After rising from the bottom of the ladder to reach the finals last September, and having recruited strongly during the off-season, a lot was expected from the Essendon Football Club in 2018.
The club had been severely paralysed by season-long suspensions handed to twelve players arising from the supplements scandal, which largely contributed to it winning the wooden spoon in 2016.
But the return of most of those players, as well as landing number one draft pick Andrew McGrath and a host of others during the off-season, saw the club improve on the field to finish seventh at the end of the 2017 season.
Their lack of finals experience and success was then exposed when the club was thrashed by the Sydney Swans by 65 points in the elimination final at the SCG. It extended their winless streak in finals matches to five, dating back to its semi-final defeat by the Geelong Cats at the MCG in 2004.
It was a sour ending to what was otherwise an impressive season for the red and black faithful, and the club knew that it had a lot of work to do if it was to take the next step up in 2018.
Coach John Worsfold said the club had to defend better in matches after they conceded an average of 92 points in 2017 – in fact, the two biggest scores they conceded were both against the Adelaide Crows (24.9 (153) and 18.15 (123) in rounds four and 21 respectively).
The fact that the Crows were the highest-scoring team in each of the past two seasons makes these stats uncomfortable reading for Bombers fans.
During the off-season, the club landed some good fish in Devon Smith, Adam Saad and Jake Stringer, and it was thought their additions would make Essendon an exciting team to watch in 2018.
With a strong and talented playing list, however, come the expectations.
Things got off to a good start when they came from 20 points down at three-quarter-time to defeat last year’s grand finalists, the Crows, by 12 points at Etihad Stadium in Round 1.
In the week following that match, coach John Worsfold signed a two-year contract extension which will see him tied to the club until at least the end of the 2020 season.
However, apart from defeating the previously-undefeated Port Adelaide in Round 4, also at Etihad Stadium, it has since been all downhill from the boys from Windy Hill.
After going down to Fremantle at the brand new Optus Stadium, the Bombers gave barely a yelp when it lost to a Western Bulldogs side which had lost their first two matches by a combined total of 133 points.
The fortunes of both the Bulldogs and Essendon had changed significantly since 2016, when the Dogs, historically one of the AFL’s least successful clubs, took out the premiership, while the Bombers, conversely one of the AFL’s most successful clubs, finished last for the first time since 1933.
In 2017, the Dogs struggled to adapt to the pressure of being the reigning premiers as they became the first team since Hawthorn in 2009 to miss out on the finals twelve months after mounting the premiership dais.
By contrast, the Bombers, aided by the return of ten players from their doping suspensions, became a much more competitive side and rose up the ladder, finishing seventh with a 12-10 win-loss record.
Summing up their dismal afternoon was Josh Green fumbling a handpass from Joe Daniher after the latter had marked metres out from goal. If Green had kicked the goal with over five minutes remaining, the margin would have been 10 points and the Bombers would have had all the momentum.
Joey, what have you done? ?
— AFL (@AFL) April 8, 2018
Instead, they went down by 21 points, and questions started to be asked as to where the Bombers were at going forward.
The Round 4 win over Port Adelaide came as a respite to the criticism, but four straight losses since then – the latest of them a 13-point loss to the previously winless Carlton – has started to test the patience of many of their loyal fans and members.
The rot started when they were thrashed by Collingwood on Anzac Day by 49 points, and continued four days later when it lost to Melbourne by six goals at Etihad Stadium.
For the second straight year, Joe Daniher had a shocking day against the Dees at the Docklands venue, being held goalless after he had kicked 1.6 (12) in the corresponding game last year.
They then started well against Hawthorn in Round 7, but capitulated in the second half to lose by 23 points, and on Saturday against Carlton took the lead early in the final quarter before going down by 13.
The loss against the Blues continued a worrying trend that has emerged in recent years – that struggling clubs have used matches against the Bombers as a means of getting back into form.
This marked the second year in a row where the Blues’ first win for the season came at the expense of their bitter rivals, following their 15-point win in Round 3 last season.
In 2016, Fremantle lost their first ten matches in a row, but registered its first win for the season by defeating a severely weakened Essendon side, which by that point had won one match (out of an eventual three) for the season, by 79 points at Domain Stadium in round eleven.
And most notably, in 2012, Melbourne lost their first nine matches of the season, most of them by heavy margins, before upsetting the high-flying Bombers by six points in wet weather at the MCG in Round 10.
It was that loss to the Dees which triggered the Bombers’ dramatic slide down the ladder – having started that match in second place on the ladder with an 8-1 record (with the loss by a solitary point against Collingwood), the club then lost ten of their last thirteen matches to finish 11th on the ladder.
This, of course, came at a time when the controversial supplements program introduced ahead of that season began to be wound back, as the club was starting to be crippled by soft tissue injuries to several key players.
