What got us talking: James Hird

The Essendon saga has been a tumultuous three years for the AFL. It began with an Essendon press conference in February 2013 and is still going on to this day.

The story has had its ups and its downs: every time it appears to be resolved, another spanner is thrown into the works.

The AFL wanted this over quickly and, as such, did its bit in August 2013. They sanctioned Essendon for “bringing the game into disrepute” in the biggest penalty the game has ever seen. Coach James Hird was suspended for 12 months while the club lost its place in the finals series, were fined $2 million dollars and lost their first two rounds of draft picks for 2013 and 2014.

The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority’s (ASADA) deliberation over whether or not the supplements program was lawful took much longer. But this year in March, ASADA cleared the players of any wrongdoing. It appeared the saga would finally be over.

And it was a massive relief for the players and James Hird alike. The club came out all guns blazing, playing their best footy yet as they defeated reigning premiers Hawthorn by two points in round two. The fighting James Hird appeared as if he could do no wrong.

But this positivity was quickly quashed after the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) refuted the ruling in May. WADA decided to carry out their own investigation, bringing the saga kicking and screaming back into the public spotlight.

And Essendon’s season took a massive downturn as a result, going from four wins in eight games to record just one more win by round 20.

These poor performances and the obvious uncertainty of the player’s futures has taken its toll. A 112-point loss on the weekend was Essendon’s 10th loss in the past 11 matches, and its second in that timeframe by triple digits.

It looked like the players simply didn’t want to play anymore: whether it was because of Hird or for other reasons is unknown.

Nonetheless, during times like this, there are always calls to sack the coach. This was no different. Many in the media, including former players like Leigh Matthews, insisted Hird’s sacking would finally allow the club to move forward.

And so that’s what happened. Yesterday, James Hird took his fate into his own hands, resigning from his position as senior coach of the Essendon Football Club under the careful nudge of the Essendon hierarchy.

“The reason for this decision is to enable the players and the supporters some space to perform and be a normal football club again,” Hird said.

“I didn’t know it would come to this [but] I felt that the club needed space.

“It’s not just about me resigning or moving on, the industry has to let [the players] play.”

Some will be angry about this decision, but just as many will be happy or even relieved. Hird was senior coach during the time of the 2012 supplement program. He is last key figure of that era: removing him from the environment will ‘clear the air’ around the club.

Not only will it change up the mood of the place, but it might also alleviate some of the media pressure. Hird’s unfaltering defiance during this time has won him some admirers, but it has also lost him a lot of support too. The likes of Caroline Wilson and Damien Barrett might ease up their scrutiny now he has left.

While this is could be a positive step moving forward, there is still the WADA ruling to come. There is still a question mark over the future of some these Essendon players.

So yes, one of the major figures has been taken out of the equation. But this saga is not over just yet.

What we learnt from round 20

– Cyril is something else

In a typically fantastic performance, Rioli kicked six goals from just 10 kicks. Was that the best 12-disposal game ever played? Either way, he proved to be the difference against the Cats.

– The Derby was fought dirty

It was always going to be a spiteful game, but an unsavoury high bump and biting incident were a bad look. The match review panel and tribunal didn’t like it either: Eagle Chris Masten received a two-week suspension while Fremantle’s Alex Silvagni was suspended for four weeks.

– The women’s game is here to stay

An average audience of 150,000 tuned in to the women’s AFL match on Sunday afternoon. This was more than the 114,000 average audience that watched the Essendon vs. Adelaide match. The public has spoken, AFL: play and televise more women’s games.

What we can expect from round 21

– Bulldogs competitive yet not enough

Coming away with a win against the soaring Eagles in Western Australia might be too much to ask. The Dogs have been in fantastic form, though, so they will give West Coast a run for their money. Expect a close, competitive contest.

– No change in the Essendon mindset

It won’t be surprising if the Bombers defeat the depleted Suns, but the excitement and effort won’t suddenly re-appear at the loss of James Hird. There’s more on their minds than just the senior coach.

– Battle for the rising star?

Carlton vs. Melbourne at the ‘G on Sunday afternoon will see the two favourites for the Rising Star award come up against each other for the first time. It could prove to be the decider as to whether Carlton’s Patrick Cripps or the Dees’ Jesse Hogan is the best young player of 2015.