The year 2004 seemed like such a simpler time. Good Friday was football-free, Adrian Anderson was Andrew Demetriou’s right hand man, adding legal jargon to the common football fan’s day to day vernacular, and any word of supplements were restricted to the health food aisle at the supermarket.
The Essendon Football Club had seen the mighty Brisbane Lions usurp their throne in the three years prior, claiming their famous three-peat. The Bombers finished runner up in 2001, and played finals in both 2002 and 2003. They boasted one of the most potent forward lines in the game, with Matthew Lloyd coming out of the goal square, and a very able back up in Scott Lucas patrolling a bit further up the ground. Their midfield contained names like Misiti, Mercuri and Ramanauskas, and their backline was underpinned by one of the best full backs in the game, Dustin Fletcher.
They also possessed one of the best players in the competition; James Hird.
Hird was a mercurial player who seemed to rise to the top in big games. Over the course of his career, he obtained just about every accolade a player could receive- Brownlow, Norm Smith, Anzac medal, Premiership Captain, All-Australian; Hird’s footballing resume contains the kind of achievements kids dream about.
He was the sort of player that made things happen, and not just big things. Little things, like pulling in a mark in the wet – Hird was a specialist at it. While others would try to one-grab these marks overhead, and fail miserably, Hird would use the palms of his hand to stop the ball’s flight. He’d then take it on the second grab, safely out in front of him, or on his chest. He was a thinker, a footballer’s footballer, and he was a media darling, always offering a considered opinion.
The criticism of umpires was heavily frowned upon in this era as it is now. There was no tolerance for giving the umps a spray on the field, and definitely no place for it off the field either. It was the beginning of the era where umpires were to be praised, so as to entice more people to take it up as a hobby, or as a profession. I am sure this was part of someone’s strategic plan somewhere along the line, but to the football public, it was simple – you do not criticise umpires.
The media remained the last place where umpires were held to account outside their own jurisdiction, and they were still demonised in print when poor decisions were made, but the AFL was quick to educate its players that making comment themselves on these issues was just not on. Coaches were told the same. Fines followed for anyone even slightly transgressing and speaking ill of those who enforced the AFL's rules on-field..
This system seemed to be humming along nicely until one Wednesday evening in April, when James Hird appeared on The Footy Show, and he had something to say.
On the previous Saturday, the Bombers had lost their second game of the young season, falling to St Kilda by 34 points. Essendon were on the wrong end of the free kick count that day, 20-27, and Hird was not happy.
It didn’t take much prodding for Hird to speak his mind and do away with the filter that players generally use.
Prompted, he continued.
It was different, that’s for sure, and it elicited a raucous response from both the studio audience and The Footy Show panel at the time. Players just did not speak that way about umpires, and if they did, they did not get away with it.
In his 2006 biography, Hird wrote that Adelaide defender, Nigel Smart sat on the panel with him that night, and spoke up about it.
Hird doubled down.
It sure was.
The papers got the ball rolling.
The football world went into shock when Hird was referred directly to the AFL commission by Demetriou, Anderson and company. His comments were to be discussed and interpreted at the highest level possible. The AFL’s honchos were taking it very seriously.
The AFL acted quickly, charging the Bombers champ with bringing the game into disrepute. It could’ve easily led to Hird being deregistered by the league, which would’ve been the first time in twenty years it occurred. Only an incident like Leigh Matthews dropping Neville Bruns behind the play in 1984 had drawn this much ire from HQ.
Without severe punishment, Hird’s comments would open the door for coaches and players to lambaste umpires at will. The AFL had to act, and gave Hird until the following Tuesday to respond in writing to argue his case.
But in the meantime, there was a game to play.
Three days after his Footy Show bombshell, Hird fronted up for the Round Three game against the West Coast Eagles. He’d verbally battered Scott McLaren, and the football media had returned the favour. Some called for him to be stood down from the team down. Others called for huge fines and complete deregistration for a period of time. Not for the last time, Hird was well and truly in the spotlight for the wrong reasons.
The sanctuary of a football field was his salvation. There, he was at home, in his element amongst fellow warriors on the field. There, all that mattered was getting his hands on the ball and helping his team to victory. There, it was simple.
Football was easy for Hird. In the game itself, all he had to deal with was 22 opposition players trying to stop him. They could run into him, drive him into the ground with a tackle, or hip and shoulder him into oblivion, but comparatively, it was a welcome change to his previous couple of days. Unlike the world away from the game, there was only one agenda on-field; to win.
The Bombers were sitting at 0-2, and though it was very early in the season, at this point it already felt as though their season was in crisis. They were in the media for all the wrong reasons, and what they needed was a win on the board. To be 0-3 and deeply embroiled in controversy was not a recipe for success.
In front of over 33,000 fans at what is now Etihad Stadium, Hird did what he did best. It was a virtuoso performance from the Essendon Captain, collecting 34 disposals, with 20 of them contested, as the momentum swung between his Bombers and the Eagles. In the last quarter, with the game in the balance, Hird had 15 touches.
It was the final two minutes of the game where Hird proved, above all else, his quality on the field.
Those final two minutes, in spite of everything that had happened prior, and everything that would happen years later, is how I choose to remember James Hird.
Lifting the Bombers onto his back, Hird carried them across the line in one of the games of the year.
As he read the ball off the pack, deep in Essendon’s forward pocket, he kicked the ball across his body toward the goals.
The ball sailing through for a goal is one of the great moments in Hird’s career. There was a Brownlow Medal, A Norm Smith Medal, Anzac Medals and Premierships, but this game stands with them. This was James Hird’s moment.
He continued his run towards the big sticks as the heads of the West Coast players dropped, and ran all the way to the fence. There, he embraced a fan in the front row as emotions spilled over.
The ball was bounced in the centre again and the Eagles kicked the ball forward. Adam Ramanauskas made a great spoil on Ashley Sampi and the siren sounded. The Bombers won, and James Hird’s heroics were the reason.
The newspapers loved the redemption storyline.
Hird met with McLaren the Tuesday after the West Coast game and agreed to publicly apologise on that week’s edition of The Footy Show. It was a wise move, and avoided potential litigation.
That Hird was hit with a $20,000 fine now seems insignificant, despite the amount. His actions against West Coast spoke louder than any statement prepared and checked by legal teams. He was a footballer; one of the best on the land. He talked the talk on a Wednesday night in April, and backed it up three days later.
The Bombers commenced an eight-game winning streak that night, and though they were on the losing end of the free kick count in five of those eight wins, many consider that Hird’s fine was money well spent.
Essendon went on to make the finals again, but were eliminated from contention after losing to Geelong in the First Semi Final, but in a season where they didn’t where the ultimate success eluded them, Hird’s moment of heaven amidst his week from hell is a memory Bomber fans will always hold dear.