Some say that in sport, time can heal all wounds. This may be true, but has enough time passed for Essendon’s “pharmacologically experimental” practices to be forgiven? You would need not only to forgive what was uncovered, but the way the club handled itself in the face of the allegations, investigations, and finally the capitulation last year once the AFL’s findings were revealed.
It has been just over a year since that infamous first press conference, where James Hird, customary golden locks flopping on either side of a furrowed brow, proclaimed he knew nothing of the misuse of certain supplements at the Essendon Football Club.
Fast forward numerous months and finally, in August, the results of the AFL investigation saw the light of day, with Hird, the club, assistant coach Mark Thompson, club doctor Bruce Reid and football manager Danny Corcoran all charged. Only Reid would have his charges dropped at a later date.
For the Bombers and their fans, it was a case of us versus them for the whole year. The players seemed to thrive on it, and the solidarity it created thrust them to near the top of the ladder for most of the season, until understandably the momentum subsided and the wheels finally started to fall off and the Bombers crashed like a paper aeroplane.
The overwhelming view of non-Bombers fans throughout the season – and many Bombers fans too – was one of confusion around the way the club handled the whole mess. Why wouldn’t they just admit they made a mistake? It wouldn’t quite have been a case of all is forgiven, but there would have been a lot more empathy directed to the club, empathy which already existed for the players caught up in the scandal.
The reason was the Golden Boy himself, Hird.
It was inconceivable that their premiership captain, Brownlow medallist, half-forward flanker in their team of the century, and number three on the “Champions of Essendon” list, could ever have knowingly been involved in such a tawdry affair. But the truth is there’s absolutely no doubt the club would have handled the situation differently if someone else were coach.
The bottom line is that this annoyed a significant portion of the AFL community, because it meant that one individual was being placed ahead of the game itself. Now, Essendon has a lot of catching up to do to regain the respect that was lost last year.
What makes it even harder for the club is that the story just never seems to end. Just when it seems to be over, another chapter gets written, with this week’s naming by the Herald Sun of the 12 players to take potentially banned drugs just the latest instalment. Less than two weeks out from the start of the season proper, it’s yet another distraction that the Bombers couldn’t possibly need.
The one positive in all of this is that hopefully, hopefully, this year will be a Hird-free zone. Notwithstanding the additional controversy over whether or not he was allowed to continue to be paid by the club – an unbelievably basic oversight on behalf of the AFL – his suspension from coaching in 2014 will mean Mark Thompson is the main man at the Bombers.
So, has time healed the Bombers’ self-inflicted wounds? The answer is no – there is still too much currency in the story for people to have forgotten about one of the darkest sagas in Australian sporting history. And just for good measure, AFL CEO Andew Demetriou announcing his retirement this week has brought even more memories flooding back as people consider his legacy in light of his handling of events.
How the Bombers go on the footy field will be one of the fascinating aspects of 2014. They showed in 2013 that they have the ability to mix it with the best, but how much of that was down to the Hird factor we’ll never know. One thing’s for sure though: even though he’s not coaching them, expect them to look proudly up at their golden-locked hero watching in the stands for inspiration.