Sometimes it’s hard to view your team in a positive light, especially when your team is Essendon. Any fellow Bombers tragics will undoubtedly be nodding their heads as they read these words. But for this article, I am breaking the norm and taking a peak at the 2023 season, strictly looking through my most optimistic red and black lensed goggles.
If strength is born from heartbreak and disappointment, then after the past 21 seasons you would anticipate the Bombers to move mountains some time in the very near future. The entire 2022 season was a bleak rollercoaster of dejection and very little positivity, that saw the club making headlines around the country for all the wrong reasons, once again.
But that was then, and this is now. So chuck the kettle on, slip into your favourite woollen Nubrik guernsey, bow your head before the framed Kevin Sheedy/James Hird print in your living room, and strap yourselves in for the ultimate pump-up piece to get your tongues wagging for the 2023 season.
Here’s what I love about our Bombers in 2023
The New Faces
The Oakleigh Chargers knew that their star midfielder/wingman would be selected high up in the draft, with the Bombers knocking back several lucrative trade offers from rival clubs that were unabashedly keen to secure Elijah in the National Draft. Taken at Pick #5 after the whole rigmarole of matching bids for academy and Father-Son players, Tasatas’ name was called out by the visibly excited Bombers.
Arguably not since Jobe Watson has Essendon boasted the elusive, bigger-bodied midfielder that is just as reliable at winning the ball on the inside as on the outside, but with an added bonus of poise, pace and a keen sense around goal. Tsatas has adopted the coveted number five guernsey at the club and is impressing immensely in his early days of training, so much so that in typical Essendon fashion, since starting this article, Tsatas has succumbed to a knee injury, with the club diligently wrapping their star of the future in cotton wool and sending him off for surgery on his meniscus.
The call was made early that Hayes was the best intercept defender in his respective Draft pool, and potentially second only to Western Australia’s Jedd Busslinger as the Draft’s best overall defender. The fact that the 199cm Eastern Ranges talent’s name wasn’t called until pick #25* ought to serve as more an indication of the abundance of young, top-end talent around him than an indictment on his own talent.
The younger brother of Port Adelaide’s ruckman Sam Hayes, Lewis boasts a terrific set of hands, be it as an intercept player working himself into space, or clamped down as a one-on-one lockdown defender. The other extremely rare trait that stood out to me throughout the 2022 season was Hayes’s disposal efficiency, highlighted in many of his Draft package videos, with a kick out of defence seldom ever wasted and a handball under pressure almost never missing its target.
*was originally pick #22 before Academy and Father-Son bids.
Alwyn Davey Jnr
If the question of ‘Who will the Bombers take with their Pick #4?’ was the foremost on the lips of every Essendon fan, then ‘How and when will we land Alwyn Jnr?’ was almost certainly the very next breath uttered. The answer was a forced bid from arch rivals in Hawthorn coming at Pick #45 – surprisingly low, but a great win for the Bombers.
One of the ‘Tadpole Twins’ as the son of former Essendon goal sneak Alwyn “Froggy” Davey rocketed his way into proceedings after an impressive 2022 season that saw the prodigious young talent enter the notebooks of many recruiters around the country.
Mistakenly referred to as only a small forward option, Alwyn Jnr actually excelled and cemented his spot in a ridiculously strong midfield for the Oakleigh Chargers last year, alongside down of the eventual top draftees in the country, such as George Wardlaw (#4) and now teammate Elijah Tsatas (#5), with a playing style likened more to that of his uncle and former Melbourne Demons player, Aaron Davey.
That’s not to say that we won’t see another Davey dazzling us in front of goal, as Alwyn Jnr still found an avenue to score when playing in the forward half, and perhaps more importantly and impressively, registered more direct goal assists than goals for the season.
Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V? Not quite.
The other of the ‘Tadpole Twins’ as Alwyn “Froggy” Davey’s second son taken eventually at Pick #54 in the 2022 National Draft, Jayden had an unlucky season in which the brilliantly talented speedster ruptured the ACL in his right knee for the second time, severely limiting his exposure to competitive football, with his initial rupture, followed by the Covid-19 pandemic, and now this.
