The Curious Case of Essendon
As the Essendon membership campaign photos were released for 2019 it was very evident that the image the club wanted to share with its members was one of a very happy, joyous, Inclusive and harmonious club. You have players from the leadership group with their arms around each other and almost in a giggling state. It’s an image that has developed further and further since the saga. And you can see why…The Essendon Football Club took the biggest hit in AFL/VFL history and its brand at least externally was to put it bluntly…trashed.
The irony of the Saga for me was a then football department in 2011/12 totally understanding the club has gone way off the rails and required urgently an improved tougher, fitter, harder edge. We spoke to Ben Howlett recently and he mentioned the preseason of 2012 was by the most brutal he had encountered. This direction was spot on but the delivery of this as we later realised was poorly governed. This was the biggest shame for me of that time…what would have happened if Essendon did Govern the club well with that ruthless core message to the playing group? At that time, we had a Coach and President that wanted nothing short of on field ultimate success and were both extremely driven to get it. Hird had outlined clubs like West Coast and Collingwood at the time having systems in place that were far greater than Essendon and it was his role to get the club back to building a unique elite program that was Essendon owned(and yes within the rules as Hird would emphasise).
Despite the saga being in chaos mode in 2013 and 14 the results of this hard edge mantra from Hird was for all to see. In 2013 Essendon had a list that if you were completely honest…you could not really boast about but it had a chip on its shoulders that was able to overcome teams far more talented. The Captain was protective of his players but very animated in still achieving success despite outside noise….he was a man on a mission. Essendon twice went to WA for wins and I can remember an image of Ryder kicking the sealer against Fremantle and looking at the crowd with his finger over his lips to let them know that they can shut up now. Hurley had a fist full of McPhee’s jersey as they were fighting, he did not care that McPhee was an old mate….he was just focused on winning at all costs. It was uncompromising unsociable footy….and it was the first time since 2001 it had come from the Club.
This is why the saga has had a profound effect. Everything changed from 2015 onwards. To be honest I understand the Essendon thought process…we needed to re-brand ourselves for the positive….members are the life blood and we needed to make sure the club was seen as happy and united. It was required for that time. The cost to Essendon however was our long term on field success. Rightly or wrongly, we hired a coach to settle and comfort the club. We elevated a board member to now President who liked to operate quietly and with little controversy. Even in one of the worst losses in Essendon’s history you have the CEO refreshingly tweet his disappointment……24 hours later he had to apologise to the playing group. It was a sign of how much had changed internally. You felt from afar the Football Department focus became inferior to Optics, Marketing and Branding of a club coming out of a crisis. As a business man myself it has worked in terms of financial stability and membership numbers(which is important)……fans have believed the messaging and in the short term they liked the open and friendly nature of the club again. However, only now since 2018 onwards has the effects of not getting the Football department right come back to truly haunt the club. A Football GM must oversee critical areas such as youth development, fitness, conditioning, an experienced coaching group to achieve their own unique clear game plan and clear decisive game day tactics.
Back in 2011 Essendon set a 5 year Project to be cutting edge on their own terms……not look to copy other teams. In recent years Essendon has hired former Richmond GM Dan Richardson and defensive assistant coach Ben Rutten….the only issue is now the competition has caught up with Richmond and competing teams have developed their own strategies and not looked to just copy and hope it works. Am i saying Hird should coach again? Not necessarily. What the club realised in 2011 on its failings needs to be carried out again by either the current coach or anyone externally that can achieve this.
A full review of our Football Department and Management is likely required or inevitable if we continue to struggle. Our goal needs to be that Essendon creates its own success…we develop our own game plan that is unique to our list and our strengths. Our Leaders are strong in messaging on what is required. Club Management is bold in its messaging internally and externally. We develop players to become mentally and physically ready to take on anyone….instil a fearless and bold culture that we really don’t care about any other club or even AFL optics for that matter…our success will be governed by us…and no one else. Have a coach that says your reputation from here on means very little….how you carry out instructions, get yourself in peak condition, represent the club on match day is what determines selections.
To put it simply……no more playing mr nice guy Essendon