Neale Daniher's last game as Melbourne coach. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
You may or may not locate Neale Daniher’s familiar face at the MCG today in the West Coast coach's box. He said he would be there though, sitting somewhere at the rear, just as he was last Sunday night at Subiaco.
Daniher’s degenerative illness has forced a new role upon him within the Eagles’ structure, but the fact he is no longer listed among the West Coast office bearers in the AFL media guide is no indication of his ongoing presence at the club he joined in the rebuilding year of 2008.
West Coast CEO Trevor Nisbett and his board have vowed to support Daniher throughout what is expected to be his last professional AFL club position but Nisbett said this week the arrangement was not all one way. ''We are getting our pound of flesh out of him,'' Nisbett told The Sunday Age.
Daniher was happy to hear this. He said he would no longer travel to every away game with the young coaching group he is now overseeing, but chuckled when he confessed that he would probably do his best to make it to each one of the Eagles' Melbourne fixtures in 2014.
He suspects that Nisbett knows only too well that Melbourne’s added attraction is that Daniher’s two daughters - aged 22 and 26 - both live in his long-time home town while his two sons are in Perth and it will be to Melbourne that the Danihers will return when he feels the time is right.
Potentially that time will come at the end of this season or early next year but Daniher will not call it yet. This column is not the ''touchy feely story'' - Daniher’s words - this writer had intended because the former Essendon player, 10-year coach of Melbourne and Eagles’ football boss was not prepared to tell it just yet either.
''You can put it out there that I’m doing all right,'' was all he would publicly allow, adding that he is still playing regular golf but that he was starting to lose significant function of his right arm.
Daniher, 53, was last year diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, a degenerative disease also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Lou Gehrig's disease.
While speculation about his old club Essendon - the club where his nephew Joe is now making his mark - saw Daniher’s name touted as a potential new football boss, the Danihers and the Eagles were in fact coming to terms with his dreaded diagnosis, something the club made public late in September.
Medical specialists tend to diagnose Motor Neurone Disease only after every other condition has been eliminated. For Daniher the first sign was some muscular twitching and that the travel, most arduous for the two WA teams, began to wear him down.
Daniher knows of one acquaintance who has lived for 20 years with a more slowly progressive strain of the disease but to google it - something he recommended - is to learn that death typically occurs within two-to-five years of developing the condition.
The Melbourne Football Club, West Coast’s round-two opponent, holds great affection for Daniher and the feeling is mutual. This is not surprising given the amount of players and staff whose careers Daniher helped shape.
The Demons’ off-field set-up in terms of staff numbers, football department costs and facilities, not to mention the playing list at his disposal and the damaging political upheavals that beset the club between 1998 and 2007 belied his achievements over 10 years - six finals appearances, three top-four finishes and a grand final.
Interestingly, three staffers who worked with Daniher at Melbourne all finished up overseeing football departments at other clubs - Mark Evans, Craig Cameron and Chris Fagan - with Evans now the AFL’s football operations chief.
This is particularly significant given the game is crying out for experienced and capable football officials and the dearth has been identified as something the game has allowed to develop into a worrying gap. Fagan and Cameron resisted overtures from other clubs during Daniher’s last tough years at Melbourne because he had proved so loyal to them.
As Fagan so often puts it, Daniher plucked him from the relative obscurity of the Tassie Marriners where he was a young coach and backed his ascension for a decade. Now Fagan oversees one of the AFL’s most respected football departments at reigning premier Hawthorn.
Late last year the Demons welcomed him back, as ever, to a past players’ function - something Daniher said he would not have missed. He remains close with many from those days although one rule with some long-time Melbourne friends is that their frequent conversations are not punctuated with mention of his illness.
Apart from coaching the West Coast coaches, Daniher is also working with his own replacement, Craig Vozzo, the Eagles' new general manager of football. A deeply spiritual man and an honest coach who learned to adapt his methods as the players he oversaw and the game’s evolution demanded it, Daniher would appear the ideal mentor for the rookie Adam Simpson.
Where Neale Daniher is now seems so brutally unfair and yet it is one of football’s enduring qualities that somehow both the individual and his club are making the best of such a very bad situation.