The Next Big Thing. Is Joe Daniher the next great forward?

The final image of Essendon's 2017 was not a great one. Their players walked off the field after being trounced by the Sydney Swans in the first week of the finals, heads bowed. The looks on the faces of the players told the story - making the finals and winning a final were very different propositions. They'd come so far after suffering so much, but the club knew it had a bit of work to do. In the off-season, off to work they went.

The other lasting image of the 2017 season is a much more pleasant one for Bomber fans. In Round 17, they watched in awe as their young star, Joe Daniher, soared high to take the mark of the year over his hapless St Kilda opponents. The young Bomber was a cut above that night, kicking four goals from fourteen disposals and nine marks. Whilst the stats themselves were impressive, it was his towering mark that set tongues wagging.

Rising high above the grounded Jarryn Geary, and using former Bomber, Jake Carlisle as a stepladder, Daniher extended his arms skyward, taking the ball at its highest point – it was the sort of mark that would be impossible for anyone in the competition to spoil. The mark provided a moment that will live in the minds of Bomber fans for a long time, but it also looms as a dangerous sign of things to come for opposition coaches, and the unfortunate defenders tasked with the job of stopping the Bomber spearhead.

There were, and are those who question the validity of Daniher’s claim to mark of the year, preferring the efforts of Collingwood’s Jeremy Howe, but it was a public vote, and the public spoke loudly. Daniher had taken the mark of the year for 2017, and there is no giving this award back despite the protests of some who claimed to know better. Essendon had already watched a favourite son hand back an award. They'd given enough back already. As we enter 2018, they're now looking to take.

The ascendance of Joe Daniher is frightening for many clubs. As Richmond build a forward line around Jack Riewoldt and five smalls, and Sydney rely on the brilliance of Buddy Franklin to power their forward set up, Joe Daniher has potentially emerged as this next generation’s next great forward. He has turned into the player both Adelaide and Sydney hoped Kurt Tippett would be at one stage, and he has a lot of improvement left in him. He has arguably already surpassed anything Kurt Tippett accomplished in the game, and whilst Tippett seems a spent force, the young Essendon star has much more to offer.

Daniher showed promise during his first five games in 2013, but only yielded a total of three goals. In his third game, against Hawthorn, he looked all at sea, accumulating only three disposals for the game. He was replaced by Leroy Jetta in the third quarter under the now thankfully-defunct substitution rule.

At this stage, some ridiculously impatient supporters were wondering whether this skinny kid could cut it in the big league. He was all arms and legs, and looked kind of awkward – he was more akin to a baby giraffe than a gracefully gazelle. Daniher appeared as though he’d yet to completely master this tricky task of getting all his limbs to work in conjunction.  Those who thought it was a good idea to give voice to those ponderings at the time are now in the process of eating those words. If they were Essendon supporters, they'd be eating them happily. 

The concerns over his slight frame and potential fragility have been all but laid to rest. Daniher has played 21 games or more in each of the past four years, proving to be amongst the most durable big men in the game. His progression has been rapid. His 65 goals in 2017 were up from 43 the year before, and but for early inaccuracy, we might have seen Joe win his first Coleman medal. Lance Franklin walked away with his third medal last year after kicking ten goals in the final round. Daniher was well within striking distance and, unlike Franklin, his career is now entering its peak. Whilst we can eventually expect a decline from Franklin; even a slight one, Daniher should get bigger, stronger, and have even more of an influence on the game for the next few years.

The Essendon Football Club proved many of its doubters wrong when it managed to trade for all three of its targets in the off-season without being forced to give up the talented Aaron Francis in exchange. It was a masterful off-season performance by the Bombers front office, and Adrian Dodoro in particular. They refused to blink, even as the hour became late. They did not back down when the Western Bulldogs appeared ready to dig their heels in around the asking price for Jake Stringer. The Bombers didn’t budge and landed three very nice catches whilst others stood around, afraid to throw their lines in the water. If fortune favours the brave, then fortune should favour Essendon headed into 2018.

Stringer, Adam Saad and Devon Smith all became part of the Essendon fold during the 2017 trade period, adding even more  firepower to  the Bombers’ attack. Already an exciting offensive-minded football club, the Bombers appear poised to be scoring machines in 2018. Their attack already boasts the returning talents of Cale Hooker (41 goals), Orazio Fantastia (39) and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti (34). The addition of their new recruits must have opposition coaches going over potential match ups again and again already. At the centre of their talented attack sits Joe Daniher – the biggest headache of all for the opposition.

Entering year six, Daniher looks set to make the leap into superstardom. Forward play is markedly different in the modern game than it was as little as six short years ago. There is now less reliance on a tall forward kicking bags of goals than ever before, but things change quickly in the AFL. A talented tall in front of goals could see the sands shift again, and there is no more talented big man in the game than Joe Daniher. Could we see him top 80 goals in 2018? It’s likely, if he stays healthy.  With Daniher already having increased his output in front of goals by 22 in 2017 - you have to start wondering, could a 100-goal season be out of the question for the young star?

Franklin was in year four when he topped the ton, but was a very different player to Joe. The Essendon big man can mark – it took Franklin a long time to become even adequate in that area. Joe’s ability to take one-grab marks is invaluable in a game where a small fumble can lead to a turnover and a goal at the other end. Whilst Franklin is more agile, Daniher is no slouch. Go say he's agile "for a big man" doesn't really do him justice. 

2018 could be the year that Daniher takes the mantle from Franklin as the most dominant key forward in the game. Whilst players like Josh Kennedy and Ben Brown may also contend for the Coleman, neither of them has the potential to be the game breaker that Daniher is fast becoming. Both took more marks inside 50, but Daniher is tied with Brown and ahead of Kennedy in contested grabs.

Seeing a Daniher dominating inside the forward fifty at Essendon is enough to bring a tear to an old Bomber fan’s eye. They remember the four Daniher brothers running out together and playing in the same game. They remember the potential of Neale Daniher before knee injuries got the better of him. They remember Terry Daniher’s AFL MVP season of 1983, and they remember Joe’s father, Anthony transferring from the Swans to the Bombers to bolster the defence and become an All-Australian full back.

The Daniher name is synonymous with Essendon, and seeing Joe ply his trade may bring a tear to the eye, but it also provides a wide smile for many Bomber fans. They can see where the young star is leading this team. One finals appearance is just the beginning. Joe Daniher is the catalyst for the Essendon revival, and may well be the most important player in the next Essendon premiership.