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by Lisa Albergo reporting for AFANA from Chicago

There are three types of coaches - those who quit, those who have been sacked and those who will be sacked, with very few exceptions to the rule. In the earliest days of Australian Football there were no senior coaches. Team captains gave instructions on the field and acted as de facto coaches at training sessions. The first official senior coach was Jack Worrall who was appointed Carlton coach in 1902. Of course being the first senior coach appointed, he was also the first who was fired. He went on to be reinstated after the bookkeeping kerfuffle which saw him axed was sorted out and he was absolved of blame (he was also club secretary at the time). And so it has been ever since. If a team

performs poorly, a common fix is to remove the coach. Such a fix is rarely disastrous enough to bring a club to its knees in and of itself, but surrounding circumstances can combine to do just that. Carlton is a recent example. In 2003, the club was penalized almost $1 million dollars and stripped of prime draft selections for salary cap cheating. It took over a decade for the club to recover and become reasonably competitive on the field, even with a proven successful coach in Denis Pagan in charge. Pagan lasted four seasons before being replaced by another favorite son in Brett Ratten. Despite three Finals appearances during his tenure, Ratten was let go at the end of 2012 after the injury-plagued Blues finished tenth. And so it came to pass for James Hird. However to say he, the club and the Essendon players had a lot more to deal with than the usual loss of form, injuries, retirements and other troubles that can plague a football administration, would be an understatement of massive proportions.

At the end of 2010, James Hird returned to the club he loved and played for as senior coach. There is an old adage in football and more often than not it proves true. That adage is that to be a successful senior coach, an apprenticeship as an assistant is an absolute must. Recent examples of those who did not come to coaching via this route are Tim Watson and Grant Thomas at St Kilda and Michael Voss - another club favorite son - at Brisbane.

In 2011, Hird's first season in charge, he took the Bombers from their 14th finish in 2010 to a Finals appearance in 2011. Although brief, with an elimination in the first week, it gave hope. It was also in 2011 that former Geelong coach and Essendon Premiership captain in 1993, Mark Thompson, returned as an assistant coach and brought in high performance manager Dean Robinson who had worked with him at Geelong. Robinson had also previously worked with Stephen Dank. At the start of 2012, Hird said at a meeting that he wanted the players to be "fitter, faster and stronger" but emphasized everything had to be within the rules. The season started well enough with eight wins from their first nine games. Then the wheels fell off as an unusually high number of soft tissue injuries hit and the Bombers lost their last seven games to finish with an 11-11 record. This was the first year of the supplements program.

Fast forward to the start of of the 2013 season with the Australian Crime Commission report leading to Essendon's request for an investigation which snowballed into the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) investigations, infraction notices, hearings and finally headed to the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA). Officially, Essendon finished in eighth position for another shot at the Finals, but as part of their punishment for "poor governance" they lost that Finals berth and were relegated to ninth position on the Ladder. Hird was suspended for one year with assistant Mark Thompson taking over. Hird returned in 2014 and oversaw a mini-revival of the club's fortunes as the team finished in seventh spot to reach an Elimination Final. It was a start, but short-lived as they lost that game to North Melbourne.

Relief for the players was also short-lived with ASADA's "not guilty" determination being appealed by WADA. WADA is taking its case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and the hearings will be held in Sydney in mid-November. They are expected to take less than a week. At that point the fate of the 34 players under investigation will be known. The full extent of the pressure and strain this "unknown" has taken on the players and their on field performances will never be known for sure. Nor will Hird's true qualities as a senior coach. Three wins from the first six games in 2015 wasn't too bad a start, but the Bombers crumbled after that, losing seven of their next nine games, culminating in a 110 point belting by St Kilda. Only one win followed before Hird's final game as coach - his worst defeat - with the Adelaide Crows running riot to win by 112 points. Hird's career ended with 41 wins, 42 losses and one tied game.

How will history view Hird as a senior coach? Was he a good coach who just made a colossal mistake with the supplements program? Would the team have done better without the supplements program? Did he and the club overrate his ability and/or that of the playing list? How would they have fared had Angus Monfries and Paddy Ryder stayed at the club? There are many questions for which there may never be concrete answers and they will certainly be a topic of debate for some time. Tim Watson said on SEN that while Hird will always be remembered for his on field brilliance, there would also be an asterisk next to his name and his "legacy will now be tainted forever."

What of Essendon itself? With the WADA appeal set for mid-November, how do the recruiters deal with the trade period in the month prior to that? At the end of October there are the rookie promotions to senior lists, retention of players already on senior lists, international nominations, father/son nominations and the first submissions from clubs to the AFL of their estimated Total Player Payments. The second round of free agency will also take place before and during the CAS hearings with the draft to follow a week later. These are all issues which Essendon will have to consider when making decisions on how to proceed. The fate of a dozen or more players on their list will remain unknown until the WADA/CAS case is closed and their decision rendered.

Should the Bombers delist the handful of involved players? If they do, the players would have to nominate themselves for the draft, leaving them open to being drafted by other clubs if those clubs are willing to take that chance. Or they could wait for the CAS decision and if found "not guilty", they can nominate for the preseason draft. But that would still give other clubs the chance to pounce. Are other clubs willing to trade for a player who could be banned for two years? It leaves the club in a precarious predicament and most certainly club officials with many sleepless nights as they try to figure out their best options.

It is already believed that up to twenty players could be traded, retire, or head for other clubs as free agents. Those players are:
Kurt Aylett: played two games in 2014, but hasn't played in 2015 due to a hamstring injury, currently on rookie list
Mark Baguley: yet to sign a new contract
Tom Bellchambers: restricted free agent and has been sidelined most of the year with a foot injury
Alex Browne: future in limbo until full review is completed
Jake Carlisle: better suited to defense, but HIrd moved him forward where he has struggled. His future has been the topic of speculation all season.
Paul Chapman: 20 games in 2014, but just eight in 2015 due to injury niggles. Chapman recently announced his retirement and played his last game in Round 22 against Richmond.
Lauchlan Dalgleish: elevated from the rookie list, but has not played since 2013 due to injury, only three games in four years
Courtenay Dempsey: an unrestricted free agent, but wants to stay, best football may be behind him
Dustin Fletcher: Game 400 in Round 9 saw him subbed out with a groin injury and he hasn't played since, yet to announce retirement but most likely will 
James Gwilt: joined Essendon as a free agent last year as a tall defender
Will Hams: young player hampered by injury in 2014 and again this year
Elliott Kavanagh: a first round draft selection, has played just 11 games in four seasons, requested to be traded last year but there were no takers
Jake Long: the son of former champ Michael, showed some good signs in the preseason and VFL, club took him young and knew he was a long-term prospect
Shaun McKernan: little opportunity at Adelaide and rookie-listed last year, elevated to the senior list this year, can play ruck, forward and midfield
Jake Melksham: a favorite of Hird, a talented midfielder/tagger
Nick O'Brien: debuted in July after strong form in VFL, played seven games, ball-winning ability in midfield, but lacks speed which could work against him
Tayte Pears: unrestricted free agent, but has had a horror run of injuries in the past four seasons, another tall defender
Brent Stanton: unrestricted free agent, he and Hird were particularly close, currently negotiating a new contract
Ariel Steinberg: spent three seasons on rookie list but got his chance as a tall defender in seven games this year
Jason Winderlich: announced his retirement at the end of 2014, but did an about face to play on this year, only one game this year due to injury, expected to retire.

Source: afl.com.au, author notes, sen.com.au

Article last changed on Wednesday, September 19, 2018 - 3:53 PM EDT


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