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Essendon's deep roots will ensure club survives

After more than 150 years of growth in splendid isolation, Australian football was this week hit by the world.

Until yesterday, the difficulty I had in making any judgment of James Hird's role in the Essendon drugs saga was that he had never given his defence. Yesterday, in the Herald Sun, he did. It was apparent from the comments posted beneath Hird's statement that most people made their minds up on the matter long ago. Some of the comments were cruel and cowardly; there was an element of the lynch mob about them. 

But ultimately this is a much bigger and more complex story than that. It's a story about a human institution experimenting with a new technology it barely understood. Hird is entitled to have his defence heard. His statement, along with the responses it attracts from the other parties to the drama, will deepen our understanding of what occurred.

James Hird's defence is that, as senior coach, he had no greater authority in the club than the director of football.
James Hird's defence is that, as senior coach, he had no greater authority in the club than the director of football. Photo: 3AW

The irony is that Hird's defence departs as radically from the traditional idea of how a football club is run as the judgment of the Court of Arbitration in Sport. Essentially, his defence is that, as senior coach, he had no greater authority in the club than the director of football, Paul Hamilton, and that those running the supplements program answered to Hamilton. I wouldn't like to be the person to tell Alastair Clarkson that he had no more authority at Hawthorn than the director of football. 

In his statement, Hird said that he would be "eternally sorry" for the fate that has befallen the 34 players. I believe him. During his last year as a player, I did an interview with Hird in which he told me that when he stopped feeling excited before a footy game like he did as a kid, he'd stop playing. I understood that. When I stop feeling excited by footy games like I did as a kid, I'll stop writing about them. James Hird is Australian football's Hamlet, the young prince with the dilemma: how do I restore this club, the club of my father and grandfather, to its former glory? 

The Essendon drug saga is truly a sorry affair. I'm sorry for the people who are the lifeblood of the club and stand at its core. I'm sorry for the players. One track athlete was quoted this week as saying the players should have asked questions about what they were being injected with. "We ask questions," she said. "That's what we're trained to do."  

But footballers have never been "trained" to question. Football clubs traditionally had affinities with clans and families; they had similar authority structures and reliance on trust. The game also prizes an idea of daring that is about not considering the consequences, or merely glimpsing at them before acting in a bold manner. 

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I'm also sorry for the game and I mean all those who believe in it whether as players, coaches and supporters. If Australian football were to be likened to a big old tree, this affair is a blow that has cut it deeply.  

Australian football has grown in splendid isolation, but this week the world hit it like a comet. Henceforth, an Essendon footballer and a Russian athlete will be subjected to the same scrutiny and rules. Or that is what the authorities would have us believe.  

What I know is that Essendon will survive. It takes a lot to kill something that has been rooted in a place for 145 years, involving, in the process, millions of people plus generations of families. Families like the freckle-faced Danihers from Ungarie in the Riverina.  Young Joey Daniher is the future of Essendon and the appointment of former West Coast hard man John "Woosha" Worsfold as coach suddenly makes sense. Woosha will hold fast.

Martin Flanagan is a senior writer at The Age.

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