Why I support James Hird

I’ve copied a couple of posts I made to a club forum regarding James Hird, and this situation. It goes some way towards explaining my position, and my admiration for the man:

James Hird as a footballer had many magical attributes we all admired, but what made him truly great was his courage, his determination, and his will to make a difference. When others would flag or accept defeat he would keep going. It’s no real surprise that it’s those qualities that continue to define him today. There seem many ready to heap scorn upon him these days, but I can’t help feeling an admiration that continues to surprise me. What a mad, magnificent bastard! This is what greatness is, even if it fails.

Now, as before, he will not accept what he knows to be wrong. Lesser men, and many here, would have given up by now. We can wring our hands and wail about how shithouse it’s been and how we just want it to be over, but whatever inconvenience we feel as supporters is a thousand times worse for Hird. He can’t walk down the street without people muttering at him. He picks up a newspaper and it’s all about what a selfish bastard he is. He’s banned from his job, forbidden to speak, and effectively banished. Even some who support him turn. Still he fights on, like a Spartan he may come to resemble.

I can’t turn from that. Forget that he’s an Essendon man, I admire the spirit and determination. That’s a man I want to know and follow. That’s a man I want to support – the man the players know and love. That’s a man I believe in, and want leading the club I love.

Am I blind? Perhaps, a little, but blind in the right way. There come times in life when you have to make a call, when the choice is between believing in something greater or accepting something smaller. I don’t know what is pragmatic or sensible now, but in any case they are words that have lost meaning for me.

As someone said earlier this is just footy, but it’s our footy club, yours and mine, and the results on the field must ultimately come second to the values we have cleaved to and believe associated to the club, the greater meaning of what we support and believe in. Call me an idealist, but there’s a sense of justice I feel as passionately about as James does. I can’t have that compromised and blithely continue watching the footy as if none of that matters. It does matter. The score on the board means nothing if we have lost what we stand for in achieving it. Footy is more than just 4 points, it’s about identity and belief and passion.

For me James Hird has epitomised those qualities for his whole career, but never more than now. If we abandon him then we abandon something of that self that brought us to the club.

This will end one day, believe it or not. How do you want to look back at it?


Hirdy wants to expose the sordid, rotten dealings of ASADA and AFL. This is what we all need. This is what should happen because it’s the right thing. Too much of the world today is squalid deals and politically contrived stunts. Pick up any newspaper. How refreshing it is to find a good man willing to stand up against it and say I’m not going to take it anymore. More of us should follow his example. It’s a dim, dark world these days, and no-one should despise anyone who seeks to shine a light into the murk. That’s what Hird is attempting to do. Good on him – he has my support, and should have the support of more regardless of what team you barrack for. He wants to bring the crumbling edifice down, and that’s why the AFL are terrified of him – he threatens their safe existence.

Chaos ball

Last night in the dark I drove across town with my mind consumed by the events of the hours before. Late in the day I heard that the coach of my football team, James Hird, had decided to appeal a recent court decision, as is his right. The rumours that attended that news that as a result the board were likely to sack him. As I drove the Bayside streets, 15 kilometres to the north the annual B&F count was commencing. This is an event I have attended before, and desperately wanted to this time as well. I wondered at the mood there, wondered how I would be or what I would say had I attended. It was better that I did not, especially as the man himself, legend of our club, James, had been asked not to come.

The morning after the newspapers are full of dire speculation reported with glee. The board has met to discuss the situation, and in the meantime Hird has formally lodged his application to appeal. His statement in support of that is worth reading. *

I don’t know how the day will unfold. I find it hard to believe that a man can be dismissed from his job because he chooses to pursue his legal right. He may be asked to step aside pending the appeal. This is a hugely divisive issue. The future of the club I have followed all my life is at stake. So to are notions of justice. The man at the centre of this divides opinion even among Essendon supporters who love him. Many just want the saga done, no matter what that means. Others refuse to accept a deal that infers guilt when there is yet to be any evidence or proof of wrongdoing. So much of the world wants this swept under the carpet – the AFL, most AFL supporters, ASADA, and those Essendon supporters sick of it. I’m not one of them. I’m with Hird, and stalwarts all the way. I won’t accept guilt just to be convenient.

James Hird is probably my favourite footballer of all time. I’ll post some justification for that later. He was a wonderful and courageous footballer, and idol to every Essendon supporter. Doubtless there’s some element of the fanboy in continuing to support him, but it goes deeper than that.

I’ll go on record for the umpteenth time that I want more than a resolution, I want justice. Justice may mean that the charges are true and the club I’ve loved (further) penalised. If that’s to be then I’ll accept it with regret. In the absence of any evidence, and everything I have learned, I’m confident that they’re innocent. The principle remains though, I want to know.

