The MCG's move to host four of international soccer's most glamorous clubs in a three-game competition in the middle of a traditional AFL Melbourne winter comes one decade, almost to the day, that the stadium negotiated a clause to host major events in winter in return for handing over its historic right to host a preliminary final every year.
Many of the faces have changed since the backroom battle between the AFL and its traditional home ground was waged with some ferocity during the early years of the millennium but not all of them. Andrew Demetriou has gone but Stephen Gough remains at the helm of the MCC as does Eddie McGuire at Collingwood, whose club played a key role in the negotiations.
Australian Sports Commission chairman John Wylie, whom Mike Fitzpatrick sought as an intermediary during the messy and heated Essendon negotiation last August, was chairman at the time of the MCG Trust and has been credited with putting the major event clause in the new AFL contract.
The AFL and the MCG have endured more than half-a-century of political feuds but the preliminary final dispute came to a boiling point as the 2004 finals series approached. It was the then – and still – AFL communications boss Patrick Keane who said: ''We've tried to offer the MCC compensation for the final but they are adamant one preliminary final must be played there.''
This was despite a letter directed to the Victorian government in 2002 and signed by the four rival state premiers from New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia. Earlier, in 2001, the non-Victorian clubs formed a reinvigorated bloc and pushed the AFL to renegotiate the MCG deal that had been written in 1989 with the building of the Great Southern Stand. The MCC stood firm and the AFL under Wayne Jackson backed down.
In 2002, Adelaide chief Steven Trigg – who only left the job this week – said: ''Regardless of where we've been sitting [on the ladder] we've seen it as a major issue for a number of years. We've brought it up at every commission meeting we've attended and we've brought it up at every meeting with the AFL.''
As is so often with the AFL and its complex thicket of relationships, it was a deal within a deal that eventually challenged the credibility of the finals system to the point of no return and empowered the non-Victorian bloc as a result. Not only was Brisbane in 2004 forced to ''host'' a preliminary final against Geelong at the MCG but the Lions were fixtured at night on a Saturday which put them at a 36-hour disadvantage behind the eventual premier Port Adelaide.
The new AFL chief, Demetriou, had done a deal with broadcaster Channel Ten to host prime-time games into Brisbane every Saturday night the following year and Ten received two night preliminary finals as a result. To further underline the AFL's poor form, Demetriou, his chairman Ron Evans and at least one other commissioner failed to attend the contentious preliminary final but headed to an opera performance instead.
Brisbane's narrow win over Geelong took place on a wet, miserable night in Melbourne and one which proved a black day for the credibility of the finals system. Brisbane coach Leigh Matthews would later state that the AFL had ''sabotaged'' the Lions' bid for a fourth straight flag.
Early in 2005, with the northern stand rebuild well underway for the 2006 Commonwealth Games, negotiations moved ahead to finally remove the preliminary final clause from the AFL-MCG agreement which also guaranteed the hosting of every grand final until 2032. Adelaide and West Coast were dominating from early in the season and the stadium was forced to concede that removing the contentious preliminary final clause was a move towards sporting credibility along with a precious bargaining tool.
Collingwood's McGuire was a key player from the start of that season by thrusting the Magpies into the debate in what proved a win for his club and the MCG. In return for giving up the right to host one preliminary final each season the stadium was guaranteed 14 Collingwood games – although not even the forward-thinking McGuire could have predicted the AFL would nine years later fixture one of those on a bleak wintry Sunday night.
Talks reportedly stalled when MCG Trust chairman Wylie lost patience with an AFL ambit claim for a share of ticketing and advertising revenues but the deal was finally struck in July that year. The MCG also received a guaranteed 10 of the best 12 home-and-away games each season, a minimum of 45 non-finals games.
But Wylie did push through clause 3.6 A (a) which The Age reported at the time as ''the capacity to host blockbusters from other football codes such as the Bledisloe Cup''. What was not revealed at the time was the fact that the MCG could remove AFL football from the stadium for an entire winter weekend if it so chose and that such a move was not restricted to just one weekend.
It is understood that now the clause has been invoked Gough has told the AFL it will not eliminate the prospect of football for an entire weekend. Sunday, July 26, will be available for an AFL game, as will both the Saturday and Sunday of the following weekend.
Still the AFL will be forced off the MCG for consecutive Friday nights and made to play second fiddle to international soccer at the instruction of the Victorian government over two key winter weekends in a year that cricket's World Cup has forced a delayed start to the season given the league's preference to launch 2015 at its biggest ground.
And the fact the MCG holds the whip hand and could – although it would seem a dangerous and ill-advised move – remove its major client from the ground for more than one entire weekend remains a disturbing if unlikely potential. No wonder AFL chairman Mike Fitzpatrick remains so disenchanted with the venue and frustrated with the game's position.
The AFL remains privately disappointed at the government and the MCG while trying to rebuild its relationship with the stadium into a partnership. Further complicating the highly sensitive scenario is the fact that Channel Nine's partner company is packaging the event and Nine will televise the games in prime time in competition with AFL games.
Only once in the past decade – in 2006 – has Melbourne been football-free in preliminary final weekend. That year the penultimate finals took place in Sydney and Adelaide. In 2005, the year the deal was struck, St Kilda was the only Victorian top-four side but hosted and lost to Sydney that year. Between 2008 and 2011 all preliminary finals were played at the MCG.
League chief Gillon McLachlan must be unwilling to jeopardise his relationship with the Nine Network with the start of a new set of broadcast rights negotiations just months away. Still, neither the stadium or the AFL is prepared to comment on this highly sensitive political situation as the AFL puts its mind towards just how it will fixture against Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea and Manchester City.
Not to mention how it plans to insure against further moves to invoke the clause it gave away in exchange for a fairer finals series.