In the lead up to this year’s AFL season, many high-profile, thick-rimmed-glasses wearing, ‘credible’ football commentators have suggested that Essendon can’t possibly rise more than a few spots up the ladder from their 18th placed finish in 2016, let alone push for finals in the coming months.
The main piece of reasoning they’ve clung to in support of this claim is the fact that the Dons have only added four elite players (Dyson Heppell, Jobe Watson, Cale Hooker and Michael Hurley) to a squad that could manage just three wins in 2016.
Although it is highly irresponsible for ‘experts’ to be passing such judgment without remote consideration for the situation that John Worsfold’s men found themselves in in 2016, we’ll have a crack at pointing out to them why they might be off the mark.
1. They weren’t just any three-win team
The 2016 Bombers were not your run-of-the-mill, Richmond of 2007 team that could only get the four points on three occasions. In fact, three wins is a remarkable effort considering the circumstances.
The club named a new coach in October 2015, had 12 of its senior players ripped away in the January following, and spent the next month or so trying to convince ten delisted and/or retired blokes to come and have a kick, many of whom only agreed so that they could take home $150,000 for seven months of pretending to be in the rehab group.
Even still, the Essendon outfit of 2016 was well held up by a decent group of emerging stars. Players like Zach Merrett, Joe Daniher, Orazio Fantasia, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, Michael Hartley and Darcy Parish all had breakout years, and it was the strength of their bottom 5-10 players that generally let down the side on game day.
Anyone who tuned in to watch their 2016 games against Melbourne, St Kilda, GWS, Gold Coast or Carlton would have been left with the impression that the severely under-manned Dons still had the nucleus of a successful team, and Worsfold had them playing an exciting brand of football.
You simply cannot underestimate the affect that genuine belief within a playing group will have on its performance.
Imagine standing across from and locking eyes with an opposition team in the middle of the MCG. There’s 22 men in peak condition, who have been training as a unit for five months, their bodies primed to the minute like those of racehorses for a Melbourne Cup, every one of them hungry to hold their spot in the team as they pursue a finals berth.
Having to go into a game of AFL football against these finely tuned machines would be an unsettling proposition for anyone, let alone a bunch of baby-faced draftees who still can’t believe they go to footy training instead of school on Monday morning, and a couple of recently retired old blokes who were eating reheated pizza for breakfast up until about a month before.
A parochial sense of self-doubt would have been nestled in the back of their minds from day dot, and in certain games it showed. You can’t manufacture self-belief, and the 2016 Dons were mentally handicapped from the start, but the 2017 edition is not.
3. We’re in unchartered territory
We can forgive a football commentator for using precedent and past examples to outline why something will or will not happen, but it is brash and careless of one’s duty to dismiss a team simply because it fits a narrative.
There has never been a club that has given ten of its senior players a year-long rest in the prime of their careers. Players have missed significant time and struggled or not struggled to come back, but this has almost always been due to serious injury, meaning much of their season off is spent watching seasons on Netflix. The banned Bombers have instead been through a 12-month training camp at St Bernard’s College (plus Ios, Barcelona and other European boot camp destinations) under fitness guru David Buttifant.
They’ve had the opportunity to rid their bodies of any wear-and-tear and essentially have the pre-season of the Gods.
This is an experiment not yet tried and tested. Will they be able to run out games? Will they struggle with the crash and bash? Will they fall in a hole? No one knows – but what we do know is that if this Club can translate 4 or more years of injustice and frustration into aggression and attentiveness on the football field, well – who knows?