Had there been a just and competent investigation then we should have known 12 months ago. Instead backroom deals were done between the AFL and ASADA – now fully exposed – that meant that the outcomes of the investigation were contrived. I feel sure that the AFL entered into the investigation convinced the club was guilty, and entered into arrangements with that expectation. As the investigation continued and no evidence was produced the goal-posts shifted. In the middle of this was Hird and the players, all of them certain they had done nothing wrong, but now being manipulated by the AFL and ASADA in concert with each other – which is essentially what the court case is about. The players and Hird had no voice. The investigators picked through the testimonies they received and selected what they liked, and disregarded what they didn’t. All throughout the media went ballistic, fed by targeted leaks designed to make both Hird and the club appear guilty because that suited the narrative. Read a newspaper from 12 months ago and it is mostly hysterical nonsense, most, if not all, later discredited. That doesn’t play now. People remember the headlines. The truth is forgotten, or never heard.

Rather than reach a judgement ASADA produced a heavily doctored report which the AFL trumpeted as justification for their hard stand, playing to the media and the baying masses, while Hird was muted. Ultimately, after much wrangling, the report was the basis of penalties the AFL handed down to Hird and the club. Though proclaiming his innocence still Hird ultimately agreed for the good of the club. He was suspended for 12 months.

The deal between the AFL and ASADA meant that should have been the end of it, tawdry as it was. It was the promise made to Essendon club officials. Then a change of CEO at ASADA changed that this year. Contrary to their agreement the new head of ASADA chose to issue show cause notices. This was the final straw for the club, and Hird. They began court proceedings challenging the legality of the joint investigation. Though it was said to be a strong case, it was comprehensively rejected by the judge. That’s the decision that Hird is now challenging.

This is an absolute shambles. You have a corrupt (and fumbling) AFL, an incompetent ASADA, and a vacillating EFC, caught between standing up for itself and doing what the boss – the AFL – says. That’s why Hird is now on the verge of being sacked.

It’s only a few weeks since the club and Hird were shoulder to shoulder in court. They lost the case, but the advice since is that an appeal would be successful. The AFL don’t want that. They want this to go away, and they don’t want any more of their dirty laundry aired. I’m sure the AFL has leant on the club to pull their appeal. James Hird was never anyone who could be leant upon. He always played the game his own way. The AFL is desperate to prevent him from appealing, and I’m sure are now threatening the club that if they don’t stop Hird from appealing then there will be repercussions. The club is the meat in the sandwich, but had it shown more balls earlier this situation may never have arisen.

Hird wants justice, that should be clear to even the dimmest of observers. He knows that he, and the players, are innocent, and is unwilling to accept any other verdict than that. He, the club, and the players, have been railroaded for too long. Quite reasonably he has no faith in the processes of the AFL and ASADA, which seem to bear little relation to what is right.

I have to support him in this. I applaud him for his conviction and determination, qualities that made him a great football player. He’s one tough bastard who has had enough, and now wants to expose the sordid wheeling and dealing that he and the club have been victims of. He’s a better man than me.

Still, I understand this on the deeper level too. This is a polarising issue, and with people’s abuse tolerance being a key factor in their attitude. There are many you know who will just roll over just to get it out of the way. That’s what happened in the NRL with several players ultimately pressured into admitting guilt to charges they disagreed with, just to get it done. That’s how ASADA rolls, justice has nothing to do with it.

Then there are the others, the stalwarts I called them. This smells rotten to them and they will never accept it. Right is right, truth is truth. Hird epitomises this. He’s willing to spend his own money to fund an appeal to get at the truth, to sacrifice his job if it comes to that. I understand that completely. I have something of that in me too. Once you begin fighting it’s hard to stop. You get caught up in the battle, in the rightness of your cause. Once you have fought for so long it feels almost impossible to step back from it. It’s not altogether healthy because there is something nihilistic in it. It’s for a just cause though, or so you are convinced.

How does it play out from here? My bet is that Hird will step aside or be suspended from the senior role until the appeal is concluded. There’s a huge groundswell of Essendon supporters vocal of their support of Hird, and threats of an EGM should the board sack Hird. The club must know this, and even the AFL must be wary of it. It’s spiralling out of control for them, and they must be terrified by what may come. Hird is the maverick out for just vengeance, and who knows how it will play out.

One last thing. In an age of cynical convenience it’s refreshing to see someone stand up for their belief in the face of such imposing opposition. The world needs more of that. You might hate him, but Hird is an example to us all.


* James Hird’s statement in support of his appeal:

I have today lodged an appeal with the Federal Court against the decision of Justice Middleton in Hird v Asada. I have been advised and believe that there are strong reasons why that decision is incorrect and that this is the proper and appropriate course to vindicate the legal rights of the EFC and its players.

The challenge to the lawfulness of the joint investigation was and is an important step in showing that the Essendon Football Club, its players and staff were submitted to a compromised investigation and were treated unfairly. If we don’t appeal our players may be stained forever by the innuendo, misconceptions and falsities that resulted from an investigation that we believe was conducted unlawfully.

It is important that an investigation based on unlawfully gathered information never occurs again to any person, sporting club or organization.

ASADA plays an extremely important role in the fight against drugs in sport and must work within the Act under which it operates.

