James Hird is running out of excuses.
The embattled coach has had a tumultuous several years at the helm of the Bombers, including presiding over the alleged supplements scandal, his club-funded vacances to France to study at business school, and his ill-fated attempt to replicate a stage of the Tour de France between Tullamarine and Toorak.
He has been dragged from pillar to post by a ravenous media, defended by a hardcore loyalist band of followers, received the support of a staunch board and been assured his position is not under threat.
Time and time again, Hird, he of the superlative-laden career at Essendon which spanned 15 years and included two premierships and a Brownlow Medal, has batted away suggestions his time must be up and that this latest twist in the ASADA tale is definitely it.
But the Essendon Football Club is doing itself a disservice if it does not take a long, searching look at Hird and re-evaluate his position.
Whether it is now, or at the end of the year, when the Bombers will almost certainly finish in the bottom four, Hird’s position can no longer be assumed to be safe. Not while the Bombers plod to record defeats playing unattractive, uninspired and directionless football.
At a press conference in June, before Essendon’s game against St Kilda, Hird said, “I think history will tell you that if you play seven players or more under 50 games then your chances of winning are very low. You don’t win many games and you’re almost giving yourself no chance of winning with that many players under 50 games.”
That week, the Bombers lost by 110 points. St Kilda fielded eight players with less than 50 games experience. Today, the Western Bulldogs handed the Bombers an 87-point loss. They fielded 12 players with less than 50 games experience.
Hird has proven to be bafflingly tactically inflexible. On-field, the Bombers look aimless and dour. Line-breakers like Goddard and David Zaharakis are hemmed in, Joe Daniher is forced to contest against three defenders instead of one, and the midfield cannot get any separation from their opponents. There does not appear to be a plan B. They are rigid, easy to figure out, and quite plainly, boring to watch.
The Bombers traded for Jonathan Giles after losing Patrick Ryder to Port Adelaide, and have refused to play him, despite Shaun McKernan’s tremendous height and weight difference to most competent AFL ruckmen.
2015 was supposed to yield much promise and positive results for Essendon. Players of Dyson Heppell’s ilk and Brendon Goddard’s experience and Joe Daniher’s exuberance and Jobe Watson’s calm, understated captaincy were supposed to drag the Bombers past their contemporaries and into the rarefied air of finals football.
The ASADA monkey, placed there perhaps due to illegal gene-splicing experiments conducted in a portable classroom-cum-medical clinic at Essendon’s Tullamarine facility, was off the back. Finally, the path was clear for the Golden Boy to lead the Golden Team into the Golden Era.
It is doubtlessly difficult to remember this Essendon team beat Hawthorn earlier in the year, a 2 point victory where Heppell had 34 touches seemingly for fun and Daniher, all 6,000 centimetres of independently controlled arms and legs, kicked three goals and all was right in the red and black world.
Since then, the talismanic Dustin Fletcher has played his 400th game and it appears as though it may be his last. The quadragenarian suffered an injury to his groin in that game and hasn’t played since.
Jobe Watson, who for so long carried this team’s ills on his back, succumbed to injury and was ruled out for the rest of the year. Given leave, Watson appeared at the third Ashes test, peering forlornly into a beer as the Australians meekly surrendered to the unwashed English.
The magic number of players with less than 50 games experience has ballooned, increasing nearly every week. The Merrett brothers, Jason Ashby, Kyle Langford, Nick O’Brien, Patrick Ambrose, Alex Browne – all are playing roles far above their station.
This is James Hird’s team. He has held the role of senior coach since 2010, save a year of suspension. These are his players, drafted under his direction, coached and trained under his tutelage. They have been told to play for him, for the club that has stood by a human distraction machine as he lurches from one news story to the next.
Maybe they are good enough. Maybe there is enough talent in Daniher and Langford and Jayden Laverde and Heppell to drag the Bombers back to the finals. But Essendon has waited too long and endured too much under James Hird.
The ‘stand by Hird’ faction is dwindling in numbers. Is the club worried that sacking him now will lead the loyalists to conflate such a decision with the ASADA scandal? Surely the level of support the board has shown would rule that out.
St Kilda was supposed to win two games this year. The Bulldogs were an afterthought. Combined, they’ve beaten the Bombers by 197 points. A sacking now would rightly be interpreted by the majority of football watchers as a football decision, based purely on results.
Granted, it is a tough decision. But five years on, Essendon has a new, grimy chapter in its history and precious little else to show for the Hird era. It must make the tough decision if it is serious about its future.