With a playing style very much likened to that of his father, Jayden Davey possesses every talent and more that you would hope for in a small forward: the tackling prowess, the defensive pressure to lock the ball in, the dazzling side-step, the powerful don’t-argue and a pinch of flamboyance and flair in front of goal, it’s small wonder that he was regarded as the more talented of the two twins in their days playing in the Northern Territory, pre-injury.
Taken as a mature-aged recruit with our first pick in the Rookie Draft, the 22 year old impressed playing for Central Districts in the SANFL, in what became a breakout season for the mobile defender. Standing at 190cm, Montgomerie was a reliable option behind the ball, turning heads for his intercept abilities playing the trendy, modern role as the third tall.
Another interesting point of difference in the game of Montgomerie is his endurance and speed, having taken out top spot in the 20m time trials for the entire South Australian Draft combine. With the Bombers recent history of unearthing mature-aged talent (Nic Martin, Will Snelling and Massimo D’Ambrosio), there will be great hopes that a career at top level beckons for the South Australian.
Those who have seen Anthony play can wilfully attest to the Tiwi Islander being one of the most skilfully talented players to enter the draft system last year – but for every ounce of that talent and x-factor comes an equal ounce of rawness and inexperience.
A freakishly talented and crafty forward, Munkara is truly gifted with a bag of tricks to rival any small forward when at full flight. Colloquially referred to by those who witness his feats (especially those supporting an opposition side) as “Howther”, as in: “How-Ther – f***ing hell did he do that?!”
With a game style that’s in the ilk of a player like Charlie Cameron – fast and deadly, hard hitting but also surprisingly competent above his head.
No doubt the Bombers will invest heavily in the development of such a talented prospect’s future in these early stages of his career.
Recruited in a trade from the Demons, the former #9 Draft pick will be hoping to reignite his career in the forward line at the Bombers, much like we’ve seen from another former first round Draft pick and now teammate – reigning club best and fairest winner Peter Wright has become a revelation after being traded into the Dons, from Gold Coast, for peanuts.
Much maligned through the first years of his career through injury and form issues, at his best Weideman provides another capable marking target in the forward line that has shown sporadic flashes of brilliance. Standing at almost two metres tall, the former Demon will look to earn his place in the forward half in pecking order amidst fellow tall target mainstays in Peter Wright and Harrison Jones.
A hard-at-it, inside midfielder by every stretch of the word, Setterfield had a terrific season in 2020 when deployed directly on the ball. Injuries and a move to the wing caused a heavy dampener on form in the ensuing season, with the ball-winner unable to recapture the form that saw him averaging almost six tackles per game in shortened matches, compliments of Covid-19.
The Bombers clearly went about addressing a need for bigger bodies inside their midfield with the recruitment of Will Setterfield and the drafting of a prodigious talent such as Elijah Tsatas. In the case if Setterfield, even if for nothing more than depth or the ability to move players such as Darcy Parish, Zach Merrett and Andrew McGrath back to their preferred positions.
O Captain! My Captain!
In 2022 we saw the Bombers move back to a more traditional leadership setup. Led by Captain Dyson Heppell, who inherited the role of skipper from Brendan Goddard for the 2017 season, and his two deputies in Zach Merrett and Andrew McGrath.
Since taking over as senior coach, Brad Scott has earmarked a significant change in the club’s leadership capabilities as one of his first areas to require addressing. The club openly conceded that they had no intention of sitting down and discussing the captaincy with Dyson Heppell until training recommenced in the new year.
With that being said, you would have to think that given the tough calls being made within the club in regards to board members, coaches, CEOs and countless other faculties within the club, it’s not entirely implausible to envision a world where Heppell no longer leads the side.
With one of either Merrett or McGrath clearly the frontrunners in the captaincy stakes and someone like Jordan Ridley highly likely to step into the leadership fold at some point in his career, where do we think the next leader will come from?
I personally feel like a strong sense of leadership is something that the club has been devoid of for a number of years but just where is it going to come from? With the new head coach highlighting it as a point of issue, will we see the two aforementioned vice-captains be named as co-captains, as has been the trend within the AFL in recent years? In his 10 years at the helm of North Melbourne, none of Scott’s three captains served as co-captains, opting more for a traditional leadership group.
