THE THOUGHT had bounced round AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan's head for some time, and on a Virgin flight from Melbourne to Adelaide before last Saturday's AFLW Grand Final, it was shared with the person sitting next to him at the pointy end of the plane.
"It just felt right to call it then," McLachlan told AFL.com.au on Tuesday night of his Saturday morning conversation with AFL commission chairman Richard Goyder.
"It had been with me for some time, Richard had been clear he wanted me to stay longer, but I had been thinking about when is the time right to leave a job I love, and then you oscillate around that, but then flying with him to Adelaide, we had a good chat for an hour and a half, and we agreed that we'd call it."
And despite one more Hail Mary from Goyder on Tuesday morning, so began the official end to McLachlan's time in charge of the AFL. Privately told to presidents and club CEOs at 10.30am Tuesday and officially announced at a media conference an hour later, McLachlan will stand down, fully on his terms, at the end of the year.
The past two seasons of not just guiding football through the trauma of COVID but ensuring a viable path out, had taken a toll, and while the pandemic itself was not the sole reason for his decision, it did contribute to his own bigger picture thoughts.
While McLachlan has never wanted to talk about his personal situation during this time, it is understood that the immense toll on his own physical health was a significant part of the this particular big life decision which was reached, as always, with contribution, guidance and support from wife Laura.
Laura and their four kids Edie, Cleo, Sidney and Luna, sat in the front row at yesterday's conference, causing McLachlan to unusually – publicly at least - lose it emotionally on a couple of occasions.
McLachlan's professional future is unknown, but his AFL past is littered with legacy outcomes, the greatest and clearly most impactful being the establishment of AFLW, now six seasons old.
There was actually no proper strategic planning nor preparation for AFLW when McLachlan was speaking publicly at an exhibition women's match between Melbourne and Western Bulldogs.
"I got a bit emotional at that game, and just announced it without going to commission, that we were going to start a (women's) league," McLachlan told AFL.com.au.
"It was way beyond my brief, and I rightly got into a lot of trouble."
Commission chairman at the time Mike Fitzpatrick is understood to have been angered at the lack of protocol, but conceded to McLachlan before season one started in 2017 that it was actually a decision the game had been overdue in making.
Clubs and the AFL itself actually weren't properly ready for the launch of AFLW in 2017. But the haste to begin – with eight teams - was more than worth it.
McLachlan's standing-down announcement came four days after the completion of the sixth AFLW season. He will still be in charge of the game by the time the seventh season begins, with four new teams being added to complete the full set of 18 aligned men's teams for another new season start time next August. The pace of growth with all aspects of AFLW is showing no signs of slowing, and not only has the competition provided a proper workplace for the playing elite, it has presented itself as a home for women of all ages who love the game.
The toll of COVID was to fully kick in some time later, but in keeping with his ability to read the play in advance, and to back his own intuition, McLachlan, in the scary, early March days of 2020 made three decisions which ultimately saved the AFL.
This time he went through the commission in advance, convincing it to reduce the 2020 season from 22 to 17 rounds, to drop quarter length in matches from 20 to 16 minutes, and arguably most importantly, enforced all 18 teams to play the as-fixtured first round of games.
These were worrying, unknown times. A full week before the first of those games was played on Thursday, March 20, 2020, that year's Albert Park Formula 1 Grand Prix had been cancelled. By the time the last of those round one 2020 matches even started, on Sunday March 22, it had been decided the competition would enter an indefinite pause.
Round two would not be held until June 11. But without round one being played, round two may not have ever been played. The Grand Final that year was played at Brisbane's the Gabba, last year it was at Perth's Optus Stadium.
With our without McLachlan, the game probably would have found a way through, but only with him has it managed to emerge with a brightness attached to 2022 and beyond.
For a man who was always prepared to make the toughest of calls on behalf of the game, McLachlan nevertheless liked knowing in advance what the critics would be saying. Even without being, in the old height scale, closer to seven foot than six, the role of AFL CEO is a beacon for vitriol.
A step up from vitriol – hatred - was directed his way from Essendon fans in the aftermath of that club's decision to implement a controversial supplements program. The game's handling of the Adam Goodes booing disgrace was poor, and McLachlan and the commission have since apologised on multiple occasions. The handling of the Melbourne "tanking" situation, particularly the failure to provide a definition of tanking itself, was another low period.
But regrets? Nup. Yes, some matters would have been handled differently, but no regrets.
McLachlan gets to exit on his own terms, and with the key measurable components - including TV money, membership of clubs, participation rates and general revenue - of the game in fantastic health. He may have no peer in Australian sport for deal-making, though Peter V'landys' people may disagree.
There will be serious issues for the next boss to wade through. In some ways, the concussion issue is as complex as any the game has faced. Re-engagement of fans after two seasons of COVID interruptions, and not merely via match attendance, needs detailed work. Community football requires a lot more resource and support.
When Andrew Demetriou in 2014 made the decision McLachlan himself made on Tuesday, McLachlan was the standout replacement candidate. He had already been offered the CEO post at the NRL, and the commission had nudge-nudge, wink-winked him into officially accepting official 2IC status to Demetriou in 2012.
There is no "McLachlan", no clear-cut person-in-waiting, in the 2022 race to become the next AFL CEO. There are, of course, outstanding options.
Internally at AFL headquarters, Travis Auld (general manager finance, clubs and broadcasting), Kylie Rogers (general manager commercial and customer), and Andrew Dillon (general counsel and general manager football operations) will be in the mix, and almost certainly asked to consider.
Externally of headquarters but within the AFL system, Western Bulldogs president Kylie Watson-Wheeler will certainly be in the running. Even before McLachlan's announcement, Watson-Wheeler had been widely discussed for the role. Richmond chief executive Brendon Gale, who officially interviewed for the role that McLachlan was awarded in 2014, has also been long viewed as a possibility. It remains to be seen if the friction between the Tigers and the AFL over certain elements relating to COVID requirements in the past two seasons is to have a impactful outcome on Gale's candidacy.
In the three days that followed his plane conversation with Goyder, the emotions descended on McLachlan.
"Not second guessing myself, that didn't happen, but the fact that it had become real, and the fact that I work with so many good people in this industry, a lot of people I've hired …" his voice trailing off.
"There is emotion in leaving, and this is a tough business."
McLachlan's phone was pinging with hundreds of messages throughout Tuesday.
"We'll keep all that to myself, but what the past 36 hours have done as I had to think about what I would be saying to people is make me realise how fortunate I have been to work with great people in a very privileged position," he said.
"I get emotional thinking that I'm walking away from that. But I do remind myself that we have been through the right process to get here."
The "we" was another reference to Laura.
Before he leaves the AFL, McLachlan has committed to completing Collective Bargaining Arrangements for both the men's and women's competitions, transacting on a new broadcast deal beyond the already-contracted 2024 season, establishing official framework around the motion to be put to clubs in August on the granting of a licence in Tasmania, devising a new club-funding model, and preparing to start the next AFLW season in August.
There's about four years of work in all of that, so that by the time he does walk off into his own AFL sunset, he will have more than earnt his keep, even though he has already.
And on that particular sunset for him – it may come after a twilight start to the 2022 Grand Final at the MCG. Maybe one more legacy decision with which to leave the game.