The dawn of a new millennium. The Y2K bug fizzled, Cathy Freeman inspired an entire nation, and in one of the most dominant AFL seasons in history, Essendon took everything before to claim a record 16th premiership. It was an astonishing year for the red and black, who were near faultless from the pre-season until the last Saturday in September.
Coming up against them were the Demons; a consistent outfit, but with all due respect, the best of a bunch of teams that were a level below the barnstorming Bombers. This was Essendon’s year, and there was nothing that would stop them after throwing away the 1999 season. Welcome to Part three of our series, the 2000 Grand Final, a millennium flag for Kevin Sheedy’s Bombers.
THE TALKING POINTS
THE (ALMOST) INVINCIBLES
When looking back on the 2000 season as a whole, it is truly astounding how dominant the Bombers were. Counting the pre-season competition, Essendon tasted defeat just once in the entire year. To put it another way, Essendon were victorious on 30 out of the 31 times they took the field.
They finished five games and 25 percentage points clear of the next best team, were top of the ladder for the entire season, and their 125-point win, and score of 31.12.198 over the Kangaroos in the qualifying final was the greatest winning margin in a qualifying final and highest ever score in any final in VFL/AFL history. As a team, there were so few weaknesses that it almost isn’t surprising that Essendon completely blitzed the 2000 season. Their best 22 combined some of the greatest players the game had to offer, along with a bunch of underrated gems that Kevin Sheedy managed to get best out of.
In 1999, Essendon also won the minor premiership with relatively the same 22 that won the Grand Final, however they let the season slip away in the penultimate round against their arch-rival Blues. Much like the Kangaroos finding redemption last year, this year the entire playing group ensured that a repeat failure would not eventuate, and the Bombers approached each match with fire and venom.
It can also be argued that their 11-point loss to the Bulldogs in Round 21 was the slip up the Bombers needed to have to kick them back into gear for their assault on the finals.
Or lack thereof.
As talked about in previous reviews, when a team has more of the ball, it is conventional wisdom that their opponents would lay more tackles and generally apply more pressure. Whether it was that Essendon was so dominant, or the occasion overwhelming them, the Demons lack of anything remotely resembling pressure on the ball carrier was so frustrating to watch, especially given the commentary highlighted during the call that Melbourne was suffering from a premiership drought. Time and time again, Essendon’s array of midfield talent was able to scoot through the middle of the ground to give their forwards silver service. I’m sure Melbourne’s key defenders would’ve been tearing their hair out at the lack of pressure up the ground that gave them no help in trying to defend countless balls coming in their direction.
From a pure statistical perspective, it is damning. Melbourne recorded 21 more hit outs, yet Essendon controlled the clearances. The Bombers gathered 67 more possessions, yet won the tackle count by 20, and a staggering 14 Demons lay one tackle or less, more than double Essendon in the same category.
It is somewhat understandable that Essendon were so perfect that nothing would stop them, but the efforts of certain Melbourne players did not help the cause. Apply enough pressure and any team can win on the day, but the Demons seemingly threw in the towel after half time, and their tackling pressure and defensive efforts showed a team that had surrendered to a superior outfit.
MICHAEL LONG’S BUMP
By the time the Grand Final rolled around, the best of champion Michael Long was well and truly behind him. The Norm Smith Medallist of 1993 was still capable of short flashes of brilliance, but by now those flashes were becoming fewer and farther between.
In his 183rd appearance in the red and black, Long was only average; realistically a shell of his former self. Looking to impose himself on a game that was quickly passing him by, Long decided to throw himself into a Melbourne player to remind everyone that he could still make an impact at AFL level. Unfortunately, the player he hit, Troy Simmonds, was very clearly not expecting a player to come at him, and was caught completely flush. Simmonds was out cold before he hit the turf.
It was a brutal blow that triggered a 25 player brawl just before the half time siren. In today’s game, a bump like Long’s would’ve garnered at least a four-week ban, but remarkably, Long was back on the field in Round 2 of the next season. This incident did however encourage the AFL to introduce new measures to protect players with their heads over the ball.
LAST OF THE VICTORIAN DOMINANCE
For those living in the foundation state, this may hurt a little. Essendon’s victory marked the last time a Victorian club would hoist the flag for seven years. If the old-timer VFL hangers-on were worried in the 1990’s, where four premierships left Victoria, the period would be a killer blow.
From Brisbane, to Port Adelaide, Sydney and West Coast, the foundation clubs found success very hard to come by. Even more interesting is that of the next six Grand Finals to take place, half of them featured both non-Victorian teams, highlighting even more so that the once-lauded VFL was well and truly being taken over by the other states.
PLAYERS OF THE MATCH
It was yet another complete performance from the Essendon skipper. Controlling the midfield superbly, Hird was far and away his team’s best, gathering 29 disposals and seven marks in a Norm Smith Medal-winning display.
