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How Gillon McLachlan got to be the AFL's No. 1

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AFL's future under Gillon McLachlan

With Gillon McLachlan announced as the next AFL CEO, Caroline Wilson analyses the future of AFL when Andrew Demetriou departs in June.

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Gillon McLachlan's journey to the AFL's top job can be charted back to the day some 18 months ago that he sat opposite his old boss Andrew Demetriou with his head in his hands unable to speak.

Demetriou too chose to say nothing and says now that the silence seemed to last five minutes but in reality was more like two.

"Say something," McLachlan finally implored, "just say anything."

New AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan.

New AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan. Photo: Pat Scala

It was a Monday morning in the spring of 2012 and McLachlan knew that D-Day had arrived. The NRL had offered him the role of chief executive and the opportunity to oversee the restructured NRL under a newly appointed commission.

Key members of McLachlan's wider family believed he should take the plunge and take the job after so many years as the AFL's unofficial and later official No. 2.

Although Demetriou was clearly closer to the end of his reign rather than the beginning, he had set no departure date and McLachlan had received no guarantees.

The man who on Wednesday officially became the AFL's fourth CEO was genuinely torn between two codes.

Finally, Demetriou spoke and instructed McLachlan to imagine a wintry Saturday afternoon scenario where his beloved University Blues would no longer be an option, let alone the MCG, but rather McLachlan would be travelling to Sydney's west to watch Penrith take on Wests Tigers.

The son of the Pascoe Vale fish and chip shop owner told the South Australian former polo playing silver tail that McLachlan, ironically, was more connected to, and passionate about, grassroots community football than Demetriou. He reminded him of his personal mantra that job satisfaction and success required passion.

McLachlan would not confirm on Wednesday that the Panthers-Wests Tigers' scenario had swayed him, but it is accepted fact among his colleagues that immediately after Demetriou had invoked that image, McLachlan stood and stated he had reached his decision.

The relieved AFL chairman, Mike Fitzpatrick - mindful of just how formidable a foe McLachlan would have proved to the AFL's expansion strategies - granted him a pay rise, but again no guarantees. Soon afterwards, McLachlan was handed the poisoned chalice of the Melbourne tanking investigation and then, more recently, the Essendon drugs scandal - two messy and damaging sagas that harmed his reputation and that of the AFL.

While the job appeared destined to go to McLachlan - he confirmed he would have left the competition had he missed out - he had been genuinely stressed in recent weeks as the AFL Commission completed its executive search. Two others ultimately presented for the job - Richmond boss Brendon Gale and Geelong chief Brian Cook, who was also a candidate 11 years ago when Demetriou was appointed.

Both club chiefs knew they were outsiders but last week did not waste their hour-long presentations, challenging the AFL board as to the problems confronting the game and delivering the odd home truth. Fitzpatrick called both on Tuesday night to tell them they had missed out, but would not confirm McLachlan had won the job.

Fitzpatrick had told McLachlan 24 hours earlier that the position was his.

Demetriou, who would have been shattered had McLachlan been overlooked, was at his local vet on Monday night with his injured cat when he called McLachlan to congratulate him.

On Tuesday morning, Fitzpatrick and his new CEO finalised McLachlan's new contract. Cook and Gale messaged their congratulations to McLachlan early on Wednesday.

Demetriou will remain to oversee the final and still contentious details of the AFL's official attempt to close the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor clubs and leave after the Australian Football Hall of Fame presentation on June 4.

He stood at the back of the room during Wednesday's announcement, looking every bit the proud elder brother. Two of McLachlan's three younger brothers - Hamish and Will - stood nearby.

McLachlan promised he would remain accountable to football fans, the game's community, its clubs and its players. He said he had a clear direction of where the game needed to go and indicated he had a clear strategy for some cultural change, specifying a more diverse AFL hierarchy was a priority.

But his appointment was a recognition of his already formidable achievements as the game's long-time strategist and unofficial heavy lifter, along with the fact that the AFL did not see the need for radical change.

While Fitzpatrick attempted to deny a dearth of quality external candidates, the fact his commission only interviewed three very familiar football faces would indicate a strong show of faith in the Australian game's own backyard.

GILLON McLACHLAN ON...

His background of more than 240 matches in amateur and country football

“I have had my share of cold showers and freezing committee meetings.”

On a night grand final

“My simple answer on that one is I like a day grand final.”

On leaving the AFL should he not have been made CEO

“I think the reality is I would have had to have left. The short answer is yes. I think everyone understands and accepts that. That wouldn’t have been in a fit of pique, that’s just a reality.”

On the AFL buying Etihad Stadium early

“They are very aware that we would like to buy it. They are very aware that we think we are the only possible buyer. But we are a way (off) on price at the moment. It’s not that sufficiently an imperative to pay the wrong price.”

On fears going to matches has become too expensive

“We will be addressing the cost of going to the football. Cost is more than just ticketing. It is ticketing charges, it is food and beverage, it is the total cost.”

On Tasmania

“My vision for Tasmania is that we have a one-state approach. That means the north and the south working together to come in behind one team. Whether that’s possible, it’s a very challenging proposition but … Tasmanians ultimately need to become one team and that’s an aspiration.”

On his role in brokering a deal with Essendon

“With respect to me specifically, I am sure there was some skin taken off me. There was skin taken off a lot of people. It was an incredibly tough period… We ended up in a position that I don’t think was edifying for a lot of people and it certainly wasn’t great for the game.”

On the future of the centre bounce

“I am not making a guarantee about anything, but I like the centre bounce.”

AFL CHIEF EXECUTIVES

1986-1993 Alan Schwab

1994-1996 Ross Oakley

1996-2003 Wayne Jackson

2003-2014 Andrew Demetriou

From 2014 Gillon McLachlan

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