The ASADA Saga: Inside the Laager

I follow the Dons. On my seventh birthday my dad took me to the Vic Park rooms to meet Daryl Gerlach, my hero. The Pies had just flogged us by 147 points in the rain and I’d watched the carnage aboard dad’s back on a terrace somewhere in the outer, climbing down to give his aching shoulders a rest whenever McKenna lined up for another goal. The post-match rooms were cold and gloomy, I must have been the only person excited about being there. Gerlach seated on a bench, his big muddy knees thrusting through the drapes of a black dressing gown as he gently shook my hand. Ken Fletcher stood nearby, white bum bared.

Gerlach was my man. I would have killed for a #17 guernsey but all I had was a red and black jumper my mum had knitted. She’d sewn on a Bombers badge, sure, but there was no sash, just a sort of tartan pattern from one of those Patons knitting books. Mum gave it to me when I was four and told me it was an Essendon jumper and of course I believed her. At my first game (Melbourne at the G, 1968) I was disappointed to discover that we weren’t playing in Essendon jumpers then doubly disappointed when I realised that we were in fact wearing Essendon jumpers and that my jumper was the fake.

Now my son wears #17. I didn’t force him to out of some sort of “relive your fantasies” mentality, he picked up on Jake Melksham independently. Okay so I might have seeded the idea into his 9 year-old brain, but the final choice was his. We went to an Essendon training session and the only other kid wearing #17 turned out to be Jake Melksham’s little brother.

I’m a Hird supporter, big time. There’s a massive divide between Essendon fans and the rest of the universe over this ASADA thing, and we’ve pretty much circled the wagons at Windy Hill (or that new facility out near Tulla). I’m not going to try to convince you that we’re right and you’re wrong – both sides are too far gone for any of that. But I do want to give you a glimpse of life inside the laager.

Right now it all feels a bit like Russia in the Crimea. The UN keeps shaking its fist while the Russians are busy Cossack-dancing around some guy dressed in a bear suit. That’s us. That’s Hirdy in the bear suit. We don’t care what anyone thinks any more, we just don’t care. We don’t participate in Big Footy, retreating instead to the cosy warmth of Bomber Blitz and the Essendon website. Hatred of Caroline Wilson and “Vlad” Demetriou is infernal. Respect for Chip Le Grand, Emma Quayle, Rohan Connolly and a few others, yes, but we’d rather not talk about the fact that Andrew Bolt supports our cause, probably in the same way the Russians probably aren’t overly rapt that North Korea and Syria are on side.

It never used to be this way. We were the family club with family values, respect for Aboriginals, community this and community that. It was always other clubs that brought our game into disrepute – Collingwood with their racism, St Kilda with their sexism, West Coast with their party boys, whoever had Fevola with their Fevola. But you know what, I’m starting to like this bad-boy rap. Granted, “governance” doesn’t quite cut the mustard beside racial and sexual abuse but it’s our own homegrown form of gangsta and I suppose it’s generated a heap of publicity which, as anyone in PR will tell you, is ALWAYS a good thing. Membership’s up and the fans are excited. My boy’s passion for footy only really kicked in when he became incensed at the treatment of Hird (courtesy of a full-on indoctrination from Yours Truly, thank-you-very-much).

For many years my dad and I had seats in the Allan T Hird stand at Windy Hill. Watching Allan’s grandson play footy was like watching cream poured over chocolate cake. We all fell in love, and true love never dies. Now we are the persecuted awaiting the Return of the Messiah, he of the royal lineage, crucified beneath a titulus decrying “Malum Regimen”. Bad Governance. Nureyev jailed for not filling out his tax form properly. He will return though, not to redeem Himself but to redeem us, his disciples. And we will give Him praise, just you wait and see.

About Luke Smith

Former employee of the Essendon Football Club.


  1. Glen Potter says

    James Hird is not the messiah. He’s been a very naughty boy.

    The first thing I’d ask is why the hell are any Essendon supporters Cossack-dancing around Hird? They should’ve shipped him off to Siberia. His regime failed in its duty to protect the players; it was derelict in its duty with the issue of supplements; it put financial constraint on the club – $2,000,000; it lost draft picks; it lost a spot in the finals; it tainted the credibility of the club; and Dustin Fletcher’s milestone match, along with the season opener, were overshadowed by the Hird’s recent Cossack-dancing. I think he’s been very selfish. Not only that, I think he’s damaged his own standing within the game. Surely he’s guilty of more things than Malum Regimen. Does he have close ties with the KGB? James Hird is not the messiah.