Throughout my playing career I vehemently opposed the use of performance enhancing drugs in sport. My stance as a coach has been and is exactly the same.

At no time in the 2012 season did I believe any Essendon player was exposed to any supplement or drug that fell outside the WADA, ASADA or AFL code. Two years since the end of that season I still do not believe any Essendon player took anything illegal. No one has shown me any evidence that would lead me to believe differently.

I am extremely sorry for the pain this saga has caused the players of the Essendon Football Club, their families, the Essendon Football Club staff, the Essendon Football Club supporters and the football industry as a whole.

I am requesting expedition of this appeal and will not ask for a stay of the notices. The players and ASADA will be able to continue with the show cause process whilst a full court deals with the legality of the investigation.

I have not taken this decision lightly. I believe this is the right course or action and is in the best interests of the Essendon Football Club, its players, the supporters and the game.

The short term simple approach would be to acquiesce and plead guilty to ASADA even though the players, the club and myself do not believe we have breached the rules. It would be a lie as would pleading out of the proceedings when I, my lawyers and the Essendon Football Club lawyers firmly believe that the investigation was conducted unlawfully and an appeal will be successful.

Seen not to be done

Last night after the game against Carlton the very much under siege Essendon coach, James Hird, gave one of the most remarkable press conferences you’d ever hope to see. For 6 months the media have been camped on his front lawn, almost literally, door-stopping him each morning as he heads off to work. He has never been less than courteous.

Last night, at the pitch of this scandal, he finds himself the centre of he sat answering the fevered questions of a critical press. His responses were measured and honest, he rose above the pack to perform with the dignity and class of a gentleman. When the presser might have ended he let it go on, let them ask their questions he said. It was absolutely mesmerising TV, whether an Essendon fan or not.

Take that with a grain of salt perhaps, since I’m very much a Hird acolyte – there are few people on this planet I respect more. All the same, I found my admiration for him increase as the presser went on, and it’s hard to believe than any impartial observer – and perhaps even the odd critic – would not have been similarly impressed.

This is a man who has been under the most incredible personal pressure, yet he continues to function, and to present when it would be so much easier to retreat. Most would have buckled before now. As a player James Hird was known for his skill and wizardry, but he was also a player of great personal courage. That’s very much on display through these long months. He’s an inspiration for those who love him, but we love him because he inspires us. (Man, don’t I sound like the fanboy?).

I was buzzing with it afterwards. It had been a big night. Lots of emotions had been brought to the surface. Roused as I was by Hird’s performance, I was saddened to believe that a man so clearly better could be brought low by a pack unworthy to mentioned in the same breath as him. Doesn’t that happen too much?

Once more Hird proclaimed his innocence, but intermingled with that was willingness to do whatever was best for the club. That likely means that he will be suspended from the game he loves, and which till recently loved him back. Innocent perhaps, but banished.

I can’t begin to explain how disenchanted I am with the whole sorry saga. Most Essendon fans will say the same. There’s been a lot of talk in recent times about ‘natural justice’ in the legal sense. We all want that. Beyond that is the more fundamental kind of justice, the difference between what is right and what is wrong. Hell, we know that injustice occurs every day, that right does not always prevail. That’s disappointing, but we are conditioned to a degree to accept that. What’s difficult in this case is that injustice is a part of the predetermined process. It’s cynical and two-faced, and it looks like prevailing.

I thought then to list, for posterity’s sake, the litany of undemocratic, unjust, and occasionally corrupt processes that have exemplified this investigation.