So what are the pros and cons of each candidate? Many question the ruthlessness of both Zach Merrett and Andrew McGrath based on their onfield performances, but anybody that has spent time within the four walls of the club will know that there is nobody on the list as strict and hard on themselves with their training regime as Zach Merrett is, earning himself a number of Mark Waugh-like nicknames for his no-nonsense approach to training and game preparation.
Regardless of how you feel about our leadership potential, the chance to see such a young and developing side being led in most departments by new faces is something that ought to foster a sense of excitement in any fan.
Five In Three
The Bombers have held the best accumulation of top-end Draft picks across the past three years, that the club has seen for over a generation. With five top ten selections (Perkins, Cox, Reid, Hobbs and Tsatas) all finding their way to the red and black in recent years, a fair argument can be made that we’re finally seeing some young and promising depth in key departments.
Archie Perkins has given us glimmers of promise from his limited opportunities throughout multiple positions across the forward half and in the midfield during his first two seasons, whilst we’ll be hopeful to see the pair of talls in Nik Cox and Zach Reid overcome injury concerns and cement their spots within the side. Ben Hobbs barely set a foot out of place in his debut season last year impressing many with his tenacity around the ball and unwillingness to take a backwards step. With all evidence pointing to Elijah Tsatas setting the tone early as a young player impressing those around him immensely, we have a lot to look forward to in this young bunch alone.
When was the last time that Essendon were forced to play decent players out of position due to an abundance of quality in the midfield? It has been a hot while, that’s for sure.
Who do you see as Essendon’s starting midfield lineup? With a range including; Zach Merrett, Darcy Parish, Dylan Shiel, Jai Caldwell, Andrew McGrath, Jake Stringer, Kyle Langford, Ben Hobbs, Will Snelling, Nic Martin, Elijah Tsatas, Sam Durham, Archie Perkins, Will Setterfield and Patrick Voss all having their names in consideration for midfield minutes, there is quite a task ahead in whittling this list down and finding the ideal position for each player that benefits their skillset as much as it benefits the team itself.
Chances are that we can now FINALLY see McGrath sent back to his preferred role as a running rebound defender from half-back somewhere – yet another position with plenty of candidates currently on our list.
Darcy Parish and Zach Merrett are as good as locks. If you consider their pairing with the former’s ball winning grunt work, and the latter’s outside run and classy disposal as the foundation for Essendon’s midfield structure, who are your next pieces added?
Going off what we’ve seen, Dylan Shiel’s outside run and forward carry is the next logical selection along with Jai Caldwell’s more defensive game and ability to run both ways – something we lacked horrendously in 2022.
With Nic Martin almost a certainty to resume his position on the wing again this season, where he impressed the AFL world with a terrific debut season in a lacklustre side, and Kyle Langford edging towards his long awaited return from injury, I would say that all but sews up the basis of this season’s midfield.
But surely Ben Hobbs just has to find a way into this midfield? I would say bet your house on it. There is very little chance that Hobbs isn’t granted a run through the midfield at times throughout the season. Tickets to this midfield may be getting scarce, but us members will be ready to torch the place if Hobbs is thrown on a half-forward flank and allowed to stagnate.
Sam Durham and Will Snelling are two names often neglected by fans and foes alike for differing reasons. It was hard to take any positives out of last season, such was the poor nature of the Bombers’ weekly showings. But Sam Durham was a player who took his chances, and showed in a number of positions that he is growing in confidence above his head and isn’t afraid to put his head over the ball.
Whilst I don’t see him becoming a key component on the midfield, Durham definitely opens up options for depth and rotation. Will Snelling on the other hand is the forgotten man. After a season riddled by injury mismanagement from the club last year, it was evident to those who appreciate his input just how vital Snelling’s tackling and forward half pressure are for Essendon. Especially in a season where teams were walking the ball out of our forward 50 with next to no interference.