    Surely you’d be calling for perestroika on your club’s governance? Did they fail in their glasnost-like duty with the Switkowski Report? The Essendon PR machine has duped its supporters into thinking someone else is to blame: Caro, Demetriou, Dank, Robinson, whoever. They now play the victim card and appropriate their victimisation to the club as a whole, creating the idea of us (everything Essendon is and was) versus them. Most subjects involved in this sorry saga have done well to cloud, confuse and distort the facts. Less-discerning Bomber fans can’t differentiate what is right from wrong. Caroline Wilson has done her job and done it well (Walkley Award). She’s an investigative reporter. She investigated, she reported. I’m thankful for that. The abuse she continues to receive is abhorrent. What if she hadn’t reported anything about the supplements saga? How would you feel about Hird and the board if the supplement practice had gone on for years without detection? What if you’d lost a premiership because of it? Wilson’s reporting brought attention to the AFL public a practice that was inappropriate. If people are going to slag Wilson off then it’s high time we started defending her actions. We teach kids at school to stand up to bullying. Passively standing by when bullying occurs is as bad as the bullying itself. It justifies it. The same process should apply with stupid grown-ups.

    ASADA, unfortunately, have been ineffectual and as a consequence of their Malum Regimen their general has walked away. Essendon’s governance still hold power, as does Hird, potentially. For both I’d ask, “Why?” They are not the victim. The players and the supporters are. Hopefully the player’s health is not at risk. The supporters who bleed for their club find their club’s integrity discredited. Malum Regimen? Yes, and it shouldn’t be devalued. All should be held to account. Where was Hird’s governance in overseeing the issue of supplements? That’s part of his job description. What about the board’s governance? I’d ask, who has held the board to account? Where are the factions of Essendon fans wanting answers for what has happened to their club? Why aren’t you indignant, incensed? The board is full of sycophants who, a) besotted by admiration for Hird, have been derelict in their duty to dismiss him permanently, and b) their dereliction is to protect and posture themselves in the powerful positions they hold on the board. Was Paul Little and co. afraid to appear as Pontius Pilate? Probably, but Hird’s actions weren’t/aren’t noble, or in the best interests of certain players, the game, or the credibility of the club. James Hird is not the messiah.

    The idea of ‘lineage’ opens up a notion of entitlement. I’m sure Hird believes in his entitlement. Appropriate governance from the board should’ve meant that he’d spend an extended period away from the game. Did I mention an inept board full of sycophants? Is Hird bigger than the club? I cannot see the positive in Hird returning to coach. What does it justify? Does it justify hailing the return of someone who inexcusably failed in their duty, compromised the club, and let its supporters down? How is that excusable? Is this what the Essendon F.C. stands for? Are these the justifiable values of the club? James Hird is not the messiah.

    I appreciate your unenviable position as a passionate club supporter with an enamoured view of a club champion, but I equally find it difficult to stomach the rhetoric that comes from Bomber fans. I ventured to Ess. v. North (as an independent supporter) in round 1 and, beyond bemusement, I walked away annoyed by the futility of the crowd response. ‘We are Essendon’ rang from pockets of the crowd before engulfing it. Us versus them. How about getting angry with the right people? And let Hird go. He’s done nothing in recent weeks to show that he cares about anyone but himself. James Hird is not the messiah.

    Disciples are credulous, passive followers. What Essendon really needs, is a revolution from the people.

  2. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Totally agree with the above comment and firmly believe Hird and Essendon got off lightly , how any 1 can defend giving injections with a complete lack of records is abhorrent we are noy going to no for years off any long term health problems
    Hird great player how any 1 can be so blind sided to defend him and the club has me completely stuffed

  3. LS – I disagree with everything you say, but I admire the forthright way in which you assert your loyalty.
    “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

  4. Sean Gorman says

    Total bunkum

  5. Luke Smith says

    If a writer sets down the words “So and So is the Messiah” he or she is not necessarily saying that So and So is the Messiah. Not literally, not metaphorically. Think about narrative mode and perspective, even from within the first person. Isn’t this meant to be a writing and reading community?
    Glen, I’m guessing that your review of Burroughs’ “Junky” would be a lengthy dissertation railing against the evils of heroin. Sean is to be congratulated – if you’re going to miss the point then at least do it succinctly. And finally Peter, thanks for your kind words and please let me know whose bare bum I saw if not Ken Fletcher’s.

  6. How dare the Essendon fans support their team? They should be banned from cheering too.

    Opposition fans yearn for more news, with seventeen sets of supporters lapping up one side of the story, it is little wonder the narrative has sat askew.

