MELBOURNE'S most senior indigenous footballer, Aaron Davey, has emerged at the centre of the discredited allegations regarding his new coach, Mark Neeld.
While Davey has repeatedly denied he alleged that Neeld had offended his Aboriginal players by interviewing them as a group, the AFL remains firm in its belief that Davey was the source of the story.
In the hot seat: Melbourne's Aaron Davey has denied he was the source of allegations against his coach. Photo: Getty Images
Davey's role in the drama came after AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou revealed late yesterday that the league's community engagement officer, Jason Mifsud, had offered his resignation after admitting he had passed on the allegations regarding Neeld to his friend and Channel Nine commentator Grant Thomas.
While Mifsud has apologised to Neeld and been placed on notice by the AFL, and Thomas remains under threat of legal action from Melbourne, Davey's role in the drama remained unclear last night as he tried to contact Mifsud and repeatedly denied to his club that he had changed his story.
Davey, in turn, was being contacted for counselling by AFL Players Association staffer Cory McGrath. He was also being counselled by AFLPA indigenous programs manager Nadia Taib.
Apology: Jason Mifsud has apologised to Mark Neeld and offered to resign. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones
The Age understands that the AFL has urged a mediation session take place between Neeld, Mifsud and Davey. Melbourne chief executive Cameron Schwab last night stressed that his club was standing by its player and believed his denials that he was the source of the story, which Neeld emotionally denied on Fox Footy's On the Couch on Monday night.
In a statement released by Melbourne last night, Davey said: "I strongly deny any involvement in the matters discussed at today's press conference.
"I am proud of the Melbourne Football Club's support network for our indigenous players, which I believe is the best in the AFL. I'm pleased that the AFL has come out strongly in support of Mark and that Jason has apologised to Mark and the club."
Rumours: Demons coach Mark Neeld. Photo: Getty Images
Mifsud also remained under fire, despite receiving strong backing from Demetriou.
While Adelaide football fans were last night bombarding social media, insisting Matt Rendell be reinstated at the Crows and claiming double standards, the indigenous football community remained divided over Mifsud, whom the AFL regards as a future leader.
While retired Crows champion Andrew McLeod has been raising concerns about Mifsud's performance for some weeks, former Essendon footballer Dean Rioli tweeted: ''How can anybody in footy trust this man?''
It also emerged yesterday that the Neeld allegations were raised at the same AFL executive meeting in which Mifsud reported - although did not name him until later - that Rendell had made his ''one white parent'' comment. While Demetriou followed up the Rendell allegations with Adelaide, football operations boss Adrian Anderson contacted Schwab and advised he contact Mifsud.
The Demons, whose 2012 season began on a tragic note with the death of Jim Stynes, followed by the round-one humiliation against Brisbane Lions, remained mystified last night as to why Mifsud had not briefed the club earlier. Schwab is understood to have attempted to speak to the AFL official regarding the allegations but was unable to contact him.
The Age contacted Neeld three weeks ago after allegations surfaced that Neeld and his coaching team may have offended Melbourne's indigenous players by interviewing them as a group while interviewing other players alone. Davey was alleged to have taken the coach to task on the issue. Neeld emphatically denied the suggestion that any such group interview had taken place. Davey then spoke to The Age and repeated those denials, which were accepted by The Age.
Yesterday, when Demetriou and Mifsud fronted the media, Mifsud would not reveal the source of his allegation but was vague when asked whether he had been lied to, adding that such a description would be ''splitting hairs''. He suggested the source of the story had been undergoing some issues in his life. Demetriou then jumped in and emphasised that the allegations on Neeld were completely untrue.
The AFL boss also suggested Neeld would be within his rights to sue Thomas for reporting the allegations before removing them from his ninemsn blog.
Mifsud was first employed in the AFL by Thomas when the latter was coaching St Kilda, and they remain close. Rendell also worked under Thomas at St Kilda and while Mifsud justified his decision to disclose Rendell's comments to the AFL as being for the greater good, this latest scandal has further damaged his reputation.
But if Mifsud was hurt by Rendell's words - and vice versa - then Mifsud has been inadvertently let down by Thomas. Clearly Mifsud believed he was having a private conversation but it was a sensitive allegation he was conveying and Thomas reported it without Mifsud's knowledge.
That it was Thomas who conveyed that allegation would have been a red rag to a bull for Demetriou. Thomas - and many others in the football media - believes it was AFL pressure that caused his removal from SEN in 2009. He and Demetriou have been constant critics of each other and Thomas was also forced to back down on claims the AFL had forced Rendell's removal from the Crows.
Davey is one of a group of senior Melbourne players who previously held leadership roles at the club and have lost those positions. His struggle for form last season and difficult pre-season was underlined by last Saturday's poor performance. Davey is also a close confidant of young Demon Liam Jurrah, who is facing assault charges.
His meetings with Mifsud over the summer are reported to have conveyed some disenchantment with the new coaching and training regime. Whether Davey made the allegations against his coach, the fact remains that Mifsud spoke about them out of school.
While Demetriou accepted that Mifsud's intentions were honourable and he had no reason to believe they would be made public, Mifsud's reputation as an indigenous leader was damaged yesterday. Which was not lost on Demetriou at a time when the game's work in that area remains a priority.