War and peace – Essendon vs the AFL

(note to editor – War and Peace was written by Leo Tolstoy in the 1800s.  If Tolstoy wrote War and Peace in 2013, this would be his story…)

The AFL was thrust into war in February, 2013.  As Colonel James Hird oversaw Essendon’s preseason training and plotted his conquest of the premiership, the AFL was beginning to stir fears about a scandal involving drugs.


That summer, no one knew the football industry was about to be torn apart.


Colonel Hird has Essendon pedigree.  He is the golden child, son and grandson of former Essendon players.  He won premierships, best and fairest awards and a Brownlow medal.  He was wounded in battle many times only to return to the fray as though he’s never been hurt.


He was pure inspiration.


But Colonel Hird, beneath those golden locks, is intelligent and ambitious.  He is also sneaky, selfish and shallow.  Despite being warned by the AFL not to get involved with supplements, he gave his henchmen, Steven Dank and Dean Robinson, the green light to inject the green dream, a peptide known as AOD-9604.


His trusted ally, Lieutenant Mark Bomber Thompson, was a wily defender and former premiership captain at Essendon.  He coached Geelong to two premierships then suddenly quit as coach following a preliminary final loss to Collingwood in 2010.


He declared coaching too exhausting but soon found enough energy to turn mercenary, a basic fortune-hunter, and returned home with open arms and an empty wallet to his beloved Windy Hill.


Bomber was paid a bomb to oversee Hird’s development from rookie coach to legend.


As Hird, Thompson, Dank and Robinson blasted their soldiers with peptides and other, unknown substances, the respected club doctor, Bruce Reid, penned a letter to the Essendon board and all associated with the football department.


Reid, who had provided impeccable service at Windy Hill for decades, outlined his concerns with the peptide program and predicted war.


His letter went missing.  Hird and his generals claimed not to have seen it.


On February 5, Reid’s prediction proved true.  After Colonel Hird fronted the media at an awkward press conference, no one knew the depth of Essendon’s depravity.


The Colonel, who aided the chemical trials, said he was shocked by the investigation.


On that warm afternoon, it was clear the AFL had mobilised its soldiers.  The army included ASADA and WADA soldiers, and the technical expertise of the feared ACC.


Despite the impending onslaught, Colonel Hird dared the AFL to strike.


His Generals, Ian Robson and David Evans, hoping to avoid a full-scale war, engage in secret, frantic negotiations with General Andrew Demetriou the AFL boss, and his deputy Colonel Gillon McLachlan.


The negotiations, though, are exposed by loose lips.  General Demetriou denies he is the source of the information leaking like peptides from a syringe to the media.


On May 22, Robson was wounded at the Battle of the Back Flank, and though he survived, he is presumed dead.  Evans is made sole leader of a club in crisis.  The following morning, Robson appeared before the media, not dead but critically wounded, and announced his withdrawal from battle.


‘I am responsible,’ General Robson said, but he didn’t say what for.  ‘I can’t fight anymore.’


Despite the setback, Hird arrives at Windy Hill each day to plot his revenge, much to the shock of his club.  He refuses to stand down and forgoes certain duties to his devout lieutenant, Bomber Thompson, to raise the rookies and remind the soldiers of their game plan.


Meanwhile, the media grew disillusioned by Hird’s repeated attempts to blame others.  They grew sick of his propaganda, that ASADA, WADA, and the AFL started the war.


‘We will win,’ Hird proudly declared.


Journalists began their own hysterical investigation.  Chief Serpent Caroline Wilson blames Hird, as does Patrick Smith.  Other journalists follow blithely.


Despite constant shelling, Essendon’s soldiers perform beyond expectations.  They refuse to lose and win many battles.  They are being mentioned in dispatches as possible grand finalists.


Essendon captain Jobe Watson, irritated by the innuendo, acted cruelly and admitted he was injected with AOD-9064.


The AFL didn’t act with Christian forgiveness.  Nor did the media, ASADA, WADA or the other clubs.


Colonel Hird attempts to master the forgotten art of truth and tries applying the techniques to his soldiers, the coterie groups and his sceptical General, David Evans.  The soldier’s parents are summonsed to a meeting and many leave disillusioned by Hird’s version of the truth.


