Dean Bailey’s premature death on the eve of the 2014 AFL season has provoked so many mixed emotions and demanded some reflection on the tumultuous events that punctuated his final years in the game he always loved but was forced at times to question.
Some long-time supporters remain angry that Bailey was one of only two individuals to be punished by the AFL for his role in the Melbourne tanking affair. For them the news of his passing resurrected some bitter memories on Tuesday. Others, such as Adelaide chairman Rob Chapman, whose club gave him a second chance, said Bailey’s final months had given him the privilege of picking up Bailey’s unique perspective on football.
On the day of the AFL’s season launch one week ago, Bailey had several visitors. One was a regular, his long-time friend and former Port Adelaide colleague Phil Walsh. Two others were coaches and former Port colleagues Alastair Clarkson and Damien Hardwick, also a teammate at Essendon. By all reports those last visits were largely happy reminiscences with plenty of laughs given that Bailey’s sharp brain and wit never deserted him.
The last time I spoke at any length with Bailey face-to-face was in August 2011 outside Melbourne’s headquarters after leaving his exit press conference. Traumatic because of Jim Stynes’ clear fading health, the players’ dismay, the walkout of key club officials before Bailey spoke and his admission of putting players in certain positions to gain draft picks.
He was clear but emotional, packing boxes into the boot of his car, and when we spoke he made it clear that he knew the Melbourne story was far from finished. At earlier meetings he had spoken of the impact of the move back to Melbourne from Adelaide on his family, of his teenage boys and their sport and his decision to instil life and team lessons into his young players by turning up at their houses unannounced and asking them to cook dinner for him.
It is perhaps small consolation to Bailey’s grieving family and friends but heartening to reflect upon the support he received in his final two AFL seasons with the Crows, another club which found itself at odds with head office and is still paying the price for breaking the rules.
Bailey was suspended from coaching young men - a punishment that must have cut him to the quick - for 16 weeks. The ultimate charge involved conduct contrary to the interests of the AFL. There is no doubt he came to deeply regret complying with the Melbourne policies of 2009 that led to the Demons finishing 16th with four wins and win the first two draft picks of that year.
He voiced that regret, admitted he had fielded teams not always with a view to winning, although always denied he had coached to lose during matches. Although Bailey was pressured by others to do what he did, he later wished he had withstood that pressure.
Friends of the former player and coach underline the belief the Crows showed in Bailey; first when it employed the sacked Melbourne coach to work alongside new coach Brenton Sanderson, then when he became the subject of the AFL tanking investigation and finally upon his diagnosis with lung cancer.
That support was firm from chairman Rob Chapman down. Recent examples would suggest that the managerial mentoring role undertaken by former senior coaches alongside a rookie coach has not worked well, but for the short time Bailey worked with Sanderson, the partnership was productive and Adelaide’s 2012 season demonstrates as much.
‘‘He was a seriously well-respected and loved person around our football club,’’ said Chapman on Tuesday. ‘‘Sando will be going through a grieving process now not only on a personal level but on a professional level.’’
Chapman would not divulge the more personal discussions he undertook with Bailey after the latter was suspended from coaching. He was forced to distance himself from the Adelaide players and moved for 16 weeks to another floor at AAMI Stadium where he undertook other office work and scouting duties. By mutual agreement with the AFL, Bailey was paid and - according to Chapman - ‘‘we got our pound of flesh out of him’’.
But Chapman, who was effectively the Crows' chief executive for six months last year while Steven Trigg served his suspension, said it had been a privilege to win Bailey’s confidence. Towards the end of 2013, as Bailey’s health faded, the pair enjoyed the odd glass of wine together and regular beach walks which were part of Bailey’s therapy and all too soon became too difficult.
‘‘I learnt a lot about football during those walks,’’ said Chapman. ‘‘Supporting our people and allowing them another chance is one of our game’s great qualities and we should never lose sight of that. I’m glad we did it and we’d do it again.’’
Bailey’s friends and supporters say that the Adelaide chairman and his Crows should take some comfort with the manner in which Bailey was treated at his last football club. Although not everyone in the AFL game should feel that level of comfort where Dean Bailey is concerned.
It would be overstating it to suggest that Bailey was a scapegoat. Nor was he an innocent victim because he allowed his hand to be forced. But his actions during that unhappy time at Melbourne demonstrate the lengths some are prepared to explore for success or mere job survival.
And Bailey had the added misfortune of being at a club that handled manipulating results so badly. Not to mention in an AFL competition that failed to attack the problem correctly for far too long despite so many red flags - not least Bailey’s exit press conference at which the club removed all branding and sponsorship from the backdrop before it let him speak and in which he made clear admissions about the tanking affair.
It made sense that three Melbourne players whose early AFL careers Bailey shaped spoke about his legacy on Tuesday. He may not have exactly had success at Melbourne and worked in a bitterly divisive environment, but he was a teacher/father figure to his players who had his back and were in the main devastated at his sacking.
Some senior people at AFL headquarters scoff when you suggest that perhaps the stakes have become too dangerously high and the pain of losing too intense to bear for some clubs and certain individuals not to step outside their own sets of standards. They expect the game’s servants to thrive under its ever-expanding demands. Others have begun to question the limits the competition now demands of some of its servants.
They would all do well to reflect upon Dean Bailey. The popular player and coach who was a straight-shooter and to his credit ultimately put his hand up when so many at Melbourne did not.