In 2011 I moved to Sunshine, 5 K’s west of Footscray, the heart of Melbourne’s West. Around that time Stephen Dank came to Essendon. James Hird, our new pin-up boy coach, had hired him. As I was adjusting to life in the Western Suburbs, isolated from most of my friends, waiting for our second child to be born, Stephen was, at the behest of James, injecting healthy young footballers with unkown substances at various sites around Melbourne.
When I first heard the news in 2013, my heart sank. I couldn’t believe it was us, couldn’t believe it was Hirdy. But as the evidence leaked out, more disturbing every day, a strange thing happened. Most of my Essendon supporting friends started to go into denial. There were various versions of this; they’ve got no evidence, it’s a conspiracy between The Age and the AFL, it’s because it’s an election year, besides all the clubs are doing it, etc etc. I never bought this. It seemed like we’d been caught red handed doing something dodgy. I had a lot of friendly, but passionate arguments with mates, kept going to games, thrilled at the on-field exploits of the Bombers. I watched AFL360 most nights and listened to Gerard Whateley as a voice of reason and Robbo as the mouthpiece of the Hird camp. I was dismayed and confused but I was standing by the club.
Then one night a friend sent a text telling me to read the charge sheet the AFL had just released. I was stunned. It contained text messages from coaches telling Dank to remember to bring the “good stuff” to training that night, coaches who were at the front of a the queue to get some gear. It spoke about Hird injecting himself with Melatonin in his own bathroom and having a bad reaction. This was a drug he’d got from Dank, to improve libido and make him tan from the inside. It was sickening stuff.
Heads rolled. But not Hird’s. The fans went deeper into denial, started showing up at games with “Stand By Hird” signs. The club circled the wagons, brought in Liberal spin doctors and a hard right Liberal President. The players continued to play out of their skin. Then finally the AFL cobbled a deal together and all the players’ hard work came to nought,. They’d played their hearts out for a spot in the 8 but wouldn’t get the chance to play finals. Hird was suspended, surely finished at the club.
While all this was going on I’d chat to my neighbour Claire. In her 80?s and a lifelong Bulldog, we’d talk about their young team and how they were progressing. Occasionally I’d catch a few quarters of their games on Fox at one of the half empty stadiums. They didn’t seem to have a forward line, or much of a back line, but had plenty of guts in the midfield. I’d had a soft spot for them since their heartbreaking 09 prelim final loss. Walking the streets of Sunshine, I saw a lot of people in tatty old bulldogs hats and scarfs. A lot of them looked like they didn’t have much else going for them, but they had the Bulldogs, something to look forward to every week. My daughter went to a local festival and came back with a ball signed by Shaun Higgins. They were out in the community, truly bonded to this rough old part of Melbourne.
It must have been around Christmas when I heard that the AFL had cut another deal. James Hird was to get a million dollar lump sum from the club that week to pay him for the year he would have off suspended. I’d heard something about Hirdy attending executive courses in Paris and Singapore in his downtime. Surely he wouldn’t just pocket members’ money and piss off to Singapore, the guy was loaded. Then I heard from Bomber mates that the club was asking for donations from members to help cover the cost of the payment. The gall!
I couldn’t imagine the Bulldogs ever asking their cash strapped members to fork out for a multi millionaire former player who had brought the club to its knees through impatience, incompetence, vanity and pride. It was disgusting. Then I heard he would be welcomed back in the coaches box for finals. That was the last straw. If they were really keeping Hird on at the club, I was done. My second daughter had been born in Sunshine hospital, my neighbours were all Doggies, it wasn’t a hard choice to make. After a few glasses of red, watching the first Test in South Africa, I signed up for a Bulldogs membership.
This blog will chronicle my attempt to do one of the hardest things a lifelong Melbournian can ever do. CHANGE FOOTY TEAMS. As the season approaches I already feel the sting of those winter friendships I’ve treasured being lost. I look bleery-eyed at the sports pages, not recognising any of the Dogs players, and trying to avoid Joe Daniher stories. It’s gonna be bloody hard, but after 34 years, I’m going to try to quit Essendon