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Eddie McGuire picked the right time to hand over control of his beloved Magpies

Opinion

Eddie McGuire has always had a great sense of timing – and his departure as Collingwood Football Club president is a case in point, writes Richard Hinds

Print article

At one of Eddie McGuire’s early annual general meetings as Collingwood president the executive was being grilled about the club’s performance by impatient fans and a well-known shareholder advocate.

Sensing the growing dissent, McGuire seized the microphone and reminded the assembled throng that there was free beer at the end of the meeting before launching into a passionate version of the club song, Good Old Collingwood Forever.

As always, McGuire knew his audience. Despite the queue of members still waiting to ask questions the lights went up and everyone headed to the bar.

McGuire this week announced he will leave the Collingwood presidency at the end of next season after 23 years. As with any official who stays so long — perhaps even too long — there will be mixed reviews.

The controversial statements that overshadowed the latter part of McGuire’s presidency, including his — at best — highly insensitive comments about Adam Goodes, will inevitably dominate some views of his incumbency; so too will the mere fact he came to embody the despised Collingwood Football Club.

Among McGuire’s still large band of followers, unquestioned will be the empathy the self-described boy from Broadie (the working-class Melbourne suburb of Broadmeadows) had with the hopes and aspirations of Collingwood’s passionate, demanding and fiercely tribal supporters.

The AFL’s ‘Era of Eddie’ spans three distinct phases, beginning when McGuire was an eager young match-day statistician for the Melbourne Herald newspaper and then a bright-eyed sports reporter on Channel Ten.

In the late 1980s, television sports reporting was generally a matter of a desk-bound personality stealing snippets from the newspapers or the international TV feed and reading a perfunctory report from an autocue.

McGuire was one of the first to break news on air, with his close relationships with the star players of the day causing something of a shift in the established order, before the internet disrupted the news cycle completely.

It was McGuire’s news sense — with his trademark “Big week in football!” — as much as the dubious comedic stylings of John “Sam” Newman that made Nine’s The Footy Show compulsory viewing in the AFL heartland and gave McGuire considerable notoriety.

It says something of McGuire’s rising stardom that when the thumping hangover that followed Collingwood’s drought-breaking 1990 premiership prompted a descent into financial ruin, he was able to use his name to challenge the incumbents, including some fabled club legends.

This process required some ruthlessness as McGuire and his running mates forced the board aside; the first public hint the enthusiastic TV personality had the stomach for a back-room fight.

McGuire’s innate sense of the untapped commercial potential of the Collingwood throng allowed him to monetise a struggling club with top-end-of-town figures seconded to the board and a dramatic growth in membership and sponsorship revenue leading to a long period of financial prosperity.

McGuire’s great legacy will come from the period between 1998 and 2010 when Collingwood was transformed from suburban dinosaur living on past glories to prosperous AFL premier for whom the self-description “Australia’s biggest sports club” was not entirely farfetched.

Upon his appointment, McGuire’s own metric of success was for “Collingwood to be hated again”. By the time captain Nick Maxwell lifted the 2010 premiership cup it is safe to say any pity had long been replaced with more typical disdain for “bloody Collingwood”.

Inevitably, McGuire, who as “Eddie Everywhere” retained a vast media presence, would take much of that hatred on his prominent chin with the perception his influence had grown in proportion to the club’s finances.

Certainly the Magpies’ mostly home-town fixture and other perceived benefits fuelled the feeling McGuire had gained an undue advantage for his club, while his robust statements about the operations of other clubs and the game itself made “with my media hat on” riled opposition supporters.

Although it is instructive that while McGuire is often blamed for campaigning against Sydney’s cost of living allowance, it was not until the Swans recruited Buddy Franklin from under the nose of the AFL-owned Giants — riling then-AFL chairman Mike Fitzpatrick — that the concession was removed.

Question marks over leadership
It is the next stage of McGuire’s presidency that is most vexed, beginning with the succession plan to replace Mick Malthouse as coach with favourite son Nathan Buckley, which was hatched in 2008.

Did the pending succession force Malthouse to discard favourite players and absorb the advice of talented assistant coaches, setting the scene for a rare premiership?

Or did Malthouse’s messy departure cost the Magpies further glory in 2011 and successive seasons?

Either way, Buckley’s early struggles as coach combined with McGuire’s continued stridency in the media — including the Goodes remarks — brought into question the club’s leadership for the first time since his ascension.

Where McGuire’s media presence had once been an asset, not least in providing commercial opportunities for his players, it has in recent times become a source of potential distraction within the club.

When McGuire this year called for hefty sanctions for those who broke the AFL’s COVID-19 protocols, it was short odds it would be his own club star Steele Sidebottom, as well as coach Buckley and assistant Brenton Sanderson, who would be among the first busted.

Although, most symbolic of the problem Collingwood faced due to McGuire’s long reign was the still-to-be released review of its treatment of former player Héritier Lumumba, who has accused the club of harbouring racism.

How could Collingwood move forward meaningfully on this issue when the same leadership embroiled in the controversy — both in its internal response to Lumumba’s complaints and in the Goodes controversy — was still running the show and even commissioning the review?

Typically, rather than any cultural issue, it was the club’s performance in the recent trade week — when a series of historic contract bungles led to a dramatic fire sale — that caused the jungle drums to start beating, with the disgruntlement felt all the way up to board level.

In some minds, the time had come when McGuire did not so much reflect Collingwood as Collingwood had come to reflect McGuire. The individual who had so intuitively embodied the club was casting a shadow over it.

This was not, as far as we know, the motivation for McGuire’s planned departure, nor does it diminish his achievements. But it was clearly the right time to announce the end of what has been by most measures an enormously successful presidency.

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