The harder they fall
CONSERVATIVE, solid, even patrician: from the beginning, these words were associated with the Essendon Football Club. Protestant and mason, too, in the times when sectarianism was a powerful dynamic in this town.
When the club was established in 1872, it was the first of the colonial football clubs not founded by cricketers, also the first in what was then an outer suburb, where the middle class was emigrating. From 1891, Essendon won four VFA premierships in a row, inspiring the club's first nickname. When one football follower asked another then who might win the premiership, he would invariably reply: "The same old Essendon." The Same Olds they became. In 1897, they won the inaugural VFL (now AFL) premiership.
Its nearest neighbouring clubs, though following much later, were North Melbourne, which was staunchly Catholic, and Footscray, with its trade union roots.
Its longest-standing and keenest rivalries were with those working-class bulwarks, Collingwood and Richmond. So was a city's imagination captured, kept and grown, with Essendon as a cornerstone (though, oddly enough, quartered in East Melbourne for 40 years).
The Same Olds, also Dons, who in wartime became the Bombers, always were well supported, well funded and prudent - the standing joke is that Essendon is still sitting on war bonds, tiding them over in tough times and making them even more formidable in times of plenty. Scandal was scarce. There was an issue with bribery in 1924, and an embarrassing and costly salary cap runover in 1996, but compared with other clubs, these were whiffs.
The Bombers were blessed with glorious players, Dick Reynolds, their King, with three Brownlow Medals inset in his crown, then John Coleman, thought by many to be the game's greatest, of whom journalist and historian RD Whittington wrote: "Had he been a trapeze artist in a strolling circus, Coleman could have dispensed with the trapeze." In our times, there was the sublime James Hird, a footballing illusionist.
Essendon's fabric was stout, the strands tightly and nepotistically interwoven. Names recurred, on the field, in the boardroom, on grandstands: Hird, Madden, Evans, Watson, Daniher. In 1989, the president was Evans and the captain Watson. In 2013, it is still so, the sons-of. Servants stayed for decades: club doctor Bruce Reid, team manager Kevin Egan, or came back: Danny Corcoran, and this year Steve Alessio. This is the mark of a great club.
It inspired, well, love. Hird, releasing his book Reading the Play in 2007 said he could not have had the same career at another club. "Part of what I am is the love I have for that footy club," he said. "It meant when you're struggling for motivation - injury, tiredness - just to play for that club was enough." Fans brim with these emotions, but rarely is a player so star-struck.
By the turn of the 21st century, Essendon was a force of nurture, by premierships won alongside Carlton as the most successful club in history, almost unbeatable on the field and a powerhouse off it, with bursting coffers, imperial designs, not to mention a certain swagger. A lull ensued, denting pride, but did not become an existential threat, as it would have for others. Under Hird, chairman David Evans and captain Jobe Watson, dependable Essendon names with the spirit of Essendon forebears coursing through them, the giant was shaking itself awake.
So it is scarcely possible to imagine the way the blood must have drained from Essendon faces this week - those who didn't know, those who did and those who should have - as "information" came to light about the club's so-called cutting-edge player management, information so alarming that it prompted Evans and the board immediately and unconditionally to bind itself over to the AFL and the Australian Anti-Doping Authority.
Information that quickly solidified into an unflattering portrait of a surreptitious regimen of treatment and experimentation by shadowy figures on a murky frontier, pushing to the forefront of football public consciousness comic book names like The Weapon, The Pharmacist and Mr Ageless, information that put a sinister spin on the club's 2013 slogan, Whatever It Takes.
Information that perhaps indicated that these Bombers, with no Coleman among them, were being made to fly without a trapeze, information that if fleshed out, and under the anti-drug doctrine of strict liability, could lead to long suspensions for many players, devastating Essendon as no mere playing rival ever has, and in a doomsday scenario even destroying it. Information that was so, frankly, un-Essendon.
Immediately, all lips were sealed. But the tracks soon became apparent. Last weekend, sports bodies all over Australia were briefed by the Australian Crime Commission about the imminent release of a report concerning the extent of the drug problem in Australian sport and the reach and power of organised crime that would flabbergast the country. When partly released on Thursday, it was an almighty smack across the face of a country that sometimes is self-righteously superior about the purity of its sports and sportsfolk, but can never be again.
Proportionately, it was a high-voltage jolt to the comfortable self-perception of at least one straitlaced club, and probably dozens. Though carefully generalised in its public form, it is not hard to spot in the report's detail identikits of people and practices that must have looked to the Bombers like ghosts in a haunted house. The AFL denies a link, but the coincidence is too great. Two and two made phwoar.