Another name that ought to enter some calculations, albeit on the lesser-likely end of the scale is Alwyn Davey Jnr. Despite the seemingly wide-spread assumption that Davey is a small forward in-waiting, the talented junior actually impressed more in the midfield and running in front half forward than he did as a traditional small forward. Whilst I see this season as one of growth and development for Davey, stranger things than an unlikely call-up have happened.
I thought it was going to be hard to pick our starting midfield for this season, owing to the number of candidates training their way into contention. But an even greater task is to pick our starting forward line, thanks to many great unknowns.
Firstly, who would have thought that when recruiting Peter Wright from Gold Coast, we would find the new focal point for our forward line? Honestly? I sure didn’t. But becoming only the second full forward since Matthew Lloyd to kick 50+ goals in a season kind of set those wheels in motion.
So with our players lined up against the brick wall, who’s your second forward selected? Jake Stringer? Nice choice. His 25 goals from 17 games last year makes him our second best contributor in front of goal and a wise choice, keeping in mind that he’s a solid chance to spend some time in the midfield as well.
Yep. Those would be crickets that you hear chirping.
Would you like to know which three players rounded out our top five for goalkickers last season? That would be (3) Nic Martin – with 19 goals from his 21 games. That’s right, the kid who had been overlooked in numerous drafts and was signed as a supplemental selection at the 11th hour finished third in our goalkicking.
To round out this list you’ll find (4) Matt Guelfi and (5) Archie Perkins with 17 and 16 goals kicked respectively.
But Jimmy, you promised us that you wouldn’t be your usual Pessimistic Percy in this article?! What makes this season so tantalising for Bombers fans from a forward perspective is the great unknown – and there are plenty of them.
Will we get the same Jake Stringer that single handedly won us games with untouchable bursts from the midfield and x-factor goals aplenty from the forward line?
Just what can we expect from Tippa this season? My brain says to temper those expectations and let him find his way back into the game at his own pace. But my heart says LET’S GO, WALLA!! Whether we’ll see McDonald-Tipungwuti back on the park this season or not remains to be seen. But IF he is able to recapture some of his early 2021 form and fitness…. THEN all of a sudden we have an accurate set shot, a crafty goalsneak and a mighty tackler that isn’t afraid to hunt and pressure.
Don’t you just love this kid? To look at and converse with, you would think that butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, such is his gentle and kind demeanour. We have been teased and teased by his potential in a flailing and failing forward line. The Verve said: “I never pray, but tonight I’m on my knees”. Well, at the risk of the Rolling Stones crucifying me for royalties, I too am on my knees praying that a sense of structure under new guidance will allow us to see the best of Jones playing second tall to Peter Wright.
Yet another on the vivid end of the great unknown spectrum. A former too pick that has at times shown exactly what he’s capable of, but much like Peter Wright at the Gold Coast, Weideman fell out of favour with the Demons due to a string of subpar performances. If someone at Essendon could somehow harness the talent and ability from within Weideman and correlate that into playing good football, then perhaps, just perhaps, we may see yet another washed up, recycled top-end draft pick make their mark on the Essendon forward line.
Has shown us some highlights of pure talent and class. The sidestep, the broken tackles, the forward prowess. There is a hell of a lot to like about Archie Perkins and I have him earmarked for a coming-of-age season.
Our resident whipping boy sure impressed some last season, highlighted by his surprisingly high finish in our best and fairest standings. It’s hard to question Guelfi’s heart and endeavour, especially as a player burdened by becoming the team’s ‘mushroom plug’ last season.
Ever repaired a flat tyre? It’s common practice to locate the source of issue, expel the air, pop the bead and remove the tyre from the rim, remove any foreign object such as a nail, screw or piece of road debris, then burr out the hole in question and thoroughly clean the inside of the tyre before grabbing the adhesive and your trusty Mushroom Plug. You poke the end of the Mushroom Plug through the hole, remove the adhesive sticker, apply your own adhesive bond for extra sealant and pull her on through. A very simple, yet versatile piece of automotive ingenuity.
Can you figure the comparison with Matt Guelfi? Starting as the sub plenty of times last season had Guelfi patching holes wherever he was required depending on the situation, something that he did honourably and admirably, especially given the usually unimpressive state of play around him at the time.
