‘They can sack me if they are not happy’: Tension brewing for AFL

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A level of tension has emerged between the AFL and Greater Western Sydney over the timing of founding chairman Tony Shepherd’s departure and the question of who should replace him.

Resisting perceived pressure from the game’s head office to conclude Shepherd’s leadership handover by grand final day, some within the club are also frustrated at the push by some AFL bosses to install the Australian Business Council president Tim Reed as the Giants’ new chairman.

Succession: There is tension with AFL headquarters ahead of Tony Shepherd’s impending departure from GWS.Credit: Getty Images

The respected Reed joined the board late last year partly at the recommendation of AFL chairman Richard Goyder and influential commissioner Paul Bassat. Previously, deputy Giants chairman and club benefactor Adrian Fonseca had been considered a favourite for the role.

Shepherd said he was determined to remain at the helm until the Giants’ September campaign was completed. “I won’t be rushed into this,” he said. “They [the AFL] needn’t be worried about our board. We have a very good board and some very strong candidates. I’ve been chairing boards and committees for decades. The AFL have trusted me for 13 years, and they should trust me now.”

Despite some strong internal support for Reed, the situation has highlighted the cooling of relations between the league and Shepherd, who has presided over the Giants since the club began in 2012 and has overseen the AFL’s youngest club as it has contested finals six times in 12 years.

Of the AFL Commission and its executive, only former Giants director Gabrielle Trainor attended Shepherd’s last home game at Giants Stadium against Essendon in August. In direct contrast, AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan, his successor Andrew Dillon, and a number of commissioners honoured outgoing Gold Coast chairman Tony Cochrane at his last home game in March.

AFL commissioner and former Giants director Gabrielle Trainor. Credit: AFL Media

Former AFL boss Andrew Demetriou, who was at that Giants game in August, made an impassioned speech reminding GWS leaders of their importance to the competition and encouraging them to stand up to head office and push for more support. The following week the commission held a brief ceremony in its Docklands boardroom honouring Shepherd before the club’s last home-and-away game against Carlton.

Outgoing AFL boss McLachlan, who has talked with Shepherd over the handover, rubbished suggestions that the AFL had attempted to intervene or speed up the presidential handover.

Although Shepherd, too, denied that he had been pressured by the AFL, he stressed: “I told them [the AFL] what the process is and that’s it. They can sack me if they are not happy with that process. The board has to make this decision and the board has to live with the consequences.

“It’s got to be done in an orderly and correct manner. I’ve made it clear I won’t be seeking an extension, and I’ll be stepping down before the end of the year, but I’m not going to go when we’re still playing.”

The Giants have asked AFL commissioner Simone Wilkie to represent the league on a nominations committee to interview prospective candidates. Shepherd said he, too, would sit on the committee along with two other directors and an independent. Ultimately, the AFL has the power to overrule the club’s choice of chairperson.

Although the well-connected Reed has proved an asset to the Giants board, there is also some support for leading businessman Fonseca. Born in India and raised in western Sydney, Fonseca has contributed an estimated $2 million to the club since coming on board. He would be the first man or woman of colour to preside over an AFL club.

A third contender is marketing executive Nikki Warburton, also western Sydney-raised, whose husband James is the CEO of the Seven network.

Shepherd voiced his disenchantment earlier this year with the AFL’s failure to adequately resource and address the code’s alarming plight in western Sydney after “the wheels fell off during COVID”.

He added: “The AFL have a big challenge and an even bigger opportunity in western Sydney. A good place to start would be to ensure AFL NSW have the necessary boots on the ground … to support clubs, schools and families in western Sydney.”

He said pointedly: “The AFL Commission should have one of its meetings in western Sydney … They should all attend the derby in round 21 at Giants Stadium, too. Other than the ever-supportive Gabby Trainor I can’t recall the last time the commission attended the Giants.”

Shepherd’s stated wish for commissioners to attend that derby fell on deaf ears.

The 18 club presidents have told the commission of their intention to hold an independent meeting on the eve of this year’s Brownlow Medal count, before their scheduled meeting with the commission, to further canvass the concussion crisis facing the game. The clubs have not ruled out raising the prospect of Goyder’s future.

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