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Penrith Panthers

Essendon Bombers

On the edge of stealth

   

Trust is an important commodity in football; trust that a team mate will go in hard, trust that he will win the ball, trust that team rules will be adhered to and trust the game plan is the way forward. Ironically, from 2012 to 2016, trust also brought one of Australia’s most successful teams to its knees as misplaced trust in sports scientists, CEOs and AFL officials led to trusting players being suspended for a year while deceptive officials (who committed far greater sins) escaping without sanction. It was a significant fall from grace for a club that had historically been guided by relatively conservative middle-class values.

History

Essendon was founded in 1871 to represent a growth area in Melbourne's north west; an area typically home to protestant middle-classes. In 1896, the Catholic working class inner city clubs broke away from the VFA to form the VFL. Although differentiated from the inner-city in religious ideology and in class, Essendon received an invitation to be part of the breakaway due to its on-field power and status as a region of growth. It was an invitation that the inner-city clubs soon regretted as Essendon won the first VFL flag. Essendon subsequently went on to win a league record of 16 premierships.
Initially the club was known as the 'Same Olds' because it was in the habit of winning premierships from year to year. For a while, it was also known as the blood-stained blacks, although not in an official capacity. In the 1920's, the club became known as the Bombers due to its close proximity to the war-time airport.

Sheedy years

The Bomber's conservative history ensured that for the next 60 years nothing much happened to the club off the field. Appreciating something had to change, in 1981 the club hired Kevin Sheedy as its coach. Sheedy was a former Richmond back man who had been renowned for innovative and dirty play. As coach, he applied the same philosophy. Consequently, a club of clean-cut athletic-go-getters without imagination was transformed into a tough and unpredictable unit.

The injection of mongrel seemed to be working brilliantly as the club made its first grand final appearance in 15 years. Unfortunately for the Bombers, the grand final appearance culminated in a record defeat at the hands of Hawthorn. Like true champions, Essendon picked themselves off the canvas and in 84 and 85 they went on to record back-to-back grand final victories, which in turn led to a surge in membership.

In the 1990s, the American military unveiled its stealth bomber that was invisible to radar and it duly inspired Essendon. Not only did the club embrace the image of the bomber on their logo, they also embraced the concept of stealth by secretly cheating the salary cap. Of course, nothing is ever truly stealth and just as Australia's Jindalee radar system showed that the stealth bomber could be tracked, accountants showed that even payments made via brown paper bags still leave a trail. When exposed, coach Kevin Sheedy defended the club by saying that maths was never his strong point. While it was a powerful defensive argument in the eyes of some Essendon supporters, it wasn’t enough to prevent the club from be fined and stripped of draft selections.
With salary cap cheating giving it an edge on the field, membership surged and Essendon and resulted in the club outgrowing its home in Windy Hill. It then moved to the MCG in 1992 where improved accessibility and a big time atmosphere caused its crowds and membership to thrive. In 93, the move paid instant dividends. In the preliminary final, Essendon triumphed over West Coast and Sheedy celebrated by waving his jacket above his head in front of the huge crowd. In the subsequently grand final, Essendon demolished Carlton and Aboriginal player Michael Long won the Norm Smith medal in the International Year of Indigenous Peoples. The waving of jackets subsequently became an Essendon-West Coast tradition and Aboriginality became associated with the club formerly referred to as blood-stained blacks.

 
The path to the 93 premiership, birth of a three decade tradition and a young James Hird

By the end 90s, the club had grown the largest supporter base in Australia and was also pulling the largest crowds. An example of its popularity came in 1997 when the club finished 14th, but had 11 games at the MCG that attracted more 50K people. It resulted in Essendon being ranked ranked #1 in attendance in the AFL.

Moving to Docklands - No Sheedy, no Hird, no hope and $330 reserved seats

In the beginning of the new millennium, the club was at the peak of its powers but it still wanted more. Dollars signs had engulfed the administration's eyes and so in 2000 the club moved to the smaller Docklands Stadium in order to reap more financial rewards. The main motivation for the move was to restrict the ability of the average fan to attend games, which would force them to buy memberships. Furthermore, corporate boxes would be easier to sell when the home game carried the positive label of a "sell-out".

