There are two distinguishing features that identify an AFL player when they take the field:
In years gone by, these pigments were dyed into the wool and emblazoned across the chest of a player with the utmost pride, representing the football club in which those colours symbolise. Today, those same colours are sublimated into the modern polyesters that make up a scientifically designed uniform that is specifically created and tailored to achieve optimum comfort, aerodynamics, breathability and numerous other key factors.
Whilst an argument can be fairly mounted that the sentimentality behind wearing your club’s colours has long dwindled in comparison to yesteryear, there is no question that in a generation where various medias rule over our existence, a club’s colours are as more a part of their individual identity and branding today as they have ever been.
Whilst the colours signify which team a player represents and quite often symbolise a core part of that club’s history, it’s the numbers across a player’s back that identify them as an individual. Even though Australian Rules is a team sport by every definition of the term, there always has and always will be an individual element to the sport. Some numbers are held in high esteem for clubs because of who has worn them in the past, some clubs have dedicated numbers for specific types of players, or positions within the club’s leadership group. Although the colours make you the player that you are for that particular team, your number is what makes you who you are as an individual within that team.
Funnily enough, having numbers on guernseys was opposed by many within the sport for a number of years. The only time jumper numbers were ever widely accepted was when an interstate side toured for a sports carnival or promotion.
In fact, it wasn’t until 1903 in a promotional match held in Sydney that Fitzroy and Collingwood would become the first side to have numbers allocated to each player in a game for premiership points. The League distributed cards to all 18,000 mostly first-time spectators with the rules of the game and numbers to help identify players.
In what was initially a financial decision, two sporting goods companies that provided the guernseys to clubs decided that wearing a small number on each player’s breast would aid spectators in identifying lesser-known players, and also aid the coffers of the football clubs that could then sell a program at the gates with each player’s numbers for fans to identify.
After some trial and error was met with a generally negative response from fans being unable to read the small numbers on the jumpers fronts, the decision to try larger numbers across the player’s backs was made and well received. It wouldn’t be until the 1912 season that the VFL would mandate numbers on players’ backs and assign regulation sizes and colours, after much reluctance from clubs in seasons prior.
With that being said, the Essendon Football Club is an old team with a rich, proud history spanning back into the 1870’s. They are one of the most successful and well-known sporting clubs in Australia and over the years have fielded some of the greatest players to have ever played the game. In this series, I will look at each individual guernsey number within the club and profile some of the best players to have represented the club whilst wearing it.
Currently Worn By
Games Played – 107
Goals Kicked – 77
Original Number/s – 30
Years Active – 2015-
Bio – Taken at Pick #17 in the 2014 National Draft, Kyle Langford was taken with the hopes of being the coveted big-bodied, inside midfielder that clubs crave. As his career has panned out, Langford has found his niche on the wing and floating forward as a tall marking option with a reliable set shot inside 50. Battling some injury issues and form slumps in recent seasons has curtailed a breakout season in 2020, but after signing a four-year contract extension earlier this season tying him to the club until the end of 2026, the 25-year-old will hope to find some continuity in his game – an issue plaguing the entire playing group currently.
Notable Former Players
Games Played – 220
Goals Kicked – 113
Original Number/s – 4
Years Active – 2003-2017
Bio – Perhaps the most iconic player to don the number four at the Bombers, certainly in recent decades, is the son of an Essendon legend who went on to pave his own way as one of the club’s modern day greats for a number of reasons, and now widely regarded as one of the best midfielders of his generation. After growing up around the club, spending plenty of time around the traps with his father, Jobe was drafted in 2002 as a father-son recruit. He had a tough time with fitness, form and expectation issues after following in the footsteps of a famous father, with many early stories told of the struggling midfielder unable to cement his place within the side. But the tides would turn eventually as Watson made changes to his training and game style, going on to become one of the earlier examples of today’s fabled big-bodied midfielder, and a damn fine example given some of the ‘flaws’ in his physique and skillset. Not an overly fast player by any sense, Jobe had an uncanny knack of making the game seem to slow around him. Not renowned for his kicking early, the 6’2 mid made great use of his in-and-under ability to win the ball at a contest and consistently find his outside runner.
One of the many ups and downs of Jobe’s career began in 2012 when he was the runaway winner of the Brownlow Medal. During what became a dark time for the club in the most turbulent period in any Australian football club’s history, as the captain, Watson became the face of the Essendon supplements saga, regularly coping the ire of the media, the opposition players and supporters, and countless other outlets, a burden which he shouldered for the remainder of his career. After returning from a 12 month suspension, Watson led the club for one final season before announcing his retirement, now taking up a role within the media as a boundary rider at live games. Remembered as the courageous captain of the club for many years, Watson was also a three-time best and fairest winner and a two-time All Australian.
Games Played – 127
Goals Kicked – 63
Original Number/s – 4
Years Active – 1991-1996
Bio – If Jobe Watson is the most iconic player to wear the number four at Essendon, then it’s safe to name Gavin Wanganeen as a close second. The first ever indigenous Brownlow Medal winner and at age 20, the youngest recipient of the award since 1936, Wanganeen became an integral part of the 1993 Baby Bombers side that would go on to win the unlikeliest of premierships. A silky smooth defender, Wanganeen was somewhat of a trailblazer for his position, being one of the most recognised exponents of the attacking defender’s brand of football, regularly using his pace and exquisite footwork to evade trouble and set up his side’s offence out of deep defence.
In his time at Essendon, Wanganeen was a Brownlow Medallist, a three time All Australian and is named in the AFL’s indigenous team of the century. His son Tex is currently in the earliest stages of playing for Essendon as a small forward. Gavin Wanganeen was traded to Port Adelaide at the end of the 1996 season.
