End of a legend

It seems a funny thing to say, but in retrospect yesterday was one of the saddest days of my life.

Sad is a very specific term. I’ve had worse days, tougher days, days more tragic and testing. Many more. Sadness is a different thing. Sadness is a quiet, inward emotion. That’s how it was yesterday. I was in my mind, reflecting, wishing things were otherwise, amid the noise and drama I went quietly, pensive, introverted and regretful. It stayed with me all day and into the night. I went to sleep late because I could not sleep for the sad thoughts in my head. It was a very strange and different day.

What happened is that yesterday the coach of my footy team, James Hird, was basically sacked (though officially it says he resigned). This was on the cards and so was not a complete surprise, but in the strange way of things still came as a shock.

The on-field performances of the team had degenerated to a shockingly inept level over the last couple of months. It’s been embarrassing and sometimes humiliating and always difficult as an Essendon supporter to stomach that. Coaches have been sacked for performances like that since the Lions took on the Christians at the Colosseum. It’s old news, except this was much different.

As has been exhaustively chronicled, my club has been mired in the so-called supplements scandal for nearly three years. I’ve had my say on that, as has just about everyone else. I don’t intend to add to it except to say it’s an absolute disgrace that it’s been allowed to drag on for so long with so little evidence to justify it. There is another case in October, which will clear the players, as they were cleared back in March. By then it will be too late for Hird, this season of football, and quite likely a number of players. For no good reason.

Unfortunately the deterioration in on-field performance is directly attributable to the player’s state of mind. They have been abused, insulted, accused and generally lived under a dark cloud for those 3 years. For much of it they have been incredibly, bravely strong. This year it became too much when WADA launched their spurious (and mischievous) appeal against the players verdict of not guilty. From being finally free they were dragged back into it. Not surprisingly it became too much.

Much of the playing list I suspect are suffering from some form of depression. It’s hard to perform in that state no matter how hard you try. You’re in a fugue. You can’t think clearly, you can’t get motivated, your reflexes and instincts fall away, you become frail and insecure. That’s how they have played – muddled, confused football that falls away regardless once challenged. They have nothing more to give. All this as been played out publicly, on the field, where there’s nowhere to hide, and in the papers day after day, on TV and talkback radio and office gossip. Constant speculation and innuendo has taken a toll on everyone concerned – players, coaches and supporters.

It’s been awful to watch. I like to see my team do well, but that has become secondary to the wellbeing of the players. Like most supporters I’d have been happy for us to forfeit the rest of the season if it meant the players could cop a break.

James Hird has been a lightning rod for all of this. He’s the coach, a controversial character grown aloof from the industry he is part of for the perceived injustice it has perpetrated on his club. He’s been slandered and ridiculed. His once proud name dragged through the mud without a right of reply, gagged by the AFL. To further infuriate his detractors he has been incredibly strong. Even his worst enemies must concede how fucking resilient he is – it’s hard to imagine another sporting figure he has to endure such a tough time. He is the very definition of a warrior.

End of the day footy is a business. The business of footy is winning footy matches. On that measure, regardless of reason, we were failing.

For weeks there has been speculation over Hird’s future as coach. It became a frenzy. Not a day went by without some news item critical of the club or further embroiling it in further controversy. As always with the media there was a perverse pleasure in our predicament – it sells newspapers after all. It’s one of the reasons that Essendon, and Essendon supporters are so bitter – the cynical exploitation of a terrible situation. We continue to follow the club we love, but have nothing for contempt for the industry and much of the media.

Yesterday the media got their man.

There was a whisper of it at lunchtime. Then early afternoon confirmation – James Hird had ‘resigned’. At 3.15 there was a news conference. I went for a walk and followed it on Twitter. I found tears in my eyes as I scrolled through the tweets. It was a graceful, dignified exit. He spoke of his sadness, but also of his love of his players – all lined up behind him, devoted to a man. It would have been easier had he been angry or bitter, but he went out true to the (much misunderstood) man that he is.

I returned to work almost in a state of dormancy. Everything seemed distant to me. The conversation was all about me, but I didn’t engage. Following things online I had tears in my eyes again. There was a sense of numb disbelief.

This is what you have to know. I have followed Essendon since I was a small boy, and been a member of the club for many years. In my nostalgic consideration of the club two players figure most prominently. The first is Tim Watson, who I watched as a teenage rampage across VFL grounds, an exciting, irresistible footballer in his pomp. He was my contemporary. Today he’s still around, a respected media commentator and the father of the current Essendon captain, Jobe. He’s a great man.

I think the other is a great man too, James Hird. Like every Essendon fan I loved him as a player. He was a sublime footballer who saw the game differently to most others, and operated on a different plane. Exquisitely skilled, he was the man for the big stage, the consummate match winner. That he had to battle injury and overcome hardship only added to his legend.

Hird’s grandfather played for the club, and became president. His father played there too. Hird was Essendon royalty, and loved the club as his home. When he became coach it was like it was meant to be. We were overjoyed. Now this.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow. I admire him more than I can say. In itself that’s a contentious statement, but I couldn’t give a fuck what others think. I loved him as a footballer, but I’m in awe of him as a man – strong, resilient, determined, dignified, gentle and selfless.

In losing him the club has lost the only man who has stood up for them against the tide of opinion. When the board has been weak he was always strong. He shielded the players and took up the fight on their behalf. He became the whipping boy of the media and the public and took it stoically, deflecting attention from the players.

I think this is a poor, weak decision. From a football perspective I see little merit in it. It won’t made the side better. The players will still need to face WADA, but now without the support of Hird. They were devoted to him, and now have to face the burden of guilt for his dismissal.

The right and proper thing would be to wait to the end of the season. A review has been in progress and the sensible thing would have been to wait for that to be tabled, and act on that. Instead they panicked. This won’t make things go away. The best they can hope for is that it buys some time. They’ve given the press and public a victim, a name, a face, and they’ll take some time to devour him. But then the pack will return. Little will change.

I’m not sure what happens now. This is hugely divisive in the supporter group. Hird was admired, loved, and we believed in him taking it up to those who might drag the club down. There are harsh words spoken now, and many supporters now threatening to tear up their memberships. I won’t be one of them.

I think the board is doomed now. They’ve been poor throughout this saga, sad to say. A new president is mooted, Lindsay Tanner is the man spoken of, and he would be excellent. We need to re-define what we stand for as a club. Right now it’s not much good.

New coach? We can only hope for the best. Dew perhaps, or perhaps Lloyd.

Then there’s the players. I expect we’ll now lose some we might have kept had Hird remained. What the board don’t understand is that by removing Hird they have undermined the pact: we’re all in this together. They have been released from that by the weak actions of the board. Such is life.

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