Essendon looks certain to be dumped from the finals as negotiations with the AFL moving swiftly towards a resolution of the drug crisis.
Essendon, desperate to cling to draft picks, has adopted a ''clean slate'' approach under which it would accept a punishment that does not impact greatly on its future.
But the AFL is adamant that draft picks must be part of any punishment for the sake of the game's integrity. It is still seeking to remove this year's first and second-round picks, and the same in 2014.
A suspension for James Hird is still on the table. Photo: Pat Scala
A suspension for coach James Hird was also assured, with the AFL wanting a 12-month penalty. Essendon's stance on the coach - a sticking point earlier in the week when Essendon rejected a settlement offer - was secondary to the issue of preserving draft picks and ensuring the club was not severely impaired next year and beyond.
Late on Friday, Essendon chairman Paul Little said the Bombers wanted to bring matters to a conclusion quickly.
''The ongoing controversy is harmful to our players and their families, our officials, the club, other AFL clubs and the AFL itself,'' he said in a statement.
A Bombers fan show her support for the embattled coach. Photo: Getty Images
He apologised for the club's mistakes. ''We have made mistakes in terms of governance and people management, and we apologise for them. We also accept there will be AFL sanctions as a consequence … but the evidence does not extend to drug cheating, and we're working to ensure that the charges and ultimate penalties reflect this.''
While talks remained delicately poised late on Friday, Hird's position appeared increasingly difficult, with Little prepared to prioritise the club over the coach. Hird had been determined not to serve a suspension longer than six months.
Assistant coach Mark Thompson is set to escape suspension and receive only a fine, but football operations manager Danny Corcoran is also likely to be suspended. The position of the other individual facing charges, Dr Bruce Reid, was unclear.
Essendon coach James Hird at training on Friday. Photo: Pat Scala
Hird was expected to coach against Carlton, but with the AFL Commission due to hear the Essendon case early next week, his future beyond that was unclear.
But, as Fairfax Media reported earlier this week, the club has given ground considerably on the issue of premiership points - agreeing to sacrifice those - meaning there is little chance the club will play finals in a fortnight, opening the way for Carlton and possibly even North Melbourne.
Little and AFL executive Gillon McLachlan were in lengthy talks - an indication of the pragmatic line of both parties despite the conflict and legal threats and legal action taken by Hird against the AFL and of the backing the AFL regime received from the 17 other clubs that are tired of the damaging saga.
The club had been offered a fine of more than $2.5 million in talks on Tuesday, but the extent of the fine was among the details still being hammered out.
Club presidents who met on Thursday said clubs needed to know Essendon's fate by next week to ensure that the team in ninth place was prepared for the finals.
The negotiated potential penalties against Essendon, as reported exclusively by Fairfax Media on Wednesday night, would be unprecedented. No team in the AFL has been stripped of premiership points.
Little, who did not attend Thursday's meeting at AFL headquarters but took part via a phone hook-up, was made aware of the damage being inflicted on the game and on all clubs.
Several clubs remained hopeful that a settlement would be reached as soon as Friday but more likely by early next week with the commission still preparing to meet Essendon on Monday and reach a conclusion.
The prevailing view of rival clubs was that Essendon, despite the unprecedented nature of the AFL punishment, would be escaping relatively lightly.
The clubs also unofficially canvassed the prospect of league chief and commissioner Andrew Demetriou removing himself from Monday's hearing in the interests of settling the crisis.