Australian football has provided me with a lot of firsts. As a child growing up in the Victorian heartlands, the game provided me with my first sporting love – the Essendon Football Club.
The club then provided me with my first hero, the irrepressible Terry Daniher.
Losing the 1981 preliminary final to Fitzroy was my first sporting heartbreak, but I hated all losses and would dread having to go to school on a Monday morning if my beloved Bombers had lost.
I idolised the players and took personally the criticism that my school mates would heap upon them following a particularly bad loss.
In 1984, I thought I would burst with pride. The Bombers – my boys – staged a second half comeback against arch enemies Hawthorn to take out the Premiership.
I can still vividly recall the key passages of play that got us home; the effortless fluency of that blind turn and goal by Leon Baker as we stormed to the lead will live with me forever.
They were simple times. Ground rationalisation had yet to rear its ugly head and matches were spread throughout the suburbs. Sure, the grounds were substandard (oh Moorabbin I don’t miss you), but there was a certain quaint charm about standing in the outer at those small suburban grounds.
Everything about a trip to the footy was magical. We would drive to Windy Hill from Ballarat, listening to the previews on 3KZ and stand in line, often in the rain, waiting for the gates to open.
We were rarely quick enough to nab a spot along the three rows of wooden benches that hugged the fence, so Dad had made me a small wooden stool to stand upon and we would position ourselves at the scoreboard end of the ground, halfway between the goals and what later became known as the Kevin Walsh stand.
I would peer through the forest of heads and shoulders in front of us and catch glimpses of my heroes. The Danihers, Terry and Neale, Timmy Watson, Simon Madden, the Flying Dutchman Paul Van der Haar and ‘Rotten’ Ronnie Andrews. All were larger than life. At least they were to me.
I grew older and the names changed. I became aware of mortality. Terry Daniher wouldn’t play forever, nor would Vander, or plucky Billy Duckworth. But they were replaced by new heroes and sometimes villians.
I began to realise how cutthroat this football business was. Peter Bradbury and Steve Carey – great club men and premiership players – were axed to make room for football mercenaries like Geoff Raines and Michael Richardson.
It didn’t feel right. Raines and Richardson weren’t Essendon people. They didn’t bleed red and black like the rest of us. They wouldn’t put their bodies on the line and risk their lives like Daisy Williams. They wouldn’t split open a pack like Roger Merrett. They looked wrong in our sacred guernsey and they didn’t last long.
But the new heroes began to emerge. Players that we could believe in. Joe Misiti, Mark Mercuri, the indefatigable Dustin Fletcher and the sublime James Hird. My first and only ‘man crush’ was on James Hird!
I’d left home by this stage. I watched our 1993 pre season grand final win from a dingy hotel room in Moe and the corresponding game in 1984 from a youth hostel in the grimy north west Pilbara town of Port Hedland.
I saw us win the 2000 premiership from my newly purchased but extremely modest cement sheet house in Halls Creek (the oasis of the Kimberley according to the road sign), and a year later watched us lose from a motel room in Brisbane while I should have been out working.
It goes on.
I was convalescing in a motel in Kununurra having just had my broken jaw wired up when Gary Moorcroft took that mark. Hell, even last year while en route to a family holiday on Kangaroo Island, I checked into a roadside motel in Kaniva to watch Jobe Watson win his Brownlow.
I’ve strained my ears trying to get scores on transistor radios with crackling and fading signals, I’ve pored over copies of Inside Football that were already two weeks old by the time they lobbed in my local outback news agency and I’ve been stretched to breaking point trying to get updates on painfully slow internet connections in Madagascar.
Nothing has stood between me and the Bombers. Time and distance have tried, but failed, to dampen my love for the red and black. Along with family, the Essendon Football Club have been the one constant in my life, a life that has taken many unexpected turns and delivered me to some equally unexpected places.
Which is why yesterday’s news concerning the alleged misuse of certain supplements by the club has left me feeling sick to the stomach. The hastily arranged press conference did nothing to alleviate my sinking feeling.
James Hird, as courageous as ever, faced the media, one hopes with honesty, but the coolness he exuded under pressure as a player was missing. He, along with club chairman David Evans and CEO Ian Robson, were obviously rattled by the enormity of the situation.
They claimed to have known nothing of the situation until 48 hours ago and were adamant that they had called in the AFL and ASADA to prove their integrity, to show the football world that they had done nothing wrong.
It stank of an attempt to try and head off the inevitable landslide of negative publicity, to appear pro-active when every man and his dog could see that the horse had already bolted.
They were far from convincing.
To claim that they knew nothing of the situation until 48 hours ago is stretching belief. Having covered cycling for many years, doping scandals are nothing new to me. The first response almost without exception is denial. That Essendon are denying knowledge of this is not a good look.
The allegations surround players being asked to sign a waiver before partaking in a program of ‘supplements’ that were apparently ‘on the edge’ of what is acceptable and what is not.
The waiver was presented by former head of sports science, Stephen Dank (dubiously known as ‘The Pharmacist’), who was later sacked.
It is believed that the players were injected with ‘peptides’ which promote muscle growth, similar to human growth hormone, but it must be said that there is also an inert version of the supplement that is legal for athletes to take.
Do the Essendon hierarchy really expect us to believe that they were oblivious to their players signing a waiver and that they were unaware of the properties of the ‘supplement’ being used? Sports journalist Damien Barrett knew about it weeks ago, although most of his information seems to have come from disgruntled former player Kyle Reimers.
That Dank was sacked, and high performance manager Dean ‘The Weapon’ Robinson demoted before this whole affair became public infers that more was known by the hierarchy than they are letting on.
We don’t know all the details yet, but we do know that the Essendon Football Club are scrambling to keep their reputation intact.
The sad thing is, that once again, investigations by the media have provided the catalyst for further inquiry.
Would the Essendon Football Club have gone to the AFL and ASADA had Damien Barrett and others not gone digging for a story?
The inaction from within the sport to monitor these issues is bordering on negligence. It is something that those of us who report on pro-cycling are well used to, and it is sad to see that the same odour that has drifted around pro-cycling for so many years, now hangs over such a proud and strong competition as the AFL.