As I wrote the latest instalment of my Essendon – By The Numbers series, it suddenly dawned on me that four of Essendon’s most prestigious jumper numbers throughout the club’s history are set for new custodians in season 2023.
The retirements of Devon Smith (5), and Michael Hurley (18), along with the trade of Aaron Francis (10) and the delisting of Josh Eyre (32) leave the club in a historically undesirable position, where the proverbial passing of the torch is greatly reminiscent of the 1968 Barcelona Olympic Torch debacle that saw two runners engulfed in a fiery explosion.
One only has to cast their mind back to the retirements of Essendon captain Jobe Watson in 2017 and former captain James Hird in 2007 respectively, to recall a fickle reluctance from some factions within the club and supporter groups alike, in passing on a jumper number previously worn by a legend of the club to another player.
Many in 2017 raised question at who most deserved to inherit the number 4 guernsey of retiring captain, Watson, with first round draft pick Kyle Langford (who was wearing number 30 at the time) being the player chosen by the retiring custodian, and coach of the time in John Worsfold, after having notched up only 30 games at age 20. The number, having been previously worn by dual premiership hero Leon Baker and Brownlow Medallist Gavin Wanganeen, was one that drew high respect and sentiment within the club.
“Do it for yourself, don’t do it for anyone else, you’ve worked hard and earned the honour” – Jobe Watson (to Kyle Langford when offering him the number 4)
The retirement of James Hird in 2007 certainly hit a lot harder.
Whether it was a flow-on effect of the great distaste amongst supporters surrounding Kevin Sheedy’s final year at the club, or just a general feeling of culminated passion, large sections within the club and their supporter base, right or wrong, did not want James Hird’s covered number 5 to be just handed out to just anyone. The problem with that? There were very, very few players at the club ‘worthy’ in the eyes of the supporters to inherit such an honour.
After much public discussion amongst media outlets, the Bombers made their announcement – coach Matthew Knights had contacted James Hird and sought his opinion on the matter, with the consensus being that up-and-coming, 21 year old midfielder, Brent Stanton deserved the honour of wearing the prestigious number 5. After playing 76 games in number 24, and with Hird adamant that he wanted the number to be handed to another player and not retired for any period of time, as had been widely suggested by external pundits, Stanton switched to the famous number.
Did the pressure of inheriting a number from Essendon’s most popular and beloved player amongst supporters since the legendary John Coleman culminate in Stanton becoming the club’s ultimate whipping boy? It sure didn’t help.
Matthew Lloyd was the one to hand-pick Michael Hurley as his own custodial successor upon the champion forward and captain’s retirement in 2009. After spending only one season consisting of ten promising games donning the number 22, Michael Hurley was widely embraced by the Essendon faithful as the heir apparent to Lloyd and Paul Vander Haar’s coveted number 18 as a key position player, after a string of dominant performances as a budding fullback.
Despite a singular, largely uncharacteristic off-field indiscretion involving a taxi driver in his early days at the club, Hurley remained a fan-favourite and failed to set a further foot out of line during his 194-game playing career from 14 seasons which came to an end last year, at the Bombers.
The number 32 hit peak popularity amongst Bombers fans when club legend Tim Watson wore it emblazoned on his back for 307 games, snowballing the figure’s already high acclaim from earlier that decade, largely thanks to Barry Davis – the oft-forgotten superstar of the 1960’s-1970’s. Mind you, those who watched Davis play will soon protest of just how much star quality this renowned half-back possessed in his day.
Premiership player Justin Blumfield and Fremantle’s Travis Colyer are the only other players since Watson to notch up a significant games tally wearing the number 32, with Colyer also suffering the expectational burden of wearing a famous number at times throughout his 87 games at the club.
Like its counterpart in 32, the wearer of the number 10 jumper hasn’t suffered the same immense scrutiny that the likes of numbers 3, 4 and 5 historically have. The reason for this in my eyes, falls squarely on the plethora of consistently ‘good’ players to wear the number since the greatest of them all; John Coleman, did in the early 1950’s.
With no disrespect intended whatsoever by naming the following players as just “good”, the likes of Garry Foulds – one of only five Essendon players to notch up 300 games, Gary O’Donnell – known as ‘Mr. Reliable’ for being the sort of player to never play a bad game, nor an amazing one, just consistently good output across his 243 games, Mark McVeigh – the player that Paul Roos named as one of the best, unheralded onfield leaders that he ever saw in football, carved out a formidable, 232 games as a much-loved player in an era of little onfield success, Alan Noonan – the Half-Forward that kicked 420 goals from 182 games and topped the club’s goalkicking a then-record seven times throughout the 1960’s-1970’s, and Ian ‘Bluey’ Shelton – Essendon’s hard-as-horseshoe-nails defender that became a crowd favourite on the back of his laborious and unrelenting attack on the ball and opposition alike.
With Coleman being the outlier, Essendon have had no megastar player wear the number 10. Yet the quality of dependable players to have graced that number arguably stack up better than any other number in the team’s history.
So with that all said, my initial question that spawned this article remains – who are some of the key candidates to potentially become heir apparent for these esteemed jumper numbers?
Archie Perkins – The 20-year-old was taken with pick #9 in the 2020 National Draft and has shown glimpses of his immense potential in 39 games across his first two seasons at AFL level, wearing the number 16. Playing predominantly in the forward half, Perkins boasts a strong pair of hips, making him hard to tackle, and plenty of skill marking the ball above his head. The club holds high hopes for Perkins to become a midfield mainstay with his trademark ability to go forward and kick a classy goal. Many have made a premature comparison to the way James Hird began his career, making Archie’s transition from his current number 16, to number 5, a possibility for a player that the club internally rates very highly.
