Affable Gillon McLachlan gave so much to the AFL, yet will leave behind several questions

IT'S BEEN COMING a while, and yet Gillon McLachlan's announcement that he will stand down as AFL chief executive at the end of this season still feels like a seismic moment.

The profile of, and pressures upon the AFL's head are enormous and draining. To have lasted nine years in the position is in itself an achievement. One wonders how his predecessor, Andrew Demetriou, survived more than a decade.

How will McLachlan be remembered? Two legacies will define his time as CEO. One is the establishment of the AFLW competition, the birth of which was expedited years ahead of what had seemed likely. The other, ironically, is the very thing that delayed his departure from the job: the COVID-19 pandemic and the enormous financial and logistical challenges that presented, and which the AFL handled brilliantly.

The full ramifications of that first initiative may not be known for years, if not decades. But as AFLW moves towards a more professional structure, and standards, it can't be denied that women now have a far more meaningful foothold in the game than had the non-committal attitude towards an elite women's competition prevailed.

It's been a swift introduction, the AFLW growing from an initial eight teams to 10 in 2019, 14 in 2020 to a full 18-team competition next season, in which 540 women will play at the highest level. Some would argue too swift.

But those extra few years have brought the game tens of thousands of extra participants and provided a significant head start in offering meaningful pathways to potential professional careers for who knows how many young women.

Given the foothold other women's sporting competitions now have in this country, it already seems a prudent and necessary acknowledgement of women's place in the fabric of the game.

But in many ways, the curveball thrown by COVID-19 has been an even greater thumbs up for McLachlan's tenure, particularly when you consider the game has by and large avoided the sort of financial catastrophe that seemed inevitable once the pandemic put an entire competition on hold for three months back in 2020.

The AFL's acquisition of Marvel Stadium was a decision that ensured the AFL had the asset base to access a AU$600 million line of credit to keep the football industry operational at the start of the pandemic, was critical.

There's also been a series of broadcasting deals which have secured the league and the game's financial stability in the lead-up to the pandemic, making its treacherous journey through uncertain waters all the more manageable.

The most recent, signed off in 2016, was worth a cool AU$2.5 billion, and in 2020 was revised and extended for another two years as the game desperately sought a safety net from the ravages of COVID-19.

Women and financial security are fundamental to the game's future. Another, the competition structure, and specifically the continued expansion into areas such as Tasmania, has been complicated by the pandemic.

Could McLachlan have been a more enthusiastic proponent of Tasmania's philosophical birthright to a spot in any self-respecting national game, given its heritage status? Many would argue "yes". But D-Day on that score is at least now approaching, with McLachlan's recommendation on Tasmania due to go before the AFL Commission in August.

On the field, there's been plenty of attention paid to the look of the game, umpiring and the judiciary. They are areas in which McLachlan's influence can only ever be symbolic, and all three remain problematic, at least in the eyes of supporters.

There are signs, though, that at least a couple of rule initiatives have benefitted the game by degrees in the last season or so, a game that was being strangled by an overly-defensive ethos.

More worrying perhaps is the "boys club" culture which clearly still permeates the game, particularly within its headquarters, and the treatment of the AFL's own female employees, which has bubbled over in several public episodes, notably the departure of AFL executives Simon Lethlean and Richard Simkiss in 2017, and various testimonies from former league insiders.

That is embarrassingly at odds with the groundwork being laid for the women's game. McLachlan's own "blue blood" background might not have helped on that score. And his successor will have to be more switched on to the cultural nuances of the AFL if it is to avoid further allegations about the toxicity of its workings.

But they are challenges which are heavy enough for any executive leader, let alone one for whom there is never enough hours in the day to remain across the many planks that go with keeping the AFL alive and healthy.

And at the most fundamental level, that McLachlan has done well in circumstances with which none of his predecessors were confronted.

He's done it affably, too, certainly more of a lover than the fighter that was Demetriou. Indeed, perhaps simply being able to keep a smile on his face given not just the demands of the game, but what it (and the world) has been through these past couple of diabolical years was another McLachlan legacy worth noting.

You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at FOOTYOLOGY.com.au