There were quite a few players primed for huge 2020 seasons. A summer spent running and refining their game was railroaded by a virus that threatened so much more than just an AFL season.

However, with the green light for the competition to restart, we’re starting to get the feeling that this damn thing just might be salvageable. Hell, if you’re asking me, I think a 17-game season is more than enough in-season time to crown a premier… though I am not a fan of shortening games for faster recovery, particularly as it now seems as though cramming games in at a quicker rate won’t be necessary.

Oh, and don’t get me started on the movement to move the Grand Final to a night game. What’s that old saying about never letting a crisis go to waste? I wonder whether this underhanded chicanery will come back to bit the AFL of its backside at some point this season…

Anyway, we like to be more of a positive site when it comes to footy. No wild conspiracy theories or scuttlebutt here (as long as readership doesn’t completely tank). We prefer to focus on the game itself, and what players can and will bring to the table.

This week, I am looking at a player from each club with a point to prove. The reasons may vary, but make no mistake, the resumption of the 2020 season is just what the doctor ordered for these blokes.

Whether they’ve been written off, suffered a humbling defeat, are coming back from injury, or are having one last crack at things before hanging the boots up, these are the fellas with a point to prove for the remainder of this season.

We’re hitting up the Bombers, because I’m sick of doing things in alphabetical order.

 

DYLAN SHIEL

I always assume the first season is a bit of a “getting to know you” kind of experience for a player. In many ways, it’s like a first date. You’re more feeling each other out than feeling each other up (except sometimes you might get really lucky). Throughout this series, it is an angle I’m going to be using when assessing several players (the feeling out… not up). That said, it’s difficult to believe, for me at least, that Dylan Shiel has had just one full season in red and black.

It feels as though he’s been there longer. It feels as though he and the Bombers were feeling each other out/up rather quickly.

The switch from GWS to the Bombers seems like an age ago, and that may be down to just how quickly Shiel adapted to life at Essendon.

But as well as he travelled at points in 2019, his disposal was still a major letdown, and it would be something that he’d be determined to rectify this season. Well, he started the right way in Round One.

With the Bombers notching a slender win over the Dockers, Shiel played what I thought was his best game to date for the club, notching 35 touches to be the best player on the park. The thing that impressed most, however, was his ability to hit targets by both hand and foot.

Running at 77% efficiency for the game, Shiel demonstrated just how devastating he could be for the Bombers when his disposal is on-song. If you remove him from that Round One lineup, I am afraid the reviews for the Bombers would not have been very favourable. Up by 26 points at three-quarter time, they almost blew it, and had it not been for Shiel’s game, they may very well have.

So, was this the anomaly, or are we seeing the emergence of a more composed version of Shiel? And what would the latter mean to the Bombers?

I have been a little vocal over the past couple of seasons about Essendon’s lack of size and genuine grunt in the clinches. The Bombers have tried Jake Stringer as a pinch-hitter in the guts, with decent results, but outside that they were throwing David Myers in there as a big body. That should give you an indication as to how much the Dons were struggling with that role since Jobe retired. Hopefully, the return of Dev Smith adds a little more grunt and allows Shiel to play just a touch more outside, which is the role he plays best in.

So, how do we assess Shiel this season? What sort of number should we be hoping for?

He’s an accumulator, and has hovered around 25-28 touches per game for the last five seasons, so somewhere around the same mark would be more than acceptable. But it is the efficiency that has to improve. In 2019 he was at 66%, which was down from 69% in 2018, and down again from 72% in 2017. The slide must be arrested, and Shiel running at 72-75% would make a huge difference to the team, particularly the forwards relying on his delivery.

If he hits those percentages, people will have to shut up about his delivery… including myself

 

JAKE STRINGER

Having watched the way the Bombers have used Jake Stringer over the last 12 months, it became apparent that he is quite adept at winning clearances, particularly centre clearances. However, he just hasn’t had the tank to run in the midfield for extended periods. He’s not been completely unfit by any stretch, but training to play as a strong forward, and being asked to do work in the midfield as well can be the equivalent of burning the candle at both ends in AFL footy. It takes something special to pull that off on a regular basis.

Maybe the Bombers have asked too much of Stringer in that regard?

Without Daniher, you lose so much up forward both immediately, and ongoing when Stringer expends his energy in the guts.He then appears to struggle to work into position for the five minutes following as he gets his legs back under him. Perhaps it is time he is sent forward and stays forward, expending all his energy on putting score on the board.