    Not the first team to run a supplements program, not even the first team to work with S.Dank. Definitely the first set of supporters to be told how they should feel about their team.

  7. Bob Morrow says

    Totally , TOTALLY , agree with Glen . How about the arrogance of Hird saying on the Club’s web site that he will be returning ” as a reward to the fans” Beggars belief.

  8. Peter Flynn says

    The last 12 months or so have given us a good insight into and a better understanding of Hird. Very enlightening.

  9. Luke Smith says

    Ohhhhhh, those Russians!!!

  10. daniel flesch says

    @ Glen Potter . You ask ” Where are the factions of Essendon fans wanting answers for what has happened to their club? ” Dunno about factions , but in our small Northern NSW town my Essendon-supporting neighbour tells me he took out a membership just so he could tell the club’s management how disgusted he is with them . He figures giving them his money gives him the right to tell them off. As for your story , lukesmith2 , loyalty is laudable , but mis-placed , undeserved loyalty neither clever ,nor in the long run effective.

  11. Luke Smith says

    Daniel, true loyalty isn’t about being “effective” or “clever”. Please thank your neighbour for his contribution and remind me to vote Liberal at the next election. I just can’t stand that Tony Abbott and boy am I going to give him a piece of my mind.

  12. Nick Gibson says

    Ok, after listening to the opinions expressed by every man and his dog I think I get it.

    Hirdy is not the saviour, he’s a cross between Charles Manson (no, not James from the Pies, Charles … you know Sharon Tate & … oh, never mind)) and that bloke from Jonestown and probably the Unabomber as well.

    On the other hand, Bomber Thompson, the new saviour, is in fact a cross between Snow White, Bambi and all that is good and pure.

    Yes, that Bomber Thompson, the bloke that was brought to Hirdy’s side to help him out, act as his guide and just generally show him how to fast track success.

    Not sure how it would stand up in ASADA or WADA, but I reckon FRODO, BOZO the clown, TIPSY, LA-LA & PO and BLIND FREDDY & his bloody DOG could tell you that everyone within a 10km radius of the club should be charged with being a pack of gooses (is that geese?)

    Can I get a couple of hundred thousand dollars to advise the really clever brain surgeons at the club that hundreds of really clever injections by really clever people is probably, when it’s all said and done, not going to be really clever.

    But let’s talk footy … gee, doesn’t young Gleeson look good. If we can just get him to bulk up REALLY FAST, because as Bomber says, he’s in a REAL HURRY for success.

    Hang on, haven’t we been here before?

  13. Luke Smith says

    Thanks Nick, but I’m pretty sure the club has already been advised :)

    And yes Gleeson needs to bulk up – hopefully they found room for a “drug dungeon” under the HPC. Tell you who I’m excited about, and he’s barely on the radar yet, a kid called Lauchie Dalgleish. Once he gets over his calf injury he’ll be a gun. Perhaps a bit of this would help his recovery …

  14. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    At least the Hawks had records of what was being done to whom and I doubt whether there were any release forms that the players had to sign.

  15. Luke Smith says

    Really Mark? How would you or anyone know, given that the AFL refuses to investigate or even name the 12 clubs found to lack governance around their supplements programs:
    For one club it’s a hanging offence, for the others apparently it’s not worthy of investigation. Pandora’s Box?

  16. A great read, and my thoughts on the Essendon supplements program have been well documented. As has the thoughts of every AFL fan with a keyboard and a pulse.

    Luke, as a fellow Essendon fan, we’ll have to agree to disagree brother. Deals were cut, penalties accepted. End of story. If Hird and Essendon were innocent or had a genuine case, they should have told the AFL where to go during the August negotiations and like Bruce Reid, refuse to blink and front the courts. To badly paraphrase Harper Lee; courage isn’t what you do with a gun in your hand and Bravo Doc Reid.The same cannot be said of Hird and Little. It would have been very, VERY interesting hearing Essendon’s ‘side’ of the story presented in a court of law before a judge, but no. Suppression clauses were agreed to, fines handed down and draft picks taken away. How fitting is that for an ‘innocent’ party?

    Glen: I’m not sure how being fed information and documents from the highest offices of the AFL is ‘investigative journalism’. While Caro often ‘hears’ and ‘understands’ certain information without going into specifics, the only difference between Caroline and ‘knackers’ down at the pub is that Caro gets paid. Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie – now THAT’S investigative journalism (and hardly sympathetic to Essendon’s case) – something most AFL journo’s wouldn’t know if it bit them on the arse. Caro and her ilk have been ‘hearing’ and ‘understands’ the first set of infraction notices were to be handed down as far back as August last year.

