There’s never any shortage of hype surrounding the Bombers. As one of the biggest and most powerful clubs in Melbourne, they always receive plenty of attention.
For each of the past three seasons since their 2016 season was wiped out by their drug suspensions, big things have been expected of the Dons.
Some of it justified, some of it perhaps wishful thinking.
When they limped out of the gate this season, it looked like it was going to be another lost year.
But as we’re reminded over and over again, the AFL season is a marathon, not a sprint.
Essendon have won six of their past seven games to sit seventh on the ladder and – despite several of their best players facing lengthy stints on the sidelines due to injury – are just a game outside the top four.
Gone are the attacking Bombers of the past couple of seasons; these Bombers are grinders.
Essendon haven’t cracked triple digits in a match since they did it for a third-straight week, back in Round 5, in a Good Friday hammering of North Melbourne.
That was Joe Daniher’s first game of the season and he booted a couple of goals. He’d play just three more games before being shut down for the year.
Reigning Crichton medallist Devon Smith – Daniher won it in 2017 – missed the win over the Roos, but would play the next three weeks before his season also came to a premature end.
Despite the absence of those two, and now Tom Bellchambers and star defender Michael Hurley for the medium term, the team have found a nice balance.
The midfield is finally looking like they probably hoped it would when they lured Dylan Shiel from the Giants.
Shiel and Zach Merrett are A-graders equally adept inside or outside the contest. Shiel has explosive pace, while Merrett uses his smarts to get to the right place, and has the skills and vision to take advantage of angles few mids can.
Dyson Heppell is the banger, David Zaharakis and Andrew McGrath run the wings. Darcy Parish has arrived as a legitimate onballer, filling whatever role is required of him, be it inside, outside, or mid-forward.
Up forward, they’re fast, feisty and dangerous. Jake Stringer, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti and Orazio Fantasia are all devastating ground-ball forwards with great goal sense. Mitch Brown is having a career year as a more-than-capable centre half-forward.
Cale Hooker and Hurley control the defence, while Adam Saad and Conor McKenna form the league’s most damaging and daring rebounding combination.
What this Essendon side has that might be most important is character; their win over the Crows at Adelaide Oval was chock-full of it.
The way they play isn’t always pretty, but of late they’ve had a plan and been able to hold their nerve.
Despite the key players out of this side, this is what the Essendon optimists of the past few seasons must have envisioned – and you don’t have to look too far into the rearview mirror to find a team that won the flag without some of their best players.
That’s probably getting too far ahead – one week at a time, and all that – but this team is capable of giving the season a real shake.
Finals should be a certainty from here, and that lengthy finals-winning drought might finally be ready to break.