Back on topic now, and third quarters have proven to be the Bombers’ downfall in 2018 – they have not won what is known as the “premiership quarter” in any of their eight matches so far this season.
Their forward line is also misfiring, and it will be missing key forward Joe Daniher for up to a month due to a diagnosis of osteitis pubis.
It has also been suggested that Jake Stringer should be dropped to the VFL as a means of gaining some confidence, after he failed to kick a goal or record a mark inside 50 in the 13-point loss to Carlton.
The 24-year-old’s form has suffered largely since being part of the Western Bulldogs’ 2016 premiership side; this was a major factor in him being traded out of the Whitten Oval at the end of last season.
Having already slumped to a 2-6 record for the season, things could get even uglier for the Bombers in the next month before their Round 13 bye.
Next week, they face the Geelong Cats in the annual Country Game at the MCG; that is then followed by even tougher assignments against the GWS Giants and Richmond, two clubs the Bombers haven’t beaten since 2014.
The match against the Giants is in Sydney, where the club hasn’t won since that said match four years ago; since then, they have lost their last seven matches in the Harbour City, three of them last year alone.
Two more long-haul travels then follow on either side of their Round 13 bye, first facing the Brisbane Lions at the Gabba and then having to fly west for the second time this season to face the West Coast Eagles in a Thursday night blockbuster at Optus Stadium.
Thus, it’s possible that the club could be 3-10 by the end of Round 14, but it wouldn’t by any means be the end of the world for Bombers fans, should they dare to continue to be optimistic about their club’s chances in 2018.
After Round 14, 2014, Richmond sat 16th on the ladder with a 3-10 record, but then won its last nine matches, culminating in a three-point win over the Sydney Swans in Sydney, to clinch the last remaining finals spot.
The nine-match winning streak would eventually takes its toll on the Tigers as they would then cop a 57-point thrashing at the hands of Port Adelaide in the first AFL finals match to be played at the Oval.
And most notably, last year, the Sydney Swans started the season with six straight losses, but would win 14 of their last 16 matches to finish sixth on the ladder before bowing out of September in the semi-final stage.
But one would have to think about whether the Bombers are up for the fight of reviving their season before it gets worse with the aforementioned matches against the Cats, Giants and Tigers in the next three weeks.
They currently sit 15th on the ladder with a percentage of 83.9 per cent, and their cause will not be helped by Joe Daniher’s injury-enforced absence from the side for at least a month.
And judging by their form over the past seven weeks, it’s fair to say they will start underdogs in each of those three matches, while a respite should come when they face the Brisbane Lions at the Gabba in Round 12.
Another finals miss would be a repeat of what happened in 2010, when the club finished 14th on the ladder with only seven wins after having made the finals under the coaching of Matthew Knights in 2009.
The club had extended Knights’ contract to the end of 2012 on the back of that finals breakthrough in 2009, but merely twelve months later, the former Richmond champion would be shown the door.
It was during Knights’ tenure as Essendon coach in which captain Matthew Lloyd retired after 270 games, his retirement having been brought forward by an apparent falling out with Knights in his final two seasons and a serious hamstring injury which sidelined him for all but three games in 2006.
In that season, as well as 2010, the Bombers conceded the most points of any side, leaking an average of 112.23 and 109.2 points respectively.
Thus, it’s fair to say that Lloyd would have reached the 300-game milestone had he not suffered that injury against the Western Bulldogs on his 28th birthday in 2006, or legendary coach Kevin Sheedy not been sacked as coach at the end of the 2007 season.
It has also been suggested that the club has not been the same since they made the huge call to move Sheedy, then 59, on over a decade ago.
It was during his 27 years as coach which the Bombers won four premierships, the most recent of them in dominant fashion in 2000 when it lost just one match for the entire calendar year and thrashed Melbourne by ten goals in the grand final to win its 16th and most recent flag.
Their most recent finals win – also against Melbourne – came in the 2004 elimination final, while this upcoming September will mark exactly half a century since the club last won a final under anyone else’s coaching.
Unless things improve dramatically under current coach John Worsfold, who along with a host of others within the inner sanctum of the club has undoubtedly been feeling the heat over their poor start to the 2018 season, their current finals winning drought doesn’t look like ending any time soon.
Like Knights all those years ago, the former West Coast premiership coach had his contract extended with the Bombers after they reached the finals in 2017, and won its first round match against the Adelaide Crows this year.
But if the way Knights, who is now an assistant coach at the Geelong Cats, was treated by the club in 2010 is anything to go by, it will remain to be seen whether the club sticks by Worsfold should they miss the finals in 2018.
The next few weeks, and the challenges that lay ahead, will surely test the patience of both the Essendon Football Club and their loyal fans and members, who without a doubt would have gone through hell and back many times since the glory days of the late 90s-early noughties.
Now it remains – can they turn things around for the better, or will their season take another turn for the worst? We will all wait to see in the next month or so.