With main goal threats Jake Stringer and Joe Daniher missing, David Zaharakis finding his AFL scoring form against North Melbourne was timely for Essendon.
Never has the retirement of a player left a bigger gap in the structure of an AFL side than Matthew Lloyd retiring in 2009, leaving the Bombers without a proper key forward for the better part of the last decade.
Essendon can’t be blamed for a lack of trying. Kepler Bradley, Courtney Johns, Scott Gumbleton, Stewart Crameri, and in more recent times, Shaun McKernan, James Stewart and Joe Daniher, for one reason or another, have failed to completely fill the role. Injury is not solely to blame, as many of these issues could have also been avoided with stronger list management and drafting.
Could free agent Jeremy Cameron fix all the Bombers’ issues? A look through the history of Essendon’s failures and successes might paint the picture that words can’t.
Essendon picked up Courtney Johns in the rookie draft after the first year in what was the slow decline of the club’s on-field performance after a burst of success from 1999-2001, including a prelim loss, two grand final appearances, and a premiership.
The Bombers were close to missing finals before a timely three-game winning streak put them safely in fifth place, beating West Coast at home before losing to Port Adelaide away by four goals. Their draft was largely focused on ruck options, bringing in big men Jayson Laycock and Tristan Cartledge, as well as midfield stocks including future captain Jobe Watson and perennial whipping boy Jason Winderlich. With Simon Madden long gone, Paul Salmon freshly retired, Steven Alessio on his last legs and 21-year-old David Hille unable to shoulder the tap work alone, they needed to do so.
The forward line depth didn’t seem like much of an issue at the time. Matthew Lloyd (who would go on to win the Coleman Medal that year with 93 goals) and Scott Lucas were in the prime of their careers and had already been a dangerous duo up forward for a few years. The future was looking bright for the Bombers.
Johns was not the biggest offender of Kevin Sheedy and Adrian Dodoro’s list management and drafting decisions in the early to mid 2000s.
A rookie draft pick wasted is not a big deal. Very rarely do they turn into star players, unless you’re the Sydney Swans.
After another semi-final loss to Port Adelaide in 2003, Essendon took Kepler Bradley with pick six. In retrospect, this was not as bad a decision as some Bombers fans might have you believe. Bradley played 117 games over 11 seasons, but was wasted at the Bombers as a key defender, showing that he could be a serviceable goal-scorer both at the Bendigo Bombers and later at Fremantle, kicking 73 goals in 68 games after being traded in 2008. Given time to learn under Lloyd and Lucas – and then Matthew Pavlich – in their primes, who knows what he could have been?
Young Essendon supporters will never forget what a horrible year this was for the club. Yet another semi-final loss in 2004 saw the Dons miss the finals the following year for the first time since 1997.
In Round 1, 2006, Essendon defeat reigning premiers Sydney by 27 points at the Docklands. Lloyd and Lucas kick 12 goals between them. Young guns Watson, Brent Stanton and Kepler Bradley are looking strong. Hope is on the horizon. Maybe the year before was a fluke after all. What followed was a crushing, despair-inducing, childhood dream-shattering 14-game losing streak. Lloyd injuring his hamstring and missing the rest of the season in only Round 3 truly was the beginning of a disastrous year for the club. Vivid memories of seeing the L week after week in the results in the Footy Record will never be fully forgotten.
The season came to an end and the Dons recorded a pitiful three wins and one draw, against fellow bottom-feeder Carlton. The only good that can come out of such a pathetic year on the field is that at least Essendon would have access to the top-end talent, holding pick two in the draft.
Carlton took Bryce Gibbs at pick one, generally considered the best player in his draft class. With 266 games and a club best and fairest to his name, no one could dispute the selection today.
The Bombers were next, and took Scott Gumbleton. I cannot, in good faith, blame Dodoro and Sheedy for this selection at the time. He was described positively in contemporary media reports. It was a toss-up between Gumbleton, Matthew Leuenberger (who the Bombers would later recruit in 2016) and Lachlan Hansen.
Gumbleton would only play 35 games in seven seasons at the Bombers and none for Fremantle in 2014, in what was one of the most injury-riddled careers in the AFL’s history. Along with chronic hamstring issues, which plagued his entire career, he also suffered from broken ribs, a punctured lung, a broken disk in his back and many other minor injuries. Not even the most highly skilled doctor or physio could predict this level of constant injuries.
With hindsight on our side, this becomes even more unfortunate as you look at the level of talent in the players drafted after Gumbleton. Hansen, Travis Boak, Joel Selwood, Ben Reid, David Armitage, Nathan Brown, James Frawley, Jack Riewoldt, Eric Mackenzie, Kurt Tippett, Told Goldstein, Josh Kennedy, Tom Hawkins, Robbie Gray, the list goes on.
