AAndrew Demetriou was at the vet, tending to his injured cat, when he phoned Gil McLachlan to congratulate him on becoming the AFL’s new CEO. They were two very different men. Demetriou started from scratch. He was an old school murderer. As Essendon’s supplement scandal dragged on, he grew increasingly short-tempered and arguably overwhelmed. His replacement would be more conciliatory, and cooler-headed. Yes, it was from the polo set. But he understood grassroots football. He was willing to consult and listen. A savvy negotiator, he was just the man to secure a monumental television rights deal.
No one barracks for the AFL. They are all too easy to pocket and blame. Sometimes we seem to expect more of them than our own chosen ones. They are invariably on a hiding spot for nothing. McLachlan has certainly made his share of mistakes. He said so during Tuesday’s press conference. He was completely hesitant throughout the Adam Goodes case. Under his leadership, the AFL had a disjointed attitude towards Tasmanian football. They continue to throw obscene amounts of money at the Gold Coast Suns. They still don’t seem quite sure what will happen to their women’s competition. And it’s all underpinned by the feeling that the sport has been handed over to the host broadcasters. Indeed, when the 2015 broadcast deal was announced, the same day James Hird was sacked as Essendon manager, McLachlan was flanked by Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Stokes. The AFL was now groaning for money. But at what cost ?
To his credit though, McLachlan has worked hard to ensure football remains accessible to the average punter. Unlike his predecessor, he was always ready to engage with fans, listen to their concerns, and make changes if necessary. He was always good at reading which way the wind was blowing. He would have been a fine politician. There was something disarming about him. He would head to a show like AFL 360, answer questions from a hyperventilated Mark Robinson, and be calm, consistent, and perfectly reasonable. Despite his corporate gibberish, gaming has always been at the forefront of his thinking. This is why he hesitated to become the CEO of the NRL. It would have been a chore. His heart was with football. When he spoke about it on Tuesday, his big eyes watered.
When league president Richard Goyder was asked what McLachlan’s greatest asset was, he said, “His ability to see around the corners. When you organize a football competition, you really don’t know what each day has in store for you. One minute you’re negotiating with Rupert Murdoch, and the next minute a player has fired up the Crazy Monday animation. McLachlan took it all in his stride. But how he responded to the pandemic will be his greatest legacy. The AFL’s ability to dodge and weave, keep Covid at bay, upset an entire competition within an hour and somehow produce a half-decent product, was remarkable . Adhering to Covid protocols, finding sterile hallways, chartering flights at $100,000 each and evacuating compromised players while they warmed up – they did it all.
But it was expensive. In 2020, he announced widespread job cuts. All of his staff met via online chat and the CEO addressed them from the front seat of his car. At the Gold Coast hub, a day after Richmond was embroiled in a kebab scandal, McLachlan had to give various club executives an almighty service over the lack of compliance with Covid protocols. There were too many selfies, too much lazing by the pool, too much time at the bar. He worked 18 hours a day and it had exhausted him.
Indeed, he looked like a tired man on Tuesday. He was in tears. He ran through his prepared statement. And he still has plenty on his plate. He has collective agreements to negotiate with men and women. There’s another broadcast deal looming. Hopefully there is some kind of resolution on a new Tasmanian team.
When all of that is done, Gil McLachlan will take a back seat. It’s reasonable to assume that life won’t be too strenuous. He will play amateur football games at the University of Melbourne, with his white oval fenced off. He will perch on the fence, with his guide and his pie, and his children at his feet. When all deals are done and all combinations have left the building, the game itself is all that matters. McLachlan has always understood this. This is what made him cry when he announced his imminent departure. The Australian reigns over football, despite all his faults, trifles and Faustian bargains, is still healthy, and he deserves credit for nurturing and protecting him.