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Last man standing: Why Gillon McLachlan must stay in the job

There was speculation about a potential move to run Crown Casino, as he was sounded out about other jobs, and open talk within the game about Brendon Gale, Richmond’s chief executive, as his prospective successor.

Today, any thoughts McLachlan harboured about leaving have been shunted, as the AFL faces the greatest crisis it has seen since the competition emerged from its Victorian cocoon in the late ’80s.

The upshot is that McLachlan has no choice but to stay on until the end of 2021, at the least, and to steer the game safely across the fiscal rapids that threaten the code.

McLachlan’s continued presence is a sharp and revealing contrast to the rival codes of rugby league and rugby union, which have just brutally jettisoned their CEOs, as the crisis exposed structural and cultural flaws and a resultant lack of funds. Even Cricket Australia’s relatively new boss Kevin Roberts is confronting a level of dissatisfaction within the ranks.

So COVID-19 has been a game-changer for the man who runs Australia’s most powerful sporting competition. Tired and getting kicked by media and fans in June and July of last year, McLachlan, like Scott Morrison, has been energised by the coronavirus calamity and found a second wind.

Senior AFL sources are adamant, too, that he will be at the helm in 2021, at bare minimum. The AFL commission wants him to stay, and there’s no push from the clubs for change, either.

The 18 clubs, indeed, are dealing with enough change, as the majority of staff are stood down, costs are slashed and they prepare for a weird, shortened Hunger Games season in quasi-quarantined games at empty stadia.

McLachlan’s supporters within clubs and the league believe the present crisis has suited his temperament and management style, which is to seek consensus and do deals. In the past, this desire to craft outcomes – notably during the Melbourne tanking episode (when there was a curious non-finding against the club but individuals were suspended) – was seen, not unreasonably, as too expedient.

In the Goodes saga, the clear nadir of McLachlan’s tenure, he equivocated on the question of whether the booing was racist, rather than calling it out. In large part, McLachlan was seeking to balance different strains of opinion, within the AFL Commission and the clubs, on the Goodes question. It was an error born of consensus.

Unlike the Goodes saga, the coronavirus catastrophe brings consensus and coalitions to the fore. A house divided in a pandemic will not stand (as in the United States). McLachlan, wisely, has brought the loudest voices in the room – Collingwood’s Eddie McGuire and Jeff Kennett, along with the Bulldogs’ forceful president Peter Gordon – into his wartime cabinet of club and AFL officials. Again, there’s a parallel with the prime minister’s national cabinet set-up.

McLachlan’s deal-making penchant was never more evident than when the AFL had to cut the players’ pay. This deal – generous, but strategic given the imminent demands on players – was achieved at warp speed, in what was a necessary platform for the next critical deal, the $600 million line of credit from banks that would underwrite the clubs and competition.

AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan.

AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan.Credit:Getty Images

McLachlan is blessed to run a sport that has a) a commission that is independent of self-interested clubs, b) allows him to run the show, and c) has assets, in the form of Marvel Stadium and the $120m-plus future fund. He also has fostered a tight relationship with broadcasters.

None of the above applies to rugby league, whose hapless CEO Todd Greenberg was discarded by the sport’s powerful chairman Peter V’landys and his ARL Commission, who, in turn, reflect the rapacious will of club warlords.

The exit of Rugby Australia’s Raelene¬†Castle is complicated, and this column is not about to claim expertise in the arcane workings of the game played in heaven, except to echo the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Georgina Robinson’s assessment that the virus exposed the code’s underlying weaknesses and “put a spotlight on her shortcomings”.

The crisis exposed those sports and their warts. It has made the AFL and McLachlan look enlightened by comparison, though they should not be too self-congratulatory, given that it took only a matter of days for the AFL and the clubs to be on their knees and then in hock to the banks.

McLachlan’s legacy will be defined, not by Goodes, not by the messy conclusion of the Essendon saga, not by the lucrative six-year deal he struck with Rupert Murdoch’s Foxtel and Seven. And while women’s footy will certainly rank high, he will be remembered largely for the game he bequeaths to his successor, whenever that happens.

He might well save what we call the “football industry”, by finding consensus amid emergency, by cutting jobs, doing deals, sparing clubs and by positioning the league for better times once the turnstiles are opened. But McLachlan’s ultimate test will be to preserve, protect and enhance the faith of the football community – the fans, volunteers and grass roots clubs and players – for whom the game has not, and will never be an industry.

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