Essendon looks certain to not play finals as negotiations between the AFL and the club moved swiftly towards a resolution of the crisis that has engulfed the game.
While Essendon has adopted a "clean slate" approach that said it would accept punishment that did not impact greatly on the future - meaning it was desperate to cling to draft picks - the AFL was equally adamant that draft picks must be part of any punishment for the sake of the game's integrity. The AFL still sought to remove this year's first- and second-round picks, and the same in 2014.
A suspension for coach James Hird was also assured, with the AFL wanting a 12-month suspension. Essendon's stance on the coach – a sticking point earlier in the week when Essendon rejected a settlement offer – was secondary to the issue of preserving draft picks and ensuring that the club was not severely impaired next year and beyond.
Late on Friday, Essendon chairman Paul Little issued a statement that said the Bombers wanted to bring matters to a conclusion as soon as possible. "The ongoing controversy is harmful to our players and their families, our officials, the club, other AFL clubs and the AFL itself."
He also apologised for the club's mistakes. "We have made mistakes in terms of governance and people management, and we apologise for them. We also accept there will be AFL sanctions as a consequence ... but the evidence does not extend to drug cheating, and we're working to ensure that the charges and ultimate penalties reflect this."
While talks remained delicately poised late on Friday, Hird's position appeared increasingly difficult with Little prepared to prioritise the club over the coach. Hird had been determined not to serve a suspension of longer than six months. Mark Thompson is set to avoid suspension and receive only a fine, with football operations manager Danny Corcoran also likely to be suspended. The position of the other individual facing charges, Dr Bruce Reid, was unclear. It was also unclear whether Hird would coach the season out for the last two games.
But, as Fairfax Media reported earlier this week, the club has given ground considerably on the issue of premiership points – agreeing to sacrifice those – meaning there is little chance that the club will play finals in a fortnight, opening the way for Carlton and possibly even North Melbourne to move into the eight.
Little and AFL executive Gillon McLachlan were in lengthy talks – an indication of the pragmatic line of both parties despite the conflict and legal threats and legal action taken by Hird against the AFL and of the backing the AFL regime received from the 17 other clubs who are tired of the damaging saga. The club had been offered a fine of more than $2.5 million in talks on Tuesday, but the extent of the fine was among the details still being hammered out.
Club presidents on Thursday underscored that relevant clubs needed to know Essendon's fate by next week to ensure that the lucky ninth was prepared for the first week of finals.
The negotiated potential penalties against Essendon, as reported exclusively by Fairfax Media on Wednesday night, would be unprecedented in the game's history. No team in the AFL has been stripped of premiership points. The Dons have maintained a consistent line that they will not be branded as drug cheats.
Little, who did not attend the Thursday meeting at AFL headquarters but took part via a telephone hook-up, was made aware of the compounding damage being inflicted on the game and on all the clubs.
While Little regard the proposed AFL penalties as disproportionate to Essendon's wrongdoings, he is understood to have taken on board some of the clubs' views. Several clubs remained hopeful that a settlement would be reached as soon as Friday but more likely by early next week with the commission still preparing to meet Essendon on Monday and reach a conclusion.
The prevailing view of rival clubs was that Essendon, despite the unprecedented nature of the AFL punishment, would be escaping relatively lightly given the failings of the club regarding its players.
The clubs also unofficially canvassed the prospect of league chief and commissioner Andrew Demetriou removing himself from Monday's hearing in the interests of settling the crisis.
Reports of a second Supreme Court writ being issued, this time by the Bombers, seemed highly unlikely to unfold with the club already facing legal and extra media consultancy fees of and estimated $1.2 million.
Hird launched Supreme Court action against the AFL on Thursday but had not set a date for a hearing.