I know he has his critics, and I know he doesn’t exactly endear himself to opposition supporters… of which, I am one, but you cannot deny his ability around goal. He can be the game-changer the Bombers need, and if he hits this season restart in great shape, may be the catalyst for a Bomber run we’ve been expecting for a while now.

When he joined this club, he was leaving a situation he’d grown tired of… and truthfully, the situation had grown tired of him as well. Now in year three with the Bombers, Stringer has been good, without being great. The reasons for this range from injury to conditioning, but at 26, the time for him to deliver on the promise he showed at the Bulldogs is now. If ever a team needed organic improvement from big names playing decent to good games, it’s Essendon, and it’s now.

Not to put pressure on one bloke – there are many who can elevate their game – but a Stringer averaging over two goals per game would be exactly what could give the Bombers a leg up in 2020. It’s a mark he’s hit only once in his career, and that wound up earning him All-Australian honours. He was 21 that season and the world was his oyster.

With Townsend doing some heavy lifting as well, Stringer may find a little more space – the space he expected to have playing alongside Joe Daniher.

He has led the Bombers with 30 goals in 2018, and 34 in 2019, but the team needs someone to kick the occasional bag, and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti cannot be that guy all the time. Stringer needs to be the guy, and 2020 needs to be the year he becomes it.

 

 

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MICHAEL HURLEY

I love watching Michael Hurley play key position. I felt he kind of lost his way a little when he was teaming with Brendon Goddard at one stage – it was as though both guys wanted to have the role of drifting off their respective opponent to impact a contest. The problem there was that it always left two men from the opposition on the deck to gather the crumbs.

And it often left Goddard with his arms outstretched accusing everyone else of not doing their jobs.

Hurley is as honest as the day is long as a key position player, and I love that he wears his heart on his sleeve. You can tell he absolutely cares about each and every contest he is involved in, and would throw himself under a bus if it meant getting a fist on the footy and winning for his team. A two-time All-Australian, some may feel he has been given the recognition he deserves, but I think it might not be the case.

Hurley is not often mentioned when it comes to the best one-on-one defenders in the game, but he probably should be. He takes the big jobs week after week and despite copping the occasional loss, can hold his head high way more often than not.

If we get the combination of Hurley/Hooker in an injury-free capacity for the majority of the next 16 games, a return to the AA team would be a fitting reward for a man that has been a warrior for the Bombers over the journey. And if he can get solid support from the returning Patrick Ambrose, whilst teaching, and accelerating the growth of Brandon Zerk-Thatcher along the way, that would be a close to perfect combination for the Dons.

When you look at their runners in the backline – Saad, McKenna, Redman (who I really rate), the Bombers have so much to work with, but they’ll need their General… hell, I feel uncomfortable calling him that – he is more like a Seargent Major… they’ll need him at his best and in control.

 

ORAZIO FANTASIA

There’s some real work to be done here, and I reckon it all starts upstairs, for Fantasia.

I’ve written before that I have not been a fan of his last 12 months. He looked disinterested, unfit and timid at the footy last season. He was better known in 2019 for events off the field than what he was doing on it – the blonde dye-job, the pronunciation of his surname, firing his manager, whether he’d be traded to Port Adelaide – there was not a plethora of good news when it came to Fantasia.

And sadly, as we started 2020, he came out of the gates in a similar fashion to 2019, amassing just six touches in Round One. Just as concerning was his lack of defensive pressure – applying one tackle for the game.

The Bombers have the potential to have one of the best one-two small forward punches in the game, with Fantasia teamed up with AMT, but only one of them has been showing anything like the desire required to have a significant impact.

Have you ever put yourself through the pain of watching an entertainment awards show? You know, the Grammies, or Oscars, or if you’re completely desperate, the Logies? You know when a winner is announced and there is all the back-slapping that goes on and then you get an interview with one of the losers? And they say “Oh, it’s just an honour to be nominated.”

That’s how I feel about Fantasia and his football at the moment. He is not striving for greatness – he seems quite content just to be playing AFL football. He isn’t winning anything – he is just happy to be nominated.

I don’t doubt his ability. I don’t doubt his skill. What I do doubt is his desire, and will be watching the remainder of 2020 closely to see whether we get something like the 2017 version (13.95 touches and 1.95 goals per game) or the 2019 version (11.53 and 1.33… and trending downward).