Games Played – 151
Goals Kicked – 32
Original Number/s – 49
Years Active – 1973-1983
Bio – Known as ‘Rugged’ Ronnie Andrews in the media, but as ‘Rotten’ Ronnie Andrews to any other fan of football, the Essendon defender represents a name that sparks many yarns from a bygone era of unrelenting, tough footballers. Known as a bloke “mad enough to scare lunatics”, Andrews was just as brutal in a physical sense as he was skilled in a football sense. Playing as a specialist one-out backman, Andrews’ career tallied over 24 games missed through suspension as a tribunal frequenter, also missing an additional two seasons total through numerous injuries, with a troublesome knee slowing him down in later years.
Often reflected on as a player far too skilled to be labelled as just an outright thug, Andrews was supposedly the only man to ever make the great Leigh Matthews nervous on the footy field. Despised by opposition supporters and adored by his own as the team’s enforcer, Andrews would go on to captain the club in 1982 and represented Victoria on multiple occasions. In an era of football where outright physicality was as common as blades of grass in the studs of your boots, Ronnie Andrews played the role of resident hard man and a reliable defender with a good set of hands and an ability to read the inbound ball that was second to none.
Games Played – 86
Goals Kicked – 70
Original Number/s – 4
Years Active – 1984-1988
Bio – A late bloomer, Leon Baker was recruited to Essendon just shy of his 28th birthday, where the skillful mid would go on to play a solid role in both of the club’s back-to-back Grand Final victories over Hawthorn in 1984 and 1985 respectively, making the All Australian side in 1985 and being colloquially referred to amongst his adoring fans as ‘Leon Baker the Premiership maker’. His lead-changing goal late in final quarter of 1984 is still the topic of folklore amongst Bombers tragics, with Baker finishing second in the club’s best and fairest award in both the aforementioned premiership years.
Remembered as a clean and highly skilled on-baller, Baker had the uncanny ability to change the course of a game without seemingly breaking a sweat, also known for accruing high possession tallies and flying under the radar of the opposition until it was too late. Retiring at the end of 1988 after a somewhat short, but memorable career nonetheless, the enigma that is Leon Baker still reviews joy upon reflection to Bombers fans today, despite his short standing of time at the club.
Games Played – 185
Goals Kicked – 4
Original Number/s – 3 (worn for 1911 season, the first year of numbers at Essendon)
Years Active – 1907-1920
Bio – Henry Leonard ‘Len’ Bowe, known to his teammates as ‘Tiger’, was a renowned defender for Essendon during some of their earliest glory days, serving as a key pillar in the club’s back-to-back premierships of 1911/1912. Newspaper articles from the time credit Bowe as being one of the earliest masters in the art of shepherding, with teammate Roy Laing making comment that he seldom ever came up against Bowe’s opponent when running along his side of the ground, thanks to his teammate being so proficient at shepherding and leading his direct opponent away from the ball carrier.
With the club’s disbanding for two seasons thanks to WWI, Bowe was potentially robbed of the opportunity to become the first ever VFL player to notch up 200 games.
A piece in The Australasian Newspaper from 1919 stated –
“While of medium build, Bowe is sinewy, dashing and strong, and possesses that rarest of all qualities – the giving of his best on great occasions. He is a typical back man, being a good mark, can effectively stop a man without fouling him, can pick up the ball splendidly, comes through gallantly and can get rid of the ball instantly when going at top speed – perhaps the greatest trait of all. Bowe is of the order that recognises that a man must receive hard knocks in such a strenuous game as football, gives and takes without malice and always with a smile.”
Games Played – 92
Goals Kicked – 90
Original Number/s – 4
Years Active – 1929-1935
Bio – Known as “the fastest pedestrian in Australia”, Clarence ‘Clarrie’ Hearn
Was a multiple winner of the M. Ress Cup – awarded to the League footballers sprint champion (almost a precursor to what we now know as the annual Grand Final Sprint), and was the winner of the 1929 Stawell gift, going on to place at the event in other years, being edged out in one particular year by his own teammate. Recruited as a utility type player with the ability to cover any position on the field largely thanks to his unrivalled footspeed and superb football skills, Hearn quickly became a fan-favourite around Essendon, and the League in general, such was his popularity amongst the Melbourne sporting fraternity.
Clarrie served as a player’s representative on the Essendon committee and was a renowned all round sportsman that also excelled at tennis. Despite his vast talents in every position on the football field, Hearn found his niche as a full forward with extreme pace, seldom ever beaten to a marking contest and a booming long kick of the ball. It wasn’t uncommon at the time to see Hearn thrown into the centre for brief periods, as his burst pace was a genuine weapon for his side, with no other player in the League capable of catching the speedster once he built up a head of steam.
Games Played – 31
Goals Kicked – 2
Original Number/s – 4
Years Active – 1964-1969
Bio – Lindsay McGhie made his debut as a 19-year-old against Collingwood in Round 6 of 1964, a game which Collingwood led all day until the Bombers came home with a wet sail in the final quarter to win by four points. He would play 16 games across his first two seasons before being conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War in 1967, serving eight months as a Private in three regiments, winning an award for shotput at the inter-service athletics.
Lindsay would return to Essendon after his return from the war and play a further 15 games across two additional seasons, unfortunately, unable to rekindle his previous form. Best remembered by those who watched him play as a terrific booming left-footed defender, McGie won plenty of admirers across his playing career for his raking long kicks out of defence, quite often clearing the centre of the ground from fullback with an excellent dropkick, also noted for his crafty field kicking and bullet-like dart passes. Some have even raised his name as one of the longest kicks to ever play the game.