Ten years ago, Melbourne “won” their second consecutive wooden spoon and were on their knees. But there was more to the story that stretched from inside Demonland to AFL headquarters. This is the tale of how the game’s greatest cover-up came to pass.
The Tale of the Tank (Part One)
On the night of July 31, 2011, the crisis engulfing the game’s oldest football club, the embattled Melbourne Demons, reached its most critical juncture. The previous day, Melbourne lost to Geelong by 186 points, a record defeat of any description in the AFL era. It was Melbourne’s most miserable day in a history expanding over one-hundred and fifty years. Melbourne President, Jim Stynes, a beloved figure, then fighting an insidious disease that would end up tragically claiming his life, called coach Dean Bailey around 8pm that night.
“I’ve got some bad news and some shit news.”
He needn’t have said anymore. At this time, it was unclear whether the club would survive this latest loss. It was obvious the coach wouldn’t. Bailey was gone. Yet at the same time, he was freed. Freed from the instructions of a powerful football manager who wanted his job and from a CEO who he believed was pulling the strings and had only just survived the cull, himself.
With that, the seal of confession was lifted. He was booted out of “The Vault.” But knew all the secrets discussed inside it at that infamous meeting in 2009. He knew all the instructions placed on him as coach, the pressure, and what he believed were threats to his job. Therefore, unlike previous clubs who have tanked for draft picks, the Demons had just sacked someone who knew too much. Not only that, but someone who, despite being complicit in, was against the conspiracy and those who authorised it. That is a recipe for disaster, surely?
Tanking, of course, is setting out to lose in order to better one’s draft position, and is a footy crime. This is despite the fact that the league’s own draft system openly rewards and encourages the practice. Although, less so now, since the long overdue abolishment of the automatic priority pick for teams that win less than five matches in a season. But the AFL’s system still panders to tankers, and it will continue to do so until the draft order is no longer based solely on ladder positions.
So, as the cameras flashed and questions were posed, it was Dean Bailey, who pulled the rug from underneath the Melbourne Football Club. Dean Bailey was ironically, the tanking whistleblower for a saga that would hit him the hardest out of everyone. In fact, perhaps there was more to it than irony?
A few years down the road, Bailey would receive a sixteen-week suspension, served during his stint as assistant coach at the Adelaide Crows, which he allegedly only accepted due to reported threats made from the AFL. Bailey tragically passed away from lung cancer in 2014, however, those who were close to him maintain the saga and its fallout contributed to his ill-health.
Melbourne Football Manager Chris Connolly was the only other individual punished by the AFL. He received a twelve-month suspension but was on his way out of the AFL system at that stage.
However, these penalties to Bailey and Connolly did not come after Bailey’s remarkable press-conference confession of tanking during the 2008 and controversial 2009 wooden spoon seasons.
“I had no hesitation at all in the first two years of ensuring this club was well placed for draft picks. I was asked to do the best thing by the Melbourne Football Club and I did it.”
Indeed, the AFL launched an investigation into Melbourne tanking claims and following his admission, Bailey was questioned about his comments. Shortly after, the AFL announced they were satisfied that no tanking took place.
It must have been pretty thorough investigation.
Then league operations manager Adrian Anderson concluded at the time, “I can’t see anything even close to an admission that has taken place in this particular case.” Perhaps, it was beyond the powers that be at AFL land to see the connection between “ensuring [the] club was well placed for draft picks” (which can only be achieved by losing games and finishing low on the ladder) and ensuring the club lost games and finished low on the ladder. A bridge that was not even “close” apparently.
So, it’s 2011 and there is nothing to see here. Then Melbourne Vice-President Don McLardy closed the book on the issue on 3AW a month after the infamous Bailey press conference.
“We didn’t tank, and we stated that, and that’s all there is to it.”
Paul Roos, the man who would later become the highest paid coach in AFL history at Melbourne as part of an AFL negotiated support package, said he nearly fell off the couch. Brock McLean, once destined to captain the Demons was now a Blue and behind enemy lines, when he pointed to an inconvenient elephant in the room, during an On The Couch segment in 2012. It was an elephant that everyone could see including “Blind Freddy” – except for the AFL apparently.