Feeding off Jeff White’s ruck dominance, Hird was the main user in Essendon’s forward thrusts, giving Neale Daniher plenty of headaches. Daniher deployed Anthony McDonald onto Hird to try and curb his influence in the third quarter, and this worked for a short period, but by the time the game was over, Hird had taken back control of the battle.
Oozing class out of every pore, seeing Blake Caracella glide across the MCG was simply beautiful to watch. Gathering 21 disposals running up and down the wings, there was no one that could match Caracella’s speed and elusiveness.
It seemed wherever he was needed, Caracella put up his hand. He drifted forward to contribute three goals, ran back with the flight courageously, got his hands dirty in the middle, laying four tackles, and was even found in defensive 50 when required.
Prior to the Grand Final, many in the media thought Melbourne skipper David Neitz was the key to the Demons conjuring an upset victory. Neitz started well, but his accuracy let the team down. However, when the contest was at its hottest, and Melbourne was right with Essendon, Neitz was a non-factor, and that was due to the influence of full-back Dustin Fletcher.
Neitz certainly wasn’t the worst player on the park, and had his moments, but when Fletcher was on top, Melbourne flatlined. Fletcher not only stopped Neitz having any effect, he was also influential in kick-starting the Bombers from defence, gathering 15 disposals (11 kicks, four handballs) and five marks.
It was two ruckmen against one. Essendon’s John Barnes and Steven Alessio against lone Demon, Jeff White. In reality, while Barnes held his own for most of the day, it was White that dominated the middle of the ground. Recording 24 hit outs to go with 14 disposals (seven kicks, seven handballs), White was exemplary. If only his midfielders would take advantage of the service.
In a season that White established himself as one of the premier ruckmen in the competition, the big man did all he could to get the Demons back into the contest, and can hold his head high that he was his team’s best player.
In his best season at the Bombers, Justin Blumfield once again proved to be a diamond in the rough. The 62nd pick in the 1994 draft (ironically Jeff White was pick 1), Blumfield was one of his team’s best midfielders, picking off Jeff White’s ruck dominance and giving his forwards silver service. Amassing 23 disposals and five marks, Blumfield used his superior kicking skills to cut through Melbourne’s defences, and his agility made it almost impossible to be tackled.
A player known for his aggression and toughness around the ball, Stephen Powell was invaluable for the Demons in their charge towards the Grand Final. Fresh off a best on ground performance in the Preliminary Final, Powell was again one of the stars of Melbourne’s show, gathering 21 disposals and kicking three goals, including Melbourne’s first of the match.
Being traded by the Bulldogs at the end of 1999, much to the dismay of many Bulldog fans, Powell immediately endeared himself to his new club in a brilliant season, finishing fourth in the Best & Fairest.
AND THE WORST…
31-year-old Ingerson was given the task of curbing the influence of Coleman Medallist, Matthew Lloyd. It may be a little harsh to place Ingerson into this category given he had no help from further afield, but the fact is that Lloyd completely outplayed Ingerson whenever the ball was in their vicinity.
Gathering only five disposals (and one solitary kick), Ingerson was no match for the 16 possession, five mark, four-goal performance from Essendon’s spearhead. Perhaps the only solitude Ingerson can take from his display was that he went toe-to-toe with the best key forward in the competition, and his task was certainly unenviable from the start.
So dominant was Essendon’s performance that the Bombers had 10 individual goal kickers on the day. With that in mind, you may be asking yourself, but why then is Lucas in the worst players if his team were so good? The answer lies in Lucas’s efforts in front of goal. Having five scoring shots, Lucas failed to register a major, kicking four behinds and one out of bounds.
Lucas’s best work was when he didn’t have the ball, as he was able to drag an opponent away from Matthew Lloyd, allowing the full forward to be isolated one out.
Oh, how unlucky for Steven Febey. Two Grand Final appearances for the Demons, and both times his team suffered heavy defeats. Coming into the match, Febey was seen as the defensive cool head that could handle the pressure of consistent ball coming into his area, much like Glenn Archer for the Kangaroos.
Instead, Kevin Sheedy initiated a telling coaching move, placing Adam Ramanauskas onto Febey as a defensive forward. The plan worked brilliantly, as Febey was fruitless, gathering only six possessions, only two of which were effective. Having to watch an opponent all day, Febey was unable to give his key defenders much assistance, and this was vital in setting up the Bombers big win.
There are no more words to describe this season. From day one of pre-season, the Bombers were on a mission. Claiming the minor premiership with nothing to show for it in 1999, Kevin Sheedy, James Hird, and the Essendon leaders were determined all year to ensure the failure would not be repeated.
Unfortunately, both Essendon and Melbourne are still yet to taste glory following this historic occasion, and even worse is that the Bombers haven’t won a final in 16 years, and the Demons have featured in September action just once since 2006.
Putting that aside, today we celebrate a near-perfect season, one that it seemed was only ever going to go one way. Six players became dual premiership players, Sheedy coached his fourth premiership, Hird added a Norm Smith Medal to his growing trophy cabinet, and the Bombers, in winning their 16th flag, officially became the most decorated club in VFL/AFL history.