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“Untenable”: Andrew McLeod speaks on the Crows changes he cannot accept

Football

EXCLUSIVE | Andrew McLeod is the Adelaide Football Club’s longest-serving player – and to many fans, the Crows’ greatest. His uneasy exit from the AFL club has inevitably mystified more than just Crows fans. He spoke exclusively to Michelangelo Rucci.

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Andrew McLeod has disconnected from the machine that is the Adelaide Football Club, but not the heart and soul that he calls the “Crows community”.

“Untenable,” says the Crows’ longest-serving player of his relationship with senior figures inside the Adelaide Football Club headquarters at West Lakes.

McLeod has distanced himself from the command centre. But to the Crows faithful he is inseparable from what, in McLeod’s eyes, the Adelaide Football Club once represented – and should still portray to the community that makes up South Australia’s biggest sporting base. The so-called “Team for all South Australians.”

But clubs are built on far more than an on-field team – a point that resonates with McLeod today.

The fans still regard “Bunji” – the 1997-98 Norm Smith Medallist as the best afield in those back-to-back AFL grand finals triumphs – as their club’s greatest player. His resumé, that includes five All-Australian honours with the captaincy in 2007, is elite.

McLeod has been off the football field – and out of the Crows tricolour jumper – for a decade. But his image as a club great has not diminished in the eyes of Adelaide fans and general AFL watchers.

So when McLeod stepped into the cafe in the western suburbs on Wednesday, a day after a lengthy meeting with new Crows chairman John Olsen, the 340-game premiership hero was immediately blocked by the owner. Rather than offering a jovial welcome, the man showed a serious face while asking the question that has followed McLeod for the past week: “What’s happened?”

McLeod has not seen fans give him such concerned looks since he limped his way between AFL games in the early 2000s when his playing career was threatened while bone hit bone on his degenerative right knee.

“Nothing,” replies McLeod. “Nothing has changed for six months…”

An hour later, when McLeod returned to the counter to order another round of drinks, a lady cut into his path – far better than many AFL rivals had done during his 16 seasons in the big league – to ask the same question: What has now separated him from his AFL club?

“Nothing,” insists McLeod, adding the stories published in the past week are no more than a “rehash” of his assertive statements from six months ago.

Speaking up for the fans

In early June, in his podcast with Adelaide 36ers basketball great Brett Maher, McLeod declared he did not feel “comfortable walking back into the football club” that had been his home for more than two decades. This is despite the clubhouse at West Lakes being his place of work, as an AFLW assistant coach and in managing an indigenous program.

Under heavy fire from premiership team-mates and current club board members Mark Ricciuto and Rod Jameson who weighed in on their radio platforms, McLeod maintained “the Adelaide Football Club, it’s not a particularly warm place…”

“They’ve taken most of the old photos down,” said McLeod on the Bunji and Brettster Show podcast. “(The club rooms) should tell you a story … the history of the people who came before us to lay incredible foundations. But no, everything has now been catalogued and if you want to see them, you have to go online to view them.

“I know I am not alone because I’ve had a lot of these conversations or messages from a number of my former team-mates, past officials and many of our great supporters.

“That confirms to me that something is wrong.”

Amid the backlash from Ricciuto and Jameson – “jumping on their soapboxes and trying to angle it back on me as my issue,” said McLeod in mid-June – the Crows had the need for a club leader to seek a truce in the public spat.

McLeod agreed in a text message exchange with then Crows chairman Rob Chapman that it would be in everyone’s best interest to stop the public airing of a festering internal wound.

But dramatic headlines at the weekend and again earlier this week about McLeod ending his stint on the Crows AFLW coaching staff as an assistant to premiership mentor Matthew Clarke, who wanted to keep McLeod, have created the repetitive questions that follow him today. Many Crows fans appear unaware McLeod’s long-anticipated exit from the AFLW staff had been confirmed by the club last month – it was neatly tucked away at the bottom of an official media statement focusing on other AFLW appointments.

Adelaide’s AFLW football chief Phil Harper, one of McLeod’s closest friends, was quoted in the club’s media statement saying: “Unfortunately, Andrew McLeod’s commitments mean he is unable to assist again this year, but his input with our players and the team in general over the past two seasons has been invaluable and we thank him for all his efforts.”

It probably would have been different had McLeod’s plan to return to his ancestral home in the Northern Territory not been derailed by the second COVID lockdown of South Australia – and the closing of the state’s borders – last month.

“On the first day of the lockdown,” says McLeod, “I was going to load my truck and be away for three weeks…

“What has happened in the past week is people who do not know the story have chosen to rehash all that was said six months ago. Now I have nice people – like you have seen today – come up to me expressing how they are worried for you.”

In the past six months, and certainly last week, McLeod has repeatedly declined to be part of media interviews. He has appealed to his friends to not respond to media questions on his feelings towards the Crows, or more to the point, critical leaders inside the club’s front office.

But the fans are tougher to rebuff – and their concern can no longer be met with silence on McLeod’s part.

“They know it is still my club,” says McLeod. “I still have love for the people who make up this club. But what was a burning fire inside me is now just a flickering pilot light …

“I am not about throwing people under a bus. But I will speak up about how there has been a change in focus (at the club). It has become a corporate focus rather than a community focus.”

McLeod’s observation is in line with a former long-serving, high-ranking club official who reflects on the five-year rule of Crows chief executive Andrew Fagan saying: “He has made the club commercially stronger but culturally weaker.”

“We have lost our own beliefs during this change in focus,” adds McLeod. “We have lost our culture of family and community… and that is a sad thing.”

