In James Hird's sign-off appearance before he is expected to return to Australia in July, the motivations and desired message were very clear. Photo: Mal Fairclough
It was just three minutes of an episode of a club footy show that lasted for 23. But the simple interview that clearly signalled the beginning of James Hird's temporary leave of absence from Australia was also a highly strategised, controlled and AFL-approved production.
It had been proposed, before the filming, that Mark Thompson might also feature in Essendon's opening The Hangar program for 2014 alongside the man whose shoes he is filling until August. That didn't eventuate (the schedules of the pair could not be coordinated, according to the Bombers). Regardless, the segment that aired on Fox Sports on Tuesday night has been judged a success by the club, in that it achieved Essendon's aim of formally bidding Hird adieu until July, and also ruled a line over more than a year of doorstop interviews in the now all too familiar setting of the suspended coach's Toorak driveway.
Outgoing AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou confirmed on Wednesday that Essendon's chairman, Paul Little, directly sought his permission for the club to conduct the Hird interview.
“I advised Essendon chairman Paul Little ... that there was no issue about breaching the agreement," said Demetriou of the deal struck between the AFL, Hird and Essendon last year.
"He conducted a pretty straight up and down interview that appeared on The Hangar last night and we saw no issue with it."
While the AFL approved this, it rejected a proposal last December when Essendon asked whether Hird and former Bomber football boss Danny Corcoran should be invited to the club's Christmas party.
Asked why Little cleared The Hangar appearance with Demetriou, Essendon's chief marketing officer Justin Rodski said: “We're very aware that there are some pretty strict guidelines around what James can and can't do, and his involvement with the club during his suspension.
“So from the time he was suspended we've been very careful to make sure that anything involving James was cleared with the AFL to make sure we weren't breaking any rules.”
The deeds of settlement Hird, Essendon and the AFL signed last year to formalise the coach's 12-month suspension included a non-disparagement clause. And while there is no formal direction from Essendon about what Hird says about the saga that spoiled last year, Little recently detailed to Fairfax Media's Good Weekend magazine that any future media commitment the erstwhile golden child of the AFL did would “have to be very, very strongly controlled in some way.
"I can't have him talking about the AFL. I can't have him talking about ASADA. I can't have him talking negatively about key players in this, because that will just backfire on us,” Little said.
"On the whole, I have found it easier just to stop James talking than to try to control what he says. Rightly or wrongly, that's the way it has to be."
Hird's lawyers' interpretation is that the AFL Hall of Fame member has effectively been gagged. They say club chiefs, as recently as this year, also suggested that Hird ask some of his media and legal advisers through the matter - Ian Hanke and Steven Amendola specifically - to desist commenting on the hot topic. Hird's response was that he would do no such thing.
In Hird's sign-off appearance before he is expected to return to Australia in July, the motivations and desired message was very clear. Said Rodski, who was part of the planning and attended the filming, of the shoot: “It was important that in the last interview before he left he was able to talk to our members, he was able to clarify what his role will be when he comes back, he talked to what he will be doing while he's overseas, and he was able to reinforce his desire and hunger to coach so that there's no confusion out there about where he stands and what's going to happen when he returns.
“It was important that James wished the team well, thanked them for their support and essentially gave Bomber the reins for the year."
"This season, it's pretty clear to Bomber and myself that Bomber's the coach for 2014 and once season 2014 finishes in terms of our last game, then I'll take over as head coach," Hird said.
"The players are clear, I'm clear, Bomber's clear and our supporters are pretty clear."