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Inside The Sad, Inevitable Decline Of Aussie Rules Legend, James Hird

The story of the Essendon drug saga and James Hird's role in it took another turn for the worst, with the AFL legend rushed to hospital last week after a suspected drug overdose.

by James Pavey
20 January 2017, 4:15am

The embattled James Hird. Image: YouTube

When the news of James Hird's hospitalisation broke last week, it brought a sharp reminder of the toll the Essendon doping scandal has taken on one of Australian football's greatest legends.

Back in 2013, Hird was charged with bringing his beloved Essendon Football Club and the AFL into disrepute. He was penalised not for anti-doping infractions, but for governance issues, demonised for failing to document the supplement program. After serving a 12-month coaching ban, he returned as coach but resigned later in 2015, saying the club could not escape the stench of the doping scandal if he remained. He always expressed regret for the doping bans imposed on 34 of his players, but he has never accepted responsibility.

Now, Hird is recovering in a Melbourne mental health centre after being rushed to hospital over a suspected drug overdose. It is another tragic segment in the life of a man that burst onto the AFL scene with flowing blonde locks, a sheepish grin and an incredible passion for the game that made 'Hird' a household name.

As a player, Hird was everything the AFL wanted in a public figure. He was an image of constant youth, he never fell victim to indiscretion and, most importantly, he was an incredibly talented player that perfectly defined the motto of his beloved Essendon club, 'Suaviter in Modo, Fortiter in Re', meaning 'Gently in manner, resolutely in execution'.

With a highlight reel to match, Hird did it all. 253 games, 343 goals. Five-time All-Australian, five-time Essendon best-and-fairest. Two premierships, including one as a Norm Smith-winning captain. Australian Football Hall of Fame, Essendon Team of the Century. Brownlow Medallist. We could be here all day and night.

His playing days behind him, Hird always deflected questions about coaching. But, when the Bombers were languishing at 14th on the ladder at the end of the 2010 season, Hird's name was brought into the equation. After Hird retired and legendary coach Kevin Sheedy was not given a contract renewal, Matthew Knights took over as Bombers coach in 2008. Essendon missed the finals that year, made an elimination final in 2009, but again fell backwards in 2010. Knights was mercilessly sacked, and the club needed a new coach that would reinstall pride back into the famed 'red sash'. Only one name fit the billing.

Hird took the Bombers to the finals in his first year in charge, but it was season 2012 that raised eyebrows. Essendon's on-field performances during 2012 began strongly; at the end of May, the club sat second on the ladder with an 8-1 record. However, when the club then began to lose many players to soft tissue injuries, they duly dropped down the ladder to finish eleventh with an 11-11 record. It was a bizarre fall from grace for a team that had a ripping start, and questions needed to be answered.

A year after the supplements program was administered by biochemist Stephen Dank, Essendon 'self-reported' itself to the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA). During the 2013 season, the drama unfolded. Essendon was investigated by the AFL and ASADA over the program, most specifically over allegations into illegal use of peptide supplements, that had been in place in 2012.

On 27 August 2013, after an internal review, the club was found guilty of bringing the game into disrepute. The club copped several penalties; Essendon were made ineligible to play in the 2013 AFL finals series, lost first and second round draft picks in the 2013 and 2014 AFL drafts, and received a $2 million fine. Football operations manager Danny Corcoran copped a four-month ban, assistant coach Mark Thompson was hit with a $30,000 fine, while club chairman David Evans and CEO Ian Robson resigned in the effort to avoid serious censure.

The darkest penalty was left for Hird. The review concluded that he had failed to recognise that the club's supplementation protocol was "manifestly inadequate for regulating the program and ensuring the players' welfare." Banned from coaching for twelve months Hird was totally stripped of his decency and confidence.

He exiled himself and his family to France, spending several months attending an exclusive business school near Paris. In Hird's absence, former teammate Thompson took over as coach for the 2014 season and led the Bombers back to the finals. A decorated ex-Geelong coach, Thompson then left the club to make way for Hird's return to the senior coaching role. Hird was expected to resume his coaching duties at Essendon for 2015 and beyond, but it was reported that he was to be sacked by Essendon, the club fearing he would lodge an appeal against the Federal Court decision.