Members tried to vote against the move, but the board engineered the meeting so that opponents wouldn’t be able to cast their votes. With profit, rather than fan welfare in mind, a perception was created that the team should be renamed Essendon Inc. Furthermore, smaller crowds meant that it was rival Collingwood that drew the huge crowds at the MCG and became more closely associated with the spiritual image of football. Ironically, despite trying to force memberships on its fans, membership growth went backwards and it was Collingwood that took Essendon’s number 1 mantle.

More problems for the club came in 2010 when it found itself in dispute with the Bowls Club that shared some of the club's training facilities in the Windy Hill precinct. The Bombers wanted the bowlers to move somewhere else so that the Bombers could upgrade their facilities, but at a special meeting, 90 members of the bowling club voted to stay put. Given the Essendon board's previous approach to conflict resolution, it was suspected they may have tried to lubricate relations with some donations of tea and lamingtons. If that failed, get 100 Essendon members to covertly join the bowling club and vote for a move. Instead, the Bombers decided that the impasse could be another opportunity to extract more money from members. They subsequently announced plans to build a new $29 million training base elsewhere and asked members to donate money to its "flight plan."
As for fans, the club had become a farce and fans were deserting it like rats leaving a sinking ship. If the board didn't do something, it would have ended up drawing crowds comparable to the Melbourne Demons. Golden boy James Hird was then recruited to address its image problems with fans.

The drugs scandal - what did we take?

The recruitment of James Hird worked well with promising signs both on and off the field; however, in 2013, it was again revealed that the Bomber's love of stealth wasn't that stealthy at all.  It seems that the club had wanted to play catch up with other clubs by creating a high performance regime and they did so by recruiting high performance managers who had previously had success at other AFL clubs.

As well as having success, the high performance managers liked to go by titles that made them seem like Batman Villains. One of these referred to himself as "The Weapon" (Dean Robinson) and his weapon of choice came in the form of a needle. The contents of the needle were devised by another high performance manager going by the name of the "The Professor" (Stephen Dank), who in turn was alleged to have sourced some of his supplies from a convicted drug dealer known as "Dr Ageless." (Shane Charter)

Meanwhile, professional football codes in Australia were being investigated by the Australian Crime Commission for possible links to criminal gangs and by ASADA for possible performance enhancing drug use. The government bodies had noted that most professional football clubs had been spending millions on high performance units that included supplement and injecting regimes. These high performance units were an affront to ASADA because if the supplements had any performance enhancing effect, they were illegal in accordance with the S2 clause of the WADA drug code. In other words, the units had somehow found a loop hole or a mistake in what WADA said was permissable. The AFL was also concerned about the growth of high performance units because of the cost involved and the threat to equalisation policies if they were useful. Therefore, both ASADA and the AFL had a common interest in eliminating their growth. Because Essendon had actively head hunted the Batman Villains who had had success at other AFL clubs, it became a priority target for investigation. (Perhaps the AFL also felt it was the best placed to withstand its pre-ordained sanctions.)

Swisse

It was only supplements that had been proven to have no performance enhancing effect, like those of AFL sponsor Swisse, that were permitted in the AFL and by ASADA.

It appeared as though some kind of understanding was reached between the AFL, Australian Crime Commission and ASADA in which Essendon would be thoroughly investigated and perhaps have its officials punished. In return for a public scalp, there would be no investigation of the other clubs that the Batman Villains had worked at or the 11 other clubs that were using supplements in the belief they would enhance performance. For the AFL, perhaps an added bonus would be that the scalp of Essendon would persuade clubs to stop experimenting on supplement programs that didn’t work or at least, use Swisse instead which were proven to have no performance enhancing benefits so all clubs could waste money on them equally.

On the 5th of February 2013, Essendon publicly announced that it had reported itself to ASADA over its concerns with its supplements program. Two days later, the Australian Crime Commission publically released the report entitled "Organised Crime and Drugs in Sport" in which it stated that organised sport "highly vulnerable to organised crime infiltration". The report was full of modality with words like 'might', 'perhaps', 'could' but no actual evidence of criminal infiltration or performance enhancing drug use. Accompanying the reports release was the federal justice minister Jason Clare, minister for sport Kate Lundy and the CEOs of five of Australia’s major sporting organisations. Richard Ings, former head of ASADA, declared it was “the blackest day in Australian sport”. Kate Lundy boasted: “We are well on the way to seeking out and hunting down those who will dope and cheat”.

