Was James Hird simply jumping at shadows?

Date: August 26, 2013 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

Everything points to the fact that James Hird is going to be suspended as coach of the Essendon Football Club tomorrow when the AFL hands down its list of sanctions against the club.

It has been widely reported that the 1996 Brownlow medallist and one of the club’s favourite sons will likely receive a 12-month ban.

Other penalties are sure to be added, including the loss of this season’s premiership points, and with it with it the right to play finals football – a heart-breaking result for the players and the supporters following their fighting, come from behind win over Carlton last night.

A seven-figure fine is a near certainty and the loss of draft picks is also on the table – the AFL reportedly wanted to remove the first and second round picks for the next two National Drafts.

The club was most worried about that prospect given the damage that such a penalty has caused other teams over the past 20 years.

The fact that Hird appears certain to be outed for a year, rather than the maximum six-months he is said to have countenanced, may have provided the club with wriggle room and potentially a more favourable outcome with respect to the loss of draft picks.

Other penalties are also likely to be dealt to other employees from within the club.

No matter what does eventuate tomorrow with respect to the final negotiated sanctions it will be a day that will live in the mind of football fans for decades such is the monumental precedence it will set.

Many members and supporters will feel the club and its personnel have been dealt a disproportionate penalty while others will feel a sense of justice.

Essendon chairman Paul Little stated last night that it was his intention, should Hird be handed a 12-month ban, to have him return to the head coach’s position in 2015.

That declaration will no doubt cause plenty of debate in the football community.

Little also said, “James is remorseful, I know that, and he is looking for an opportunity to express that …”

One of the major criticisms following the breaking of this story in February has been Hird’s attitude to the grave situation that surrounded himself and his beloved club.

Whilst two chairmen and the past CEO have all publicly spoken about the fact that the club had acted inappropriately, Hird has never made such an utterance – in fact he has steadfastly denied that any wrongdoing has taken place.

When he does finally express himself it will be fascinating to see how far he goes.

One of the points of interest is what led the club to pursue the program it did, pushing right to the limits in regard to its medical protocols – or as has been reported by ASADA beyond them.

Hird in his playing days was renowned for his passion, courage and never say die attitude.

Second place was never an option and he strove to bring out the best in himself, and by extension, the team he captained.

He no doubt took that same attitude with him when he entered the coaching ranks.

Perhaps an insight into what happened at Essendon can be garnered from the ABC’s 7.30 program that aired on 30 July.

The program stated that Hird told the club’s former sports scientist, Stephen Dank that he believed Collingwood was on a secret human growth hormone program.

He is also alleged to have said in a text message to Dank that he felt “West Coast was definitely up to something”.

Dank was alleged to have replied that the two clubs, along with Hawthorn, had been “biologically advanced”.

Not surprisingly, the three clubs in question vehemently denied any involvement in banned forms of physical enhancement.

Hird, it appears, felt that his players were at a disadvantage compared to some of their main rivals.

And from there things became dicey for Essendon.

In modern-day sport everyone keeps an eye on the opposition.

Match-day tactics that prove successful for opponents are soon copied by other clubs.

Successful off-field training and conditioning techniques at one club are often adopted at others.

The fluid nature of support staff and players moving from club to club bring with them hints as to what was happening at their previous workplace.

For whatever reason, Hird appeared to be convinced that he was effectively operating with one hand tied behind his back and sort, with Dank and high-performance manager Dan Robinson, to play catch-up.

What transpired at the club, according to ASADA, was a program that included practices and substances that were either banned or undesirable.

Hird, it appears, had two choices – report to the AFL or ASADA his belief that other clubs were taking illegal (in sporting terms) steps to enhance their performance or try and emulate what they were doing.

He chose to take the second option and unfortunately things got out of control, so much so, the club self-reported its own concerns to the AFL and ASADA in February, launching both internal and external investigations.

Hird had thrown his total support behind Dank and Robinson in his endeavours to bridge the gap he believed existed with other clubs.

The path he chose has been adjudged unethical.

One of the key men who could have kept things on the right side of the fence was the club doctor of three decades, Bruce Reid.

However, he wrote in a letter to Hird, that was released as part of the AFL’s charge sheet, that he felt marginalized and he feared the path the club was heading down and the potential for long-term side effects to the players as a result of the substances they were being administered by Dank.

Reid’s protestations to Hird about having been denied the name of the drugs and the associated literature despite several attempts paints a picture of a coach who was keen to keep knowledge of the program he had instigated to a very select few.

In the end, it all blew up in Hird’s and the club’s face.

His desire to take on other rivals that he felt were gaining an unfair advantage simply led to him, his club and his support personnel being charged with conduct unbecoming and bringing the AFL into disrepute.

It was the suspicions of what others were doing that led Hird to launch his own pharmacological war with the help of Dank and Robinson.

With the ASADA investigation still going there is still the prospect that other sanctions will be wrought on the club, including infraction notices being served on players.

Modern-day, professional elite level sport is all about staying ahead of the pack.

If you are not, you have to find a way to at least get back on level terms.

Sadly, for James Hird, the route he chose to take will result in one of the most exalted names in the code being stood down for a substantial period and his club and friends also tainted and sanctioned.

Perhaps Hird was simply jumping at shadows with respect to other club’s practices but one thing is certain – the way he chose to handle it has left an indelible stain on all concerned.

None more so than himself.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 25 August 2013