There was a time in the mid-1990s when a section of the Melbourne Football Club changerooms at Junction Oval was known as Hollywood Boulevard. For this is where the team’s self-appointed stars — captain Garry Lyon, Jim Stynes, Todd Viney, Glenn Lovett and one or two others – had their lockers, changed their jockstraps and exchanged their blokey jokes.

In that era, when Neil Balme was coach and Cameron Schwab the football manager (and later CEO), the team was divided along neat lines: the Hollywood set and the rest.

Fast forward 12 or 13 years and a clear pattern of cronyism is emerging again. Now, as then, the club is being run by a cabal of in-crowd mates, led by Stynes, the new chairman, Chris Connolly, the football operations manager, and, lurking somewhere in the shadows, Lyon and Greg Healy.

Outsiders have been told to move on. Former chairman Paul Gardner was never one of the boys and became a victim of the Stynes putsch. Then Paul McNamee was given precisely 106 days as chief executive before the freshly-installed Stynes board decided last week his time was up.

Now Stynes is looking at bestowing patronage of another “mate”, Cameron Schwab, whom he has openly urged to apply for McNamee’s vacant position.

If that appointment goes ahead, Melbourne’s reputation as the most insular, inward-looking AFL club is all but assured. Indeed, if there was a league ladder for nepotism and cronyism, Melbourne would be several games clear at the top and coasting towards the premiership. Unfortunately for the Demons, the AFL ladder records games won and lost and, on that small matter, they sit resolutely last. That grand old flag, the high-flying flag remains a pipedream, as it has since 1964.

At the time the Hollywood set held sway in the mid-90s, Melbourne drafted a ruckman from a successful interstate club to help bolster its big-man stocks. This ruckman could play a bit, having notched up a double-digit tally of votes in the Brownlow Medal a couple of years previously, and was looking forward to resurrecting his career at the code’s oldest club.

But he arrived at Melbourne from his interstate team, a well-drilled, ultra-professional unit that had won premierships in the time he was there, to find the most shambolic excuse for an AFL club imaginable. There was the clique that included Lyon, Stynes, Viney, and sundry acolytes. And then there was the rest. And the rest certainly included ruckmen recruited from other clubs who may have posed some threat to Stynes’ position as the club’s pre-eminent big man.

The new boy wandered into team meetings to find this cabal of senior players huddled tight together. There was little sense of team unity. At his old club, it was one in, all in. New players were welcomed and the captain treated everyone the same, from his best mate to the 20th bloke picked.

The recruit watched in horror as Stynes was patched up week after week late in his career so he could continue his relentless tilt at the long-standing record of most consecutive AFL games played, held at 204 by Richmond’s Jack “Skinny” Titus. In the end, the Irishman managed to stretch that mark out to 244 games. It was an extraordinarily brave feat, to be sure, but many have questioned why he was allowed to pursue this individual glory when, at times, he was only half-fit and clearly of marginal benefit to the team.

The interstate ruckman’s unhappy experience at Melbourne ended when he walked into the clubrooms before training one afternoon. The office staff averted their eyes when they saw him coming. He wondered what was going on. Then one of the physios sidled up to him and said: “Haven’t they told you?”

Our man replied: “Told me what?”

It was then he learned that he’d been sacked that morning and his place on the senior list taken by a rookie, Russell Robertson.

Schwab, the then football manager, had not got around to telling him he’d been axed. Soon enough, our man packed his bags and headed back to his home state, disillusioned and dismayed by his experience at Melbourne.

Now the Stynes-Schwab-Lyon politburo looks set to take charge once more, this time with full plenary powers.

When Stynes took over as chairman, he sought out a meeting with McNamee and told him that he didn’t want to see him quoted in the media. Stynes was to be the front man and the public face of the club. Soon enough, draped in ubiquitous red-and-blue scarf, the Irishman was featuring in front-page pictures embracing the father of young indigenous player, Austin Wonaeamirri, after a rare Demons win. The lean, pale Irishman arm-in-arm with the dark, stocky Tiwi Islander. A heartwarming image, to be sure. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think it had been stage-managed.

And it is Stynes’ talent for self-publicity and self-aggrandisement that has worried some close to the club. While they feel that the new president has assembled a more-than-capable board, some privately wonder whether this isn’t a massive ego trip for Stynes being dressed up as something else.

Vainglorious self-promoter or Melbourne’s much-vaunted Messiah? It will take more than 106 days but Stynes, and the boys from Hollywood Boulevard, will get the chance to answer that question soon enough.

Peter Fray

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