James Hird would later say the self-report occurred as a result of a directive from AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou who stated that the AFL had evidence that Essendon had used performance enhancing drugs. Demetriou allegedly went on to say that the club needed to “self-report” and invite an investigation to ensure a managed outcome. Because such a tip off would have been illegal, Demetriou denied making the directive, yet he never sued Hird for making the allegation either. (If Demetriou had evidence of performance enhancing drug use at the time, it was evidence that was never presented at a later date.)

Essendon’s internal investigation produced a report that found traditional medicine had been marginalised in a way that created

"a disturbing picture of a pharmacologically experimental environment never adequately controlled or challenged or documented within the club".

The report did not; however, find any evidence of illegal drug use. For the Demetriou, the fact that a report writer had had a “disturbing picture” was a justification to act. As punishment for creating a “disturbing picture”, the AFL subsequently excluded Essendon from the finals, fined it $2million, banned coach James Hird for a year and excluded Essendon from the 2013 draft. Initially, the club tried to fight but backed down in the face of relentless media campaign that included, among many other things, a likely fake player's mother crying about public sympathy for James Hird instead of her un-named son. Essendon's back down seemed to be on the “understanding” that the punishments would be the end of the saga. At the time, ASADA also gave the AFL an interim report suggesting no charges would be laid against Essendon players, which helped persuade the club to accept the AFL's deal.

At the time, a survey of other clubs found 12 had conducted programs with medium or high levels of supplement use and lacked a single point of accountability. None were investigated further or punished for running unaccountable supplement programs.

Bizarrely, the person most responsible for the regime, Dean Robinson (the weapon) received no punishment. After Robinson was dismissed by Essendon, he launched an unfair dismissal claim. Subpoenas for his trial would have had Andrew Demetriou and other influential people in the AFL to  testify in a court of law. Because the trial could have compelled various parties to explain what “understandings” they had come to, various interests came to an “understanding” to prevent the trial from occurring. The “understandings” were vague but Robinson was given a pay-out and found himself straight into a job with KPMG, the AFL’s official auditor. Given that Robinson had shown little capacity to keep accountable records of an injecting regime, it was odd that the AFL would have such confidence in an accounting firm that employed him.

Although Essendon seemed confident that it had an understanding with the AFL and the AFL seemed confident that it had an understanding with ASADA to punish the coach and club so players would walk free, a change in leadership at ASADA caused all the understandings to become misunderstandings. The new CEO of ASADA, Ben McDevitt, soon announced that players would be charged for use of Thymosin Beta 4 (TB4). The basis for the charge was that Stephen Dank had told a journalist that he had administered the drug believing it to be legal. Furthermore, players had signed their consent to receiving “Thymosin.”

(*TB4 is a naturally occuring substance in the body. At the time, TB4 had not been found on ASADA’s banned list but ASADA later clarified it was banned as it may be performance enhancing due to its potential to help repair damage to the body. The previous CEO of ASADA, Richard Ings, said he hadn't been able to verify whether it was banned at the time it was used. Reasons for the ban are disputed. Although there were few clinical trials showing it had benefit, TB4 had long been used by body builders due to its perceived effect to aid recovery.)

After being informed that Thymosin Beta 4 was illegal, Dank backtracked and claimed he had given the players Thymomodulin (Thymosin Alpha 1) which was confirmed to be legal. Lack of paper work and a falling out between Dank and his suppliers made confirmation of the substance he gave impossible to verify. Basically, Charters said he thought he sourced TB4 from China and gave it to compounding chemist Nima Alavi, who in turn said that he was not sure what he had compounded as it came from China. Alavi said he recommended to Dank that the substance be independently tested in a laboratory. Dank said Alavi had ruined the drug by using clear vials instead of amber vials so he threw them away rather than test them. Alavi attributed the claim to Dank trying to swindle him out of money.

