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A lot has been made of the pain the Essendon Football Club and its supporters have suffered since 2012, with the supplements scandal and subsequent sanctions leading to a wooden spoon in 2016, but really this once-proud club has been in the wilderness since they won the premiership in 2000.
They dominated in 2002 and won the minor premiership, but they choked during the decider against a brilliant Brisbane Lions side. In 2001 they finished fifth, and since then the highest the Dons have finished is seventh.
After being disappointed for so long, Essendon fans are only cautiously hopeful, especially after the shocking start to the season the Bombers had, even though some were tipping them for the top four.
The 2018 season was a false dawn, but I think it’s safe to say that next year the Bombers will be back, and they’ll mean business.
To most observers 2018 was a tale of two halves for Essendon. In one of the most open seasons in memory, the Bombers probably missed a prime opportunity to do some damage in finals, stumbling out of the blocks to a 2-6 start culminating in a morale-sapping loss to the struggling old enemy and eventual wooden-spooners, Carlton.
If the first half of the season was not what we expected from a team that had recruited so well in the off-season to top off an already promising list, then the second half was exactly what we did expect. The Bombers returned to the blistering attack-at-all-costs game plan that became their calling card in 2017 and ended up winning ten of their last 14 games to narrowly miss out on finals, in the process tallying impressive wins against Geelong, GWS, Sydney, and West Coast (in Perth).
If that wasn’t reason enough for Bombers fans to be hopeful for 2019 and beyond, a simple look at the Essendon list shows even more promise.
At their best the Bombers have a dynamic and potent forward set-up that relies on foot speed as well as speed going inside 50. In Joe Daniher they have one of the best young talls in the competition, and he’s already a 50-goal-a-season player who’ll lead their forward group for at least the next five years.
Around Daniher they have a group of fleet-footed forwards who provide a spark of x-factor that all good teams need, such as Orazio Fantasia, and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti. Throw in the raw power of the beast that is Jake Stringer as well as the untapped potential of Jayden Laverde, and the midfielders are spoilt for choice in terms of who to kick it to. As long as Fantasia and Daniher can get on the park next year, no defence will want to match up against the Bombers.
The defence, although at times seemingly more focussed on setting up attacks than defending, is stacked with quality. In Michael Hurley and Cale Hooker the Bombers have arguably one of the best key defensive duos in the AFL, with both previously being All Australian.
At ground level Adam Saad and Connor McKenna not only demonstrated their abilities to lock down in defence but also provided the drive off half-back, which is all-important in the modern game, with the duo possessing both electric pace and penetrating kicks, as well as being first and second in the AFL for running bounces.
Add in the revelation of Aaron Francis as one of the best intercept marks in the game late in the season, as well as the return of the consistent Martin Gleeson from injury next season, and Essendon has the makings of a great defensive unit.
Though oft-maligned and blamed for Essendon’s early season struggles, the midfield came leaps and bounds in the second half of 2018. Their starting six in midfield next season will be a much more competitive outfit with the incoming addition of Dylan Shiel, with skipper Dyson Heppell leading the trio of All Australian on-ballers of Heppell, Shiel, and Zach Merrett.
Heppell’s leadership developed significantly throughout the season, and he also seemed to finally return to consistency as well as a mixture of grunt and class that earned him the mantle of one of the AFL’s most promising tall midfielders before his suspension.
It’s hard to believe that Zach Merrett is still only 23, with the class, ball-winning abilities and composure he has already displayed for several seasons being well beyond that of someone with his experience. Although struggling with taggers early in the year, Merrett grew into it and will be all the better for the experience.
Although Shiel will be costly, he is worth any price demanded, as he is the missing piece in the Essendon puzzle – an elite midfielder who can mix inside and outside to provide support, especially on the inside, to the contested players like Heppell and the improved David Myers.
Combine this with previous best and fairest winner David Zaharakis and reigning best and fairest winner Devon Smith, who was a huge success in his first season in the red and black, both of whom will drift in after starting on the wings to help out, and Essendon has a midfield group now capable of carrying it to glory.
Tom Bellchambers had a career-best season in the ruck and will continue to provide a target around the ground and give his midfielders beautiful service. Underneath the more senior players, 2017 Rising Star Andrew McGrath, 2015 No.5 draft pick Darcy Parish and the much-improved inside-ball bull and heir-apparent to Jobe Watson, Kyle Langford, provide the Bombers with impressive depth through the middle.
The Bombers also have some talented youngsters in the VFL, with Matt Guelfi stepping up to play 15 games in 2018, as well as players such as Jordan Ridley, Sam Draper and Josh Begley showing some good signs. There is also more mature depth in Shaun McKernan, Mitch Brown, Michael Hartley, Patrick Ambrose, James Stewart and Travis Colyer.
The profile of the list is also impressive, with many of Essendon’s stars still early in their careers or about to enter their primes. McGrath is 20, Parish and Francis are 21, Langford, Laverde and McKenna are 22, Merrett and Fantasia are 23, Gleeson, Saad, Stringer and Daniher are 24, Smith, Shiel and McDonald-Tipungwuti are 25, and Heppell is 26.
The Bombers are back, their future is bright and the game is so much better when the Victorian powers are up and about.
No more excuses from Woosha and the team now – it’s top four or bust, boys.