Xavier Campbell was just 33 when he first auditioned for the top job at the strife-torn Essendon Football Club. Mark Thompson had just been appointed caretaker coach after James Hird’s one-year ban, and almost immediately afterwards Bombers’ interim chief executive Ray Gunston chose not to continue in the role.
Within months, during 2014, chairman Paul Little officially anointed Campbell as the man to lead the club back from the abyss created by the illegal drugs program of 2011-2012. But there was still significantly more bloodshed to come, notably the spilling over of Thompson’s significant personal problems, Hird’s failed return, and then the one-year ban inflicted on 34 players which also led to Jobe Watson being forced to hand back his Brownlow Medal.
Xavier Campbell.Credit:Darrian Traynor
Campbell had been a popular young manager at Windy Hill before his promotion, and for a time shared a house with then assistant coach Simon Goodwin. Campbell, although never alleged to have committed a doping offence, was even the subject of a back-page News Corp story revealing he had self-injected the artificial tanning drug Melanotan-II that had been supplied by an Essendon assistant coach.
If the leaking of that story was intended to embarrass the young CEO, then the intention ultimately backfired. Campbell went on to lead the club out of a potential commercial black hole while ploughing successfully through the complex legal thicket of settling with the banned 34.
Campbell’s performance so impressed AFL boss Gillon McLachlan that the latter began to see him as a potential successor. Late in 2019 Campbell was offered an executive position at head office that never eventuated partly because Campbell and McLachlan could not agree on certain terms.
Campbell’s big play to fix Essendon’s fractured football department and dismal football fortunes – further decimated by the draft penalties of 2013 – came towards the end of 2017 when he attempted to lure retiring Sydney chief Andrew Ireland to oversee the rebuild.
When Ireland knocked back the role, Daniel Richardson was appointed but Campbell and Richardson quickly lost faith in each other and disagreed over the John Worsfold-Ben Rutten coaching handover. After three years Richardson joined the revolving door of Bombers football bosses.
Essendon players after the loss to Sydney.Credit:Getty Images
But when Rutten’s young team made the finals last season, Essendon seemed to have finally started to make its way out of football’s cultural wilderness.
Now that the hope created by the Bombers of 2021 looks to have been a false dawn, the scrutiny upon the club has shifted from Rutten and his assistants to long-time recruiter Adrian Dodoro and ultimately this week to Campbell. Prompted by last week’s insipid surrender to Sydney and the revelation that the board had recontracted him a month into the season, tabloid focus has turned again to Campbell’s past.
Perhaps it was only a matter of time given the fanatical nature of some Essendon factions coupled with an unsavoury incident involving Campbell that occurred at the end of his first season as chief executive.
Campbell, by his own admission, drank too much at a club Christmas party in late 2014 and made some inappropriate comments to women at the function. Complaints were made and Essendon’s then human resources boss Lisa Lawry – who now holds that acting role at the AFL – ordered an external investigation. After the investigation was completed Campbell fronted the board and apologised to his staff. The matter was officially closed.
Deeply embarrassed by the incident, which was described by others as the behaviour of a young boss getting ahead of himself, the murky rumour mill has haunted him since and emerged publicly this week when a supporter group wrote to president Paul Brasher about the incident and copied the letter to News Corp.
Brasher and his board on Friday backed Campbell, with the club saying in a statement that an independent legal firm had overseen the investigation and a detailed report had been provided to the board of directors.
“All parties were engaged in the process and the matter was resolved to the satisfaction of all parties at the time,” the statement said. ″The board at the time was fully informed along with any new board members who have joined since.”
The statement said the board had recently extended Campbell’s contract “because he is considered to be the most suitable leader to drive the next stage of our organisation’s strategic agenda”.
But Campbell was publicly attacked on another front this week by Olympic gold medallist Nova Peris. Peris has quit the Long Walk Foundation’s board, blaming Campbell for a dispute over the placement of her statue.
Essendon bosses seemed confused and puzzled by Peris’ stand but coming as it has on the eve of the Dreamtime game, along with the fact of Richmond over the past decade having taken over the mantle from the Bombers as the champion of Indigenous footballers among Victorian clubs, the timing is dreadful.
Campbell, who will complete the Long Walk on Saturday evening alongside Long, McLachlan and others, could not have envisaged a more miserable public lead-in for Dreamtime’s return to the MCG for the first time in three years. Not just for himself but for his club, which on Friday saw the premature retirement of Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti.
While Campbell is no longer seen as a successor to McLachlan, the public attacks upon him have come in a week where Hird’s football resurrection continued with a coaching promotion at Greater Western Sydney. The unthinkable prospect of Hird coaching Essendon again has been raised by Bomber supporters in the media and Tim Watson reported this week that Hird was open to coaching again.
But the club seems determined to back Rutten, who this week vowed to simplify the game plan. Clearly changes loom among his assistants and elsewhere in football and list management and Campbell’s job now with football boss Josh Mahoney is to brutally assess the recruiting errors and lack of on-field leadership.
No doubt Campbell has made some wrong turns in his eight years where Essendon’s football fortunes are concerned. He has not managed to oversee the absolute healing of the scars from 2012. But from this angle, the media and other public vitriol poured this week upon the club seems disproportionate.
In part this comes from the high-profile Bombers working in football commentary roles and in part it goes with the territory at a club of Essendon’s size and the nature of its passionate supporter base. If only North Melbourne could command such fervour.
And it’s true the buck stops with CEO Campbell. But he doesn’t deserve to be dragged down by the resurrection of an eight-year-old incident, which appears to have been fully investigated and settled. He won’t be the first, but nor should he be forced to continue to jump at shadows cast by unsubstantiated rumours that no one has ever stood up.
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