    Maybe the one thing everyone can agree on is the utter incompetence that is ASADA. 14 months – and counting – and the only ‘scalp’ is former Raiders player Sandor Earl. Meanwhile, Cronulla and Essendon players have this cloud over them for the better part of 14 months and no resolution – other than hearsay and conjecture – on the horizon. Disgraceful.

  17. Rick Kane says

    Hi Luke

    There are several documents attached to this piece I put up in mid Feb 2013 ( that are worth reading (or re-reading).

    Added to that is the report prepared by Switskowski, on behalf of the Essendon FC: ( I’m sure you have at least read the Switskowski Report. The Organised Crime and Drugs in Sport report and the Switskowski report read together make for a compelling case of wrong-doing, that potentially put many people at risk and unnecessarily.

    The AFL conducted their own investigation (and short of seeing a conspiracy theory everywhere which effectively means that nothing can be trusted not even your views) we have to give credence to this series of reviews, investigations and findings. In that light, Hird’s conduct looks very poor.

    That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t continue to support and barrack with all your might. Of course you should. But trying to argue that Hird is a victim or that he hasn’t really done anything that bad is plain nonsense and ignores a range of disparate reviews. And trying to compare tax avoidance with a concerted and controlled process of injecting substances into your playing list that even the Club can’t account for is laughable.

    Barrack and support all you like. But be wary not to confuse patriotism with nationalism.


  18. Luke Smith says

    Thanks for your post Steve and your kind words on the original piece, and thanks for Rick’s contribution, but I just don’t see where I make the claim or even loosely imply that Essendon was innocent. Indeed the club has acknowledged and publicly apologised for the lack of governance which cost them so dearly, so they don’t make the claim either.

    On Caroline Wilson, at least she’s not as bad as Roy Masters, whose regular (incorrect) predictions of infraction notices coming on such and such a date have made him a constant source of ridicule on Essendon fan sites. Caroline gets it wrong sometimes, Roy gets it wrong every time.

    And yes, ASADA, don’t get me started. The Keystone Cops of sports authorities. They advised Essendon via Dr Andrew Garnham that AOD-9604 was not prohibited and months later their big bro WADA turned around and said that in fact it was.

  19. sean gorman says

    Critically Luke your article is not about Essendon – it is about Hird. (Im a Hird supporter big time…. Now we are the persecuted awaiting the Return of the Messiah, he of the royal lineage……).

    The simplest reason for the mess Essendon find themselves in is the Messiah you speak of. This is not to say their has not been mis-reporting, misrepresentation, out and out BS and stupidity. But you seem to want to point the finger at everyone and everything else.

    What will happen if/when infractions are given will this simply be another mistake by ASADA?

  20. Luke Smith says

    Sean, the article is not about Hird, it’s a glimpse of life inside the Essendon laager, as the title suggests. I thought I clarified this in my earlier post (March 30th). If I return to this site with an article in defence of James Hird – and I might – then feel free to contest whatever assertions I make. But the thrust of this article is not that Hird is the (metaphorical) Messiah, it’s a description of how he’s perceived inside the laager. Can you see the difference? When an anthropologist reports back from the deepest Congo telling you about a tribe who follow YaBunga, don’t come back with the whole “Jesus is Lord and You’re Gonna Burn in Hell” schtick, even if the narrator hmiself has been converted. Save it for when he comes out with “you should follow YaBunga, and here’s why”.

    So, in summary, the primary assertion of the article is that inside the Essendon laager Hird is perceived as a metaphorical Messiah.

