The AFL cast their net around the world. They spent more than a million dollars on the search. It dragged on for nearly 12 months. For a while, it looked as though the league was about to appoint its first female chief executive. But in the end, they went for the man in the office next door. They opted for the company man, the safe pair of hands.
For many, the appointment of Andrew Dillon as the CEO of the AFL is the epitome of the boys’ club. He ticks a lot of boxes – six premierships at Old Xaverians in the amateurs, and two decades at the AFL. His dad was the president of the Victorian Amateur Football Association. His father in law is Paul Sheahan, former Test cricketer, head of the MCC and headteacher of Melbourne Grammar.
When I reviewed Michael Warner’s book The Boys’ Club, I mentioned Dillon among the group of former private schoolboys and amateur footballers who essentially run the game. Old Xaverians alone had Dillon, Dan Richardson, Craig Kelly and Simon Lethlean, all prominent figures in the current AFL landscape. Many of those played state football with Gillon McLachlan. “A symbiotic relationship exists between many of the game’s key stakeholders,” Warner wrote.
Right from the beginning, Dillon had the full backing of McLachlan. The state amateur teammates have worked together since the turn of the century. They were around during the Essendon supplements scandal when McLachlan was deputy chief. AFL Commission chair Richard Goyder apparently pushed hard for Kylie Watson-Wheeler. But McLachlan wanted Dillon. And the administration invariably has the final say at the AFL.
But what a drawn out, confusing process it was. When McLachlan announced his resignation this time last year, he wanted to go out at the top of his game. He wanted football to be in good health. The only time he choked up – indeed the only time he lost his composure in his entire time at the AFL – was when he spoke about the game itself. He was the last person you’d imagine nearly breaking down at a press conference. He raced through his statement. The whole departure felt rushed.
But the months went by, McLachlan was still there. All the big issues were unresolved. By round one, there was still no Tasmania announcement, no resolution to the Hawthorn scandal, no head of football operations, no anointed successor. What the hell was going on here? The Herald Sun reported he’d been offered a million more a year to stay on. Covid had flattened him. But he was re-energised and enjoying the job again. He could go and run the Brisbane Olympics. He could go into politics. He could go and play polo in Argentina. But this was his sport. This was his passion. Maybe he could go again. Today’s announcement put an end to all that talk. McLachlan will see out the 2023 season and then hand over.
To many, AFL CEOs are cut from the same cloth. But they’ve all been so different. McLachlan was a very different operator to the street fighter Andrew Demetriou. He was more consultative, more calculating, more of an each-way punter. He had, as the critic James Wood wrote of Boris Johnson, an “uncanny ability to soften entitlement with charm”. Dillon will be very different again. He won’t be the sort of CEO who’ll breeze on to AFL360 and trade barbs with Robbo. He’ll be more low-key.
This isn’t a normal job in any sense. And it’s not a normal competition.
The whole thing is built on conflicts of interests. It’s an ostensibly socialist competition whose governing body doesn’t pay tax. Conflicts of interest, competing ideas and messages are everywhere you look in football. They fuel and fund the entire organisation and the game itself. Junk food companies sponsor clubs whose participants run 16 kilometres a game. We can bet our life savings on whether footballers will get more than 25 kicks. Presidents have been journalists and commentators. An organisation that’s progressive, waves a rainbow flag and weighs in on an Aboriginal voice to parliament also cosies up to Lachlan Murdoch. Clubs that are propped up by Pokie machines urge us to have a conversation about changing the date of Australia Day.
Dillon will have to manage and juggle those conflicts. As a footballer, he was the sort of player who could play on a tall or a small. He could shut down a star midfielder or attack from the back pocket. He was disciplined, reliable and versatile. They’re traits that will serve him well in one Australian sport’s most demanding and heavily scrutinised jobs.