Former Essendon football manager Danny Corcoran has claimed the AFL hierarchy effectively imposed an unofficial life ban on former Bombers coach James Hird.
Corcoran, who was suspended for four months by the AFL for his role in Essendon’s disastrous 2012 supplements program, said he bumped into AFL chairman Mike Fitzpatrick at an auction in March 2016 and asked him about the possibility of again being involved in the sport.
“He never answered my question, he simply turned and said to me ‘Your mate Hird will never get back into football’,” Corcoran told the Herald Sun.
Fitzpatrick confirmed speaking to Corcoran at the auction, but denied making the comment about Hird.
“That part of the conversation did not happen,” a league spokeswoman said.
Corcoran countered that he would sign a statutory declaration confirming that those were Fitzpatrick’s ”exact words”.
“That just shows you what we are dealing with,” he said.
Corcoran recently visited Hird, who remains under 24-hour observation in a specialist Melbourne mental health clinic after being rushed to hospital 11 days ago.
“I walked out of that ICU unit and just felt the total despair of how systemic bullying and harassment of a person had caused him to fall into such a dire state,” Corcoran told the Herald Sun.
“I can’t believe it. He’s in an ICU in a secure ward.
“A great man — a great champion, reduced to this … it’s just horrendous to think that it’s got to this point.”
Corcoran and the Hird camp believe the pressures of the supplement saga triggered a post-traumatic stress disorder in the former Essendon coach and player.
The persecution of James Hird was a construction that started very early in the process.
“He told me that (league executives) Gillon McLachlan and Andrew Dillon told him ‘James, you haven’t done much wrong, but we need to put a face to this as it is all about the optics’.”
Corcoran said Hird and his family were “the victims of years of harassment, bullying, attack and intimidation”.
The AFL has denied holding a grudge against Hird, and as recently as last week, denied it had sought to prevent him from taking up a job with football broadcaster SEN in 2017.
Another key figure in the Essendon saga, Mark “Bomber” Thompson, said he ”felt sick in the guts” over Hird’s drug overdose.
“I think the AFL have taken it all way too far,” said Thompson, who was Hird’s senior assistant coach and later filled in while Hird was suspended.
“Everyone makes mistakes but James Hird should have been welcomed back to the footy world a long time ago,” Thompson told the Herald Sun.
“We almost lost a great person and a great player of the game tragically too young.”
Corcoran acknowledged that the club and senior officials, including Hird and himself, had exposed Essendon players to unacceptable risk.
“The ugly and uncomfortable truth is we, and when I say we, that’s everyone who was involved at Essendon — put the players and their families through sheer hell,” he said.
“I accept that, and so should everyone at the club from top to bottom, some more than others. I’m not going to make excuses for my personal situation … we all have to own up to that uncomfortable truth.”
Corcoran said he started to notice signs Hird was struggling with his mental health two years ago, and told him: ”No one in the history of Australian sport has ever suffered as much humiliation or persecution and that is going to take its toll on you’.
I started to notice little things about him being erratic and angry. He couldn’t see anything positive about life after his treatment.
“I said: ‘You need some help and you should get professional advice’.
“But like a lot of men, help was offered and help was rejected.
“He is a victim and is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, I’ve got no doubt about it.
“He endured four years of harassment and eventually he just snapped.”
Meanwhile the man who coached Hird throughout his playing career, Kevin Sheedy, has urged people to give Hird and his family space to allow him to recover.
“I keep thinking that will all the things that have been happening, when you get down to where you feel like you don’t want to live anymore, it’s a very sad situation,” Sheedy told RSN.
“We just can’t rush in, we have to be very patient and sit back and when you’re allowed to, we can actually connect,” Sheedy said.
“He’s just a very, very good person.