Walking a mile in their shoes: The case in favour of James Hird

The return of James Hird to Australia, the pending Federal Court action and the near-end of his 12 month suspension from AFL coaching has bought to a head the issue of his position and potential return to his football club.

Recently, I have been reasonably clear about my feelings about the role I believe Hird has played in the Essendon drugs saga, and what blame or fault he should take.

In part from feedback received from staunch Essendon followers on this site, and also as an exercise in impartial writing, I have attempted here to explain and defend Hird, and present from his perspective why he should be allowed (or feels he should be allowed) to seamlessly return to the job he still holds.

The Case for James Hird

Hird accepted a 12 month suspension imposed by the AFL in August 2013. Whilst he used the opportunity granted to him both under law and the rules of the AFL to defend himself, ultimately, as a person within the AFL system, he was bound to accept the decision of the AFL Commission, and has stood out of football in any capacity for 12 months. That suspension is due to finish before Round 23 and at that stage there are no legal impediments to him re-assuming his role as coach of the Essendon FC.

Notwithstanding the value or wisdom of a club replacing a coach, who has seemingly successfully guided the team to a finals spot, in the last round of the season and potentially not being at the helm during September, Hird is within his rights to ask or even demand reinstatement to the position. Whilst I consider it extremely unlikely he would seek to jeopardise the team by doing so, a suspension is finite and whilst we would not ask a player suspended by the Tribunal to sit out further than warranted for ‘team balance’ neither should Hird be expected to serve a 14 months suspension when he was given and accepted 12.

(I fully expect Hird to not coach officially or formally during 2013, but to equally be a factor in publicising the game, being visible for coterie groups and sponsors and generally being around the club at training and on game day, playing a role in encouraging his players to perform well.)

It should be remembered that up until late in the 2013 season, Hird was performing his role successfully. Despite the pressure on the players due to ongoing attention from this issue, Essendon were in contention for top spot around the middle of the season, and still for a top 4 finish until the final rounds. Had they not been removed from finals eligibility, there is an argument to say that considering what transpired in the 2013 elimination final, they could have won at least one match and, looking at their away form in 2013 and 2014, could have challenged in week 2.

So, Hird’s credentials purely as a football coach should not be dismissed and Essendon, whilst finding themselves in the wonderful situation of having a choice between a proven premiership coach and a dynamic emerging coach in Hird, would be lucky to have him back at the helm.

Whilst the truth or decision about the overall drugs saga is yet to be made, the AFL has made their call, and that decision imposed and accepted. Hird was within his rights to defend his name and did so, and whilst again there are aspects of the issue late last year that I believe both parties (Hird and family and the AFL) probably regret or would like over again, the matter for the AFL Commission is, effectively, closed.

Hird has always maintained he did nothing wrong. He would also not be the only person within a football club to have been either betrayed by those within it, not aware of everything that was going on, or too trusting of people who worked with him. The coach, for all the attention placed upon him and figurehead status at a football club, is not the person at the top of the governance or leadership ladder. Essendon had a CEO and a Football Manager, as well as what they assumed were appropriate checks and balances including a long standing and well respected medical team, who they would have hoped were aware of what was going on. The demands of modern AFL football mean a coach cannot be in all places nor know everything that is happening. As such, Hird cannot be the sole person responsible for events within the club, more so when it appears that these events included a rouge element in the form of Stephen Dank.

The fact that Dank has seemingly not kept appropriate records, has expressed confusion over whether certain drugs were or were not banned, kept the EFC medical team in the dark, conducted these procedures off-site and has refused to cooperate to aid his previous employer, indicates that Hird cannot be held responsibile for Dank’s actions, even if he was managing him, which he wasn’t.

Hird’s argument would be that the Switkowski report rightly pointed out governance and risk issues within the club. He would also argue that final governance and risk sign-off are not usually components or responsibilities of a coach’s role within a club.

I would also expect Hird to doubt that any rational person would believe whether he, considering his record and long connection with the club, would deliberately flaunt the rules to harm the organisation. He would point to his family history with the club, proud service, leadership, awards, legacy, faith and devotion and on-field contributions to say that it is highly unlikely he would willingly or knowingly do something that he knew would damage the organisation.

Hird has been accused of arrogance and single-mindedness. He I imagine would also say that those attributes were required to bring him on-field success and his reputation and legacy through, not just the EFC but also the AFL, celebrated those traits. He would surely not be the first or last leading AFL player or coach with a determination to win and succeed and look for an edge, nor a blinkered attitude and a tendency to see himself as right.

And in addition to the AFL’s quite clear approach under the previous leadership for negotiating deals in preference to drawn-out legal battles, there is a strong trait of redemption and forgiveness in football. How else could you explain a CEO, found guilty of salary cap breaches of some seriousness, and serving a suspension, being allowed to not only continue in his role but take up a new similar position (we can only assume with the rubber stamping of the AFL) with Carlton, a club that has had its own well-publicised issues with governance in the recent past. Players like Carey hold visible positions on the free-to-air broadcaster despite a chequered past off the field, Fevola is feted and sought by numerous country football clubs to swell their crowds and coffers and there are many examples of people and administrators who have served their penance and returned to the fold, often with lesser records than being a Hall of Fame member, a premiership captain, and Brownlow medallist.

The courts will eventually play a role in this matter. However, until then, should a person who has given so much be hung by so little? Time has been served, and he has stayed well away from football during that suspension. Whether his club agreed to compensate him in the meantime is their business but there was nothing stopping that occurring. The management course Hird undertook overseas will doubtless have made him more aware of the importance of leadership and governance in business and management, and he will return to the club he loves willing to serve and better for the break.