He returned as coach in 2015, with a shaky Essendon side winning three of their first six games. However, nearly 48 hours after the Bombers lost to Fremantle in May, WADA announced that they would appeal the decision of the AFL Anti-Doping Tribunal. The appeal shattered the team's morale, and they won only three of their remaining 16 games to slump to 15th on the ladder. Hird again became the scapegoat, and he resigned on 18 August 2015 following a disastrous 112-point loss to Adelaide.

As a player, he stood among the best. As a coach, it seemed his methods weren't always the sole driver of the team. Image: YouTube

On 12 January 2016, the Court of Arbitration for Sport overruled the AFL anti-doping tribunal's decision. 34 past and present Essendon players, including captain and 2012 Brownlow Medallist Jobe Watson, were deemed to have taken the banned substance Thymosin Beta-4. As a result, all 34 players, 12 of which were still at the club, were given two year suspensions.

With the club's roster decimated for 2016, the AFL granted Essendon the ability to upgrade all five of their rookie-listed players and to sign an additional ten players to cover the loss of the suspended players for the season. The club eventually claimed its first wooden spoon since 1933 but, with several young players given the chance to develop, there were signs of positivity at the struggling football club.

This year, when the Bombers take on Hawthorn in Round One on March 25, there will inevitably be a sense of disillusionment. Watson and the teammates that suffered from the drug scandal will take to the field to complete their footballing rebirth, but the thoughts will be with Hird. Yes, the affected players suffered greatly, but their careers will continue. Regardless, Hird's name has been forever tarnished, with his reputation tragically irreparable.

Hird's father Allan told the Herald Sun that he was still reeling from news of his son's overdose. However, he was scathing of how James was handled throughout the saga.

"I'm ashamed at the AFL, I'm ashamed of the club I grew up supporting and I'm furious at the Australian government," Mr Hird said, accusing the AFL, Bombers and the former Gillard government of treating his son as a 'second-class citizen'. "He's been treated as an object, not as a person. He's a human like everyone else. He's a determined person - just look at his football career and the hurdles he had to overcome - but he's a human being who's had lies told about him.''

Hird Senior is right. The post-supplements saga football world becomes an acidic atmosphere once James Hird's name is mentioned in any capacity. When the words 'James Hird' are in a headline, social media becomes awash with hate speech and finger-pointing, regardless of the article's content. It is disgraceful and disgusting behaviour.

Revered footballing voice Graham Cornes didn't hold back in his defence of Hird: "Those of you who have vilified James Hird - the media, particularly the Fairfax Press, who hounded and ridiculed him; the keyboard cowards who act from their cover of anonymity and lack of any moral filter. The opposition fans whose prejudice and hysteria blinded them to the facts; the AFL which lost control of what should have been an internal matter; the football world in general which has ostracised him; and indeed those from within the Essendon Football Club who were desperate for a scapegoat - must all face the consequences of their comments and their actions.

"For it is you who have driven James Hird to what could have been his last, desperate act."

Now, Hird remains under watchful eyes in a mental hospital, recovering from the overdose that nearly robbed a wife of her husband, children of their father, and a football club that owes their defiant legend everything and so much more.

With regards to Hird's suspected overdose, considering the mental trauma of the supplements saga, we should have seen this coming.

Where the AFL succumbed to the collective pressure put on them by ASADA and WADA, Hird fought them all the way. In a constant vacuum of media pressure and fan scrutiny, it was obvious that Hird's moral compass had been spoiled, and his public image more so. When he questioned the decency of the ASADA investigation in the Federal Court, he was ridiculed. When he challenged the Federal Court's verdict, he was further ridiculed. He suffered in silence through his 12-month ban, hiding his young family from camera flashes as he tried his best not to succumb to the throng of media that constantly camped outside his Melbourne home. Even after his hospitalisation, if this article by Patrick Smith is anything to go by, Hird remains a divisive figure.

When he resigned as Essendon coach in August 2015, sacrificing himself in the hope that his absence would rid the club of its tainted past, he gained some respectability. However, with the injustice of the CAS findings and the stunted progress of the careers of his players, he could only throw in the towel.

From a personal level, we will never know how James Hird has suffered. However, behind closed doors, you could only presume that his children are too young to understand why their dad is sick.

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