THEY HAD BEEN MATES FOR 35 YEARS AND SET UP ONE OF SA’S MOST PROMINENT CHARITIES. NOW CHRIS McDERMOTT SPEAKS ABOUT THE BATTLE OF WILLS WHICH ENDED HIS FRIENDSHIP WITH TONY McGUINNESS
MICHAEL McGUIRE person. The football memory of him is of the nuggetty footballer, endlessly dishing out handballs to the flashier players running past. McGuinness was often that player. Together they built a foundation that quickly became an Adelaide icon. It raised millions for children with cancer at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital, hosted many successful fundraisers and instigated that staple of South Australian sporting life, the annual Slowdown game featuring past players of Adelaide and Port Adelaide.
But as the foundation grew, the friendship stalled. In part it was inevitable as their lives went in different directions after football. They had different business and media interests. Both got married and had children. If it hadn’t been for the foundation, they may have drifted apart, meeting only at football reunions.
Some close observers of the pair believe that in the past three years or so the friendship took a sharp turn for the worse, coinciding with McGuinness becoming the foundation’s executive director after he sold his interest in the Rowe & Jarman sport store chain in 2006, making millions of dollars in the process. Variously described by friends and enemies alike as a “type A” personality and difficult to work for, McGuinness oversaw a substantial turnover in staff, upsetting many people, including McDermott, in the process. The upside was steady growth in the foundation’s income and donations.
The first public cracks in the relationship appeared in March when McGuinness stood down from the dayto-day running of the organisation for “personal and health reasons”. At the time it was presented as an opportunity for McDermott to become more involved in managing the charity. Now he is the last man standing and knows the next few months are vital for the foundation’s survival.
So, only 10 days after McGuinness’s resignation, McDermott, a glass of red wine in hand, is working a small conference room in the Rendezvous Allegra Hotel in the city. This is the start of his mission to rebuild and re-badge McGuinness McDermott as the Little Heroes Foundation. McDermott seems relaxed, if somewhat worn out, by the events of the past week. He is here to sell the new foundation to the people who have provided the money which has driven the charity since it started in 1996. There are about 40 of them in the room tonight. Sponsors, commercial partners, their husbands, wives and kids. Despite the troubles of the past week he seems to be among friends. One man yells out “Good on you Chris” as he gets up to speak.
Dressed casually in jeans and a white Little Heroes polo shirt, McDermott puts on his glasses and talks about the future. But he can’t ignore the past. “The last five months for us have been unique,” McDermott says with a degree of understatement. “It has been a very difficult time for the foundation. It has been a very uncomfortable place to work in.”
An optimist by nature, McDermott talks about his plans, how out of the ruins of the McGuinness McDermott Foundation the Little Heroes Foundation will emerge as a stronger, more national organisation that will help more sick kids. While he tries to bury the past, McDermott makes no attempt to airbrush it. “Tony” gets several mentions and McDermott says their “history is something we will never ignore and we will always be proud of”. McDermott leaves the lectern to loud applause. He seems relieved it’s over. The crowd are happy for him and return to their red wine and rare beef canapés. But there’s no doubt it’s been a very trying time for McDermott.
The talk about McGuinness had been going on for