Personalities and reputation play a role in this. The image of a grinning and tanned Hird, with seemingly no contrition, outside a plush Toorak home, will rile many people, as will be the fact that it involves a club that divides many people. But that is imaterial. True, many Essendon supporters and stakeholders don’t want Hird back, but he is far from the first past or current coach (e.g. Malthouse) to fail to enjoy 100% support from those that follow the club.

All this may be moot if the Federal Court or ASADA finds facts that are beyond dispute that he played a knowing or major role in a drugs violation. Until then, his suspension is complete and he should be free to resume as he left off.

(How did I go?)

About Sean Curtain

"He was born with a gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad". First line of 'Scaramouche' by Sabatini, always liked that.


  1. Cat from the Country says

    I’m convinced and I am a Geelong Cats member.
    Hird has accepted and paid his penance. Has Danks?
    Most of us have moved on but are still intetested in how ASADA pans out. I hope it is all settled by Christmas and the new year is unencumbered by the EFC saga

  2. sean gorman says

    Jesus if that is penance I can’t wait to get mine. CftC don’t hold your breath she will be done by xmas neither.

    Sean If Hird was not overseeing or signing off on things that directly impacted the players what was he doing?

  3. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Totally agree with Sean above for something that big and extreme buck has to stop with , Hird , has got off disgracefully lightly so far re actual punishment but his reputation is tarnished forever . A good article, Sean but yep what stood out is his lack of taking the blame as is what can’t be argued is poor governance and that has to come back to Hird

  4. Bob Morrow says

    Cannot but agree with the last 2. I thought Hird said on the day that Essendon made the initial announcement that the buck did stop with him . Don’t try & tell me that a full time , overpaid coach does not know what is happening to his players whilst they are at the club. He bloody well should . As for saying Dank kept the medical team in the dark well someone , how about the club Doctor , should have shone a bloody great torch on him.

  5. Agree with the sentiments expressed by the last 3.
    Where was Hird when the players were being asked to sign the letter agreeing to the injection program?
    If he didn’t know about it, he bloody well should have!

  6. daniel flesch says

    And i agree with the previous four comments. A great player and a good coach until he blew his enviable reputation with the peptides and his apparent lack of remorse and failure to take responsibility for the whole schemozzle.

  7. Dave Brown says

    Good exercise Sean and mostly convincing. The issue for me is that he accepted a penalty but continues to plead his innocence. Trigg (don’t get me wrong on Trigg, I am amazed that he kept his job and has been given another one following the Tippett saga) accepted his share of responsibility for what happened.

    I am all for appropriate forgiveness and redemption but how can one realise that when they do not accept they have done something wrong. The answer may very well be ‘because he has done nothing wrong so requires no forgiveness nor redemption’. I can understand how people can have different opinions on that and eventually the truth may out.

  8. Well argued Sean.

    To say it will be “interesting to see how this plays out until Essendon’s 2014 season is over” is a gross understatement.

    Personally – as they did with Knights – I’d love to see the Essendonians pass the hat around again to pay Hird out in order to offer Mark Thompson a four-year coaching deal, which includes a carte-blanche football department hiring and firing imprimatur. I’m not an Essendonian, but my wallet’s well and truly open if someone comes-a-knockin’.

  9. Sean – Your piece made me think of those who professionally argue for that which they know to be untrue. Federal politicians; QC’s; AFL coaches; shock jocks; cheating husbands; hookers.
    Which are you aspiring to?
    I was starting to warm to the Essendon team and Bomber T. Not the management. But the pictures of the tanned smarmy bastard Sun King in today’s paper made my blood boil all over again.
    I thought the divine right of kings ended in the middle ages. OFF WITH HIS HEAD.

  10. Peter B

    I think financially I’d go for QC then hooker. Hooker definitely before pollie anyway.

    So I didn’t convince many it seems. Not sure if I convinced myself.

    Interesting thing for me throughout thsi entire episode is that whilst non Essendon people seem convinced he is guilty and is at fault, it is also about 50/50 through Essendon people too


  11. sean gorman says

    Sean C I reckon that ration is about right – what i would really like to see once the cake is cooked and the icing set is and Insight style televised forum about how it came to all of this. Harms has TV connects, Sam Pang or Litza could host it. It would rate its bollocks off.

    PS so pollies aren’t hookers? since when?

  12. Rick Kane says

    “Any fact that needs to be disclosed should be put out now or as quickly as possible, because otherwise the bleeding will not end” – Kissinger

    All Essendon has to do is provide the program working spreadsheet that demonstrates what was purchased and what was injected, from this date to that. Pretty frickin simple. Then, whoever was in charge of the program needs to take responsibility for being in charge of the program, warts and all. Pretty frickin simple.

    Once Essendon has done that (which could have been done a long time ago but apparently even their own internal investigation could not produce said material) the body (ASADA) charged with examining that material can make their determinations.

    It doesn’t matter how may people external to Essendon have stuffed up or haven’t acted appropriately to their role. All of that is secondary and, in effect, white noise.

    Essendon must produce the material that clearly shows they were acting within the guidelines of ASADA for anyone in Essendon that had management responsibility in this (frankly farcical) affair to be vindicated.

    Essendon introduced the program and Essendon operated the program. If Essendon are unwilling or unable to now show the required information about the program to the nominated authority then they are at fault.

    Whatever legal weaseling goes on, that is one salient fact that will linger. Central to that is Hird, as coach. And until Essendon clears up this mess then Essendon is the mess. And Hird is the centre of that mess.


  13. Didn’t it just wreck your day when you saw him back in front of the his Toorak mansion with no hint of remorse evident? His reputation is tarnished forever from where I sit.

    He reminds me of the Iraqi Information Minister avidly declaring that the regime is still intact whilst behind him vision of figurehead statues being dragged to the ground were being beamed to the world….

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