THE football future of Essendon's favourite son and the man who gave up a comfortable retirement to lead his club back to glory now hangs in the balance.
James Hird's survival as the Bombers' senior coach has become increasingly perilous in the six days that have passed since he publicly declared full responsibility for the practices that took place in his football department.
Now the AFL has confirmed, after brokering a deal with the federal government and the Australian Crime Commission, that Essendon is the club reported on Thursday to have potentially fed its players performance enhancing drugs.
'If James Hird survives as coach of Essendon, it will appear symptomatic of the old boys' club mentality that pervades all football clubs. Photo: Pat Scala
The league's deputy chief executive, Gillon McLachlan, said on Sunday that the Bombers stood accused of doping their players ''without their knowledge or consent''.
This development is good news for Essendon's players. Club president David Evans has been in Canberra meeting officials from the Australian Sport Anti-Doping Agency, attempting to protect his playing list in a fashion the club failed to last season.
But it is bad news for Hird. On Tuesday Evans said he did not believe his players had taken performance enhancing substances. On Thursday Hird declared his club would fight to prove its innocence. Now it has become clear he cannot declare for certain anything of the sort.
The delegation he appeared to have turned into an art form now looks to be a monstrosity.
And about the time the crime commission went public with dreadful details of sports scientists administering to elite athletes substances not yet passed for human consumption and, in some cases, illegal substances without the players' knowledge, Evans, with close friend Hird alongside him, was compelled to front the playing list and admit he could no longer guarantee players had taken what they thought they had taken.
This is despite the fact Hird stood alongside his players as they signed consent forms accepting they were taking substances all legal in the eyes of world sport.
This is the most damning piece of evidence that has come to light regarding the AFL's links with performance enhancing drugs.
Hird himself has been exposed for having consorted with dubious substance providers.
Surely he of all former stars should have known the pitfalls of being a vulnerable target for potential criminals and underworld types.
Neither the president nor the coach has yet explained why they employed high-performance officials with suspect credentials without carrying out due diligence.
And club chief executive Ian Robson can surely not survive having been exposed as knowing so little or controlling virtually nothing of the laboratory activity at Essendon.
If Robson is one individual made to carry the can for Essendon's maverick activity, as he surely will be whether or not doping is proved by ASADA, then Hird's survival will appear hypocritical and symptomatic of the old boys' club mentality that pervades football clubs.
Hird's senior assistant, Mark Thompson, an Essendon premiership captain like Hird and dual premiership coach at Geelong, is even less likely to
survive given he recommended the now suspended and highly paid and empowered Dean Robinson to take control of the players.
Robinson in turn brought to the club Stephen Dank, the now-sacked fitness man who injected the players' stomachs and who was given such a big and clearly irresponsible say in shaping the bodies of so many valuable young men.
Thompson has gone missing - reportedly housebound pleading back pain. He was a good coach at Geelong who became a great one when that club stripped back his responsibilities and ordered him to focus upon one pursuit alone - coaching.
Hird, who deferred frequently to Thompson on game day and allowed him powers far beyond any other senior assistant in the competition, might have lost the chance to prove what sort of coach he could have been.
That is a great pity for Essendon. But the greater pity is for Australian rules football as the image of one of its greatest now stands tarnished.