Evans and Hird were Essendon's dream ticket. Both were native sons, with ancestor presidents, co-opted back into service by another of the tribe, the elder Watson. Evans, son of a former AFL commission chairman, was a successful stockbroker, family man, chairman of two charities, co-sponsor of a foundation to regenerate Test cricket, solidly establishment.
Hird was Hird, part saint, part knight gallant, but with an iron fist clenched somewhere inside his elegant velvet glove.
He was flourishing in business until the call came. Ian Robson, accomplished CEO of Hawthorn until he fell out with Jeff Kennett, was a prize recruit. No one better knew the scale of the task than Evans. Under the coaching of Kevin Sheedy, an inspired punt, Essendon had left behind its torpor of the '60s and '70s, modernised, innovated, broadened its horizons - for instance, in its pioneering of the recruitment of indigenous players - gathered up a new, young following and set itself to become, in the emerging national competition, a club for all of Australia. No idea was too improbable for Sheedy, who travelled constantly in Essendon's cause.
Sometimes bombastic president Graeme McMahon envisaged Etihad Stadium exclusively full of Bombers fans. Four well-spaced premierships ensued, and the coffers filled to overflowing again. Then came the post-Sheedy period, and stagnation, and mediocrity, and it sat poorly. Evans, when press-ganged into the presidency, understood the urgency. Football was in an "arms race", and Richmond stood as an example of what would happen even to the most rampantly successful club if it rested on its laurels.
Necessarily, specks of blood were apparent even on these sleek hands. Coach Matthew Knights, with two years to run on his contract, was hastily shown the door. Hird arrived, and with him Mark "Bomber" Thompson, whether as lieutenant or superintendent it has never been made clear. Essendon christened Thompson, a premiership captain of the club, later dual Geelong premiership coach. With him came The Weapon, Dean Robinson, among others. Separately, the Bombers made plans to spread their wings; hence this week's images of footballers and dirtheaps at their new Tullamarine training ground.
From the start of the Hird era, Essendon was intent on becoming bigger and fitter, and staying that way; if it was heard once, it was heard a dozen times. Here, the murk descends. First, it must be said that whatever the Bombers did, it failed epically. Hird's first two years were characterised by bolter's beginnings, hapless fadeouts, and injury in epidemic proportions.
Nonetheless, from the middle of last year, whispers abounded faintly about unorthodox practices at Essendon. Media pursued the club, contributing to this week's revelations.
Always, there was mention of peptides, previously foreign to the drugs conversation. This week's ACC report says, without qualification, that they are a successor to anabolic steroids, and banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. ASADA, the Australian agency, leaves little wriggle room. But an academic, Deakin's Dr Richard Williams, said that peptides were a "cheeky" way around testing, "technically not against the anti-doping rules, but against the spirit of sport".
Here may be seen the line that Essendon players were told the conditioners were consciously, but carefully, pushing, hence the ludicrous level of secrecy and self-indemnity. In the most sinister interpretation, here also is another line, identified again in the ACC report, showing where the performance-enhancing drug pushers are, and the anti-doping agencies are not, yet.
At first, Essendon's players expressed utmost confidence, some indignantly, but after a while, some wavered. All this now becomes the focus of ASADA's investigation. Where it ends and what it concludes is anyone's guess, but in the silence of the other AFL clubs this week, you could have heard a syringe drop. If even Essendon, boomed the unspoken thought, then where else? Essendon has some explaining to do, but because of the way this story broke, as sudden and shattering as a car crash, we all have some understanding to do.
Essendon people - and they are plentiful - either sat around in darkened (chat)rooms, as if contemplating a death in the family, or rushed indignantly to the figurative pyre for season's tickets; both were understandable reactions. Former greats expressed solidarity, but also dismay. One was Tim Watson, former captain and father of the captain, whose son's hard-won Brownlow Medal might become an issue. In pitiless and anarchic social media, schadenfreude overflowed.
Essendon was beating up on itself, wondering how it had come to this. Hird's state of shock was apparent. Whatever ASADA finds, there will be drastic changes. Hird accepted - indeed volunteered - ministerial responsibility for the football department in a way few actual ministers now do.
Meanwhile, it falls to him to pick up the pieces in time for a season that starts in half-earnest next Friday. "We're moving on," said Hird on Tuesday, but his words and their tone did not match. Behind him, and towering over him, was a poster, emblazoned with the marketeers' gruesomely self-mocking caption: "Whatever it takes." Twenty-four hours later, it was gone.
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