Every year, at the end of the home-and-away season, the AFL’s All-Australian squad of 40 is announced.
As a fully functioning football aficionado, it is my sovereign right – and civic duty – to jump to immediate conclusions about the success or failure of a particular coaching manoeuvre, and loudly express such sentiments from the treetops.
So, without further ado; the experiment of playing Conor McKenna as a small forward is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea.
The move from the half-back flank into the more glamorous arc that is the forward-50 has been festering for a while, with McKenna speaking of his desire to return to his attacking Gaelic roots as early as August last year.
John Worsfold – bless his soul – decided he knew what was best for the fiery tyro from (County) Tyrone, noting: “When I first got to the club, we were looking at him forward and he was struggling to read the game and get involved, so we put him back and we saw him develop a lot more quickly”.
Quickly is correct.
After a rapid footballing education across his first three seasons, McKenna launched into the top ten of the Essendon Best and Fairest counts in 2018 (ninth) and 2019 (fourth) as a swift-footed creative half-back flanker. Indeed, last season saw the Irishman record career-bests in almost every category – averaging – among others – 20.9 disposals, 449 metres gained, 4.9 rebound 50s, and 3.4 score involvements.
However, the desire to move forward remained for McKenna, and in February he was launched into the forward line in club practice matches. Worsfold – whose soul remained blessed – noted that although he’d made some progress, he suited the backline more effectively: “He thinks he can impact the game as a forward but he also understands that he finished high up in our best and fairest as a backman. At the moment we still feel he is in our best team as a defender”.
Nonetheless, Conor’s wish for an attacking license to thrill was granted in Round 10 against GWS.
The result? four touches, one goal, one tackle, and four ‘one-percenters’. This alone should have been evidence enough. However, it can be tough for a small forward, so some leeway was given.
He remained up forward against the Gold Coast in Round 11.
The result? eight touches, 0 goals, 0 tackles.
He was slightly more involved in the play, but it should be immediately apparent to anyone watching that his most impactful possessions occurred when he briefly came to his senses and pushed up the ground towards his former ‘home’.
His gather of the ball on the wing, run and carry, and pin-point pass to James Stewart in the second quarter was easily his best involvement of the night.
The experiment of McKenna as a forward has no doubt emerged as a result of Essendon simply needing bodies in the forward line who are nimble, agile, and creative. Not to mention that Kyle Langford (a tall, rangy midfielder) is now apparently our full-forward, and David Zaharakis (a tough, hard-running midfielder) is now apparently our gun small forward. These are dark times.
But it was a lack of explosiveness from the backline and through the wings and corridor that resulted in stagnant movement from the defensive 50 for much of the game from Essendon – especially in the first half – which threatened to hand the Suns an unassailable lead.
As any good scientist would tell you, science is about examining data to find out what went wrong in an experiment, and to learn from it.
Currently, Conor McKenna is not thriving as a forward. Indeed, he looks positively lost as to where to move among the myriad defensive zones, clamp-down defenders, and thoroughly clogged forward 50-arc. Additionally, for a man that’s averaged just 3.1 marks a game across his career, it’s hard to see him succeeding as a lead-up small forward in the interim.
Essendon’s season is delicately poised. Let’s cut this experiment short, shall we?
Disclaimer: In the event that Conor McKenna stays forward and kicks a bag in the coming weeks, my aforementioned obligations as a wannabe AFL journo will ensure an article praising Conor’s move forward as a piece of coaching genius, and decrying anyone who said it ever a bad idea, will be swiftly published.