  • In February Essendon FC is induced to ‘self-report’ a suspicion that illegal supplements might have been administered to the players. This is later proven to be false, but the damage is done, the genie is out of the bottle. There is reason to believe that the AFL acted illegally in revealing details of the ACC investigation.
  • ASADA and the AFL then conduct a joint investigation into Essendon, which is illegal under the terms which ASADA operates.
  • All parties to the investigation are subject to confidentiality agreements. These are honoured by Essendon, but regular leaks from the ongoing investigation over a period of 5 months make their way to the press. This is illegal, and offenders risk a 2 year jail sentence.
  • Selected members of the press, hand fed by senior AFL executives, are encouraged to pursue vendettas against EFC, and senior figures – such as Hird. Much of this is libellous, some of it scandalous, and most of it would normally result in post-season court action in a fair-minded society. That’s unlikely to occur now if deals are to be done. The rabid pack of dogs get off scot-free.
  • Throughout this persecution neither the club, nor individuals concerned, are able to defend themselves because of the constraints of the confidentiality agreement. The story gets sold as fact without it.
  • The key drug in question, AOD-9604, is found in February to have been not prohibited for use in the period investigated. The AFL know this, but choose to remain silent. The result of this craven silence is that the club continues to be portrayed as guilty when it is not, and the captain of the club, reigning Brownlow Medallist, and much acclaimed good guy, Jobe Watson, is booed whenever he touches the ball – which, given his quality, is plenty.
  • ASADA finally release an ‘interim’ report. In the first instance this has been clearly produced in time for the AFL to act before the finals. In other words ASADA is in cahoots with the AFL to punish individuals conveniently within the AFL’s time frame. An interim report also means that the confidentiality agreements remain in effect – ergo, Essendon are still unable to defend themselves publicly.
  • Despite the length of the investigation ASADA have been unable to prove that illegal or banned substances were taken, and no infraction notices are issued.
  • The central protagonist, the mad scientist with all the answers, Steve Dank, is never interviewed by ASADA. The report is published without his crucial testimony.
  • Despite no infractions being recorded Essendon is still deemed to be guilty.
  • The report is incomplete inasmuch as it contains allegations, but not the defence of the allegations. Defendants were not given the opportunity to rebut the allegations made against them.
  • The report is leaked, once more, to the AFL’s favourite journalists. Once more the club is painted as being rotten without an opportunity to defend itself. These leaks contravene the terms of ASADA, and leaking of personal details without permission constitute an illegal act.
  • Unlike a court of law the club and the individuals are presumed to be guilty until proven innocent – an opportunity which is denied to them. Much of the reporting on this would constitute a contempt of court if it was to be heard by a legal body. The AFL uses the media as an organ to influence public opinion and intimidate the club.
  • Despite the interim nature of the ASADA report the AFL choose to charge EFC on the basis of that, in large part on governance issues, outside of the terms of reference in which ASADA acts.
  • AFL release a highly inflammatory ‘charge sheet’, which is then taken to be factual by the court of public opinion after being splashed across front pages. Once more the EFC have no right of rebuttal.
  • A highly emotionally woman claiming to be a players mother rings talk back critical of the club, a disastrous moment for the club. The woman cannot be identified, and the word around the traps is that she was an actress making a paid performance to increase pressure upon the club.
  • The AFL refuse a request from the club to have the hearing heard by an independent tribunal. The AFL, joint investigators, will also act as judge and jury – analogous to a person being charged by the police and appearing in court to be judged by the arresting officers.
  • Deals are negotiated prior to any hearing. I.e you are guilty, this is your penalty, now we’ll go to the hearing.
  • EFC are isolated within the competition, by the media, and by public opinion.

That’s where it stands now (and doubtless I’ve left out things). The bottom line is that Essendon have been effectively pronounced guilty by all and sundry without the forum or the opportunity to defend themselves. It’s like a Soviet show trial, but without the trial, and Pravda reporting on it.

There are fair-minded, sane commentators out there, but most have been marginalised. Mainstream press have jumped on the bandwagon not wanting to be left out. The AFL is such a huge industry that it corrupts in a similar way to government does. Directly or indirectly the AFL employs many thousands of people, and they buy a lot of compliance as a result. They control the message; they hold the purse strings; and the clubs are made to toe the line.

I suspect a deal will be done in the next 24 hours. My feelings on this are pretty clear. I have a heavy heart, and cant envisage any deal being done acceptable in these circumstances. We’ve been cut from the herd though, and its hard to survive alone.

Is that democratic? No. Is is just? Not on your life. Too few see it: amazingly few. I made a joke on twitter the other week about Wikileaks exposing the corruption, but maybe that’s what’s needed. Regardless of guilt or innocence, this is a crime against due process, fairness, and ultimately, justice. It makes me sick.

Say it isn’t so

I remember when footy was fun. Even when the team was not travelling as well as it could be it was always compelling. At times it became a refuge, something to do, to watch, to talk about, to hope for. I’ve loved Aussie Rules footy all of my life, but I’m losing my love for it, and its nothing to do with what’s going on on-field. It’s become compelling for all the wrong reasons.

I wrote the other week about the travails of my football club. I was defiant then, confident that justice would prevail and that we were on the side of the angels. As I write this much of that has changed.

It’s been a very rugged week for supporters of the Essendon football club. One bombshell after another, a massed, critical media, a seething public, and open confrontation between my club and the competition it belongs to.

There’s too much to go into here. Let it just be said that after some very encouraging news for the club the AFL chose to dump an unedited, out of date charge seat to the media. It made for tough reading, and the public responded with hostility and outrage.

As an Essendon supporter I was conflicted. I’m a dyed in the wool supporter of the club, but I refuse to be blind in my loyalty. I want to know the truth. Much as I wouldn’t want it to be so, I have no argument with just penalties being handed down if it can be proved we committed the crime.

Reading the list of charges I wanted to believe that we were innocent of them. Many of the charges were paper-thin, and easily dismissed. There was a lot of emotive language spinning a lot of circumstantial evidence. This was a PR document, another dirty trick by the AFL seeking to influence public opinion. It worked.

I’m smart enough to read a document like that and know that it presents only one side of the story, and with bias. For months we, the supporters, have been told to fear not, truth is on our side. I read the charge sheet and wanted to hear that truth. I wanted my fears to be allayed. For 24 hours I was in deep conflict. If there was truth to these charges then I couldn’t defend the club, and the individuals, I have grown up loving.

