Bombers face an on-field test

Coach James Hird, whose Essendon team will be in the spotlight for the NAB Cup match on Friday.
Coach James Hird, whose Essendon team will be in the spotlight for the NAB Cup match on Friday.

AS NOTED in this space recently, TV has an ever-greater say in sports programming. Nocturnal, twilight or day shift, there is a ratings-driven rationale behind most fixturing. But the greatest AFL programming coup this season is sheer coincidence.

Essendon was locked in for Friday night's initial NAB Cup match - played in its three-team, lightning-premiership format with Collingwood and the Western Bulldogs - when the fixture was released last October. Now, for reasons as obvious as a needle in the stomach, the match and the Fox Sports coverage will be the subject of obsessive interest.

This is when sport becomes more narrative than contest: the tale of a club that has endured suspicion that it either mistakenly or deliberately allowed the administration of substances to players, and how it will respond. The quality of the story depends on the teller.

Fox Sports had already geared itself for an extensive lead-in to the first match, including the first edition of the forensic AFL 360. A good choice, given the Oscar and Felix pairing of Gerard Whateley and Mark Robinson are better equipped to explore the ramifications of the Bombers' plight than a panel of ex-players.

This was evident when Channel Nine produced a special edition of Footy Classified after the news of the Essendon injections broke, and the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) report on corruption in Australian sport was released. A smart, reflexive decision, well rewarded with a 9.30pm Thursday night audience of 353,000.

Footy Classified covered the bases well given the limited information available - it had not been determined what substance the Essendon players allegedly took, and the ACC report was merely a ''snapshot'' of information gathered, providing broad allegations but no names of accused clubs or players.

Journalists Caroline Wilson and Damian Barrett were, as you might expect, robust in their analysis and prognostications. But the role of Matthew Lloyd - former Essendon champion, and close ally of those now running the club's football department - was indicative of the dilemma faced all too often by the football media.

Lloyd is an excellent football analyst, rightly praised for his frank assessment of the game. He was particularly strident - and, many would say, justified - in his criticism of former Bombers' coach Matthew Knights.

Yet, predictably, when faced with dealing with such serious allegations against his club, and his friends, Lloyd was hopelessly compromised. Even if he was absolutely earnest in his thoughts, it would have been difficult for the viewer to believe Lloyd was able to disclose everything he knew, or that his opinions were not coloured by allegiances. A similar problem arose when Essendon alumnus Mark McVeigh - who is employed by SEN and the AFL - lambasted former teammate Kyle Reimers for his allegations about the Bombers' supplement regime on SEN.

Nine and SEN would have cherished their paid access to people ''inside the story''. Yet, in both cases, that does not necessarily do the viewer/listener any great favour. Sometimes, the closer an expert might be to the story the further his audience will be from the truth.

So it is a source of some relief that Oscar and Felix, not the old-boy network, will lead Fox Sports' dissection of the Essendon crisis. And an even greater source of relief to many when the ball is bounced and the talk of backroom injections and underworld syndicates is replaced by the more familiar anxiety about the Bombers' undermanned midfield.

Fox Footy has added Barry Hall and Cam Mooney - contributors to AFL 360 - to its roster of experts. Unofficially, or not, it is also about to hire Seven veteran Sandy Roberts as a commentator (reportedly complicated by his existing contract). Whether or not he joins Fox Sports, Roberts seems a strange choice. His ingratiating commentary style seems more suited to a cheesy ''tonight'' show than mainstream sport. Roberts is a survivor of the AFL's Jurassic era, when nasty real news was not allowed to intrude upon the call.

As the detailed analysis of AFL 360 will no doubt prove, AFL coverage has gone well beyond that. We demand more of analysts and commentators than a rising inflection and disingenuous chuckle.

This story Bombers face an on-field test first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.