After its players were charged, Essendon responded by launching Federal Court action claiming ASADA's investigation had been illegal. The club’s grievance seemed to be that it had an understanding that inviting the investigation and accepting AFL punishment to coach James Hird would have spared it punishment to players. The court found that backroom deals to reach “understandings” don’t override the law. Essendon’s action was dismissed. (Essendon had declined the opportunity to make Demetriou testify in its Federal Court action. It was odd not to make Demetriou testify but perhaps it helped protect the "understandings" if the matter went to the AFL anti-doping tribunal.)

ASADA offered the players a deal in which they would only be suspended for three pre-season games. Perhaps the players were confident that they had an "understanding" with the AFL that would result in them not being found guilty if the matter proceeded further. Alternatively, perhaps the players felt they had done nothing wrong. Either way, they rejected the deal. Perhaps the understanding was correct as the AFL anti-doping tribunal found that it was not comfortably satisfied any Essendon players had taken TB4. This was despite the fact that it accepted that Dank had intended to give them TB4 and players had signed consent to "Thymosin". The tribunal said it could not be satisfied because there was no records of what the players were actually given.

After losing the case, ASADA felt the best way to get the players banned was for WADA to appeal and have the case heard by Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland where the AFL could have no understandings. The CAS decided it was satisfied that the players had probably taken TB4. They were banned for the 2016 season. If considered objectively, the players' crime was to consent to being injected with a naturally occurring substance that would aid their recovery after their bodies suffered significant damage from playing football. As for not checking to be sure it was not banned, if the former CEO of ASADA found it difficult to verify the status of the drug they took, it is hard to blame the players for their confusion as well. The players' moral transgressions were far less than those committed by Andrew Demetriou or even CEOs of other 11 other AFL clubs with supplement programs who stood by silently because they were assured they would not be investigated.

Ironically, had Essendon players and officials been more experienced with the scandalous side of society, then they never would have extended the trust that ultimately brought the club to their knees. Instead, they would have done what most seasoned criminals do and never admit to anything. That would have meant never inviting a criminal investigation and never accepting sanctions for wrong doing. Furthermore, when “understandings” were not honoured, they would have ensured that they wouldn't go down alone. Dean Robinson ensured that with his threat to make AFL heads testify in court. James Hird and other Essendon officials never did. At the end of the day, Essendon was just too middle-class to fight its way out of the shit sandwich it found itself in. The other AFL clubs that Dank and Robinson had worked for, such as Gold Coast and Geelong, had no players punished for drug use. Dank and Robinson even claimed they had given one player, Nathan Bock, the banned drug CJC-1295 but Bock was not banned. Dank also claimed that he had supplied Thymomodulin to up to 12 players from Melbourne in the 2012 season. Melbourne was not investigated. Meanwhile, Collingwood’s illicit drug use was an open secret that the AFL turned a blind eye to. 11 other clubs with unaccountable supplement programs were not investigated. Unlike Essendon, other clubs knew how to play the game in a way that ensured that if people needed to go down, it wasn’t going to be them.

Roy Morgan research

Essendon Bombers supporters are:

2001 when compared to other Australians

  • 46% more likely than the average person to be in the 14-24 age group;
  • 16% more likely than the average person to be single;
  • 20% more likely to say they wear clothes that will get them noticed.

2004 when compared to other AFL supporters

  • 34% more likely to be aged 14-24
  • 24% more likely to believe that freedom is more important than the law

2006 - When compared to other AFL supporters

  • 51% more likely to be aged 14-24
    33% more likely to work in sales
  • 26% more likely to choose a car mainly on it's looks
  • 36% more likely to believe it only feels like a holiday if they leave Australia
  • 46% more likely to really enjoy going online to chat
  • 24% more likely to have been to a nightclub or disco in the last three months

 

Essendon Bombers theme song

See the Bombers fly up, up!
To win the premiership flag.
Our boys who play this grand old game,
Are always striving for glory and fame!
See the bombers fly up, up,
The other teams they don't fear,
They all try their best,
But they can't get near,
As the bombers fly up!

It is hardly the kind of lyrical genius that would bring a tear to the eye of John Lennon or Bob Dylan. It is also interesting to note that whilst the other clubs sing about loyalty, unity or courage, Essendon sings about "glory and fame". It could be argued that such motivations make it an attractive club to the wanker element in society. Unfortunately, with 16 premierships, the wankers have had a lot of fame to sing about.