Elijah Tsatas – Out of the frying pan and into the fire? It could be a baptism of fire for the Bombers’ first selection in this year’s National Draft. Elijah Tsatas was taken, ironically, at pick #5, and enters the club as a highly touted midfielder that has shown a promising level of ability to play as both a ball-winning, inside midfielder, and an outside running wingman, excelling in either position with an insanely high football IQ, and a natural ability to read the play proficiently. Essendon have consistently awarded their top picks with a prestigious or low jumper number in recent years:
(Ben Hobbs – 8 (pick #13, 2021)
(Nik Cox – 13 (pick #8, 2020)
(Archie Perkins – 16 (pick #9, 2020)
(Zach Reid – 31 (pick #10, 2020)
(Harrison Jones – 23 (pick #30, 2019)
(Andrew McGrath – 1 (pick #1, 2016)
(Darcy Parish – 3 (pick #5, 2015)
(*Aaron Francis – 10 (pick #6, 2015)
(*Joe Daniher – 6 (pick #10, 2012)
*Denotes no longer at the club.
Mason Redman – If any player currently in the Essendon side fits the bill that I transcribed earlier about being “consistently good”, it would be Mason Redman. Entering his seventh season for the Bombers, Redman has cemented his place as a reliable rebounding defender, playing 80 games and averaging almost 19 games per season across the past four years. Many eyebrows were raised, both by those who support the club and by those who watch from afar when Redman failed to place highly in the club’s best and fairest award in 2022. With many punters ranking his season as a surety for top three. Having worn the number 27 for seven seasons, the chances of changing now would seem to be dwindling.
Matt Guelfi – Like Redman, Matt Guelfi plays a role within the side that comes largely unappreciated by most. A rather unselfish role that varies by the week, depending on the opposition and what works best for our team structure in that particular game. We’ve seen Guelfi played in every corner of the ground across his 83 games in five seasons wearing the number 35. Another that would suit the aforementioned moniker, but seems rather unlikely to change number. Stranger things have happened.
Jayden Davey – A left field selection, it would be almost poetic to see the Tadpole Twins® both don prolific numbers for the Bonbers. If Jake Kelly was to accept a new number, we could see Alwyn Jnr wearing his father and namesake’s number 29, whilst Jayden would look equally as good wearing a much-loved number at the Hangar.
Yes, I am unofficially claiming a trademark on calling the young sons of Alwyn ‘Froggy’ Davey, the Tadpole Twins.
Harrison Jones – There is a bit of a theme with the following three selections, and that’s key position players with high potential. Following in the footsteps of Hurley, Lloyd and Vander Haar, Harry Jones has monumentally impressed those at the club in his short time at Essendon. Whether it’s his attitude to training and injury recovery, his friendly demeanour and willingness to go the extra mile for his club both on, and especially off the field, or even just his football ability, Jones ticks every box for what a club dreams to find in a young recruit. Currently wearing the number 23 in his 26 games to date, moving half a dozen lockers over to 18 isn’t a big shift in terms of distance, but in terms of what it would mean to the club, Jones would be the perfect candidate to wear the distinguished number 18.
Lewis Hayes – Following the trend of awarding lower draft picks with lower or prestigious numbers, and keeping 18 for a key position player, Lewis Hayes comes to the club as one of the highest rated key defenders in this year’s draft pool, with many phantom drafts and media outlets having Hayes snapped up well and truly before the Bombers secured the tall talent with pick #25 in this year’s draft. Likened to Essendon legend Dustin Fletcher in both looks and ability, the wiry defender possesses long, gangly arms and has shown an uncanny knack for being able to spoil and intercept in the last line of defence.
Kaine Baldwin – The one we’re all sitting on and waiting. Many of us saw exactly how good of a player Baldwin was before untimely injuries and Covid restrictions curtailed a large portion of the latter stages of his junior football career. For those of us who recall his ability, the untapped potential that resides in Kaine Baldwin is phenomenal, and if the 193cm forward prospect is able to harness some of that potential and strong together a good season, we would see a young player, currently wearing number 26, that earns the right to proudly boast the number 18.
Nic Martin – I’m not going to lie, I wouldn’t be the slightest bit mad if the club deemed Martin fit to wear the number 5 or the number 32. After one of the more impressive debut seasons in recent years, Nic Martin turned plenty of heads in the AFL, given that he was only awarded the final list spot in the last moments of the SSP selection period leading into this season. If 2022 is anything to go off, then Martin’s progression will continue to rise in a linear fashion, and we’ll hopefully tap this keg of classy potential. The theme for these number 32 selections is mainly classy, utility players that star in their given back-half roles, but can also successfully apply their craft in the forward half – à la Tim Watson or Barry Davis, something that we saw in spades from Martin this season gone. Currently wearing the number 37, it would not surprise me in the slightest to see Martin offered a lower number for the upcoming season.
Massimo D’Ambrosio – One of the most promising exponents of the mid-season Draft, Massimo D’Ambrosio quickly became a fan favourite with his beaming smile, silky smooth skills and oozing confidence well beyond his years. From his 8 games in the latter half of this season, we saw some tremendously promising signs from the 19-year-old when deployed in a regularly under fire back line, and also four goals from limited opportunities when trialled around the forward 50. The future is definitely bright for Massimo, and an upgrade on the number 42 is surely on the cards.
Tex Wanganeen – Managing five games in his debut season, the son of a gun is highly unlikely to be given the number 4 famously worn by his Brownlow Medal-winning father Gavin, but with another preseason under his belt, Tex could find himself on the receiving end of an upgrade from his current jumper number of 40. Like Nic Martin’s 37, an indicator of where the two players started, being taken last minute as SSP selections just prior to the start of the season, but hard work and determination will see their careers blossom and their potential to earn a better jumper number be presented if the aspirations to are there.