For more than two decades, Eddie McGuire has been the biggest figure at arguably the biggest club of the biggest sporting code in Australia. It should be the profile of a man approaching deity status. But now, as the news of his abdication at Collingwood sinks in, instead of reverence the overwhelming sentiment is relief. Relief that McGuire will soon be on his way. There are few in the industry who will eulogise his tenure as Magpies president and mean it. Most of those outside Collingwood will be happy to see McGuire’s back. Many within will probably concur.
McGuire choked back the tears on Monday when he said he would spend 2021 “setting up a new era of Collingwood” before standing aside. As he has done throughout his autocratic reign, McGuire will depart on his own terms, having been re-elected until the end of 2022. In truth, it is a miracle he has survived this long. There is no doubting McGuire did some good at Collingwood, but with a rap sheet as long his, his legacy will be one punctured by scandal and hypocrisy.
McGuire’s exalted position, coupled with the exposure brought by his multi-pronged presence in the media, afforded him immense power. But with it came enormous responsibility. Sadly, that power was too often called upon to get McGuire out of messes of his own making. McGuire turned talking first and thinking later into an art form. And nobody does damage control quite like Eddie.
Of all the mistakes and missteps, the Adam Goodes affair will be one that will follow McGuire to the grave. It is also the one that underlined McGuire’s disproportionately gargantuan standing in the game. By rights, McGuire should have gone after likening Goodes to King Kong barely days after the Sydney Swans star had been racially abused by a teenage Magpies supporter at the MCG.
But instead of resigning, McGuire dug in his heels. There was little by way of censure from his Collingwood cohorts. Andrew Demetriou, the AFL chief executive of the time, might have called for McGuire’s head but preferred a process of education and mediation. If it was possible for one person to become bigger than the game, McGuire was now it.
There were other mindless, regrettable incidents. In 2016, McGuire said he would pay good money to see AFL journalist Caroline Wilson immersed in iced water while others “stand around the outside and bomb her”. The comments came barely days before Collingwood ushered in their women’s team and amid the AFL’s involvement in White Ribbon Week, the national campaign to prevent violence against women. This time it was Gillon McLachlan’s turn to offer lip service to a serious matter, at once failing an early leadership test and underlining McGuire’s dangerous position of strength at AFL headquarters.
As recently as last year, McGuire was forced to explain himself after mocking a double amputee who conducted the coin toss before a game between Sydney and Adelaide. It was another example of McGuire speaking before thinking, but by 2019 his guard had well and truly dropped. It was just another slip of the tongue from a man who could not be touched.
For many, McGuire’s conflict of interest as a media personality and club president was too much to bear. On the television, on the radio, even hosting gameshows: Eddie Everywhere was the shoe that fit. In 2002, commentator Tim Lane cut ties with Channel Nine over his refusal to call Collingwood matches alongside McGuire. Even now, there is something not right about the sight and sound of McGuire commenting on rival clubs’ games.
McGuire took the reins at Collingwood on his 34th birthday, an age when many adults are still wondering what to do with their lives. A born administrator he was not. He became president of the Collingwood Football Club not because he was right for the role but because the role was right for him. McGuire improved the club’s finances, was one of the first Victorian presidents to do away with poker machines and presided over an upturn in on-field performances, though in his 22 years at the helm the club has managed just one premiership.
But tension and tumult were never far away. McGuire’s messy coaching succession plan drove Mick Malthouse from the club and a wedge between Malthouse and Nathan Buckley that will probably never be removed. This season, the club plumbed new depths of mismanagement when salary cap dramas forced it to offload a number of star players, including Adam Treloar, for less than their market worth. And there were always contradictions. McGuire talks about the benefits of equalisation but resents any concessions handed to expansion clubs. He trumpets Collingwood’s advances in racial equality but cannot escape allegations of deep-seated prejudice at the club, brought to light recently by Heritier Lumumba.
There is no bigger name in the AFL than Eddie McGuire. But stature and ubiquity do not equate to greatness. And not even giants stand tall forever. For the sake of the game, Eddie Nowhere has a much better ring to it.