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A fiasco for the ages at Essendon but meaningful change remains unlikely

Craig Little

A full-scale review of the embattled AFL club appears to lack resolve to turn over every stone

Darcy Parish is tackled by Port Adelaide’s Zak Butters during Essendon’s most recent AFL defeat, on Sunday at Adelaide Oval.
Darcy Parish is tackled by Port Adelaide’s Zak Butters during Essendon’s most recent AFL defeat, on Sunday at Adelaide Oval. Photograph: Matt Turner/AAP
Darcy Parish is tackled by Port Adelaide’s Zak Butters during Essendon’s most recent AFL defeat, on Sunday at Adelaide Oval. Photograph: Matt Turner/AAP

Less than a month ago, Essendon president Paul Brasher said the club would not bow to pressure and conduct a review into its football operations. But after a third loss in as many weeks to turn the season halfway at two-and-nine, Brasher announced to members that the club has decided to take a deep dive into its operations.

It would appear that those additional three losses were what it took to demonstrate to Brasher and his board that carrying on as normal is not a strategy. Much like the club he leads, Brasher appears to be labouring under a kind of malaise. His address to Essendon members certainly had the quality of a maladroit epilogue to a season already lost.

“We know that the win-loss record is not what we wanted. And of course, tough times tend to bring out a whole lot of other things,” said Brasher seemingly referring to a red-and-black baying for blood, for which he went on to under-price as “something of a pile on”.

There’s certainly been “something of a pile on” from Bomber supporters since the reappointment of CEO Xavier Campbell two weeks ago. Brasher apologised to fans not for the appointment, but the way it was announced.

“If clubs change their CEO whenever they were going through a particular disappointing period of weeks or even months within a season, you would see a very high turnover of CEOs in league ranks.”

Brasher acknowledged “that these are all just words and we will rightly be judged on our actions and our results”. And credit where it is due, in regards to CEO appointments, Essendon has demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that they are not one to waver “through a particular disappointing period”.

At the time of writing, Essendon has not won a final for a particularly disappointing period of 924 weeks (or even 213 months). Now in his ninth year as CEO, Campbell has presided over the club for close to half that time.

During his address, Brasher said the club was looking for sustained success, and understanding the context that comes with two wins in three months, warned that progress wasn’t linear. Sustained failure however...

To conduct a wide-scoping review of the football department, recruiting and coaching in the middle of a lamentable season is self-explanatory. To do it a fortnight after reappointing a CEO who put in place the very football department, recruiting and coaching departments under review is a fiasco for the ages.

Even Essendon great Tim Watson had to concede. “At face value, that looks like a contradiction.”

But Campbell can take comfort that the review, at face value, lacks any resolve to turn over every stone. Despite its scope, Brasher said the actions out of the review were likely to be incremental in terms of additional resources, rather than transformational. Appointing current football director Sean Wellman to preside over his own area of responsibility should give Brasher more than a leg up in that regard.

AFL 360’s Gerard Whateley was one who read “incremental rather than transformational” as an indicator that jobs were not on the line. His co-host, and something of a Windy Hill windsock for the Essendon man in the street, Mark Robinson, countered that “they have to be”.

Expectations would be that Robinson and others will be disappointed. As a second-year coach, Ben Rutten’s position should be safe and Brasher as recently as Tuesday lauded Adrian Dodoro, the club’s list boss who has been at the club for nearly a quarter of a century. Brasher praised Dodoro for finding several “hidden gems” in the last few years. Clearly not enough to build a list capable of winning a final since Shrek 2, but apparently enough to skate through the review.

Brasher and his board appear to be following the Rosetta Stone of Richmond’s recent premierships which prescribes staying the course, as the Tigers did by staring down the Focus on Football dissidents. Although it is worth mentioning here that they at least shared common ground over their respect and admiration for Brendon Gale.

An interesting contrast is Essendon’s next opponent Carlton, who at the halfway point of 2022 have already matched their total wins from last season.

This success follows controversial and comprehensive football department review implemented by the incoming president, Luke Sayers, that provided almost 40 recommendations and ultimately lead to the appointment of not just a new coach, but a new CEO. This isn’t to say a change of CEO is required at Essendon, but rather an extension following a review would be more palatable to members than a rubber stamp.

Sayers’s mandate was that the culture at Carlton had been a losing one for too long. It required transformational change that would be uncomfortable. Essendon’s review into its football operations, however, feels like a tepid bath.