It truly does sum up the Bombers of 2006: putrid on and off the field.
The year is 2009. James Hird is gone, Matthew Knights is the new coach in town and the Bombers are back in the finals for the first time since ’04 despite dropping in and out of the top eight in what was a fairly mediocre season. D-Day had finally arrived. Lloyd and Lucas had retired and a dismal 96-point thrashing at the hands of Adelaide in the elimination final had put the future of the club firmly in the minds of all Dons supporters.
The 2009 draft, thankfully, was not a bad one for Essendon. While Jake Melksham, Travis Colyer and Jake Carlisle all made their way to other clubs following the supplements saga, it proved that Dodoro still had an eye for talent.
The rookie draft got Ben Howlett (124 games) and Stewart Crameri (103 games) onto the list. Crameri was the club’s more immediate try at filling the key forward hole, debuting at 22 years old and kicking 96 goals over three years. If not for the supplements saga investigations beginning in 2013, Crameri probably would have stayed with the Bombers instead of requesting a trade to the Western Bulldogs (kicking 70 goals in 42 games) then being delisted and being given a lifeline by Geelong for one year. Injury ultimately ended Crameri’s career too, although his recruitment should still be viewed as a good move.
Taken at pick ten in the 2012 national draft under the father-son rule, Joe Daniher followed in his father Anthony’s footsteps and pulled on an Essendon jumper in Round 11, 2013. Constant pressure to perform in a struggling team assailed Daniher from everywhere as soon as he stepped onto the MCG on that fateful day.
From opposing fans, to the media, to social media, to Essendon fans, everybody was expecting Daniher to be the forward that Essendon needed for half a decade. Pressure affects everyone differently. As his career blossomed, Daniher had his ups and downs, mostly withdrawing from talking to the ever-growing and hungry AFL media. The 2015 and 2016 seasons saw the expectations rise to unexpected levels.
As Daniher entered his 20s, his performances began to improve, but he was still inconsistent as a player and as a key forward. In 2015 he kicked more than five goals in a game twice, but only managed more than two twice. He went goalless six times, which included a month-long scoreless streak but for three behinds at the end of the season.
His accuracy was also examined under a microscope, kicking 34 goals and 24 behinds for a 58 per cent scoring accuracy. In what was a relatively pressure-free season in 2016, with ten of his teammates being suspended by ASADA, Daniher improved again, kicking 43 goals and 32 behinds for a still lacklustre 57 per cent accuracy.
Then 2017 happened.
Joe Daniher made his All Australian debut at the end of the 2017 season, alongside teammates Zach Merrett and Michael Hurley. Daniher kicked 65 goals and 39 behinds, his personal best for scoring and accuracy, at 62.5 per cent. Essendon fans were riding high, and finally, the future that we had hoped for didn’t seem so far away after all.
With All Australians on each line and extremely promising youngsters, the Bombers experienced a totally unexpected shift to becoming a destination club for success-seeking players.
The 2018 season rolled around and once again, expectations were high, for both Daniher and the team. Seven games later, and the Bombers were sitting at a pitiful two wins and five losses. Joe Daniher had kicked eight goals and nine behinds, and found himself sitting out the rest of the year with a chronic groin injury, the vengeful osteitis pubis.
Club champion Dustin Fletcher had suffered the same injury throughout his entire career, so fans were optimistic that Daniher and the club’s medical staff could manage it just as well. It was not to be. Daniher played only four games in 2019, and question marks remain over his fitness and loyalty to the club, being involved in a trade request to Sydney in the 2019 off-season, which didn’t eventuate. That brings us to now.
The 2020 season, after nearly two and a half months of delay due to COVID-19, is returning on Thursday the 11th of May. Question marks still surround Daniher and the Essendon forward line as a whole. Coaches John Worsfold and Ben Rutten unveiled a medium-tall-focused forward line, with Jacob Townsend, Jayden Laverde and Jake Stringer being supported by the likes of Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, Darcy Parish, Orazio Fantasia, Shaun McKernan and Devon Smith.
It was the best the Bombers’ forward line has looked since 2017, and with youngsters Josh Begley, Noah Gown, Harrison Jones and Irving Mosquito waiting in the wings, Essendon look decently prepared for a future without Joe Daniher. Even more so if James Stewart can return to full fitness.
What would solidify those preparations would be making a serious play for Jeremy Cameron from the GWS Giants.
Cameron will be out of contract at the end of the season, is a Victorian country boy, and will be looking for big money.
Essendon could be looking to offload Daniher and possibly Fantasia at the end of the season, opening up cap space and allowing them to throw a huge offer at the Coleman Medallist, revitalising the forward line for a possible premiership tilt.
Stranger things have happened. It’s clear the Giants will throw as much as they can at him, but could they afford to in an already tight salary cap?