I liken the James Hird coaching era to this scenario: it’s early high school, you’re an average kid, doing alright tiptoeing through the jungle of bigger and smaller kids. You not the smartest, not the dumbest. You’re also not the most popular but you aspire to be. Maybe.
Then one day, the hottest girl in school latches her eyes on you and decides that you and her are going to be an item. You are kicking yourself. How can you say no? Dreams are coming true and you float along, intoxicated by this infinitesimal probability. She brings you into her world, a circle for the select. You acquiesce, because, why not?
As in all fantasies, reality is suspended. You go for the ride, deep down knowing that inevitably, this will snap. It’s not really meant to be and you know it can never really last. For the moment, you are lovestruck and damn the consequences. This is, after all, the hottest girl in the school.
The allure of Club legends coming back to coach is an entrenched romantic notion in the AFL. Hird taking the reins at Essendon along with Thompson was a dream combo for the ages. Its failure, due entirely to a program of well-intentioned but appallingly executed sports science, is the kind of dramatic turn saved for a Shakespearean tragedy.
Was Hird really a good coach? A comparison of the records for the last four coaches from 2005 to 2015 (excluding Egan), shows that Hird had the second best winning record. With the Saga hanging over him (and the players), the record looks more impressive.
A year by year trend shows that up to 2013, that winning percentage was inching upward. Skeptics would suggest that Thompson’s influence was the real magic here and I wouldn’t argue. He was brought in to mentor Hird and his student was learning.
In 2015 without Thompson, Hird’s record up to round 6 (prior to the WADA appeal) was at 0.500, just a fraction below his career winning percentage. After that, he went 2-11. The average losing margin was 51 points.
With the Saga stretching into its third year, sustaining player intensity was always going to be tough.