Evans, despite the raging war, keeps working behind the scenes to minimise the damage.  He wants to protect his soldiers and the club.


When Hird discovers Evans’ subterfuge, he shunned his great mate.  For a week Hird denied the friction then wrapped his arms around Evans before a game, in full view of the cameras.


It was the final kiss-off.  Evans resigned two days later with shellshock.  Rumour suggested he collapsed following a particularly brutal battle.  Hird ordered a psychiatrist.  Evans cowered at loud noises.

Meanwhile, General Demetriou’s fortunes were failing, thanks in part to Hird’s gamble with the truth.  Hird leaked information he thought was true, and uttered that old cliché, when the truth comes out, continually through his press conferences.


General Demetriou remained steadfast.  The truth was coming out, thanks to Jobe, thanks to a paid interview with Dean Robinson and thanks to Demetriou’s own gamble with propaganda.  He leaked vast slabs of information to the media, text messages and emails, and declared he would take no prisoners.


Essendon’s soldiers continue to fight, but lose a crucial battle against Hawthorn.  A week later, as Hird witnessed another defeat, this time by 79-points to Collingwood, the truth was apparent.


As much as Evans was shell shocked, the soldiers were too.  The media was building its own army, and they were taking hostages, millions of fans who wanted the war over.


Essendon soldiers were being booed.


With Evans gone, the new General at Windy Hill, Paul Little, immediately objected to a compromise and resolved to fight to the bitter end.  The club, Little pleaded, had not used performance enhancing drugs.  That it didn’t matter seemed lost on Little, as it was on Hird.


Colonel Hird then leaked details about a phone call General Demetriou had made the night before Essendon self-reported their desire for war.


General Demetriou was forced to deny accusations that he tipped of Dave Evans about the investigation.


Some people believed him.


A group of sympathetic Essendon supporters raise five million bucks to help Hird win the war, which he is now fighting on three fronts.  Unfortunately for Hird, his soldiers are losing the battles, four consecutive losses by a combined 238 points.


Hird is also fighting a legal front, against the AFL, ASADA and the ACC.  He engages the famous human rights protector, Julian Burnside, to help complain about conflicts of interest.


The Colonel was also losing the battle of propaganda.  People were ragging about arrogance and selfishness.


Clearly, Colonel Hird’s plan to leak information to the media failed.


General Demetriou, who vanished overseas for a week on a secret mission, returned home and rejected Hird’s suggestion that he stand aside from the War Crimes Tribunal.  The claim that the General is tainted because of his late night call to Evan is refuted.


In August, 2013, Essendon invades the MCG and defeats Carlton in a hard fought battle they looked like losing.  It was their first win in five weeks.


In the meantime, Little is belittling Hird by pleading for mercy in secret meetings.  Despite the overwhelming odds, Little is tough on the negotiations.


At Windy Hill one afternoon, Little tries to engage Hird in a plea deal, but the Colonel is furious and returns to active military service.


In wanting to wipe out all his enemies, Hird underestimates the power of the opposition clubs.   Each of 17 club presidents, who had observed General Demetriou’s response to the doping threat, developed a united front and backed the AFL Commission.


Hird developed a crazy sense that his mission now is to assassinate General Demetriou.  The war could be won with the General dead.


Behind the front, AFL military agents are advising Essendon soldiers on ways to break their contracts.  A woman claiming to be the mother of an soldier sobbed uncontrollably on Melbourne radio, suggesting Colonel Hird and Essendon had failed in their duty of care.


The Colonel, under hostile media attack, is forced to concede he’d been thinking about himself, as he’d done all along.  Colonel Hird said he was concerned for the health of his soldiers, just as long as they kept fighting, because when the truth came out…


On August 26, the AFL and Essendon fight a decisive battle at Docklands.  It will go down in history as the night of the long syringes, where the smaller Essendon army inexplicably defeats the AFL’s forces.


General Demetriou is dismayed.  In the early hours of the morning he orders all his soldiers to batter Docklands and Windy Hill.  His overall might ensures the Bombers are back before the Commission the next day, pleading for their existence.


