I woke up this morning to a throwback article from Mark Robinson in the The Australian, about the Essendon Supplements Saga. It’s been ten years since the bombshell dropped and detonated at Windy Hill (or Tullamarine, if you prefer).
Wow… has it been that long?
Indeed, it has. Ten years since that fateful February day, when the Bombers were alleged to be drug cheats. What a dark time in the history of the club, the AFL, and sport in Australia, in general.
This was a period of time that should be remembered fondly by the likes of me. I’m a Hawthorn man; my team was about to go on a rampage and win three straight premierships, and yet, whilst I remained somewhat invested, what was going on, or what was not going on at Essendon left me feeling continuously flat when it came to footy.
I can only imagine how it felt for Bombers supporters.
You see, though there is an ingrained hatred between Essendon and Hawthorn supporters, there is also a measure of something else that makes a true rivalry genuinely great. That aspect is respect. To see this mighty club on its knees as the AFL, ASADA, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport fumbled and bumbled their way through an investigation that was about as watertight as my son’s cheap nappies, my heart broke. Not just for those involved – the players, administrators, and staff, but for the people who loved the club.
We have all heard about the Essendon 34 and what the decision to suspend them meant for their careers. Some recovered. Others were just about done. We have all heard the harrowing tales of James Hird and the depths or darkness he found himself inhabiting following his suspension from the game. And the stories of Mark Thompson, Jobe Watson, and Doc Reid have all tugged at the heartstrings for a variety of reasons. However, I often wonder how this years-long story impacted the lives of the supporters. As much as the players play for the jumper, many supporters invest so much of themselves in the club, that I cannot help but feel a part of them died when the allegations were made.
Or a part of them was murdered, at least. Almost in cold blood by those hunting for a story and looking for someone to punish.
Those people got their stories. Players and officials were punished despite the lack of evidence, and relationships were shattered, perhaps beyond repair as those involved attempted to piece something together out of what was left after ASADA and the CAS walked away, washing their hands of the entire saga to move on to whatever was next on the agenda.
Though not on the same level as any Essendon supporter, part of my love for the game was dealt a critical blow over the course of the 2013 season. Whilst Hawthorn went on their merry way and would raise the cup in triumph, their rivals were repeatedly crushed in the media every single day right up until they were booted from the finals. What a kick in the teeth for supporters – under extreme duress, the team had performed well enough to qualify for the finals series, only for the AFL to wander in and shove them aside.
All year, and for at least another year to come, you could not pick up a newspaper without the next chapter in the Essendon saga coming to light.
For a while, I actually stopped watching footy and ceased reading the newspaper. Again, I can only imagine the continued twists of the knives in the hearts of Bomber supporters. If I was feeling it, they must have been in a state of despair. If I was sick to death of reading about it and watching those involved slowly crumble under the relentless pressure, I could not blame them for walking away from footy, all together.
Robinson claims that the club has not been the same since that day in February, 2013. I don’t think he has been as expansive as he could have been in his assessment – the entire competition has not been the same since that day. Part of the innocence of our sport was lost when the allegations were made. Drug cheats were in the Olympics… it was largely an overseas issue…
We had our trust betrayed and our naivety exposed.
The saga hangs over the league like a dark cloud, intermittently spitting droplets of shame at anything related to Essendon. Some supporters use it like a spear, constantly jabbing at Essendon supporters as their armour – once so shiny in red and black – now appears tarnished by the constant battles they fight. The episode periodically envelopes the AFL like a shadow, ready to plunge the league into darkness once again.
And every once in a while, a story like that of Robinson today, highlighting the fall from grace of James Hird, Bomber Thompson, David Evans, Danny Corcoran (who once organised Garry Lyon, Danny Frawley, and Gavin Brown to appear at a footy clinic I was running – thanks Danny), Jobe Watson, and countless others, appears as a reminder that this is not something that can be put in the past and simply forgotten about.
And it still stings. Even as a non-Essendon supporter, it stings.
In the end, the forgotten victims in all this are the supporters – the lifeblood of the club. They ride the bumps with the players and feel the losses just as acutely as any who run around on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday in red and black. I feel for them, most of all.
They are the ones who placed their trust in the club, in the AFL, and in the anti-doping agencies to do the right thing.
How many of them would sit there, satisfied that the AFL got the right outcome?
How many of them feel the pain of it right now, as acutely as they did in 2013?
How many walked away?
Footy lost a part of its soul in 2013 – it was torn out by a combination of desperation to get results, and deals made to get them. Despite the game remaining great and the club dragging itself back toward respectability, the scars of that period run deep.
And not just for Essendon supporters. Trust was eroded.
I’m genuinely not sure the scars will completely heal or trust will ever be restored. It remains the legacy of 2013 – the year the AFL lost it’s way..