 

ANDREW MCGRATH

A lot of pressure comes with being the number one pick, and in his rookie season, Andrew McGrath handled it with aplomb. With 19.76 touches per game, he was the Rising Star winner and looked set to be a huge contributor for the Bombers right off the bat.

But he plateaued rather quickly registering just +1.28 improvement for disposals over the next two seasons. Essendon needs a bit more from him, and more consistently. The same could be said for Darcy Parish… but Parish ain’t the number one pick.

There were some really positive signs in the Marsh Series this pre-season, and McGrath’s Round One performance was excellent as well. Maintaining that level of play will be the challenge.

McGrath appears ready for solid and meaningful midfield minutes this season. Whilst his run and delivery from half-back will be missed, he is the kind of talent that should be taking the next step and dragging his team along with him. His contemporaries appear ready to make that leap – Tim Taranto became one of GWS’ best mids in 2019, and Hugh McCluggage had people dropping his name as a potential All-Australian wingman. McGrath’s time has arrived.

So, targets?

After those seasons hovering around 19-21 touches, McGrath should be ready to push toward 23-24 touches per game in 2020. He is bigger, stronger and able to hold his own in traffic now, and with quality around him in the midfield, I would expect to see him streaming forward more often.

I rate him by foot, and in a perfect world, the ball would be in his hands as the forwards make their leads. He is a good decision-maker, and all things going well, should start finishing in the top five in the Crichton Medal pretty regularly (he was sixth in 2019, so not a huge stretch).

 

JAYDEN LAVERDE

The arrival of Jacob Townsend may just be the key to unlocking Jayden Laverde in the Essendon forward line. And if it’s not, it may just be the key to cutting him loose.

Harsh?

Maybe, but the Bombers gave Mitch Brown his walking papers and he was just as effective as Laverde in that mid-sized/third forward role. This is year seven in red and black for the 24-year-old, and the time to start producing is now.

To his credit, Laverde did crack the goal-per-game mark for the first time in 2019, but watching Townsend impose himself on the game in Round One, I couldn’t help but think that this is what the Bombers have needed from Laverde for a while. Instead, it took a Tiger-outcast to wander in and demonstrate what was required.

Laverde likes to hustle and bustle, is a strong man, and a bull in the contest, which is great…

… but the Bombers now have access to someone who does that stuff a little bit better and seems to want it a little more.

So, whilst Townsend was putting on a show of how to make something out of nothing inside forward 50 in Round One, how did Laverde go? Can I jog your memory? Five touches and a goal.

The Bombers had plenty of winners on the day, but Laverde wasn’t one of them. Contracted only until the end of this season, Laverde may find himself squeezed out of a permanent role unless he can turn it around.

 

JACOB TOWNSEND

So, I just wrote about the pressure Townsend has placed Laverde under, and here is Townsend, himself bobbing up.

The former Tiger has a fair bit to prove in 2020. After spending most of 2018 hurt and being unable to crack the Tigers team that went onto win the 2019 flag, it was time for Townsend to start exploring options. Hell, I wanted Hawthorn to go after him in 2018! He is an absolute bull – you will never get him half-arsing a contest.

There are some players from who you know exactly what you’re gonna get – Townsend is one, and what you’re gonna get is 100% effort in every single contest. He may not win them, but he will rarely get beaten either, and if you’re looking at a situation where you want the ball trapped in your forward 50 for as long as possible, the competitive spirit of Jacob Townsend is exactly what you need.

His first half in Round One set the Bombers up for the win. On debut for his new club, Townsend kicked three goals, took three contested marks and, though he may have spent all his petrol tickets early, showed the kind of fire and spirit that made his teammates walk taller.

One game is way too small a sample size to prove anything, but if we are asking at what a new attitude can bring in that Bomber forward line, the answers Jacob Townsend provided would have been enough to make John Worsfold and Ben Rutten smile.

He believes he has plenty to offer, and if his body stays right, we may finally see him play the kind of footy he did in 2017 when he was part of a premiership. He knows what it takes to succeed, and he displays it every time he sets foot on the park. He just needs the chance to do it consistently.

 

MEMBERS – The Best 15 Defenders of the 90s

 

CONOR MCKENNA

It’s in instances like this you don’t envy being a list manager or a player liaison officer (or whatever the hell they’re called if they still exist). Conor McKenna, homesickness, playing games of Gaelic footy, speculating if he’ll return… lucky the guy is choc-full of talent, otherwise he’d be turfed to the curb.

