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Unhappy AFL clubs may move against commission

That Goyder is based in Perth has become an even larger elephant in the room particularly for the Victorian clubs but also in the non-traditional football states due to his total lack of public presence during the 2020 pandemic where CEO Gillon McLachlan has single-handedly presented virtually every major and momentous decision.

Whether the Browne push gains legs – and a quarter of the presidents have already indicated they would support his nomination – the fact that the clubs are moving to exercise the constitutional power they relinquished in practice decades ago remains significant.

AFL chairman Richard Goyder.

AFL chairman Richard Goyder.Credit:Getty Images

Apart from the presidential coup in 2000 in which the clubs voted out West Australian commissioner Terry O’Connor and installed outgoing Adelaide chairman Bob Hammond, the AFL has for years handpicked its own board members. Setting up a nominations committee involving two club presidents has been the commission’s way of paying lip service to the clubs.

But the respect has been scant. A metaphor for that lack of club respect was the AFL’s decision to overlook the highly respected retiring Sydney chief Andrew Ireland – who also pioneered the game in Queensland, which is not represented at commission level and where Ireland is now based – for a commission position two years ago.

Instead Ireland remained a Sydney director and joined other boards including the Australian Sports Commission, where he is now regarded as a key driver of policy and reform as Australia heads toward another Olympic campaign.

And although the 18 club presidents remain divided by contrasting financial circumstances, geography and some historic ideological differences, a growing proportion has come to resent the make-up of the AFL’s board and its lack of understanding of the game and its clubs.

Jeff Browne (right), pictured with AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan, Collingwood president Eddie McGuire and Browne's wife Rhonda Wyllie during the spring racing carnival in Melbourne in 2015.

Jeff Browne (right), pictured with AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan, Collingwood president Eddie McGuire and Browne’s wife Rhonda Wyllie during the spring racing carnival in Melbourne in 2015.Credit:Jesse Marlow

The AFL’s control over the clubs has intensified given it owns its newest teams the Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney and has full financial jurisdiction over at least another eight. Goyder is only the fifth commission chairman in the history of the AFL whereas club presidents turn over at a significantly higher rate.

Five of the so-called wealthier clubs West Coast, Collingwood, Richmond, Hawthorn and Essendon have banded together over the AFL’s decision to significantly reduce dividends next year to the richer clubs. McLachlan’s threat to no longer cover the total player payments to those clubs – while the clubs have no say in those CBA negotiations – has sparked mutinous talk, which could again divide the presidents at a time they move for stronger and better-credentialled commissioners.

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Against that is Jeff Kennett’s decision to remain at the helm at Hawthorn. Kennett, who famously hosted a breakaway meeting of Victorian club presidents back in 2018, where those bosses bemoaned the lack of respect afforded them by head office, has stated his only other priority beyond the Hawks is to hold the AFL to account.

Kennett has continued to push the AFL to open up its books to the clubs as it forces savage cuts upon them. Even after cutting more than 20 per cent of its staff in line with the savage cost-cutting across the competition, an organisational chart sent to the clubs on Monday of the AFL’s revised bureaucratic thicket has raised presidential eyebrows.

Goyder’s hands-off style and unwavering faith in his CEO McLachlan has played out well in this season of uncharted territory in which McLachlan has managed to defuse most of the landmines that stood in his path and deftly dealt with the damage caused by the worst of them.

The CEO, who entertained stepping down at the end of 2020 but has indicated he will remain to steer the game out of the crisis, has largely justified the new pecking order in which he is rarely challenged or checked.

But whether McLachlan can continue to work effectively at his current frenetic pace without a significantly strong executive team and toothless commissions is a bigger question.

Richmond CEO Brendon Gale remains the firm favourite at club level and across the competition in terms of heir apparent and yet no one at head office seems interested in working to influence or enhance an effective succession plan. Perhaps this is because McLachlan has other ideas, although his attempt to promote Essendon boss Xavier Campbell hit a hurdle.

Richmond's Brendon Gale is a favourite among clubs as a possible successor to Gillon McLachlan.

Richmond’s Brendon Gale is a favourite among clubs as a possible successor to Gillon McLachlan.Credit:Getty Images

The AFL Commission includes four former club directors in Jason Ball, Goyder, former Hawthorn president Andrew Newbold and Gabrielle Trainor. All came to the board table highly respected and yet, like their fellow commissioners, none seem to have taken or been given the opportunity to play to their strengths in terms of the game’s and their club’s cultures.

Apart from McLachlan and Newbold, the only other commissioner who flew into Queensland at the start of September to witness first-hand the unfolding of this unusual season was Paul Bassat, a highly respected businessman and venture capitalist who served with Goyder on the Wesfarmers board. The former Macquarie bank boss Robin Bishop, a more recent commissioner, was a key advisor to Goyder at Wesfarmers. Perhaps Goyder may rethink his decision on the grand final now that quarantine restrictions in WA have become less onerous.

No one is suggesting that the AFL requires a hands-on chairman like rugby league’s Peter V’landys. But Goyder’s multiple priorities – his other chairmanships include Qantas, Woodside Petroleum and the Seven Telethon Trust, which was one reason he gave for missing the grand final – and hands-off style has permeated across a board table that over the years has included directors such as Peter Nixon, Bill Kelty, Peter Scanlon and Graham Samuel.

The clubs are largely to blame for the position in which they find themselves. The game may have one of the great sporting chief executives but the clubs have the commission it deserves. They should either stop complaining that they are largely misunderstood or act to shake up the AFL board.

Having been successfully divided over the years by both the AFL and their own circumstances, the big question is whether the presidents have the political strength to galvanise and employ their last vestige of influence on the commission they believe is failing on several levels to represent them.

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