McLachlan ‘impossible’ to replace, as successor issued a frank warning

Gillon McLachlan’s successor has been delivered a sobering warning that brain trauma and the need to grow women’s and community football will present as significant challenges, coming on a day the AFL’s chief executive confirmed he will step down.

McLachlan will leave a role he has held for eight years once the 2022 campaign is completed, and on Tuesday outlined several key planks he wants completed before then, including a new broadcast rights deal and a collective bargaining agreement for men and women players.

While declaring McLachlan will be “impossible” to replace, former Western Bulldogs president and leading Melbourne lawyer Peter Gordon said McLachlan’s replacement faced key issues that still needed addressing. This included how best to deal with a growing group of former players who have suffered ongoing brain trauma from heavy on-field knocks or collisions.

Stepping down: AFL boss Gillon McLachlan. Credit:Chris Hopkins

Gordon has been tasked by the AFL to determine whether a multi-million dollar fund can be established to help players and their families, at a time when a class action continues to be mooted.

“I think there are a lot of challenges that are coming up … I have been retained by the AFL to give some advice in relation to how to look after players who have suffered from traumatic brain injury,” Gordon said on SEN.

“Concussion is an issue for all competitive sports these days, that’s going to be difficult. I think the issue of continued growth of the women’s game and continuing to extend roots into community football is going to be a really difficult thing.

“Every new administration, every new CEO faces new challenges, the challenges now be they of technology or the things we are now learning about traumatic brain injury, how to play the game or be the expectations, legitimate expectations of players and their families for boys and girls going into the game for health and safety, present challenges the like we haven’t known before. The next person will need their wits about them.”

Gordon praised McLachlan for ensuring there was greater competitive balance between all clubs, pointing to breakthrough premierships by the Bulldogs, Richmond and Melbourne, and said one of the greatest decisions of the last century had been the introduction of the AFLW in 2017.

“I think it will be impossible – respectfully – to the next candidate to fill his shoes when you look at his track record and the things that he has done,” Gordon said.

Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett has jousted privately and publicly with McLachlan but wished him the best.

Gillon McLachlan with his wife, Laura and children – Erie, Cleo, Sidney and Luna – at Marvel Stadium. Credit:Chris Hopkins

“It’s a big loss for the AFL, but it’s a big win for his family,” Kennett said.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said McLachlan had done an “amazing job”.

“Our game is in very good hands, and he should be proud of the contribution that he’s made. I’m deeply grateful to him for the many partnerships that our government has had with him,” he said.

Sport minister Martin Pakula praised McLachlan’s role in leading the AFL throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, declaring his performance was “nothing short of outstanding”.

“There were those times in March 2020 when he and I were on the phone almost every day,” Pakula said.

“As much as this pandemic was incredibly challenging for all of us, the level of complexity for the AFL was extreme. Gill had to manage government media, clubs, stadia, players and his own team, and just did an extraordinary job. I think the AFL has been brilliantly led.

“Andrew Demetriou was hard to follow. Gillon McLachlan … will be an extraordinarily hard act to follow.”

Collingwood forward Mason Cox said McLachlan had been one of the reasons why he had shifted from the US to join the Magpies.

“I remember one of my first experiences here was with the AFL CEO. I met with Andrew Demetriou as he was literally packing his office into boxes then this tall lanky man named Gillon had my brother and I up to the boardroom to make sure we felt welcomed here in Aus,” Cox posted on Twitter.

“He might not remember the afternoon tea and triangle sandwiches but his generosity and welcoming nature in that meeting was a big reason I came to Aus.

“I’ve poked fun at the AFL here and there but over the last few years he has had to lead through something none of us could have anticipated and you have to respect someone sticking with it through thick and thin. Wishing him the best in life’s next adventure.”

North Melbourne chief executive Ben Amarfio said McLachlan will leave an “extraordinary” legacy.

“From his time as a young, talented head of strategy, then GM of commercial, rising to chief operating officer and deputy CEO and ultimately CEO of the biggest sporting organisation in the country, he’s had a huge impact on the game,” Amarfio said.

“A master negotiator, he is large in stature but was also huge in his aspirations for the business of the code, and he drove outcomes exceptionally well.

“On a personal front I have known Gill for 20 years, and I’m pleased to call him a good friend and a person of high integrity. I was always envious of his impressive bouffant but never his awkward high-kicking dance moves! In all seriousness, he will be sorely missed because of his drive, enormous work ethic, smarts, humour and leadership.”

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