What changed is that I read an article. Most of the press has been scathing, but then much of it is hand fed by the AFL – and some of it on its payroll. That’s one of the most scurrilous aspects of this whole saga – but then that’s another story. Amid the hyperbole there are the odd nuggets, fair-minded articles and reasonable journalists willing to think for themselves.

One such article was on Thursday. It was a simple article, but what it made clear is that the report that everyone has based their commentary upon is hopelessly skewed. One side of the argument has been published, but not the other. In this small example a tawdry conspiracy was exposed – basically to intimidate Essendon into accepting a settlement.

Now this is no proof of innocence. The charges may yet be proven true, but what it did do is make plain that we are not getting the full story. The official record weights one side of the argument whilst not even bothering to document the defending argument. Outside of that one side gets the headlines making outrageous accusations, and the other has no forum to refute them.

I’m outraged, as I have been from day one, at the process. Any fair-minded person, any person who chooses to inquire deeper, ask more, cannot fail to see that this has been corrupt process. Again, that’s not to say that the EFC is innocent, but justice demands that they get a fair hearing, without the overweening influence of the AFL and their media cronies announcing us to the world as guilty.

This goes to the heart of my anger. As a supporter I’ll cop it sweet if it can be proved that we did wrong. I want proof of that though, and an impartial judge.

I’m active on a supporters forum, which is predictably going crazy right now. Rather than repeat it I’ll post a couple of comments I made there regarding this issue:

These are hard times, and there’s little to feel good about. The one thing we could cling to was the very determined insistence of the club that these charges were spurious. We could believe, and hope, that our club is innocent.

A deal turns that on its head, whether true or not. We are damned if we accept such a deal as being rumoured on offer. That might be fair – we may be guilty and deserving of it. Or we might not be. Regardless, as a supporter I want to know. I deserve to know. I don’t want the AFL riding roughshod over us to get this out of the way.

A deal like this by its nature is antithetical to that. For a start we get the sentence without the trial. We get the presumption of guilt without our day in court.

This is what I find very troubling – this presumption, even acceptance, of guilt.

Now if all the charges are true I believe we deserve a fair whack. In fact, I would be disgusted as a supporter to think my club could be so careless and negligent. I don’t think that’s the case though – though that could be because I am a supporter.

I believe we were negligent, but I doubt any drugs were improperly administered. I would like to know, and want us to be judged on the truth or otherwise of that. The penalty should be commensurate with the crime, and not pander to public and media expectation. The leaked penalties seem too much to me.

Finally it sits very poorly with me that the reprehensible actions of the AFL and their media cronies should go unpunished. We lose, not necessarily because we are in the wrong – let that be properly adjudicated on – but because we lack the resources of the AFL, and because the PR war is against us.

My preference is to hold out. Give us our day in court, whether it be in the high court or before an independent tribunal. If our cause is just then stick fat. And as a supporter I’ll feel very dissatisfied if a deal is done and all the rest of it is swept under the carpet.

The second comment relates to the frustration of Essendon fans becoming vocal on the radio waves:

If Essendon fans are upset it’s because for 7 months we’ve been told that the club can’t wait to tell it’s side of the story, but when the time comes to speak out we say nothing except to vaguely rebut the charges. We deserve more than that as loyal fans. We’ve stood by on the promise of innocence, but now we need to hear the proof of it.

I’m not about to turn on the club, but I understand the frustration. There’s been much talk of duty of care, but what’s forgotten is that the club has a duty of care to the supporters who have stuck by so loyally. We’re crying out for it: say it isn’t so.

Rumour has it we’ll do a deal, as my comments above reference. The penalties mentioned are way over the top, but the AFL has the weight to bend us over a barrel. For them, I think, it is not about justice, or about the players; it’s about being punitive, about making an example of us to anyone else who might think about defying them.

We are guilty forever if we accept a deal. I’d rather us be tried and convicted, than to settle on the easier path where no justice is served.


The sport of Gods


Last weekend I went to a big game of footy at the MCG. Carlton versus Essendon is always hotly contested regardless of the scores on the field. The two teams hate each other, and that fierce rivalry extends to the crowd. I went with Donna, a typical Carlton supporter who hates Essendon above all others. We sat in the tightly packed members area amid supporters in the blue of Carlton and the red and black of the mighty Bombers. I was pretty relaxed, as I usually am, but desperate for a win against this mob. Donna was a bundle of nerves. I’ve been to about half a dozen of these games with her, and only once has Carlton won in that period. By the end of the day, that stat remained unchanged, though in unexpected ways, and Donna was literally all a tremble.

Great rivals make for great contests. A crowd of 80,00 helps, but there is so much history between teams like this that it will always be a desperate battle. There’s a buzz in the air as the players take the field, a crackling tension almost as the ball bounces and the crowd roars and the ball whizzes from one end to the other, bodies careen off each other and the crowd stills and roars like at the Colosseum. It’s wonderful theatre.

