The year of two Popes: How the AFL’s messy search landed on CEO

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The choice of Andrew Dillon as the person responsible for the AFL, the clubs and the game of Australian rules football was a safe choice and one that has been met with little opposition from within headquarters or the clubs.

It is an appointment that confirms that the AFL commission believes the game is faring well and does not need radical surgery on any of the vital organs that keep the code prosperous.

But Dillon is an entirely different personality to Gillon McLachlan and the change of personality – when the change is finally made after McLachlan’s prolonged handover period – will inevitably change the nature of the AFL, in style and eventually in substance.

Andrew Dillon. Credit: Luis Ascui

Dillon was the favoured candidate of the clubs once Richmond’s CEO Brendon Gale was out of the picture – and that seemed to be the case months ago – and of a majority of the seven-member commission, which took an inordinate time to make the call largely because of their reluctance to part with McLachlan.

Dillon is not a charismatic leader who fills the room like McLachlan, nor does he have the force and sheer effrontery of McLachlan’s predecessor Andrew Demetriou.

But those who know him well – and while he does not command the media like the more performative McLachlan – would say that Dillon has a steel hammer within the velvet glove and will not be afraid to make necessary change, such as the new rules that have improved the spectacle since 2019.

His elevation from effective second in command to the top job followed an embarrassingly drawn-out process that lasted several months, at minimum, longer than necessary. A world-wide search, involving a corporate headhunter, has yielded the most obvious internal candidate. The AFL should demand a partial refund if they spent as much as reported.

One of the causes of the delay was the reality that the AFL chairman Richard Goyder had difficulty in letting McLachlan leave, while McLachlan himself also has found it hard to say goodbye.

Thus, even after the white smoke has wafted from the proverbial Docklands chimney, signifying the election of a new Pope, the game will have two Popes – the first one staying around, at the behest of the conclave, to deal with Tasmania, what Goyder called “the Hawthorn thing” and a new pay deal for the players.

But this column would not be surprised if McLachlan leaves sooner than the mooted handover date of October 2. He is going away to Europe for a decent holiday in June and, realistically, some powers will have transferred to the new man in that period.

Multiple AFL and club sources have insisted for several days that Goyder and commissioner and Seek founder Paul Bassat fancied the Bulldogs’ president, Kylie Watson-Wheeler, over Dillon, as recently as the Gather Round weekend, with investment banker Robin Bishop backing not so much Watson-Wheeler, but the chairman’s right to make the call.

But the women on the commission were said to support Dillon, as the incumbent candidate, as did Hawthorn’s former president Andrew Newbold.

Watson-Wheeler was said to have presented well – her background as Disney’s Australian chief would help in discussions of streaming and media rights – but there was a widespread opposition to her potential appointment from stakeholders.

If this can be read as the boys’ club fighting a progressive appointment and protecting their patch, it is arguably more the case that Watson-Wheeler did not have a constituency within clubs. She did not run a political campaign for what is a quasi-political appointment.

The AFL is comparable to the Vatican in that they chose the Pope from the ranks of cardinals and you need cardinal backing. In footy, that means a candidate for CEO cannot win without some club support and Watson-Wheeler, whatever her undoubted appeal, did not garner support from her fellow presidents and clubs.

Outwardly, the new Pope is a more reserved, dry and modest character than the extroverted McLachlan. He is less impulsive and one would fancy that while the AFL generally makes pragmatic decisions – rather than ones governed by lofty principles – his lawyerly and less commercial bent means that he will be, by AFL standards, more of a stickler for process than McLachlan, who excelled in the art of the deal to fix problems.

What does Dillon stand for? When facing the media on Monday as CEO-elect, he mentioned grassroots footy on multiple occasions, including his father’s background in the amateurs and his own stewardship of the Old Xavs.

Dillon is already navigating the Hawthorn imbroglio – which has been fraught enough that McLachlan recently told club CEOs it was “a mess” – and the other legal/medical quagmire of concussion. He also will have his say on Tasmania’s player rules and set-up while he’s CEO-in-waiting.

But his term as AFL boss will be defined, as leaders are, by his response to events and to whatever crisis comes next. And if we can be certain of anything within the AFL church, it’s that a crisis will engulf the game soon enough.

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