Likely to remain as a forward half player, Guelfi brings a certain hardness and willing, even able to play a defensive forward role to negate a star defender.
Sam Draper/Nick Bryan
Yes, I am lumping both ruckmen into one section. Why? Because this article is starting to get pretty long, and I have a tendency to waffle on.
So many teams have seen success with rotating ruckmen. We tried it last year with Andrew Phillips, and the journeyman held his own as second fiddle to Sam Draper. But with an eye to the future, it simply must be Nick Bryan. The kid has genuine, raw talent both in the ruck and up forward.
If we persist with a ruck duo, I would love nothing more than to see one of the talks rotated forward and find a way to hit the scoreboard, like we see in some of the more successful clubs across the league.
(Jye Menzie, Patrick Voss, Tex Wanganeen, Kaine Baldwin)
I will be quite surprised if at least one, maybe more, of the aforementioned players don’t get a run in the seniors to some extent.
We got the briefest glimpse of Jye Menzie from his two games last season, but it was enough to excite and show plenty of promise as a crafty goalsneak.
Go look up ‘unit’ in the dictionary and you will see a picture of Patrick Voss. This kid is built like the wrecking ball that knocked over the brick shit-house. When he tackles, he takes no prisoners and hits hard! He has a good leap, height behind him and a decent set of hands. Still being so young, I’ll be hoping to see him crack the seniors at some point this season.
Tex Wanganeen and Kaine Baldwin will depend on availability. We saw Baldwin earn a couple of games early on in the season, but in our struggling side the youngster was unable to hold his spot. Wanganeen made his debut and kicked a goal in front of his elated old man, but will be hoping for more continuity in his game and a fresh outlook under a new coaching regime.
Backline, Building Fine
Jordan Ridley, Jayden Laverde, Jake Kelly and Brandon Zerk-Thatcher will likely make up the starting four in Essendon’s backline this season, with James Stewart a possibility to continue his career down back. However, since returning from injury, the former Giant has been seen training with both forwards and defenders alike, giving very little indication as to the next chapter of his playing career.
The up-and-down form of Jordan Ridley was akin to that of his team’s performances as a whole last season. With the 2020 Crichton Medallist showing some signs of his defensive and rebound brilliance, whilst also struggling to adapt to the changes in the side’s defences – a downfall that 95% of his teammates also endured.
With the recruitment of Sam Weideman and hints being made by both himself and Brad Scott in the pre-season, there is every chance that Essendon may end up utilising the former Demon in a swingman role that could see the former top ten pick playing some time as a key defender. In what could prove to be a masterstroke in revitalising the talk’s career, it may also serve to help aid Jayden Laverde and BZT in accounting for some of the game’s best forwards, whilst also allowing Jordan Ridley to leave his man and play the sweeping role across the backline, that at his best, matches any defender in the League.
Jayden Laverde will be an interesting case study for me this season. The under-sized defender may have lost more contests than he won last season, but you would be hard-pressed to name anybody on the team that continued to front up and have a crack at the task laid out before him, week after week continually against bigger, stronger and more skilled opponents, than Jayden Laverde.
If the Bombers have a cleaner run with injury, the potential role for someone like Jayden Laverde will be an interesting one to watch. With BZT beginning to show a lot of progression in the latter half of last season, after being rewarded for some terrific showings in the VFL, the chance for Laverde to play a role that rewards with greater freedom than being plonked in a one-on-one with every hulking forward in the game will be a welcomed sight.
The case for/against Jake Kelly is an interesting one. His very best last season provided an elusive run out of defence from a bigger-bodied defender that can more than hold his own in a contest when needed. But at his worst, the former Crow was nothing more than a liability, being shifted slightly up the ground in preference of the much younger and inexperienced BZT.
With many new faces coming into the team, there is every chance that Brad Scott will have tremendously shaken up Essendon’s backline.
Lewis Hayes is one such candidate. As mentioned earlier in the article, the former Eastern Ranges prospect was widely touted as the best key defender in a Draft littered with midfield and running talent. If his training endeavours are anything to go by, you can expect the new number 18 to propel himself into calculations on his first season at the club.
