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Richmond's Brendon Gale may be the man to replace AFL boss Andrew Demetriou

The AFL Players Association has become rightly cautious about its now well-deserved reputation as a pathway to executive positions within the competition.

It is five years since Brendon Gale quit as chief of the players' union to take over the running of the Richmond Football Club just months after completing an AFLPA-funded advanced management course at Harvard.

The course conservatively cost the players some $75,000 and Gale, equipped with his new and deeply entrenched values for which the Tigers were crying out, has transformed the business at Punt Road without having achieved any significant on-field success.

So much so that Gale, who is also popular, a good public performer and boasts a strong football and legal pedigree, remains at 45 the best-credentialled club chief executive to claim a chance of a place in the running to replace Andrew Demetriou at the helm of the AFL.

Gillon McLachlan, Demetriou's deputy, remains the favourite for Australian sport's most powerful job, particularly if the appointment is made from within the industry, but it is no coincidence that another AFLPA chief in Gale will be urged to put his hand up.

The union was more careful when it agreed to fund an international study grant for Gale's successor, Matt Finnis, who Fairfax Media revealed last week would also follow Gale's path into a club role and take over at the struggling St Kilda.


Finnis, having steered the union through a long, often bitter and ultimately successful pay negotiation and rallied firmly and consistently against Essendon's dangerous drugs program, headed to France late last year for a month-long intensive management course. But Finnis' contract dictated he repay to the players' association a significant proportion of the five-figure study tour - a repayment the St Kilda board has undertaken to take over.

Finnis had stated repeatedly that the players' union position - one revolutionised over two years by Demetriou in the late 1990s, grown and corporatised by Gale and more so by Finnis - should not be seen as a stepping stone to an executive role within the AFL or an AFL club.

But the influence of the role has dictated as much since Demetriou first won the admiration of commissioners Ron Evans and Bill Kelty with the players' historic first collective bargaining agreement. Demetriou's ascension was fast-tracked when he behaved in an honourable manner and did not hold the AFL to ransom as he could have done with that first wage negotiation.

For all Gale's commercial success, his clear aim has been to transform Richmond's long-ailing culture. It is a task he has attacked with gusto and achieved clear progress.

The Saints' culture has been the source of concern within and beyond the AFL and Finnis' stand against Essendon last year would not have harmed his prospects. St Kilda began chasing him in December and would not take no for an answer with McLachlan, a Saints fan, strongly supportive and reportedly influential in the appointment.

Demetriou was the pioneer in revolutionising AFL players' wages, conditions and welfare. That two of his three successors have proved influential leaders in the game says much about the work he achieved. And Gale's era and final contract with the players' association saw the job rewarded in line with other executive positions in the industry although not commensurate with club CEO roles.

By June, the players will be significantly better off also as a result of the equalisation restructure pushed by Finnis, which has been tied to a generous increase in the mid-term collective bargaining agreement negotiation.

It was a nice twist of timing that Demetriou's announced departure from the AFL's top job was immediately followed by the public promotion of Matt Finnis to the helm of St Kilda.