It’s arguable that no AFL club has been in a darker off-field place in recent times than the Essendon Football Club.
In many ways, they’ve been one of the faces of the Australia-wide ASADA dragnet.
As one of the biggest clubs in the largest, most visible sport in the country, and a centrepiece of the investigation, it was always going to be the case.
But in football, indeed all sports, hope springs eternal, and there is always the comfort of familiarity that the field of battle brings.
The problem for Essendon players was, if found guilty of accepting known performance-enhancing or banned-list drugs, regardless of their complicity, they wouldn’t have the sanctity of the field, or the warm embrace of its comfort.
It’s impossible for us to know what toll being in the public eye for all the wrong reasons takes on a playing group, especially under circumstances such as these, unique on this grand scale within the landscape of Australian sport.
It would be easy for a culture of selfishness and blame to take over, and for factions to form within the club.
Would the playing group be split? Degrees of enmity between coaches and senior players? A loss of trust between coaches and senior officials?
Regardless of the press conferences, public statements and proclamations, the answers were always going to be suppled on the green grass of AAMI Stadium against the Adelaide Crows.
And, after a slow start which must have had every Bomber fan fearing the worse, the response was emphatic.
Fifteen minutes in and the Dons were 22 points in arrears, yet to trouble their forward 50m line, let alone the scorers.
Adelaide were sure of hand, disposing of the ball with clean precision, and directing everything into the hot spot in front of goal. By contrast, Essendon were devoid of presence, unable to lay a hand on the ball when in dispute, or their opposition when chasing.
As the quarter progressed, the one thing they did display was resilience. Beaten early, but unbowed, they stuck to their task and worked themselves back into the match, in play if not on the scoreboard.
From quarter time onwards, the Bombers completely dominated every aspect of the game against last year’s preliminary finalist.
And while it would be easy to dwell on the character of the performance under adverse circumstances and a tumultuous lead-up, this was a well-coached side playing with equal parts skill, toughness and commitment to the cause.
Jobe Watson once more led from the front with match-high possessions, inside 50s and clearances. In any conversation about top ten players in the competition, the unassuming skipper must hold a lofty position.
His vision once in possession is unequalled, be it by hand or foot, and he is one of the finest leaders in the game.
As good as Watson was, Ben Howlett’s last three quarters were about as perfect as football can be played.
A consistent and respected workhorse in Essendon’s midfield for the last three seasons, he was damaging all over the ground, hard at the contest and man, finishing his work with four goals.
Anyone can be a tagger in the AFL if they have the fitness and mental discipline, but there are few who can so completely sacrifice their own game for the team.
Heath Hocking was the epitome of Essendon’s desire on the night, rendering Patrick Dangerfield ineffective, while still winning clearances and hitting the scoreboard himself. When it came to applying pressure, his was the lead that all teammates followed.
In fact, Essendon’s full-ground pressure was the key element in winning them the game, all 22 players committing fully to James Hird’s coaching plan, to the point where it was difficult to think of a position a Dons player didn’t win.
Dangerfield, as Adelaide’s most explosive match-winner, was obviously highlighted for systematic targeting by the Bomber coaching staff.
Every time he went near the ball, with Hocking in close attendance of course, he was smashed into by two or three Essendon players.
It’s a winning strategy that should be implemented more, the harassment brutal, but legal enough to only gift Dangerfield one free kick for the night.
Dyson Heppell was full of talent and poise, David Myers had perhaps his best game at AFL level, and Nick Kommer’s debut showed him to be flint-hard when in the contest but also a neat disposer, a livewire who worried the Adelaide rebounders out of possession with his constant presence.
The Dons also dominated the stoppages as the match wore on, and had far more avenues to goal with over half the side contributing a major.
In the sort of form the Bombers displayed, it was easy to remember them sitting second on the ladder after nine rounds last year, owners of an 8-1 win-loss record.
There’ll be more to come from the likes of Brendan Goddard, Michael Hurley, Tom Bellchambers and Paddy Ryder too, who were all relatively subdued.
The challenge for Essendon from this point on is threefold.
Firstly, and immediately, they need to back up from the emotional release victory in round one will have delivered, albeit they have an extra week to do so due to the split round. They must maintain the rage and continue to pressure, pressure, pressure as they did on Friday night.
Secondly, the high level set by the second and third tier players must form their base rather than become a season-high. Even champion players admit to never being quite comfortable at the elite level, their fear of failure a driver that leads them to continually better themselves and set ever higher standards.
Thirdly, the second half of the year will bring with it its own set of challenges specific to an Essendon side well renowned for falling off the cliff under James Hird, and unable to back up their impressive early season performances.
All of these things and more are for the future, but from a pure football perspective in the present, all we can do is admire the Essendon side and the leaders within. And for those of us less than enamoured with some of their more supercilious tendencies, we must afford them a begrudging respect.