There is a great sense of unknown around Zach Reid. Proudly taken as one of Essendon’s three top-10 picks in the 2020 Draft, Reid was named as the player with the most untapped potential and perhaps the greatest skill set of them all as a genuine, old school key defender. Injury issues and some developmental delays have halted Reid’s young career at just 8 games played.
A case can be made for many taller players to take a few years to enter the AFL system and begin to hit their straps, so under a new coach and totally new game plan for 2023, this could be the breakout season for Reid that we’ve seen from younger counterparts at the Don’s in recent seasons.
Backline, Building Fine Pt. 2
I feel like a second heading was warranted to split up the key defenders from the Half-Backs and the other midfielders that Essendon have historically thrown onto a defensive flank.
I mentioned earlier that Andrew McGrath is likely to return to his running, rebound role behind the ball – much to the cheers of most Essendon fans. But who else is likely to get a gig around the former number one pick?
Mason Redman. Take that name to the bank and bet your life-savings on it. Barring injury, Mason Redman would be one of the first names scribbled on the team sheet each week. With many surprised by his fourth placing in the Bombers Crichton Medal last season, Redman was brilliant behind the ball and has fastly become one of Essendon’s more important players.
With Essendon’s latest successful Mid-Season draftee, Massimo D’Ambrosio, showing plenty of dash, flair and composure under pressure for a first year player last year, the signs are ominous that the Bombers have a highly talented young player on their hands. Although we did strangely see the 19 year old named in the forward half a couple of times last season, all signs at training this far indicate that we’re in for another exciting year off half-back.
Dyson Heppell will almost certainly return to his role behind the ball this year, perhaps with the burden of captaincy removed. After some offseason interest from rival clubs, the Bombers captain signed a one year deal as he enters the final stretch of his career.
I feel that Nick Hind still has an important role to play down back for the Bombers, and with some younger legs around him and a bit more stability in the midfield, it may me the spark that the 28 year old needs to find the continuity that has lacked in his games at times. His blistering pace is a key asset to the group, and something that will be utilised under a new game plan.
Age Of Content
Off the top of your head, how many players over the age of 30 are on Essendon’s list currently? Two. Andrew Phillips at age 31, and Dyson Heppell at 30.
The Bombers are at a key point in the building of their list where so much of their talent is young and developing, we are set to finally see some exciting things from the red and black.
Even the next age bracket of 28-29 year old players isn’t as exhausted as some would think. With Dylan Shiel (29) and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti the only two in the higher end of the group, and the likes of Jake Stringer (28), James Stewart (28), Jake Kelly (28) and Nick Hind (28) to round things out, the core group of players in this side are well below the average age for your historically successful team in this era of football.
Meaning the Bombers look to have assembled some key pieces to their structure at staggered times to integrate these players into the squad, building a well-balanced and successful side, almost from the ground up.
A New Coach’s Approach
What is something besides success that has lacked at Essendon for a long time?
Leadership. Genuine leadership.
New coach Brad Scott has since noted that he didn’t walk into a club with a a completely blank canvas, but one with a few master strokes already laid out before him in the way of drafting and recruiting, with his job now to develop these early promises into a form of onfield success.
They say that success breeds more success, that is undoubtedly what Bombers fans will be hoping for under Scott’s tenure, eight he former Brisbane hard man playing in the three terrorising flags for the Lions in the early 2000’s, before completely overhauling North Melbourne’s list and turning them into a team that made Preliminary Finals, despite a lot of shortcomings at the club both on and off the field.
If there’s one thing that I’m excited about under Brad Scott’s tenure, it’s the passion and leadership that he has shown in each venture undertaken since hanging up his boots as a player.
In summary, I think even the most optimistic Bombers fan would be heading into season 2023 with some reservation. I mean, how often does a team wipe the board, the coaching department and more, and truly expect to be finals contenders?
But keeping an open mind, one thing we should begin to see is progression. And whilst we’re constantly told that progression isn’t linear, all signs thus far point towards the improvement that we had hoped to see when the side was transitioned from John Worsfold to Ben Rutten.