After injection revelations of 2013, it was suggested "fly up" should have been changed to "shoot up."

Rivalries

Carlton Blues- Carlton has 16 flags to Essendon's 16; the most in the league. Essendon defeated Carlton in the 93 Grand Final which Carlton president John Elliot attributed to Essendon cheating the salary cap. Carlton knocked Essendon off in the 1999 preliminary final and it was later revealed that Carlton was cheating the salary cap. Carlton went on to lose the Grand Final but still felt it was a good year as they had denied Essendon a probable flag.

West Coast Eagles -In 1993, Essendon beat the West Coast and coach Kevin Sheedy waved his jacket in celebration. The following year Essendon lost to the Eagles and West Coast fans waved their jackets in celebration. Upon their next meeting, Essendon won and their fans waved jackets. Some Essendon fan then wrote a song about waving jackets and sticking it to the Eagles. In 2004, Kevin Sheedy collapsed in the heat while coaching Essendon in the west. When he came to, he saw thousands of Eagle's fans waving their jackets. (The jacket is now on display in the medallion club at Melbournes Dockland Stadium.)

Collingwood Magpies - Collingwood has long competed with Essendon for the honour of being Melbourne's most successful and popular club. Having lost the 1990 Grand Final to Collingwood, Essendon fans are forever reminded that just as they are the only team that can't beat Port Power in a final, they are the only team that can't beat Collingwood in the Grand Final.

Every year, the two clubs battle on Anzac day which outside the Grand Final, is the biggest match on the AFL sporting calendar.

The two clubs are also competiting for the title of being the Machester United of Australian sport. Essendon has the corporate deal making and the pretty boys while Collingwood has the president and the supporter base.

Hawthorn Hawks - In 1983, the Hawks inflicted a then record Grand Final defeat on Essendon. The following year, Essendon turned the tables. In 1985, Essendon backed it up with another Grand Final victory over Hawthorn. In the 80s, the clashes between the two clubs were not just the highest standard, they were also the toughest.

Nth Melbourne - Because they drew supporters from the same area, Essendon managed to have Nth Melbourne excluded from the VFL when it broke away form the VFA in 1896. Nth Melbourne didn't enter the VFL until 1925 and they have blamed this lack of history as the reason it lacks Essendon's supporter base.

In 1998, some Nth fans decided to inform Essendon of their softness by throwing marshmallows at coach Kevin Sheedy. 

Nth Melbourne's Grand Final victories in 1996 and 1999 have both came against opponents that had defeated Essendon by a point in the preliminary final. For a while, Essendon saw defeating Nth as the flags they should have had.

 

Essendon jokes

1)A reporter from the Herald Sun asked James Hird: "Are all Essendon players conceited?" Hird replied: "I don't really know, but I'm not."

2) Mathew Lolyd was talking to a very pretty lass about the game he had just played. For almost three hours, he talked about the marks he took, the goals he scored and how it felt to hear the crowd cheering. The lass gave a bored sigh and Mathew realised he was being a little self-centred. Like a true gentlemen he said: "Enough talk about me. Let's talk about you. What did you think of my game today?"

3)"Hirds playing on Loyld, fumbling around for the ball and probably his
pen to sign the autograph book..."

4) What are the first five words an Essendon coach in a three piece tailored suit hears?
"Will the defendant please rise"

 

Icon

  • John Coleman - Glamour full forward.
  • Dick Reynolds - Clean cut rover. Gained lots of glory and fame with a record three Brownlows.
  • Michael Long - Rubber man with freakish skills. In retirement, fancied himself as another Nelson Mandela.
  • James Hird - Golden boy! Courageous, highly skilled pretty boy who can play almost any position.
  • Paul Van Der Haar - Aka the Flying Dutchman. Blonde centre-half-forward with an impressive mullet.
  • Terry Daniher - Half-forward-flanker who looked a bit like Cooch from Footrot Flats.
  • Mark Harvey - Blonde centre-half-forward with an impressive mullet. Very courageous.
  • Simon Madden - Evergreen mobile ruckman.
  • Tim Watson - Started playing seniors at 15. In later life, was named father of the year.

 

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  Was this more interesting than a news update of players in a recovery session standing around in the ocean looking cold or of a team 'training without incident'?