Scala
Bailey reportedly excused himself and those inside the room recall him returning more than 30 minutes later with a knock at the door. McLardy was not keen to revisit the events of that last week of July this week but what is known is that the meeting had a dramatic effect.
The day before - on July 25 - CEO Schwab was told by directors his job was safe despite ongoing speculation. Schwab had returned to the Demons towards the end of 2008 but it would be fair to say he was not necessarily pushing for a long-term deal at the time his contract was signed. Schwab had been shabbily treated by the Demons under the Joseph Gutnick administration in his previous incarnation as club boss. In the end the two parties agreed to a three-year deal with a trigger clause for a fourth year. The contractual deadline for a decision was July 31 - the day after the Geelong game. But after the Tuesday meeting McLardy harboured grave concerns about what was emerging as a dysfunctional football operation where players or coaches were claiming they could not trust Connolly - or Schwab - depending who you talked to. Many had reported misgivings earlier in the year to consultant Ray Andrews, who had been commissioned to conduct a report into the club's operations and felt they were not being heard. Former captain David Neitz, who worked at the club last season, was among the frustrated.
Right or wrong, some players felt they were political pawns in an operation as much about image as anything substantial. They were worried about Bailey, who they felt was being undermined, and lacked confidence in the club's player development and list management.
Now many at the club believe Bailey was also playing a devastating political game. Then, on Thursday July 28, McLardy told Bailey he was summoning the leadership group to a meeting with Stynes. Bailey reportedly reminded McLardy the team was travelling to Geelong the following day. ''Jim needs to hear this,'' was McLardy's reported response.
Stynes had stepped in as the club's football director - with McLardy's help - following the resignation of Andrew Leoncelli earlier that year. President and vice-president spoke to the on-field leaders late on Thursday. They repeated their misgivings although it remains unclear how comfortable they were with the role they had taken on.
On Friday, Schwab was told his position was no longer secure and that Stynes and some board members were looking at ending his tenure at the end of the season. The contract deadline was 48 hours away. Key Melbourne coterie supporters believed by Friday night that Schwab was finished. So did some Melbourne footballers.
In the meantime, Bailey and the team headed for Geelong, choosing, as had become the club's practice, to travel one day early and train on Friday afternoon at Geelong's ground.
That evening some coaches - although not assistant Scott West or welfare coach Ian Flack who had family functions in Melbourne - convened at a local bar. One recalls running into former St Kilda coach Grant Thomas and hearing Bailey tell Thomas that he was concerned his players were showing signs of fatigue.
On Saturday morning Schwab told Geelong CEO Brian Cook he had issues to deal with and would not be attending the pre-game function. But Schwab drove to Geelong during the afternoon.
Cook recalls watching the match in a state of disbelief and said the mood around him from Melbourne officials and directors was shell-shock. McLardy too used the term ''shell-shock''. He was sitting with his close friend and Geelong supporter Greg Campbell, who will again accompany him to the game today.
At half-time Melbourne had kicked 1.1 to the Cats' 20.4. Green had one touch. Moloney, who had a virus and should not have played, was being devastated by Cameron Ling and was subbed off at half-time. Connolly spent much of the second half in the rooms checking on the sick midfielder who spent much of the remainder of the game asleep.
Calling the West Coast-Bulldogs game at Etihad Stadium, Triple M commentator and former Melbourne captain Garry Lyon said of the Demons' scoreline: ''This is not a bleeding … this is a dismemberment.''
Geelong's percentage jumped from 138.47 to 150.97 after the game. The final score (233 points to 47) was a 186-point defeat, the Demons' second biggest loss. They were thrashed by Fitzroy in 1979 by 190 points (but defeated the Lions next time they played).
Schwab was in the rooms after the game along with McLardy and at least one other director, Russel Howcroft. None would speak to journalists who sniffed a coach sacking. Bailey saw the reality of his position, but his supporters believed Schwab would also go.
The telephone calls began that night. The next day Lyon was visited by Stynes and McLardy and although the official decision to sack Bailey came later in the day at a board meeting at McLardy's house, Stynes had made his mind up hours earlier. Lyon had already agreed to turn his attention to the haemorrhaging football club.
Once Stynes telephoned Bailey with the bad news, several assistants went to his house to commiserate. Tearful footballers called coaches on Monday morning, asking: ''What have we done?''
The other major development on that Sunday was that Schwab - who also attended the board meeting at McLardy's - was told he had received his one-year extension. That decision was strongly pushed by Schwab's influential supporter Guy Jalland.
Schwab supporters remain firm that he never worked against Bailey but had simply come to believe he was the wrong man to coach the club. They say it was Bailey and his off-field supporters - most of whom have now resigned or been removed from the club - who were working behind the scenes against Schwab, and that the CEO had no idea until that tumultuous week. ''We're sorry, Cameron,'' key directors reportedly told Schwab the day after the Geelong loss. ''We were listening to the wrong people.''
Certainly, even those board members who were not happy with Schwab's performance then, now insist he is a different person and has risen to the occasion during the tragedies and calamities that have punctuated Melbourne's dreadful start to 2012. The constant cry that he interfered too heavily in football matters is no longer seen as a negative and his work in garnering two major sponsors, along with a third new second-tier backer, has taken the club out of potential financial peril.
A clearly unwell and unhappy Stynes, along with McLardy, opened the grim Monday media conference formalising the Bailey sacking. Schwab sat in the auditorium at AAMI Park but left with the two board leaders before Bailey spoke.
The official club sponsorship backdrop was removed and it was during his farewell appearance that Bailey made it clear he had obeyed instructions to coach for early draft choices. He also made it clear he did not believe he had been supported by the administration.
That night an emotional Lyon said on Channel Nine's Footy Classified that he felt dreadful watching his desperately ill friend Stynes shoulder the burden of the club's woes. He said he wished he had stepped in to help earlier but he had not realised the extent of the problem. By all reports there was plenty more emotion - including from Schwab - when Lyon did step in to examine where it had all gone wrong.
Under coach Mark Neeld's changes this season, Green was stripped of the captaincy, Davey of the vice-captaincy. Green, Davey, club best and fairest Moloney and runner-up Rivers were all dropped from the leadership group.
When asked about his leadership demotion before the start of this season Green agreed that the fateful game had contributed to his downfall. ''The way the whole place ran last year was all-encompassing and everything needed to be changed and I have no doubt 'Neeldy' felt everything needed to be changed as well,'' Green said. ''No doubt [the round-19 loss] was a shocking game and something you wish you could take back.''
McLardy this week denied that players had gone into the Geelong game distracted by the imminent off-field crisis. He said meetings with the leadership group and the sensitive nature of the discussions did not play a part in the loss. He said the blowout had been coming. Several Melbourne coaches at the time do not agree.
''All I remember,'' said Cook this week, ''is that they tried so many things. Nothing they tried that day worked.''
Neeld said yesterday that nine players in today's team did not play in the Geelong game last year. Of the coaches, only Brian Royal remains an assistant with Josh Mahoney promoted to football manager. The physical performance staff has been transformed, club doctors replaced and the men in change of recruiting and welfare gone.
Bailey works at the Crows, commuting while his wife and two boys remain in Melbourne. He said at his swansong that he envied the new Melbourne coach because he believed the side was destined for finals in 2012.
Today Melbourne enters round six winless and one of the high draft picks Bailey lost games for - Jack Watts - has been dropped.
Stynes lived long enough to oversee as president the facelift achieved by Schwab, Lyon and others and the appointment of the new coach. Melbourne supporters await the results of yet another rebuild.