Hird, Essendon facing another drugs crisis
Football writers Caroline Wilson and Jake Niall dissect the latest revelations surrounding the ongoing drugs saga at Windy Hill.PT4M13S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2hliu 620 349 April 10, 2013
In early February, as James Hird's world began to unravel, he still didn't get it. Sitting alongside his chairman and his chief executive at AFL head office, the Essendon legend, premiership captain and now coach said: ''I'm shocked to be sitting here.''
Two months later, as the evidence against Hird continues to deeply disturb those who are investigating him, that claim seems fanciful.
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The best case scenario now for the highly paid coach who is emerging as a central figure in the club's doping investigation is that he was incompetent and naive to the point of delusional. The worst case is that he has been unco-operative at a time when the Australian sporting landscape is demanding full disclosure. Either way, Hird has been derelict in his duty as head coach of an AFL club ultimately responsible for the careers and welfare of 44 young men.
An Essendon Football club press conference earlier this year. Photo: Wayne Taylor
So many players could potentially be banned by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, all of whom were assured by their coach and club hero during 2012 that they broke no rules.
Having embraced and never appropriately questioned the irregular practices implemented by sport scientist Stephen Dank that punctuated the Bombers' ultimately disastrous 2012 season, Hird led by example and worse.
The most honourable move for Hird now would be to resign. At the least Essendon should stand him down until the ASADA investigation into the club has run its race.
The Bombers' internal investigation will almost certainly end the tenure of club chief Ian Robson, who seemed to have no clear picture of the damage that was being done on his watch. Nor has the evidence been kind to Hird's long-time ally and Essendon football manager Danny Corcoran, who also looks certain to go.
Chairman David Evans addressed the Essendon players over two sessions on Wednesday in an attempt to outline his knowledge of what substances they had allegedly unknowingly taken, and the mood among those players has been one of increased concern.
The future of senior assistant Mark Thompson, who introduced high-performance chief Dean Robinson to the club, who in turn brought in Dank, remains unclear. Dank had lasted three months at the Gold Coast Suns before being told to leave and was persona non grata at Cronulla, and yet none of the above checked his credentials or his record.
The club's long-time doctor, Bruce Reid, has told colleagues he wrote to the board expressing concerns about the so-called ''irregular practices''. Hird has told those close to him he trusted the wrong people and feels badly let down.
And yet evidence is mounting that Hird, whose fascination with various supplements dates back at least a decade to his relationship with convicted drug offender Shane Charter, was a key player and supporter of those practices.
As Essendon became something of a part-time lab experimenting and pushing medical boundaries, Hird's players became human pin cushions for a time. According to two players from 2012 now deeply concerned at their actions, Hird and his assistant Simon Goodwin were ''at the front of the queue'' during some injecting sessions.
Dank has alleged to Fairfax Media that Hird, Goodwin and another assistant, James Byrne, took substances outside the World Anti-Doping Agency code. Hird's response has indicated that if he was taking banned substances he did so unknowingly.
But the signs in recent weeks coming from Essendon and the AFL indicate that he will not be protected. David Evans, who worked so hard to bring Hird back to Essendon, will not let his close friendship with the coach come before the football club.
Evans' mantra even before he appointed Ziggy Switkowski to investigate Essendon's internal practices and structure made it clear that the footballers remained his No. 1 priority. He must be feeling sick at the thought of the blind faith those players placed in Hird, who with Evans addressed the players' parents back in February and assured them some ''good news'' was on the horizon.
Those players, including club captain Jobe Watson, who was one of the on-field leaders who demanded a written assurance about the substances with which they were injected, have been advised to seek separate legal representation outside the players-association-appointed Queen's counsel David Grace. The club still faces legal action from its footballers.
Essendon signed Hird, an untried coach, at the end of 2010 to a four-year deal worth close to $4 million. A further $1 million was required to settle with the still contracted Matthew Knights, and Mark Thompson joined as Hird's senior assistant on an annual contract estimated at $650,000.
It was crazy money in the context of Hird's experience but not when you consider his club status and the membership, sponsorship and positive vibe he brought with him.
At that early February press conference a grim-faced Hird said: ''The supplements our players were given, in my opinion and my knowledge, were all approved and within the regulations we all play the game by.
''I'm very disappointed - shocked is probably the best word. I believe we followed processes, we put in place the right sort of processes. My understanding is we worked within the framework given to us by the AFL and WADA.''
More than two months have passed and while so many of his players continued to believe in Hird, the coach can still not guarantee that those young men - whose bodies were experimented with in such cavalier fashion - will not be punished as drug cheats.
For that alone he should step down.