There is a genuine sense that something special is beginning to happen at the Essendon Football Club at the moment.
If the 2017 trade period was a huge win for the organisation, with Jake Stringer, Adam Saad and Devon Smith making their way to The Hangar, the results of the 2018 off-season meat market must have supporters salivating.
When Dylan Shiel nominated Essendon as his club of choice, the jubilation of Essendon supporters was palpable. For too many years, the club had its name dragged through the mud. It saw former champions and coaches with their reputations sullied, and the work they did for years left in tatters as suspensions and departures saw the club rattled to its core.
From a personal point of view, and as someone who is definitely NOT an Essendon supporter, what happened inside, and to that footy club almost made me walk away from the game. I despised seeing players splashed across the back page of the paper, their careers in jeopardy and their immediate playing futures in doubt. Everything I DON’T follow AFL football for filled the pages of the Herald Sun and The Age on a daily basis, as reporters clambered to get the latest soundbite or quote to use to fuel their lust for blood . It was scandalous, it was scuttlebutt, and it was probably the worst situation we’ve seen in modern football history. It was sickening – the darkest days of the modern game.
And I’d had enough of it.
At a time when my team was winning flags, I found that I could barely enjoy the game due to the spectre of drugs hanging over each and every development. Oh, I'm sure it was a journalist’s dream to wake up every morning and be able to latch onto a new twist in the Essendon drugs saga, but to the layman (and I am a layman), it was the exact opposite of what I wanted in footy coverage. The game became secondary, and it almost lost me.
I often wondered that if someone like me could be tempted to turn away from the sport, just how painful this entire episode was for Essendon supporters? How badly did they feel? I wondered how the players must have felt? And how those at Essendon who trusted the wrong people must’ve felt? If I had a sinking feeling in my stomach about AFL footy around this time, how significantly must it have been affecting them? How many turned away?
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As we turn the corner and begin to focus on the 2019 season, my hope is that those who did walk away have at least looked back over their shoulders longingly at the sport they loved, and have once again seen what attracted them to the game in the first place. Hopefully they’ve reconsidered, turned around and made their way back to the game, and to their club, because Essendon is doing their utmost to win them back. And their efforts are starting to pay dividends.
To see Essendon rebounding so strongly at the moment is a sight that gives me both joy and pain. As a Hawthorn supporter, to see the Bombers struggle on the park gives me an inordinate amount of joy. I am a child of the 80s. I remember Watson, Daniher, Madden and Vander Haar… but I also remember Dipper, Dermie, Dunstall and Matthews. I remember the rivalry – Sheedy and Jeans, and I love it when the Bombers hit the wall and fail on the field.
But as a football lover, I took no joy from seeing the proud Essendon Football Club become the AFL whipping boys off the field.
Seeing the Bombers on the upswing, putting recent events behind them and once again becoming a club players want to be part of, is strangely gratifying. It is as though they are the living embodiment of intestinal fortitude and resilience. They’ve been knocked down, and even kicked whilst on the mat, but they’ve climbed back to their feet, and now they’re eyeballing the football world and asking – “Is that the best you’ve got?”
They’re still up for the fight – perhaps more so now than ever!
As huge as the additions of Smith, Saad and Stringer were, the icing on the red and black cake was the signing of Dylan Shiel in the past week. It was a clear signal to the rest of the competition that Essendon are once again a team to reckon with, not only on the field, but off it as well. The former GWS star had his pick of the Victorian teams to go to – he chose Essendon. He could see where they’re heading, and he wants a premiership. It's a sign that simply cannot be ignored.
Shiel will add explosive pace, run-and-carry through the middle, and hardness around stoppages. He may lack a bit of polish with the ball in hand (he absolutely crucified the ball against Collingwood in the second week of the finals) but what he adds is another string to an already formidable Essendon midfield. Whilst they’ve started to look promising at times over the last couple of years, the Bombers are now looking downright dangerous.
And the threat doesn’t stop with the run and carry in the guts.
This time last year I wondered aloud whether we were about to see the next big thing in the AFL forwards landscape? Joe Daniher was coming off a career-best season in front of goal. I thought he’d win the Coleman Medal in 2018, and went out on a limb to state it. Now, still wiping the egg off my face, I am doubling down. Injury may have robbed Daniher, and by proxy Essendon, of a great season, but a fit and firing Joe is the difference between the Bombers threatening to make the eight and cementing a top four spot.
Joe Daniher progression
Stringer topped the Bombers’ goal kicking in 2018 with just 30 goals, but with Daniher back in the team and commanding the best defender week in and week out, the ability of Stringer to float and play his more natural game will bring out his best. It would be no surprise at all to see Stringer match his 2018 total next season, but do so as the secondary option, making the Bomber forward line an absolute beast to contend with.
The rotation of larger forwards through the 50m arc becomes less of a concern with Daniher back, with Laverde, Stewart, Brown and McKernan relegated to injury insurance rather than being relied upon to do that which they are simply not capable.
At Daniher’s feet, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti should see an increase in available ball, and a full pre-season for Orazio Fantasia, combined with an injury-free run into the start of the year, should see the Bombers with the sort of forward line that will give opposition coaches nightmares.
The kids have started to look the goods as well. Aaron Francis finally found his AFL feet in late 2018, and demonstrated exactly why the Bombers were reluctant to part ways with him. With his continued improvement, and more expected from Darcy Parish, Andrew McGrath (whom I definitely expected a bit more from in 2018) and Kyle Langford, Essendon may be set for more than just a tilt at finals.
I find myself smiling as I write this. As I stated before, there is a definite sense of bitter-sweet for me in the resurgence of the Bombers. A healthy Essendon is great for the competition. It’s great for Anzac Day, it’s great for the Dreamtime game, and it is wonderful for me as I get to see a reloading Hawthorn take on a regenerated Bombers team. It stirs emotions that have been a little dormant for a few years. It makes me love the game a little more once again.
Whilst the Bombers may have endured a nightmare for a while, perhaps it is time for supporters to start dreaming big again. If the club was turning the corner in the last couple of years, they’re well and truly around it now, and they have as clear a run at success as any team in the comp.
Essendon has done a wonderful job rebuilding a club that was on its knees. The die hard supporters rallied around them as they struggled (in contrast to many at Carlton, who still haven’t scaled membership numbers anywhere near the level they’re capable of) and now they’re set to enjoy the ride as their powerhouse midfield, strong defence and potentially great forward line have seemingly all the ingredients to become a top side once again.
The Bombers are well and truly back. And I both love and hate seeing that.
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