Essendon coach James Hird has fallen on his sword, with chairman Paul Little and the rest of the AFL club’s board holding the blade steady.
Hird’s 25-year AFL career ended on Tuesday when he resigned, citing the need for the Bombers to have clear air as the supplements saga continues.
While Hird shed a tear as he apologised to his family for the stress of the past three years, he also cracked jokes in his departure media conference.
Despite several invitations, he would not fire any more shots at the AFL or the anti-doping authorities – for now.
Little bristled when it was put to him that Hird was sacked, but the decision was made after several weeks of discussions between the coach and club hierarchy.
Last Friday, on the eve of the calamitous 112-point loss to Adelaide, Hird’s fate was sealed in a meeting with Little.
“Paul said it was the board’s opinion (that) the football club would never be truly free of the ASADA issue while I was coach and he was the chairman,” Hird said at Tuesday packed conference.
“On Monday night, I agreed to tender my resignation to Essendon, which was accepted by the board.”
Although the announcement followed widespread speculation about Hird’s departure, the timing came as a surprise.
Essendon are amid an extensive football department review and only three games are left this season.
Assistant Matthew Egan will be interim coach.
In the end, regardless of the ongoing supplements saga, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the same factor that counts against most coaches – not enough wins.
Essendon fell off the cliff in May when WADA announced it would appeal against the AFL anti-doping verdict that cleared 34 current and past Bombers players.
Little confirmed on Tuesday he would stay chairman until the WADA appeal was finalised.
Essendon made a promising start to the season, beating premiers Hawthorn in round two.
But they are 2-11 since the WADA appeal was announced and Saturday was their second 100-plus point thumping in that time.
“Perhaps if WADA hadn’t appealed, we would have had that clear air,” Hird said.
“The WADA appeal probably drove us back into the mire.”
Hird’s resignation means all key off-field personnel during the 2012 supplements program are gone, with the exception of club doctor Bruce Reid.
The departing coach admitted to some regrets about that supplements regime.
“Certainly … the decisions in 2011 that were made, in hindsight, some of them were mistakes,” he said.
“Were they mistakes to the level that we’ve been crucified for? No, I don’t think so.
“But some of those decisions, yeah, I wish those decisions were made differently and some of my decisions obviously were made differently.”
And he is devastated about the effect the saga has had on family and friends.
“Tania, Stephanie, Tom, Alex and William – I am truly sorry for what you have had to endure,” Hird said as a tear rolled down his cheek.
Hird spoke about his love for Essendon and the players, noting he played alongside Dustin Fletcher.
He said Dyson Heppell was almost like a son to him.
And Hird added he does not feel like a scapegoat.
“What I feel like is an Essendon person who wants this club to be successful,” he said.
Hird was also defiant about his coaching ability.
“Personally – some of you may disagree – I believe I am a good coach,” he said.
Little said the terms of Hird’s settlement with the club would be confidential.
Hird was contracted until the end of next season.
There was no sense of relief for Hird about leaving, saying he was disappointed the team were not successful.
Hird is one of the biggest figures in Essendon history, winning the 1996 Brownlow Medal and 1993 premiership and captaining the 2000 flag-winning team.
In the list of club champions, only John Coleman and Dick Reynolds are ranked higher.
There was massive excitement at the club when he returned in 2011 to coach.
But he leaves as one of the key figures in Essendon’s disastrous supplements saga, the biggest controversy in AFL history, which became public in February, 2013.
“I don’t want us to be the centre of attraction when it comes to drugs in sport,” Hird said when asked about why he was leaving.
Regardless of Hird’s departure, the club is in crisis and more players are expected to leave at season’s end.
Essendon captain Jobe Watson says only the end of the WADA appeal will give him and his teammates the relief they need.
Watson said he felt nothing but sadness about Hird leaving.
“James touched on it before, but this whole thing has changed people and no one’s for the better because of it,” Watson said of the supplements saga.
Hird bit his tongue when asked to comment on the AFL and sports scientist Stephen Dank, who ran the supplements regime.
He was asked if he thought the AFL had anything to do with his departure.
“I don’t have any direct evidence of that,” he said.