McKenna is contracted until the end of the 2021 season, but his recent actions, and the uncertainty surrounding his commitment to the cause must be a source of concern for Bomber fans. From the outside looking in, he seems to be the sort of guy that teeters between wanting to be the best he can be, and wanting to pack his bags and run home.

He has stated that he will be gone from Essendon and back home in the next few years. “Whether it’s this year or next year I’m just not sure at the moment,” he said to BBC Sport as late as April 2020

I don’t want to discount what being half a world away from your family can do to a person’s psyche, but in terms of pure football, the challenge for McKenna in 2020 is to prove that his head is well and truly in the game.

Sadly, it sounds to me as though McKenna has one foot out the door already, and if he isn’t committed to the club long-term, at what point do they start looking at putting time into someone at that position who actually wants to be there?

If the Bombers aren’t in contention with a few games to go in this shortened season, and the Irishman is still making noise about wanting to head home, it may be time to cut McKenna loose, and give him what his heart desires. It may be time to let him go.

 

DYSON HEPPELL

To be named captain of an AFL club is a great honour. To lead that club in a successful period is another thing entirely. To lead them to a flag… that is the dream of every player that has the ‘c’ next to their name on the team sheet.

Dyson Heppell had the captaincy thrust upon him. Far from the standard leader at AFL level, he has carved his own niche and made the role his own, despite a few instances that had people questioning how seriously he took it.

This is his fourth season at the helm, and with a coaching change on the horizon, he and his Bombers have a monkey on their backs that needs to be removed. We all know what it is – there’s a damn Twitter handle that only posts things about how long the club has gone without winning a final… and it has over 4K followers, which should give you an indication as to the intelligence of quite a few Twitter users.

The challenge is squarely at the feet of Heppell – his club needs that finals win – they need it for the self-belief, and their captain needs to lead them there. Anyone who questions his leadership will be immediately silenced with that one, elusive win.

He is now 28 years old and should be well and truly entrenched in his prime. The time is now for Heppell and his team to make the breakthrough and play a significant role in the finals – not just make up the numbers. Asterisk-season or not, 2020 has to be the year the Bombers breakthrough and shake this perception.

And it’ll well and truly screw up that bloke’s whole Twitter persona as well, as an added bonus.

 

Peter Knights and Paul Vander Haar – The Duel

 

JOHN WORSFOLD

The Essendon coach has a record of 39-51 since he took over in 2016. It’s an Un-Essendon-like record and has prompted some segments of the AFL community to call for his head several times, but he gets nowhere near enough respect for the job he’s done with a team that was absolutely crushed by the weight of the penalties the AFL imposed on his team.

He has coached through the worst period in the club’s history. He lost 12 players due to the AFL-imposed suspension and several others had already jumped ship. The fact he has been able to take this club back to the finals, whilst other teams have floundered at the tail end of the ladder, dealing with much less pressure and hardship, is a feather in his cap. Essendon are in the position where they can launch an assault on the top four if all goes well. It has been a remarkable turnaround.

He has not deserved the garbage he has had thrown at him by some, and with another winning record in 2020, and possibly a finals win, Worsfold has the opportunity to hand over the reins to Ben Rutten with the club on a definite upswing.

Looking at the AFL as a whole, I am not sure any coach deserves a finals win more than Woosha. He’s done the hard yards and helped the club bounce back amazingly. He has been prickly and defiant and you know what? I kind of like that.

I’m not an Essendon fan by any stretch, but I do like a good comeback, and the way Worsfold has led this team back up the ladder has been wonderful. He deserves to go out on a high.

 

And so, where’s Joe?

A list of Bomber players with a point to prove and I’ve left Joe Daniher off it?

Yep. The truth is, I don’t think he will be too eager to get on the park other than to indicate his worth to his next team. Should the Bombers have off-loaded him after 2019? I’ll just put on my Captain Hindsight goggles here… I reckon they should’ve taken what was on offer and ended the “where’s Joe at?” weekly questions.

If he has one point to prove, it’d be that he has some respect for the Essendon fans, and to get out there and play his backside off for the team he is STILL part of. It would be that he shows supporters that their time and investment in him actually meant something to him, and this last couple of years wasn’t just an elongated stopover on his way to red and white pastures.

Maybe his absence this season will cause a few others to make a point of their own in 2020 – that this team can succeed with him, or without him.

 

So, that’ll do. Have any of your own to add? Who has a point to prove at Essendon this season? And what is it?

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