Gillon McLachlan has hurt the AFL by staying too long

Gillon McLachlan’s lavish and lengthy farewell tour is starting to wear thin on the competition he has generally led with such panache for the best part of the past decade.

The leadership void in football at the game’s headquarters has become even more stark now the season has started. A series of opening-round head-high bumps have collided with the looming concussion legal action and any inconsistency was always going to expose that void.

AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan’s farewell tour from the position has lasted a long time.Credit:AFL Photos, Getty Images, Phil Hillyard

It’s not surprising given the AFL’s football boss and second in command Andrew Dillon is busy putting together his own presentation for the top job.

Not only that but Dillon has been prevented from appointing a key lieutenant to replace Brad Scott in football because McLachlan’s decision to extend his tenure has enforced a bureaucratic stalemate. It is a situation that is frustrating not only the clubs but also the AFL internally. Even the commission is at odds.

The NRL changed its concussion protocols last week and some AFL clubs have moved to quickly strengthen the Australian rules code’s protocols as the environment becomes more legally menacing.

This is just a microcosm of the thorny issues facing the game at a time when not one but three key executives at head office are competing for the top job.

It is hard to imagine any other major sporting code or big business around the globe tolerating such administrative inertia.

McLachlan, too, should be scrutinised for failing to prepare a successor over the long term, so intense has been the concentration of his power within the game’s governing body. In the early days it was Travis Auld, brought into the AFL fold from Gold Coast soon after McLachlan took the reins in 2014. Then McLachlan set his sights on former Essendon chief Xavier Campbell, then Auld again, and then the long-serving and respected competition legal counsel Dillon.

AFL Commission chairman Richard Goyder insulted the 18 club CEOs at their most recent meeting two weeks ago when he said he would only engage with the presidents regarding McLachlan’s successor. He later flattened the spirits of many of those presidents when he reported that the commission would be soon interviewing six candidates for the role – virtually 12 months had passed and still six candidates?

And it seems extraordinary that the commission only interviewed those aforementioned candidates over the past week when the first interviews took place in midwinter 2022. The known contenders are Dillon, Auld, Richmond chief executive Brendon Gale and AFL commercial boss Kylie Rogers. Of those, Dillon and Gale are seen as the two favourites.

Goyder reveres McLachlan. His deferential respect for his clever and charismatic CEO led to the mutually agreed announcement that McLachlan would leave his role only after completing a series of key deals, and then led to him extending McLachlan’s departure deadline and even suggesting he stay.

But some of those deals have proved more challenging than even the AFL’s highly skilled dealmaker McLachlan could have anticipated. Having completed yet another rich and long-term broadcast agreement, the Tasmanian 19th licence quest has dragged its feet and the next CBA deal with the players is unfinished.

And those were the foreseeable issues. McLachlan was blindsided by the shocking racism allegations involving Hawthorn that publicly emerged in grand final week when his glittering last lap was in sight.

Quite apart from the devastating nature of the accusations and the fallout that led to coaches Alastair Clarkson and Chris Fagan, who deny the allegations against them, stepping down for a period in the off-season along with commissioner and former Hawthorn president Andrew Newbold, the entire process has proved a tangled legal and cultural mess, with McLachlan and his team appearing to have lost control.

The federal government is considering the state’s bid for $240 million to build a new stadium in Hobart. Credit:The Age

It is all very well for head office bosses to point the finger at Hawthorn chief Justin Reeves for bungling the initial inquiry. McLachlan chose to extend his tenure and therefore must take responsibility for it moving closer to a resolution. The longer this drags on, the more damage it does.

McLachlan will not say when he is leaving but has indicated he wants to stick around long enough to announce Tasmania’s entry into the competition. This would not come before May when the federal government will hopefully allocate much-needed funding for the new stadium in Hobart.

As historically crucial and socially uplifting Tasmania’s entry would prove for the code it seems a bit rich for McLachlan to be allowed to pick and choose his deals when he quit almost a year ago. Does he announce Tasmania but leave concussion to the next administration?

In public performances dating back to the 2022 finals series, McLachlan has been increasingly loose and in early appearances this year he has taken part in jokey exchanges about the AFL’s gambling culture one minute while finally admitting the game needs to reform that partnership the next.

Pivotal footy administrator Allen Aylett, who died in September last year.Credit:Andrew De La Rue

He opened the AFL season launch with a joke about his Dame Nellie Melba-style long series of goodbyes, a theme that will no doubt be carried into the round-five Gather Round festival of football in Adelaide, which opens with another opulent function at Penfolds Magill Estate.

That so much of the AFL calendar has revolved around McLachlan would be more deserving if the competition had fittingly honoured some of the game’s other famous trailblazers.

Allen Aylett, the founding father of the national game and a McLachlan predecessor, died in September and was frankly paid lip service on grand final day as McLachlan was feted again. Still, six months later, head office has failed to conceive any tangible legacy befitting Aylett’s contribution.

In late August not one commissioner turned up to honour former Richmond president Peggy O’Neal at her last home game in the role. Having made history as the game’s first woman chair with three premierships under her watch and having played such a major part in the rebuilding of the Tigers, O’Neal deserved better.

Suitably chastened, both McLachlan and Goyder made the trip to Metricon Stadium last week to honour the departing chairman Tony Cochrane. As a side point, the Suns have proved one of McLachlan’s key disappointments but some AFL bosses seem happy to pass the buck there too and are now pointing the finger of blame for their poor performance at Gold Coast CEO Mark Evans.

Grievances large and small punctuate Australia’s largest and most powerful football code throughout every season and with every home-and-away round and beyond there lies a new disaster alongside every triumph. The truth is there can be no perfect finish for McLachlan, only the equal truth that he has been a thoroughly successful performer.

But the longer he stays and as good as the game itself looks now under his reforms, the more pronounced his blemishes. When he took on the role in 2014 McLachlan indicated he would not come close to Andrew Demetriou’s near-11-year term, preferring to be in a less demanding and high-profile role by the time his children were in senior school. Breaking up for him, too, has clearly been as very hard to do as it has for Goyder.

The irony is that as he leaves – and the indication is that his replacement will be named very soon – the commission looks as divided as it was in his early years when the game’s governors refused for far too long to take a united stand on behalf of Adam Goodes.

In 2015 McLachlan, in his second year as CEO, failed to stand up to the commission. Fast-forward to 2023, and you could mount the opposite argument. The commission remains at odds with each other over Goyder’s direction, and it is the departing McLachlan who has total control.

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