Michael Hurley and Dyson Heppell have lived through both crises. Picture: Getty Images
Michael Hurley and Dyson Heppell have lived through both crises. Picture: Getty Images

Robinson: Coronavirus crisis a double blow for rising Bombers

Essendon knows a crisis. Like all other 17 clubs, the Bombers have been gutted both financially and emotionally.

For the Bombers, it is the second time in what is now a decade of doom.

No one will reach for a tissue, of course, as football, Australia and the world confronts the economic tsunami delivered by COVID-19, but the Bombers just can't get their heads above water.

The first wave was the supplements debacle.

The second wave, and this is much more devouring, is the coronavirus.

 

Essendon has endured a diabolical decade. Picture: Michael Klein
Essendon has endured a diabolical decade. Picture: Michael Klein

 

The drugs saga cost the club an estimated $20 million. The 2020 season could cost Essendon, and every club for that matter, $15 million or more.

All 18 clubs face a bleak future financially.

Some are worse than others. Take St Kilda, which has a mountain of debt.

Some have worked to the bone to reduce debt. In five years, Carlton has reduced its burden from $9 million to $3 million.

They all will recover. Who knows how long it will take, maybe a decade, but recover they will.

Emotionally, that's the real issue. Last week 18 clubs sacked, or made redundant, or stood down 80 per cent of their staff.

Brisbane boss Greg Swann described it as the worst day of his professional life.

Dons chief executive Xavier Campbell didn't disagree. "It was gut-wrenching,'' he said.

He was Essendon's chief executive through the hellish 2014-16 seasons, 2016 being when 34 Essendon players were suspended for 12 months.

 

The supplements saga threw the Bombers into crises. Picture: Getty Images
The supplements saga threw the Bombers into crises. Picture: Getty Images

 

That season, with top-ups and a new coach, was unprecedented.

Campbell won't compare the economic situations of then and now, other than to say both required "critical and urgent'' decisions.

The human cost, however, is unbearably distressing.

"We're such a human-based industry,'' he said.

"Clubs ask so much more of their people in sport. You ride the wave of emotion a lot more than you probably do in traditional corporate businesses.

"In the stands, you're hugging fellow staff members after a big win, you see board members hugging each other, and everyone getting super excited. With that emotional ride, when things don't go well on-field, and I've seen it off field a couple of times now, that creates a challenging landscape.

"Because it means so much.

"Football clubs are such an important sense of identity for a lot of people."

 

Bombers boss Xavier Campbell and captain Dyson Heppell. Picture: Michael Klein
Bombers boss Xavier Campbell and captain Dyson Heppell. Picture: Michael Klein

 

FOOTY FAMILY

Football clubs must be unreal environments to work in. The atmosphere is determined by what happens in a two-hour span on any given weekend.

A win bring smiles and confidence. A loss, the opposite.

The exhilaration of turning up for work versus the despair and anxiety of working there.

Most people are paid unders to work in the industry.

The do it because they love it. The potential of having the best working year of your life must be a tease.

One executive, not at Essendon, said staff were hooked on the emotion and rhythm of footy.

"It was like punting. You lose, and you dust yourself off and go back. If you win, you float through the front door,'' he said.

He cried when he told his staff they had to be stood down.

"It's a family inside footy clubs," he said

There's one family made up of three extended families - the players, the coaches and the administration.

Last week, the players got a small slice of joy with their pay deal.

But for the coaches and the administration, it was a bloodletting.

Campbell had to stand down or make redundant good people with kids and mortgages at a time of incredible uncertainty in the workforce.

"We had no choice but to make big decisions," he said.

"And it's not the fault of those individuals, it's through a matter of circumstances.

"That's heartbreaking when you see the impact on those people, people who are loyal and dedicated."

This period is different to the drugs saga.

Then, the Bombers were isolated under a tonne of bricks and a tonne of media coverage.

Some of it was self-inflicted, some of it not, but all of it was complex.

It was four years of fighting the AFL, the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, lawyers and at times themselves.

 

Michael Hurley and Dyson Heppell have lived through both crises. Picture: Getty Images
Michael Hurley and Dyson Heppell have lived through both crises. Picture: Getty Images

 

HUMAN TOLL

In the middle was the human cost - the players.

"That was challenging because so much was out of their control and I personally felt a lot of it," Campbell said.

"How I can describe it? They certainly didn't do anything overtly out of the line.

''And it's the period of uncertainty, when you're not clear on the direction or the time frame for which something is going to take place.

"Which is exactly where it is now with respect to the 2020 season and how long the virus will impact society and how long we're going to be shut out of games.

"Even reflecting on '14, '15 and '16, once we knew the time frame associated with the process, it still wasn't easy, but it was easier."

The "Essendon 34" were banned in January 2016, the same month the coronavirus started infiltrating the world this year.

Four of the suspended players remain on the current list: Dyson Heppell, Tom Bellchambers, Cale Hooker and Michael Hurley.

Others, such as Joe Daniher, Zach Merrett and David Zaharakis, played before, during and after the drugs ban.

If football doesn't return this season, Heppell, Bellchambers, Hooker and Hurley will have a second season swiped from their careers.

The young Bombers were just beginning to turn the corner. Picture: AAP
The young Bombers were just beginning to turn the corner. Picture: AAP

 

"I haven't had discussions with them about how they feel about this and its context to their careers," Campbell said.

"But I know they care about the club and the young guys not being able to play, and they care about the fact they are building something and they are confident in what they're building.

"Those four guys love the game and to not be able to do that … that's why 2016 was heartbreaking.''

In 2016, the players explored life, business, travel and the community.

This is different again.

"It's a societal issue, where there are so many restrictions,'' Campbell said.

"It's not like you can take advantage of anything other the fact you get this intimate opportunity to connect with your family. It's staring us all in the face.''

Campbell said the drugs saga showed it was important to be ''really clear and honest'' with information about the potential costs of the coronavirus.

He held staff meeting on March 11, a day after the club chief executives and presidents had a meeting with the AFL.

Less than two weeks later, the worst fears were doubled, if not tripled.

 

Bombers fans have stuck thick with the club through trying times. Picture: AAP
Bombers fans have stuck thick with the club through trying times. Picture: AAP

 

BOMBERS ARMY

Then there's the fans, the lifeblood. Campbell says every fan is in it together.

"When going through adversity, it strips layers back to the pure nature as to why you love the game and why you love the club,'' he said.

''I saw that last time with us.

"The people, the support, and even though it wasn't what they lined up for and what they wanted, the members rallied.

"I've got no doubt that's what will happen again, not just for the red and black, but for every club.

''The members are the life blood of footy clubs.

"It's not possible without the players and it's not possible without the members.

"We've known that, but it's absolutely hitting us in the face right now."

 

 

 

Originally published as Robbo: Coronavirus crisis a double blow for rising Bombers



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