In June, McLeod’s headline-creating outbursts were portrayed by Adelaide insiders – in what McLeod labelled as “spin” – as outrage and frustration from having his Indigenous programs at the club cancelled.

McLeod notes he and his wife Rachael have repeatedly courted governments to fund the programs – and under the new “corporate focus” at West Lakes, a project is doomed at the Adelaide Football Club if cannot deliver a commercial return. He questions why the Crows are not prepared to  “give” rather than “take” in the community where its local AFL rival Port Adelaide is gaining ground with the mantra of “make our community proud”.

Jameson described McLeod as “temperamental”.

“That makes you laugh,” responds McLeod, a three-time club champion at Adelaide. “At some time I will have that conversation with Rod Jameson. That (temperamental tag) could not be further from the truth about me as a person.”

McLeod’s communication with Ricciuto is more open.

“I’ve always been straight with Mark, and he always has been straight with me,” said McLeod. “Our last conversation went for two hours. I think he knows where I am coming from. But he has a lot of his plate.

“Mark understands my point of view, even if he does not have to agree with it.

“I’ve also had a good conversation with John Olsen (who has spent the past six weeks in as many as 80 one-on-one meetings with key people involved in the Crows community, inside and outside the club).”

Andrew McLeod playing for the Crows in 2010. Photo: AAP/Tony McDonough

Disconnection

During the two hours in a corner of the cafe at Lockleys, not once did McLeod become temperamental or bitter amid his frustrations with the direction the Adelaide Football Club has taken recently.

His review of the club’s position was heavily based on what “the Crows should stand for” and noting the change in tone and actions from management towards staff, players, key backers and the supporters.

But McLeod was emotional when he spoke of “people who have bled for this club … and their connection to the club has been taken away.”

He speaks of the people who made so many sacrifices to devote themselves to the Adelaide Football Club during the early and mid-1990s when the Crows were mocked as the “Chardonnay set” or a club with “no heart and soul”. Now some of those backroom boys – who were unheralded during the 1997-1998 AFL premiership double – are both out of sight and out of mind to a management structure that McLeod condemns for failing to value these people.

With them cast aside, the club has – in McLeod’s eyes – become culturally weaker.

McLeod is now joining the old guard on the outside, but he is far from emotionally detached from the Adelaide Football Club – in particular the AFLW squad.

“I’ll have great interest in their games next year and I still have strong relationships with the girls,” McLeod said. “I’m definitely going to watch the girls play. I want to see them do well. I genuinely care for them.

“Those girls have genuine passion for the game. I love talking to (premiership captain) Erin Phillips and feeling her love for the game. I understand why she wants to play Australian football (while having opportunities around the world with basketball) … her reasons are the same ones that made me want to play the game.

“I admire Erin’s passion and her want to be a great custodian of the game, the game she loves.

“I enjoy how AFLW is still pure and involves good people who value the opportunity they have. They are creating an amazing product. The girls want to learn. They want to be good. They soak up every opportunity to be better. And they are creating their own culture.”

And then there is the men’s senior team that next year will seek critical new energy from the 30th anniversary of the Adelaide Football Club’s launch season in the AFL in 1991.

“I hope they go well,” says McLeod of a team that has to rebound from its worst finish, its first wooden spoon in the 18-team national league this year. “I want them to win, I want to see the new players develop. I do like (novice senior coach) Matthew Nicks and I do believe in what he is doing.

“We have spoken on the phone,” adds McLeod of his relationship with Nicks. “He knows of my care for the football part of the club. I do see a great opportunity unfolding with a young playing group.”

End of an era

For the first time since he first tried to master the strange ways of an oval-shaped ball as a young boy in Darwin, McLeod is to have nothing to do with Australian football.

At 44, this marks the national Hall of Famer’s first withdrawal from any active role in football – player, coach or AFL media – in four decades.

Professionally, McLeod will turn his hand to “fintech” – making use of his new knowledge in technology with an online product in the financial sector.

Personally, McLeod will convert his pride in his Aboriginal upbringing to helping protect the world’s oldest culture from fraud that today amounts to $200 million in proceeds from fake indigenous art.

Sport wise, McLeod has the bug with lawn bowls at Woodville.

On the media landscape, McLeod and Maher will relaunch their podcast in January with significant support from the commercial sector.

And in football, McLeod is being constantly reminded he also has another club that is his home – Port Adelaide where he played 23 SANFL games from 1994-1996 and is a premiership hero from the 1994 campaign.

“The other day I had an Australia Post delivery guy tell me to come back to Port Adelaide – to ‘come back where you belong’,” McLeod said. “Another guy dropped off a Port Adelaide lace-up guernsey and said I was always welcome at Port Adelaide.

“I will always have that connection with Port Adelaide and I do have a lot of Port Adelaide friends. I never was caught up in that ‘them and us’ thing that is Crows v Port Adelaide. I have been part of both them and us…”

To not be part of the Adelaide Football Club – in an official role – next year is a notable moment; hence the media scrutiny on his fall-out at West Lakes. The fans are no less curious – and far more concerned.

McLeod has such a heavy agenda for 2021 that it makes a mockery of those who portrayed his remarks in June as a “temperamental” reaction at falling off the payroll at the Adelaide Football Club, be it by funding cuts to his indigenous program or the COVID pandemic forcing hits to football budgets.

“I’ve always said, football is not the only thing that defines me,” McLeod said. “The way I go about things defines me. It is about my work ethic. I will find satisfaction in new projects.”

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