For the fourth time in their decorated history, the West Coast Eagles are the reigning champions of the AFL after last year’s spectacular Grand Final triumph secured a remarkable premiership.
West Coast, as a football club, have never been stronger with last year’s flag further elevating the club to superpower status and they remain well in the hunt for back-to-black glory this season. The contrast could not be starker from the last time the Eagles were the competition’s kings. ‘The Tainted Flag’ takes a look at West Coast’s drug implosion that was brought to the point of crisis in 2006 and 2007. It too explores the secret car crash that could have cost the club premiership points and draft picks, the cover-ups, the infighting, the lies, and the allegations of drug tester avoidance that puts the legitimacy of West Coast’s premiership under the microscope.
‘The Tainted Flag’ uncovers, in comprehensive detail, how a football club simultaneously went off the rails and achieved ultimate glory, by way of a premiership that will be forever marred by the game’s most destructive scandal. This is a story behind the game’s most controversial premiership.
On October 1 2007, just two days after the Grand Final, the drug problem that had engulfed the West Coast Eagles had finally reached a flashpoint, in the saddest way imaginable. It was on that tragic day, that beloved Eagles figure and former dual premiership great Chris Mainwaring died, aged 41. Western Australia’s coroner, Alistair Hope, would later conclude that a seizure suffered after consuming a “large quantity of cocaine” was the cause of Mainwaring’s death. Mainy’s death had a profound impact on the entire Perth community – this included at the West Coast Football Club, where he remained a popular figure.
It is a testament to the love and respect that the West Coast Eagles players had for Mainwaring, that his death is viewed by several players as a crucial point in the club’s history. Many players consider it to be the moment they realised their actions were not sustainable. The madness had to end. Unfortunately, it was too late for their dear friend, Mainy.
However, this realisation should have occurred long before Mainwaring’s life sadly ended. Twelve months earlier, an incident on a post-season footy trip in Las Vagas, that occurred just weeks after the club won the 2006 Grand Final, was nearly catastrophic. Chad Fletcher was an All-Australian midfielder who had just become a West Coast Eagles premiership player, when he allegedly “flatlined” on that infamous Vegas trip. Fletcher stopped breathing, collapsed and had to be revived by a club staffer before spending four days in hospital in the United States. It was an absolutely terrifying incident.
Supreme Court Judge William Gillard, the AFL’s special investigator who handed down a report into the Eagles’ culture crisis to the AFL and West Coast in 2008, discussed the Fletcher episode. Gillard’s report, released by the Herald Sun two years ago concluded that “Chad Fletcher was taking drugs in Las Vegas and that the taking of the drugs was a cause of his serious illness.” Gillard also deemed that it was “inconceivable” for the West Coast officials and players on the trip to not be aware of that. And yet, the club’s original explanation was that Fletcher’s illness was a result of an allergic reaction from a yellow fever vaccination. It was then claimed by the club that it was alcohol induced with then club president Dalton Gooding stating, “we vehemently deny any drugs were involved.” That comment has certainly – like the majority of West Coast’s actions during this dangerous time – not aged well.
It was not the first time West Coast’s public sentiments in regards to illicit drug taking did not match the reality of the situation. Long-time Eagles CEO Trevor Nisbett, who remains in the role today, as far back as 2004 talked tough on illicit drugs. Nisbett stated that “the club did not tolerate any use of recreational drugs and players found using them would face serious repercussions.” If only.
This quote was Nisbett’s response to a report in The West Australian in 2004 where a prominent Perth-based footballer accused some of his teammates of illicit drug use. The anonymous player said it was “common” amongst both Western Australian AFL teams. In the same article, a Melbourne-based footballer said it was well known that certain West Coast and Fremantle players used illicit drugs.
Yet Nisbett’s threat was never acted upon. Not only did Chad Fletcher never face “serious repercussions” the club never even admitted the illicit drugs were involved in his near-death experience, despite Gillard’s findings in this report to the AFL Commission. Ben Cousins was also never penalised for illicit drug taking until his admission in 2007. This is despite, his drug use being acknowledged prior to this inside the club’s four walls, however, the Eagles denied this.
Moreover, Gillard slams Nisbett’s West Coast for its inaction stating, “The club did not take a stand on illicit drug-taking.”
“The evidence demonstrates that the club’s approach to discipline during the period 2001 to 2007 failed to instil a sense of responsible behaviour, and led to a culture which played a significant part in the scheduled conduct and illicit drug-taking. The club chose to ignore rumours and evidence of drug-taking which can be traced back to 2001.”
“The whole issue was swept under the carpet.”
So, how big was this issue – and how lumpy was this carpet?
It is now known that drugs such as ice, ecstasy, speed, cocaine and marijuana were abused by players. According to The Sydney Morning Herald more than half of the 2007 playing list had used illicit drugs with one club insider being quoted as saying, “it’s easier to name the players who haven’t at least dabbled.”
The club during this period was also not exactly a harmonious environment. One former player told The Sydney Morning Herald that he was told to “shut your f—ing mouth” when he complained about the club’s culture. While, high profile stars Daniel Chick and Andrew Embley had a physical altercation over the treatment of Ben Cousins on the eve of the 2007 season. The following day, Cousins and Chick failed to turn up to the club on time for a drug test. This resulted in Cousins being suspended indefinitely. He would end up missing the first 15 games of the 2007 season, in what would prove to be a very difficult period in his life.
In the 2010 documentary, Such Is Life: The Troubled Times of Ben Cousins, Ben’s father, Bryan Cousins revealed his fears that Ben could have died during this time.
Cousins returned to the field in Round 16 with a 38-disposal game in another classic encounter against old nemesis, the Sydney Swans, whom the Eagles prevailed against by 12 points. However, some teammates believed Cousins returned to the club too quickly from his stint in drug rehabilitation. By this stage, he was no longer captain of the West Coast Eagles. He resigned from that position the previous February prior to the 2006 premiership winning season after another off-field indiscretion where he was caught running away from a booze bus. According to The Australian, when Cousins told a senior West Coast manager about the booze bus incident, the club official advised him to deny the whole thing. Yet it became the biggest story in town, in fact, in the country.
The courts ended up fining Cousins $900 and the team’s spiritual leader lost the captaincy. Officially, he resigned.
When Mark Duffield, a well-respected journalist from The West Australian, called for Cousins to be stripped of the captaincy in light of the revelations he bolted from a booze bus, he received a death threat. Duffield details in the Such is Life documentary that the threat was smeared in blood and sent from an individual claiming to be the “Chairman of the Ben Cousins Fan Club.” Despite all his missteps Ben remained the most popular figure in the city. He was the Prince of Perth, after all. And even though he was no longer captain, Ben would still go on to hold the cup up at season’s end alongside his successor, Chris Judd.
Yet throughout all of his struggles, Cousins privately believed that he was let down by his football club.
He was not the only one.
Part Two Coming Soon