It was a wonderful game too. The re-born Essendon took control early and looked the goods. Then, in a few minutes, two season-ending injuries to key players turned the tide of the match. It’s tough to win, to even be properly competitive, with two players down. Gradually Carlton evened the match up, and early in the second half looked like they might skip away. Each time they got to a couple of goals lead though the Bombers would hit back against the odds.

The last quarter was like that also. Essendon kicked the first goal to go ahead by that margin before Carlton kicked the next three in a hurry to grab a handy lead. That Essendon was able to fight back once more was a testament to Essendon resilience, to a few quite remarkable moments of football, and a combination of laziness and panic by Carlton.

With a few minutes to go, Carlton led by a point. Then Garlett marked in their forward line within range and, looking over his shoulder, decided to play on. Bad move. On his tail was the oldest player in the competition, Dustin Fletcher (BOG for the match), who chased and then desperately lunged with his long arms to bring Garlett down and save the day.

Not long after, Carlton was in control of the ball with that lead when they kicked backwards and then out of bounds on the full. A hurried kick forward, a spill from a pack, and then a snap from the boundary line by Zaharakis saw the scores levelled. Moments later, the siren went: draw.

As an Essendon supporter, I was happy. We had no right to be so close, given the handicap of our injuries. It was a terribly gutsy effort by the players and might just be the making of the team. Backs against the wall, and they never gave up.

Tomorrow is another game that epitomises that spirit – the annual Anzac Day match between Collingwood and Essendon. This is the biggest game of the year outside the finals. There’ll be 90,000+ there tomorrow, and I’ll be one of them. Collingwood is the reigning premiers and top of the table; Essendon is the glamour team of the moment, playing purposeful, attractive football led by a favourite son. Tomorrow’s game has extra significance because James Hird, our coach, was a hero in so many of these matches – he won the Anzac day medal three times. You can bet he’ll get the team properly geed up for the occasion.

Collingwood goes in favourites, and that’s fair enough. Essendon knows they’re the underdogs and have boldly selected a team that might prove a masterstroke or backfire badly. I love the thinking, though: let’s attack. I hope we win tomorrow, and I think we’re a chance if we get our defensive pressures and our run going. Regardless of the result, I have a strong feeling that we’re a real contender this season. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think we can go all the way.

On a related note, I have to comment on the early death of one of my favourite players growing up. Alan Noonan died last week after a long struggle against cancer. He was 61. If I had a duffel coat when I was young and had the number of any player – as was the custom in those days – it would have been the number 10 of Alan Noonan.

My dad and I went to the footy most weeks from the time I was about 7 until 15, and pretty well every week, we played at Windy Hill. We had reserved seats in the Reynolds Stand, of which I still have many very vivid and exciting memories.

Amongst the players I watched week in, week out, my favourites were Noonan, and after him Graham Moss. Noonan was a very good CHF, underrated by posterity, but a powerful competitor, a good mark and a booming kick. He was a good looking man, I guess about 6’3″ in the old vernacular, dark hair long in the fashion of the day, high cheekbones, a big porn star moustache. Well muscled, he seemed to always have a year-round tan, his skin slick with the liniment they applied pre-game. His look was rugged, masculine and somewhat brooding. As you can probably tell, that very young me wanted to be him.

Strange to think he’s gone. I’ve not the personality type to have heroes, though certainly, I have admired many. Alan Noonan, I think, was one of my few heroes and the very first. For an impressionable kid growing up in the tumult of VFL, sitting in the crowd as it roared and cheered and drummed its feet on the wooden floor of the stand, chanting Esse-en-don…Ess-en-don… joining with all my might, enchanted by the colour and spectacle, the noise and wonder, small still, impressionable, impressed as I was by the clever men who sat beside us week after week making witty, intelligent comments on the game, the thump of boot on ball and the waft of liniment coming from the ground, lifted by it, transcended by mysterious passion and carried onwards by the moments collecting all on the field I was in a kind of childish heaven. Others would come, others great and many who remain, but in those days, it was the sight of Alan Noonan roosting the ball through the big sticks from 60 metres out that was my idea of absolute bliss.

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A footy fairy-tale

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 17:  James Hir...Image by Getty Images via @daylife

I was like a giggly kid on Sunday. For the last 7 months I have like every Essendon supporter keenly awaited the opening of the 2011 football season. The return of the most beloved player in living memory as the team coach was every supporter's wet dream come true. Delightful as that was the list of top-line and legendary coaches joining James Hird as assistants left all of us wondering if we would wake up to find it was just a dream.Was it too good?

It was no dream though, there they were living and breathing and injecting hope into the multitude of passionate supporters. In that there was a danger I think everyone Essendon supporter felt deep in their heart. What if it was a disappointment, like Voss? What if all our hopes would be dashed and revealed as childish dreams? What then, what would we feel, how would we recover? What if the great man has feet of clay?

There's a lot of naive hope in following any football team, but then that is one of the great pleasures of being a supporter. We suspend disbelief and occasionally common sense in barracking for the team we grew up loving. It's not about common sense or even pragmatism. The church may not like it, but following a team hard is like being part of a religion in which you all share a common faith. It is all about rituals and symbols and blind adherence to the word – and the word is the club.