McLean’s comments would spark a second probe into allegations that Melbourne tanked throughout the 2009 season. Despite the AFL clearing them in 2011, after Dean Bailey said too much, when they lost by too much.
This time the AFL would have to actually take it seriously.
It was a then-AFL deputy Gillon McLachlan-led investigation spanning almost eight months in 2012 and 2013, with fifty-eight people being interviewed across all areas of the Melbourne Football Club. The findings of which were never properly released. That was until eighty papers of transcripts were published by the Herald Sun’s award-winning journalist, Michael Warner, causing considerable angst at league headquarters.
It is understood that the explosive transcripts were leaked to the Herald Sun by a former Melbourne official, who was punished and suspended by the AFL over a completely separate matter involving another club.
The transcripts prove that the AFL’s embarrassing not guilty verdict was not just a farce but a cover-up and a lie. The documents, available on the Herald Sun’s website, show that Melbourne tanked, but more importantly, the AFL knew all along that they did. Among the compelling evidence was that “eight senior officials admitted the football department [had] been directed not to win more than four games,” per the Herald Sun’s excellent report. Furthermore, there were stunning revelations of “fake injuries” that were used to weaken the side by ensuring the lack of availability of certain players. In case anyone is under any illusion, this was tanking.
Yet on a laughable February day in 2013, when the football world was looking the other way at the explosion of dark clouds, peptides and god knows what, the AFL again cleared Melbourne of tanking. The AFL stunningly found them not guilty. It was an impossible verdict to come to. We knew that at the time, and we especially know it now. The verdict was only possible to arrive at if we had a deputy in Gillon McLachlan who did not even know what tanking was, “I actually don’t know what the definition of tanking is.” Coupled with a CEO who claimed it did not even exist, “I’ve said all along that I don’t believe tanking exists,” per Andrew Demetriou.
How exactly are they going to find something when they a) don’t know what they are looking for, and b) do not believe it exists? Let alone take action on it?
I’m beginning to understand how climate scientists feel.
Thus, according to the AFL, the Demons did not tank but that did not stop the league from sanctioning and suspending two of their then officials in Chris Connolly and Dean Bailey. Indeed, Melbourne achieved a world first and fell half-pregnant.
But seriously how many acts of tanking need to occur for tanking to have taken place?
The tanking investigation found both Connolly and Bailey guilty but supposedly of nothing that has anything to do with tanking. Merely, of “acting in a manner prejudicial to the AFL.” I wonder, what that could have possibly related to, being a tanking investigation and all?
Last week, McLachlan tried to add some clarity on that bewildering charge telling 3AW that Connolly and Bailey were punished because of “decisions made that may have been for the objective of finishing lower down the ladder.” There’s a good definition of tanking for you, Gillon!
However, in that sorry press conference in 2013, McLachlan continued to claim that “they were coached to win” – so why punish the coach?!
Confused? I don’t blame you, but it gets much worse.
Melbourne were found not guilty of tanking but were simultaneously punished with a $500,000 fine. You’re only innocent until charged as guilty, right?
The Demons crime was that they employed Connolly and Bailey, who are guilty of something or other that definitely was not tanking. It’s interesting that the club needing to “bear the responsibility for the actions of its agents” was its failing.
Particularly so, when the AFL privately believed their actions were sanctioned by others, including CEO Cameron Schwab, as reported by The Age’s Caroline Wilson. Melbourne successfully managed to negotiate Schwab’s exclusion from the charges, who was still CEO at the time the penalties were handed down. The AFL, despite their strong belief, eventually conceded that their investigation did not uncover enough evidence to charge Schwab. It’s a view this author supports after reviewing the transcripts.
Then club president, the late Jim Stynes was also cleared. Stynes was adamant in this autobiography released posthumously that, “Melbourne never sat down our coach, Dean Bailey, and instructed him not to win games.” Stynes absolutely did not do that. But at least one person, in a position of power at Melbourne, did.
The AFL was in damage control this week with the release of the investigation’s transcripts. This forced CEO Gillon McLachlan to defend his investigation ad nauseum, instead proclaiming how “strong” the sanctions were.
However, their legitimacy was not what it appeared to be.
Part Two coming soon
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