Sport AFL News Ltd vs Demetriou: A bitter battle, with no end in sight
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News Ltd vs Demetriou: A bitter battle, with no end in sight

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The polite but less-than-rapturous applause which greeted the surprise appearance of James Hird at Essendon’s AGM this week was telling.

Until now, it appeared Bomber fans would have been prepared to drink from the poison chalice at Jonestown had St James beckoned them to do so. Such was their blind faith in their club idol.

Now while we fully understand the well-earned adulation of Hird due to his legacy as a player, in the words of Neil Young, ‘There comes a time…’

That time came for Hird when it was clear financial appeasement was a huge factor in the former coach accepting his 12-month exile from the game regardless of the very public insistence to the contrary by the Teflon-tough AFL boss, Andrew Demetriou.

If Hird, for some inexplicable reason, still believes he had no responsibility for oversight of the supplements regime undertaken by his players, then one wonders why he did not fight on in the courts as a matter of principle. Sadly, if we strip away all the haggling and legalese, it appears an inescapable conclusion that Hird was ‘shown the money’ and took it, apparently without compunction.

The theory that he was encouraged to become a sacrificial lamb for the club, the game and the competition doesn’t wash here.

Enter stage right, Hird’s wife, Tania, described by the News Limited press as a ‘whip-smart property lawyer’, to give an impromptu interview outside her Toorak home to a presumably equally whip-smart young newshound camped outside her front door. Golly you can be lucky sometimes.

Tania was adamant: ‘Hubby’ was being paid his full whack. Further, she alleged, Demetriou knew full well about it.

As a lawyer, ‘whip-smart’ or otherwise, Tania would be well versed in the practised art of the legal profession: never pick a fight you cannot win. Demetriou pulled the pin on Essendon’s funding until a full explanation was forthcoming from the Bombers.

By curious coincidence, the league boss was in the midst of a dogfight with News Limited on how he had dealt with the whole sorry Essendon fiasco and, in particular, whether or not Hird was being paid while he was serving his 12-month suspension from the game.

If, as we suspect, News wanted Demetriou’s scalp, it has failed spectacularly. So far.

News had long been publicly embarrassed by Demetriou’s refusal to engage with its Herald-Sun chief football writer, Mark ‘Robbo’ Robinson, the replacement for the venerated Mike Sheahan.

One of ‘Robbo’s’ former Herald-Sun colleagues, Damian Barrett, now with The Footy Show, once publicly described Robinson’s appointment as being like ‘replacing Frank Sinatra with a karaoke singer.’ To be fair to ‘Robbo’, Barrett would have long seen himself as Sheahan’s heir apparent and there may have been a little bit of sour grapes in that unkind observation.

Whatever, Demetriou had no time for Robinson and declared as much during a national television interview, causing the Herald-Sun some very public embarrassment.

So much so, in fact, that we understand News Limited’s head honcho in Melbourne, Peter Blunden, met the AFL chief over lunch in a bid to smoke the peace pipe.

Recent front pages of Melbourne's The Herald Sun.
Recent front pages of Melbourne’s The Herald Sun.

The cordiality, or otherwise of their meeting, is not known. But not long afterwards, News Limited came into possession of some very sensitive documents relating to how the AFL handled the resolution of the alleged illegal supplements regime at Windy Hill.

News went after Demetriou with the vengeance of a woman scorned, although not quite as hard as it has gone for Tony Blair following Rupert Murdoch’s separation from wife, Wendi Deng.

It is also said News Corp’s New York-based chief executive Robert Thomson, an Essendon tragic (he is a Melburnian) and sometime Hird mentor, has been showing an unusually keen interest in the daily dramas involving his club, and protege.

The information to which The Herald-Sun, and its national cousin, The Australian, had access was detailed and damaging.

On a number of occasions, the ever-glib and nimble Demetriou found himself ducking a barrage of difficult questions. So much so that the morning after Tania Hird’s revelations, he walked grim-faced and without uttering a syllable into his office, preferring to issue a written statement later in the day.

But then came the masterstroke hatched by Demetriou and his spin doctors: pulling the pin on Essendon’s daily funding lifeline. Farcical as it was, the warring factions had done a deal within 48 hours. Hird was to be paid a lump sum before Christmas but nothing in 2014.

News Limited said it was a farce but their attacks on Demetriou by and large have dissipated.

And in a further twist if, as we suspect, News wanted Demetriou’s scalp, it has failed spectacularly. So far.

Indeed it may have further extended his tenure. It is thought he was negotiating an exit strategy to finish at the AFL at the end of 2014 despite missing out on the top job running the ATP — the governing body which runs men’s professional tennis.

The AFL Commision’s recent back flip in giving Demetriou approval to accept a position on James Packer’s Crown Casino board, was a strong pointer to him planning an exit strategy from the game.

However, Demetriou’s departure could well be on hold now because of the perception it might give that the AFL Commision was not happy with the CEO’s handling of the whole sorry Essendon affair.

An AFL Commission meeting is scheduled for today and Essendon-related matters are again expected to feature high on the agenda. Then we will get a better clue about whether Demetriou’s position at the AFL has been fortified — or whether the News Ltd salvos have begun to find their mark.

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