At Toorak, where life is lived in higher social circles, Hird remained unaffected by the occupation of Windy Hill and the capture of his key allies.  He will not accept a suspension.  He will not accept a fine.  He will not accept the mantle of drug cheat.  He will keep fighting, no matter that Little is fighting still, to mitigate the damage Hird refuses to see.


It became clear that his wife, Major Tania, is providing all the intellectual input, trying to protect her husband’s interests and maintain the lavish lifestyle of a dictator’s wife.


Her womanly charms are useless against hardened men like General Demetriou.


As hundreds of Essendon members seek annulment of their memberships, an SOS is sent to former premiership coach, Kevin Sheedy, to come back to Windy Hill and heal all those puncture marks.


On August 28, Little packed up his belongings, preparing to evacuate, but he abandoned his possessions to convey wounded soldiers back to Windy Hill instead.


On the way out of the suburb, Little picks up the wounded Bomber Thompson, who needs to find thirty grand for drugs to heal his ills.


When they arrive at Windy Hill, it is ablaze and ruined.  Little tells the survivors that Essendon has surrendered.  It matters not who enters the army now.


He finds Lieutenant Danny Corcoran, who has been shot in the throat.  Bruce Reid, the man who predicted war, says Corcoran is banned from speaking for four months.


Colonel Hird is still wandering half-crazed in Docklands.  He has witnessed widespread shelling, fire and murder.  Still obsessed with killing General Demetriou, he saves Major Tania from a fire but is apprehended by the AFL authorities trying to escape.


In prison, Hird witnesses the humiliation of his soldiers, who have fought for nothing.  Casualties are huge.  ASADA interrogators don’t use torture to break the soldiers.  They use facts.


With Colonel Hird captured, General Demetriou demands peace, but the Colonel resists, remembering Julian Burnside’s commitment to human rights.  Burnside, though, doesn’t want to fight.


While the doc, Bruce Reid, tends to Hird’s wounds, Little pays a visit, seeking forgiveness and a truce.


Hird, defeated and stripped of his commission, forgives Little and asks for peace.


General Demetriou leads the AFL’s troops back toward Docklands, which the Essendon soldiers have finally abandoned.


Demetriou forces the Essendon prisoners, thousands of fans, to march with him.  On the way, Colonel Hird is forced to join the prisoners.


Under heavy guard, Hird fronts the media and denies he is a criminal.  He said his club has been treated badly, but announces he will accept all the penalties.


He says he will seek exile for a year, and will only come back with General Demetriou’s permission.  Hird understands Essendon has been crippled by a fine and the loss of draft picks, but he doesn’t understand why.


General Demetriou says he won’t interfere with Essendon and pledges his support for Little.  Bomber Thompson, despite his injuries, says he will coach the soldiers for battle next year.  A coterie group called the Essendon Pricks is formed.  They resolve to wipe out the financial problems.


Under guard, the humiliated Hird rebuilds his family’s estate at Toorak, which was damaged in the war.  Despite some moments of crisis, Hird and Tania enjoy a happy life.


For Hird, rebuilding the family estate was symbolic.  He could still fix things.  And no matter what he did, it was clear his subjects still loved him.


As the year grew old, Essendon waits patiently, for the glorious return of the Colonel…



About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…


  1. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Good Article Matt amid the revrelry I think there is a lot of truth in this article . I wish who ever is a Mentorre Hird had grabbed Hird months ago and not let him leave the room until he listened to common sense and reason . How Aust and in particular Windy Hill would have been a better place if this had occured and so much less Drama !

  2. Neil Anderson says

    War and a sort of peace indeed! As this lengthy piece rolled on I felt like a school-boy in the library trying to concentrate on the huge tome in front of me as I glanced out of the window at the ovals, thinking of the match later that day.
    When you mentioned returning to Windy Hill to find it ablaze, it reminded me of the burning of Atlanta in Gone With The Wind.
    Perhaps when Major Tania asks Colonel Hird if he intends to take full responsibility for the war, he could answer by saying, “Frankly my dear…I don’t give a damn.”
    Enjoyed your article very much.

  3. daniel flesch says

    Thanks , Matt. Great story , with bonus of saving us from the hard task of actually reading Tolstoy. Will there be a sequel if / when ASADA and / or WADA step in ?

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