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AN EMOTIONAL James Hird has apologised for his club's actions in 2012 while conceding he nearly lost his job as coach of Essendon last year.
Hird and chairman Paul Little fronted the media on Tuesday evening after the AFL's Anti-Doping Tribunal had found 34 of the Dons’ past and present players not guilty of taking a banned substance.
The pair were applauded as they walked into the room by the full staff and administration at Essendon's Tullamarine headquarters watching on, and a remorseful Hird said the Bombers had not deliberately damaged the game.
"I love the Essendon football club, it's been a part of my life since I was born. It was part of my father's life, it was part of my grandfather's life," Hird said.
"And I am so sorry for anything that's happened or that's been done wrong to our players or been done wrong to our football club.
"I and we would never do anything intentionally to harm this football club or to harm the game of AFL football that has given me so much and given so many people so much."
Hird will coach the Bombers against the Sydney Swans on Saturday at ANZ Stadium in his first home and away game since round 22, 2013, before his 12-month ban from the game.
He admitted he was close to never returning to the role in October last year, when he went against the club's wishes by appealing the Federal Court's decision that the AFL and ASADA investigation was lawful, an appeal that was unsuccessful.
"We've certainly had our moments, Paul," Hird said to his chairman in front of a crowd that included fellow board member Simon Madden and Hird's former coach Kevin Sheedy.
"And there have been quite a few and quite heated (moments). But the good of the Essendon football club has always come first and we've always been able to resolve our issues and take the club forward."
Hird said he was "very close" to being axed as coach and that he was asked throughout the investigation to consider standing down.
"I think there's no denying that back in September/October last year I went very close. I don't know exactly how close but I would say very close," Hird.
Such a move would have been costly for the club, given Hird was given a two-year contract extension (through to the end of 2016) as soon as he was dealt a 12-month ban at the hands of the AFL in August, 2013.
The 42-year-old said he had found it extremely difficult to sit out of coaching for a season after just three years in charge, but that he wanted to move past the turmoil.
"I want to coach the footy club. I missed a year of my coaching career. I only have two years left on my contract, I might not have much longer left. I might not be a good coach, who knows?" Hird said.
"Of course I was disappointed in missing a year of coaching. There was nowhere else I wanted to be except here coaching those players so my total focus right now, while I've got a contract, is to coach this club as well as I possibly can."
From the start of the inquiry into Essendon's 2012 supplements program, Hird and the Bombers expressed confidence the investigation would find the club had not administered banned substances to its players.
The coach said Tuesday's verdict in favour of the players was justification for that belief.
"It was a relief in the system that finally justice was done for our players. This is all about those 34 players. It is not about anything else but the 34 players and whether they did or didn't receive performance-enhancing drugs," Hird said.
"And it's been proven today by the Tribunal they didn't receive performance-enhancing drugs. That is a fabulous relief for all of us. We thought that was the case and now it's been shown to be the case after an investigation that's been enormous.
"It's been the biggest investigation I believe in sport around the world of this kind."
Mark Thompson, who filled in as Essendon coach when Hird was banned for the 2014 season, said he was surprised but happy when he heard the verdict.
"I thought 'Hirdy' handled it pretty well today … generally it's been a good day for footy," Thompson told 3AW on Tuesday night.
"I'm a bit surprised the verdict went this way but I'm happy. I didn't think I'd be this happy."