  21. Luke, as a fellow Essendon supporter, first let me apologise for tardiness in helping you out on this thread. Although we disagree on a number of things (not least your Russian analogy; surely we’re the Ukranian soldiers holed up in the barracks in Crimea surrounded by armed militia supplied by the Empire but who’ve hidden their insignia in a vain attempt to disguise their allegiance?)
    As I’ve written here previously, I don’t support the “Hird as messiah” crew but I do argue a fundamental injustice has been done.
    Not against the Essendon Football Club who warranted the most severe of penalties the moment we couldn’t reassure young men in our charge what, precisely. Had been injected into their bodies.
    Nor do I relish the club’s tarnished reputation. I want to restore it to its former honour as soon as reasonably possible.
    Now for our points of concurrence:
    1. Glen, your support of Caroline Wilson’s (inter alia) investigative journalism is absurd. She has not acted as an independent reporter, she has conducted a campaign and been selectively fed information from an investigation supposedly still in progress. She has understandably – and I don’t condemn her for this – chased the scoop, sensationalism being her guide. I will say her regular protestations of concern for the players (the victims in the saga) are absurd given some of the appalling rumours she’s published. And, yes, the same criticism applies to other journalists who’ve done similarly. I cannot think of a single journo or media outlet who could reasonably claim moral superiority. But, then, that’s not their job. And the mess was caused by Essendon’s stuff up.
    2. Glenn and others continue to misapply Essendon’s sins to individuals. That requires evidence. They ignore, it must by now be wilfully, the gun which was held to the temple of the three employees who accepted penalties last August. Essendon and Hird were told that harsher penalties would apply to the club if they did not accept the plea. Can you not see the coercion in that?
    James Hird, in particular, was subjected to an unjust campaign of vilification. He gave evidence to a confidential investigation; his voluntarily submitted medical records were selectively leaked; the AFL released a skewed charge sheet which selectively used evidence given to create a perception of foreknowledge and guilt. It contained allegations to which (it is alleged) Hird was not afforded the opportunity to refute. That is a denial of natural justice in anyone’s language. It is further notable that the accuser was a party who allegedly had direct oversight of the alleged malefactor’s activities; in other words, a direct interest in the evidence provided.
    3. There is evidence that a number of other clubs committed acts of ill governance over supplements used. The AFL has said that these were not of the same extent, nor substances, as Essendon. But where is the investigative journalism of these activities?

    I don’t, and never will, defend my beloved club’s failure to look after the young men in its care. I won’t defend negligence within the club that led to that outcome but the simplistic “Head Coach is responsible” argument is foolish. By definition, he bears some responsibility. For starters, I can’t understand why there seems to have been so little communication between the senior players and the entire coaching group on such a contentious subject.
    But, thus far, Essendon FC have been found guilty only of inadequate governance. And, in corporate terms, the governance framework falls ultimately under the remit of the board. Whether the Director of Football, the Head of Football Operations (and the fact that we had one of each one suspects was a major factor in what Mark Thompson referred to as “a perfect storm”), the Head Coach, the CEO, or the guy behind the bar was primarily or partly responsible is still to be determined. James Hird accepted (repeatedly) that he ought to have known more and, had he known more, ought to have taken more action to put a stop to what may have taken place.

    And for people like Glen Potter to pretend otherwise is simply false.

  22. lukesmith2 says

    Dear NINDY

    I appreciate your support. I’m sure we’d see eye to eye on most issues surrounding this matter. The vilification of Hird by Wilson/The Age reached perverted levels when they ran “Hird injected drugs” as their news headline, informing their outraged readership that James may have received injections of a substance which he was perfectly entitled to take under both the laws of the country and the ASADA regulations. Your comments about club structure are spot on, but we live in the land of the tall poppy and Hird is about as tall as they get in the AFL.

    However, my article was not intended as a discussion of the finer points of the saga, more as a sort of a snapshot of this bizarre situation we have where two sides are each maniacally convinced they are correct and can barely communicate rationally with each other on the issues. It now seems to be a matter of ideology rather than rational objectivity, with the anti-Hird brigade increasingly perplexed at our ongoing support of Hird and co. One poster (above) was even bemused at the “futility” of our We Are Essendon chant following a win. How can you argue with that? The “Cossacks dancing around the Bear” analogy was the view from the outside looking in, i.e. my attempt to imagine how strange we must look from outside the laager, how we must look to a footy public who are totally convinced that we should end our ongoing support of James Hird.

    They will move on. The general public has the concentration span of a goldfish, after all. The ranters will become marginalised in their attempts to Maintain the Rage and we Essendonians will continue to support James Hird and the EFC. In many ways this public amnesia is unfortunate, because with all the facts on the table I would back us to win any objectively adjudicated debate on the subject, but que sera … the footy public will move on and nothing can be done about it. Either way it’s a wonderful time to be an Essendon supporter and to hell with the haters.


  23. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Luke the writers and readers of this site are in general intellectual football followers who the majority believe , Hird and Essendon got off lightly and are not going to forget the leaders of this whole sorry saga should have got a life suspension for a lack of duty of care of there emplyees the players end of story

  24. Luke Smith says

    We live in cerebrally egalitarian times when one can trumpet one’s intellectualism and butcher one’s language in the same sentence.

  25. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Not the smartest or best reply I have ever read try and discover some reality

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