Being an Essendon fan born in the late ’90s is an unenviable fate.
For a club so steeped in glory and fame, I have not seen my them taste success in a final since 2004.
That’s approaching 15 years, or nearly five and a half thousand days, as one Twitter account will remind you.
Since then, there has been a botched supplements program when on the brink of premiership contention, a complete gap year in 2016 when the senior core was banished, four humiliations in knock-out finals and missing September action last year, following a sensational recruiting spree at the end of 2017.
During a chance meeting at a recent game that he was covering for Fox Footy, Hawthorn champion Dermott Brereton literally laughed at me when I told him that all I have experienced as a 22-year-old Essendon supporter is mediocrity.
Long story short: my fandom is constantly laced with skepticism, expecting something obscure to derail what appears to be a position of safety, where it’s hard to know what form and continuity is, or what it means.
Take the last 24 months for example: back-to-back seasons of stuttering starts, impressive finishes and summers of landing big-name recruits, only to become a regular fixture in the mid-table glut of average teams.
Season 2019 has been largely the same, albeit with six weeks remaining in the season. An utterly dismal showing against the Giants in Round 1 was followed by losing to St Kilda, a side many predicted to be fighting amongst the Suns and the Blues to avoid the wooden spoon.
A form slump was rectified and things began to look rosy on the back of three consecutive wins, but weird things just happen to this club.
And no better way was this articulated than when Dane Rampe climbed a goal post during the dying stages of the Round 8 clash against Sydney, and was simply waved off rather than penalised, despite clearly breaching a rule that if enforced correctly, would have directly changed the outcome of the game and maybe even the course of the Bombers’ season.
But since hitting the skids at 4-6 courtesy of an embarrassing performance against Richmond, in which just two goals had been registered by three-quarter time, the Bombers have gone 5-1, with the only loss coming at the hands of the reigning premiers on their turf.
Wins against Carlton, Hawthorn and the Swans – all likely to miss the finals – don’t make for great reading, but ugly wins are worth just as much as thrashings in the W column.
And barnstorming victories against the Giants and a red-hot North Melbourne, both under incredible circumstances, has instilled a belief that says that we may justify the position we occupy in the bottom of the top eight.
When you think of Essendon at their best, you think of speed. You think of the dash of Conor McKenna and Adam Saad in the back half, of Zach Merrett and Andy McGrath through the midfield, and Orazio Fantasia and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti causing chaos in the forward line.
On Saturday, against one of the form sides in the competition in the Kangaroos, Essendon showed that they can bash-and-crash with the best of them, even without the skipper and the competition’s leading tackler in 2018 in the line-up.
Dylan Clarke did a tremendous job on wrecking-ball Ben Cunnington as an undermanned Bombers defence repelled attack after attack from North Melbourne, boasting the match’s most influential player in Ben Brown in their arsenal.
Michael Hurley’s injury late in the first half meant two things. Firstly, that match-ups had to be adjusted, with the likes of Aaron Francis and Marty Gleeson given tough assignments against opponents that comfortably outsized them in Nick Larkey and Cam Zurhaar, respectively.
Secondly, and crucially in the context of recent come-from-behind wins, it meant that John Worsfold’s trump card Cale Hooker was chained to the back half and unable to reprise his role as the hero whose enormous mitts and commanding presence steer contests in our favour when thrust into the forward line under desperate circumstances.
Playing in a one-dimensional fashion and being predictable has long been a criticism of both mine and the wider Essendon supporter base of the Bombers during Worsfold’s tenure.
When the one-wood doesn’t come off, the corridor is blocked and the turnover game isn’t reaping rewards, they look devoid of alternatives. Since Round 10, however, the numbers indicate that things have changed.
Essendon out-possessed and took more marks than their opponents in their first four wins of the year, but in three of the five since – against Hawthorn, GWS and the Swans – they have conceded the possession count and taken less marks.
Consider with not throwing Hooker forward on the weekend and we’re beginning to see Essendon add strings to their bow and win in different ways.
So what can we put the shift down to? Is it simply a coincidence that they’ve only lost once since Dylan Clarke has come into the side to take names? Possibly.
Certainly the balance in the middle has shifted and having someone to lock down on opponents has been something that the Bombers have lacked since the early days of Heath Hocking.
David Myers has also been out of the side in this period, having not been sighted at AFL level since his unsuccessful kick after the siren against the Swans fell short, allowing for more time in the middle for the likes of Darcy Parish and Kyle Langford.
Parish is certainly in career-best form, averaging 22.6 touches and 4.1 clearances in the last six weeks as he transitions from half-forward to midfielder.
As we look ahead to the rest of the season, finals have become a legitimate prospect. Contests against Adelaide, Gold Coast (both away), Port Adelaide, the Bulldogs, Fremantle (away) and Collingwood all present realistic possibilities to collect four points.
Three road trips aren’t ideal, and the club is yet to win interstate this year. However, they won five of six games on the road last year in what appeared to be a significant development. It’s hard to know what to believe with this club.
Three more victories would take them to 12 wins, a marker that has been considered a yardstick for qualifying for the finals in recent years.
They sit equal on points with Adelaide and GWS, a game ahead of both Port Adelaide and the Bulldogs, and two games from Hawthorn, North Melbourne and Fremantle. However they have the worst percentage of sides in the top eight.
It’s not going to be easy, especially with the mounting injury toll. But the intangible belief that forms from wins such as last weekend, after withstanding the relentless pressure from another side fighting to keep September hopes alive, could take them anywhere.
And who knows? If the match-ups fall their way in week one, we might be partying like it’s 2004.