The Essendon saga reached fever pitch when Brownlow Medallist and former Adelaide premiership captain Mark Ricciuto revealed a credible source had informed him that James Hird’s number was about to be called on Thursday on Triple M. Essendon released yet another denial in a one paragraph press release stating that the claims were baseless.
Of course public relation driven rebuttals mean very little in the world of football; after all, one of Essendon’s most famous and stringent denials (which was repeated by James Hird) was that he would not coach the Bombers in the foreseeable future, only to ten days later take the helm of one of Australia’s oldest AFL clubs.
Board support and statements of certainty in the face of the unending media circus may be issued with firm conviction, but history has shown us repeatedly that those statements can mean very little as political concerns in the multimillion dollar industry that is the AFL gain momentum. The recent completion of the interim report from ASADA which has been delivered to the AFL and Essendon provides further impetus to the juggernaut that even with endless legal manoeuvrings ahead, it would still ultimately result in the dismissal of James Hird.
Hird’s decorated playing career speaks for itself; a 1993 Rising star nominee who played 253 games, he helped Essendon win three pre-season premierships and two premierships, one of which he captained. Hird’s individual accolades are astounding; a Brownlow medal in 1996, a Norm Smith Medal in 2000, five All-Australian selections, five W.S Crichton medals and he was Essendon’s leading goalkicker in 1995-1996. He suffered an horrific injury that could have ended his career that resulted in metal plates being inserted into his face and a change to the rules of the game. There is no denying that James Hird is a champion of the game and a galvanising, inspiring figure for Essendon.
The social media driven #standbyhird campaign has not faltered in its momentum despite the endless revelations that have emerged during the course of the ASADA investigation. Other Essendon stalwarts have fallen by the wayside; CEO Ian Robson and Chairman David Evans. Murkier figures Stephen Dank and Dean Robinson have also lost employment at the club, and any likely chance of employment elsewhere after the scandal. Yet James Hird remains confident that with the support of the Board and new chairman Paul Little he will remain coach at Essendon, firmly denying the claims made by Ricciuto.
When the scandal initially broke, James Hird stated that he took full responsibility for the programs at Essendon, yet as the saga has continued to unfold he has done everything but take responsibility for the decisions that he made. Dank allegedly misled the Bombers about the status of the supplements they were utilising, but at this point of the saga that has become irrelevant. There is no denying that whether actively complicit or simply wooed by the lure of premiership opportunity, James Hird is ultimately responsible for what has gone so terribly wrong at Essendon.
The only question that remains is not if James Hird ceases to become the coach of Essendon, but when and how. It seems unlikely from what we have seen so far that he will go peacefully into coaching oblivion as he still firmly believes that he has done nothing wrong. His football accolades and personal magnetism and charm have purchased him considerable good faith from both the Essendon board and his supporters, but that account must surely be running dry.
While injuries hold a level of accountability for Adelaide’s poor fortunes this season, its decision to keep CEO Steven Trigg in place after his AFL suspension over the Tippett saga has disillusioned many supporters and had a bleed on effect on-field after their player’s faith in the administration was shaken by the ethical betrayal of the saga. The same effect is bound to take hold at Essendon. On field the toll is already becoming apparent on Essendon players and any edge they may have gained by bonding together behind their coach during the saga has dissipated beneath the force of ongoing media speculation and a justified concern about their long-term health and playing careers.
With the faith of the playing group and the board fracturing, all the #standbyhird support the internet and supporter base can muster will mean very little as the AFL prepares to hand down judgement. The Essendon supplement program that James Hird took full responsibility for has tarnished the club he gave so much for, and the game itself. The AFL’s treatment of Ben Cousins, another decorated premiership player and Brownlow medallist who was suspended for a year for bringing the game into disrepute, is precedence enough that the league will not take Hird’s contributions to the game into consideration when delivering its sentence.