When Dylan Shiel, who is the most maligned he’s ever been and also playing the best football of his career, kicked consecutive fourth-quarter goals to seemingly end Fremantle’s bleak resistance, things started to make a bit of sense for Essendon.
It was a horrible game of football on Saturday night at Marvel Stadium, the type of game you hope that no first-time watcher of the sport is ever beset with.
But Essendon looked like they had escaped – they had wrenched themselves away from the dreadful, drunken arm-wrestle, and finally asserted their class to dismiss the Dockers.
It is never so easy for the Bombers, though. As soon as they pulled away, the Dockers dragged them back into the mud, a series of odd late Fremantle goals prolonging what would have been suspense if any fans or viewers had been interested in anything beyond walking away from this game and never thinking about it again.
Had Jesse Hogan – who was bad on the weekend and seems to be bad two weekends out of three – converted an open snap at the death, the Dockers would have had just over a minute to snatch a comical victory.
The late almost meltdown combined with the painful general play of everything that preceded it only mires Essendon in more uncertainty.
What is clear: the Bombers are not great, not horrible, but they do look great, and they do look horrible.
Something is glaringly absent. But even though it’s glaring, it’s hard to identify exactly what is wrong.
On paper, the team still looks a tier above solid, undoubtedly why the premiership market has accorded Essendon too much respect all season. In the flesh they justify the hype in spurts, when class on the inside combines with pace on the outside and two monsters to kick to inside 50.
But most of the time it’s just plodding. You close off the freeway and Essendon can’t drive on residential roads. Their skill level, broadly, is poor, and they don’t operate with much of a plan.
Too often their performances disintegrate into confused dashes and mistimed passes. Redemption often only comes with individual moments.
A constant at Essendon is the sublime core strength of Shiel and Jake Stringer. Shiel moves like a wonderful mixture of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, powerfully pattering his steps to navigate tight spaces and then bursting away with a mean, upright acceleration. He moves like sporting gods, but outside of the movement, there’s little magic about Shiel, only solid production.
Stringer has become maybe the most special player on the team. His numbers are not astounding, but the threat of him is. The strength in his legs is absurd and he has made holding his ground an art-form. He will never be prolific enough to be a superstar, but his moments are magnificent.
So too are those of Joe Daniher, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti and Orazio Fantasia. The forward line, in stretches, looks like the most menacing in the league. Daniher, when he is on, is more imposing than any other forward in the game. His size is vicious, his talent incomprehensible.
But Daniher’s almost games – like his collection of nearly moments against Fremantle – likely won’t be withstood by his teammates against the best teams.
Daniher’s future is immeasurably bright, and his team’s future is, well, measurably bright – and perhaps a little further in the distance than many thought a month ago.