The Essendon saga won’t end anytime soon

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(L-R) James Hird, Sam Lonergan and Dean Robinson share a conversation during an Essendon Bombers training session at Windy Hill, Melbourne. (Photo: Michael Willson/AFL)

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It appears that the three-day Federal Court hearing launched by Essendon Football Club and coach James Hird against ASADA is merely another battle in a long and protracted war.

Hird and the Bombers launched separate legal actions against ASADA with respect to the legality of its joint investigation undertaken with the AFL into its drugs program in 2011 and 2012.

Silks for each of the parties outlined their clients’ case, with Justice John Middleton the man now charged with deliberating over all that was presented and issuing his finding.

Prior to the parties being dismissed by the court yesterday afternoon, Justice Middleton did not give a timeframe as to when his decision will be handed down, although legal experts believe his pronouncement will be delivered in around a month.

Should that be the case his findings will be delivered smack bang in the middle of this season’s finals series – hardly ideal for the AFL given that September is the code’s showcase month.

The timing will not be great for Essendon if the verdict goes against it either should it maintain its tenuous spot in the top-eight and earn a finals berth.

The players would not have been comforted by comments from ASADA’s counsel Tom Howe QC, who said in court yesterday, “ASADA can re-acquire the same information, do it within 24 hours, and re-issue identical show cause notices” should the findings come down against the doping agency with respect to its joint probe with the AFL.

And therein lays one of the myriad issues that potentially still have to be played out regardless of Justice Middleton’s determination.

Whatever the decision handed down this saga will be far from over.

ASADA, should it be ruled to have been in breach in establishing a joint investigation with the AFL, has signalled it will simply regroup, momentarily lick its wounds and in quick time put the onus back on the players by asking them to address a new round of show cause notices.

While this week’s case by Hird and the Bombers has been aimed pretty much at ASADA alone, should they win the court’s favour their next legal action will likely be against the AFL with respect to the penalties that were handed to them last year on the back of ASADA’s interim report.

While Hird was the only individual from Essendon to take the legal route at this point should he be successful, you could rightly expect that his assistant – and current stand-in – Mark Thompson and former football manager Danny Corcoran would also commence proceedings against the governing body with respect to the penalties handed them twelve months ago.

If the judgement comes down in favour of ASADA there appears little doubt that the 34 past and present Essendon players who are in receipt of show cause notices will be placed on the Register of Findings and will then need to give proof as to why they should not be served with infraction notices.

This would trigger suspensions through the AFL’s tribunal system.

If ASADA does win, both the Bombers and Hird can appeal to the Federal Court and the High Court which would further significantly broaden the saga’s already bloated timeline.

No matter which way you look at it it appears that the endgame is still a considerable way away.

One also has to wonder just how solid the relationship is currently between Hird and the Essendon board.

While there were smiles and hugs exchanged outside the courthouse yesterday between Hird and Bombers’ president Paul Little after the court rose, it is hard to believe that no tensions exist.

Hird, in evidence, was particularly strong in his condemnation of both Little and his predecessor David Evans, a one-time close friend of the Bombers’ coach, over their handling of the case.

By extension his ire also extends to the board, some of whom would have been close to Evans too, as they would be to the incumbent.

Little was definitive in his support of Hird when asked after the proceedings whether the Brownlow Medallist and former skipper would be back as head coach next season.

Mind you, many a football coach has received a glowing endorsement from his president shortly before he was moved on.

At this stage it appears the Bombers will indeed stick with their man but Little’s guarantee that Hird will “absolutely” be at the helm in 2015 may not be as equivocal should the players eventually be handed infraction notices.

If that were the case it would seem impossible Hird would survive while most of his squad would likely be suspended.

One thing is for sure – if all parties had their time over again they would approach things differently. But hindsight is not a valid commodity in this case. It is what has transpired that matters.

And the biggest worry is that in the end we may still never really know what happened at Essendon.

With the exception of the lawyers, everyone involved will be losers in some way and will eventually walk away from this with black marks against their names.

Just what ongoing and lasting problems it causes for them all remains to be seen.

After 21 years as a sports broadcaster with the ABC, since mid-2011 Glenn Mitchell has been freelancing in the electronic and written media. He is an ambassador for mental health in Australia, and tweets from @mitchellglenn.
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