Hird the next Essendon domino to fall

Date: August 25, 2013 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

In the first week of February the Essendon Football Club’s triumvirate faced the media to explain that it had approached the AFL and ASADA to investigate the club’s medical protocols after concerns had been raised about its practices in 2011 and 2012.

The three men who sat at the table were chairman David Evans, CEO Ian Robson and senior coach James Hird.

Only one of those three men is currently still with the club.

Following an internal investigation aimed at reviewing the club’s management and reporting structures, Robson resigned, saying “We let down our players and their families”.

Evans later stood down, describing what was happening at the club as a “tragedy”.

It later came to light that his health had suffered under the stress of the ongoing focus on the club.

Only Hird remains, although that may not be for much longer.

On that fateful day in February, Hird said he was, “shocked to be sitting there”.

He also said that, “we believe that me as the leader of the football department, as the coach, takes full responsibility for what happens in our football department”.

It was however, the fact that he had not taken full responsibility of the football department that resulted in his shock to be sitting there to explain that the club had significant concerns.

He admitted the buck in the football operations area stopped with him.

Sadly, he failed to carry out the role to an acceptable level.

Despite unusual practices such as players having to sign waiver forms with respect to what they were to receive and being taken off-site to be administered injections that were overseen by sports scientist Stephen Dank, and not long-standing club doctor Bruce Reid, alarm bells seemingly never went off for Hird.

Historically, club doctors oversee the medical protocols given to players.

Hird decided to take a different path with Dank and high-performance manager Dean Robinson granted carte blanche by Hird to run their program as they saw fit with Reid left out of the loop.

Such was Reid’s concern, he wrote a letter to Hird and then football manager Paul Hamilton.

It was scathing in its analysis of what the club was doing without his knowledge, input or approval.

“I have fundamental problems being club doctor at present …despite repeated requests as to exactly what we are giving our players and the literature related to this, have at no time been given that until last Sunday [15 January 2012].

“It is my belief that we should be winning flags by keeping a drug free culture … [the] side effects that are not known in the long term, I have trouble with these drugs … the players were given sub-cutaneous injections, not by myself, and I had no idea this was happening and also what drug was being used.

“I need to collect my thoughts as these drugs have been given without my knowledge”.

The burning question remains, given Hird confessed to be the man responsible for the operations of the football department, why did he allow Reid to be frozen out.

There is no doubting that Hird must carry the responsibility for the club doctor being sidelined and others given a free hand in running the club’s sports science program.

Hird has publicly spoken of his great respect for Reid, yet at a time when it mattered most for the club he effectively cut him off, as Reid’s letter attests.

Given the players were told that the club was pushing the boundaries with regard to its supplement program would it not have occurred to Hird that it was therefore imperative to have the club doctor oversee the program?

To hand total control over to Dank and Robinson was a major error.

And it has not been Hird’s only mistake.

Throughout this saga, Evans and his successor as chairman, Paul Little and Robson have all admitted to failings by the club.

Hird has never done that – simply repeating the mantra that ‘we have done nothing wrong’.

Doctor Reid certainly does not stand by that theory.

Hird on the day the club went public said he took full responsibility for his football department, yet despite the protestations by the likes of Reid, he still maintains nothing wrong has been done.

Reid’s concerns about the health risks over some of the drugs used at Essendon has been echoed in the past month by Adelaide professor, Gary Wittert, who stated that with respect to one of the drugs central to the investigation, AOD-9604, it is still too early to say if the drug can be used long-term.

Wittert, who has led five of the six clinical trials of AOD-9604 in Australia also said, “I cannot understand why athletes are taking it”

But Essendon was using it and Reid raised his concerns about AOD-9604 in his letter to Hird having been denied knowledge of its use despite repeated requests to find out what was being administered.

Reid raised a clear concern over the possible health side effects of the drugs being used once he was made aware of them.

He should have been part of the process from day one.

Why he was not is something that Hird has never told us.

He said yesterday, “I think the welfare of our players is something that we all hold in high regard and are very concerned about …”

Sorry James, but not engaging the club doctor to oversee the Dank-Robinson drug protocols was not looking after the players’ welfare.

Hird’s continued denials that he has done anything wrong led to his lodging of a Supreme Court writ against the AFL on Thursday.

He has never doubted his innocence while many others have, especially after the charge sheet was released this week.

Up until yesterday, the club has remained steadfastly behind Hird.

However, that has now changed.

Little is now more concerned about protecting the club’s future with the AFL saying it wants to remove Essendon’s first two draft picks this year and 2014.

The AFL also wants Hird suspended for 12-months but Hird allegedly has said he is determined not to serve a suspension greater than six months.

It appears that Hird’s senior assistant, Mark Thompson will escape a suspension but is likely to be fined.

If Hird gets his way, Thompson, a dual premiership coach at Geelong, could run the pre-season campaign with the incumbent being available to assume the role again before the 2014 season begins.

The AFL is not likely to see that as an appropriate penalty.

Given Essendon’s fear of losing its first and second round picks at the next two National Drafts, Little may be willing to go along with the AFL’s proposal to sideline Hird for 12 months in the belief that the club is bigger than the individual.

Hird would then surely continue his court action against the AFL.

One of the Bombers’ favourite sons appears only days away from being stood out of the game.

If so, he will become the third of the triumvirate at February’s surprise media conference to depart but the only one to go not of his own volition.

How long his sabbatical is remains to be seen and what he will do after it is also an intriguing question.

But one thing is certain, Hird’s reputation has taken a significant hit.

And he is the one most responsible for that for having failed to put in place the correct processes in the football department that he says he is in charge of.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 24 August 2013