Following a footy team will often test that faith. From week to week and season to season hope surges and retreats, it causes us to blaspheme sometimes, to question and doubt; our faith ebbs and flows, but rarely if ever is it broken.

In that context then James Hird has returned to the club less as the prodigal son than as the messiah with his band of apostles. As coach he said the right things and guided the team through a pre-season that was impressive and demonstrably better than previous years. There was reassurance in this, some relief. It was not the real thing though, not yet: that would come with the season proper.

The season proper began for us on Sunday. We went in as underdogs against one of the powers of the competition. I wanted a win, but I was happy to see effort, performance, improvement. For all the hype James in the end is only human (allegedly), and it was my more prudent self suggesting to keep a lid on it, it's a long journey, let's just take it one week at a time…

And Essendon took the field and wiped the opposition from it.

I watched laughing often with delight and the sort of ecstasy that bubbles up unexpectedly when you really it isn't too good to be true. I yelled and clapped and hollered as my beloved team played with  an authority I have not seen for many a year. They were quick, they were bold, they were tough, they were exciting, they were disciplined and they were ruthless. And they won big.

I doubt Hirdy could quite believe it himself. I know it is only the beginning; I know it is a long season. I know there will be disappointments along the way. Nothing is certain, yet I also know now what is possible with this team. And I know as I was never sure before that we are on the right. And I even wonder now if James might not just be the messiah after all.

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The great man returns

James HirdImage via Wikipedia

I'm sitting at work diligently doing my stuff. I'm writing emails and thinking about the things that need to get done and the people I need to speak to. I'm in a motivated mood, but at the back of my mind is the news that thrills all Essendon supporters: James Hird, the Messiah in waiting, is poised to return to the club.

Then news filters through: a press conference at 10. That can only mean one thing, as I feel the excitement build as I continue working. I'm discussing a curly issue with one of the managers here when I glance at my watch and see it is a couple of minutes to ten. I cut our conversation short and hurry back to my desk. I plug in the earphones and tune into the webcast, and sit entralled, the world around me forgotten, as the great man is confirmed as our new coach. He speaks, his words like honey to my ears, his passion and commitment on show, his intelligence and innate leadership clear for all to see.

I am officially excited now. I feel a buzz. I love this football club, have done since I was a small boy. I share the passion that Hirdy has, when he speaks like that he is one of us, a fan, and in his case now, a servant of the club we all love. We have lost our way in recent years and fallen from our ore-eminent position. As much as anything I think it is that which has Hird returning home – he could not watch without acting.

Sitting there this seemed to be the club I remembered, powerful, proud, ambitious. The mojo was back. That was a feeling shared by thousands of excited Essendon supporters across the web. Hird is a man adored, revered even, for his feats on the ground and for the exceptional man that he is. He is ours and he has come back to save us.

Well that's hyperbole, but that was the general feeling. In popular sentiment there is nothing beyond James Hird, no feat too great, no hill too high. There is a huge risk in this appointment as an untried coach, yet I share this confidence. I have seen him do so much that I find it hard to doubt him. In any case, the benefits are immediate – the club surges, hope returns, excitement fills the heart of every true Essendon man.

I read the comments and the press torn from my work. Speculation remained as to who would assist him. The dream team was mooted, enough to make me giggle with delight. Couyld it be? Really?

Then there seemed more substance to one of the later rumours. Bomber Thompson, the coach of the mighty Cats – winner of two of the last three flags – was said to be resigning so that he could return to the club he himself captained to premiership glory long ago. This was too much. This was too good. This was supreme, sublime, wonderful, the coup of the century on top of the appintment of the century. Is it?

As I write this I do not know. Right now it's very good, but if there is any truth to this then I can say honestly that this day, September 28, is one of my happier days in recent memory.

Woo hoo! Go Bombers!

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What it takes to win

Hird and Sheedy's Last GameImage by sobriquet.net via Flickr

I was late getting to the MCG yesterday for the footy as I’d been out for lunch and then had to wait for a train. I walked around the outside of the ground after the game had started. There were a few kids selling footy records, the usual food stalls selling donuts and hamburgers at which the odd customer bought his lunch, and the stray latecomer like me hurrying to get into the ground. It was sparse though almost to the point of being eerie, an impression that was heightened by the roiling sound of 50,000 inside the ground, a dull murmur that sometimes lifted to a roar, like a wave breaking upon a beach. You could only imagine what was happening out on the ground, was it us they roared for, or was it them? It brought back a flood of indistinct memories over many years from when I was a child going to the football, this roar that had never changed over that time and possibly never had from the time the Christians took on the lions, regardless of who the crowd roared for. It was a visceral remembrance of the raw appeal of the game, pure in its essence as I could not see the action but could feel the thrill of it. 

That changed as I entered the ground. It was crowded in the members and so I ended up on level 4 of the stand where I very rarely sit. It is a different view from up there looking down upon the field. The players are foreshortened by the angle and the field spreads out like a playing board. You can see the movements of the players upon the board and the passage of the ball, but you lose the direct involvement in the game you get from ground level. You get close enough to the boundary you can hear the smack of one body against another, hear the players call for the ball and up close see the oiled muscles and take in the sheer size of them. There are times, as you can at the track, when you can hear the thud of boot on turf as they run across the ground to win a disputed ball. 

For once I watched with a bemused detachment. From early on it seemed apparent we would lose. Next to me a grandfather with his grandson watched the game. Every so often the grandfather would explain something to the boy. They barracked for the opposing team and occasionally the boy would ask in his small voice a question of his grandfather. Between scolding the changes in the rules the grandfather would answer knowledgeably with the wisdom of a lifetime watching the game. I said nothing and showed nothing. There was a kind of fascination in watching the deterioration of a team I have followed for a lifetime, like watching silently a woollen jumper unravel with a piece snagged on a nail. 

I left with the same blankness in me, beyond despair. How many times have I left a game seething after a loss? Just about every time. I always took losing badly whether it was me or the team I followed. Never could I remember this numbed indifference. They’re losing me, I thought. 

Last night as it happens was the 10th anniversary dinner of the 2000 premiership of the club. I went along wondering what the vibe would be. I dressed in my suit and tie and mingled in the crowd before dinner. Much of the conversation centred around the wretched state of the team. Some were almost accepting of it, as if shell-shocked into the belief that it was hopeless, that nothing would be done and hence nothing would change. The best option then was to grin and bear it. Others were less philosophical. I expected some anger and there was some of that. They wanted change, action. Enough was enough, this is a proud club and something had to be done. 

I was of this second group, though what flamed in others was cold in me. The feeling had gone out of it. Much like I had sitting from high in the stand I saw it in clear lines. The argument was advanced in my head based on cool rationalism and logic. If the football club was a corporation then the board would be acting. If share price value can be likened to a position on the ladder then the coach equates to the CEO. Our share price (and hence shareholder value) is plummeting and shows no real sign of reversing the trend. The shareholders are restive and the board, presumably, becoming impatient. In the business world a board will often look to cut its losses rather than accept failure. It may seem harsh sometimes but being ruthless has its virtues. Whether it be a corporation or a footy club the objective is success, either building towards it or achieving it. Right now we are doing neither and the coach has lost the players: time to act. 

The night proceeded and I found my spirits lift. There was something oddly life-affirming to be amongst the players who achieved such great heights for the club. With everyone else I smiled and laughed along at the stories told, recalling in my own mind these great players and that time. 

They seemed to me people of unusual character. I wondered if that was coincidence or if I saw them through rose coloured glasses, but finally accepted that what I saw was true. Talent is one thing, but relatively cheap; character is what builds great teams and makes possible the leadership necessary to get to the top. The team of 2000 is one of the best ever AFL teams: no team in the history of the game has been so dominant over a season. They had talent and skill by the bucket load, but what made them special is that they combined it with character. 

I listened to the increasingly impressive Matty Lloyd and Scott Lucas, champions of the club, and then James Hird and Michael Long, legends in their own way on the field and off. They remain impressive people and all spoke of their love for the club and for their team-mates. That was a common theme throughout. It makes you proud to follow a club that inspires such passion in those who represent it, but there was something more significant in it. 

It’s all very well striving for individual and team glory. What makes a team great is going beyond that. Glory is fleeting after all even if so honoured, but the standards that we set and live by go on forever. It’s the application of those standards that result in glory. Each of these men had that: pride in performance, trust in each other, the leadership to strive against opposition and, above all, the commitment to give back. Champions all, they subverted themselves to the greater good of the club and all it represents. They make the club, and in the reflected glory of the club are celebrated by it. 

It seemed a timely lesson right here and now. Success, after all, is more than individual talent and a clever game plan. It is in the collective that the spark of success is ignited and which if fanned properly becomes an enduring flame. That flame burnt brightly back in those years because it was something they believed in; now the flame is almost out. I left wishing we had more of that ilk at the club today, wishing, in fact, that some of those would return to the club and bring with them the passion that still burns so fiercely. I’m sure they’re hurting as much now as I am, and the flame long after dodgy knees have given out still burns in them. That is what we need, for that to be returned to the club and nurtured, for it to
made front and central to the clubs purpose, for meaning to be returned to the guernsey and the brand to be newly polished: we are Essendon as they say. Well we are, now let’s mean it. 

It was midnight when I parted from my dinner companions. I still felt cold and detached. I wasn’t ready for bed. Instead I went into the casino and prowled the floor. I searched for a bar where I could sit and maybe find an interesting woman to chat too, but all I found were ordinary bars full of men in tracksuit tops. There was no-one I saw who I liked, but, I reflected, even if a beautiful woman had come up to me and begged to come home with me I might have said no. It seemed too straight-forward. I was cold, detached – and complicated. So be it. I made my way out of there and home. Hoping now, for something to happen.

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