Barring some monumental upsets over the next fortnight, John Worsfold’s five-year reign as Essendon coach is coming to an end in two weeks.
He’ll almost certainly be the only senior coach departing their club in 2020, and although he hasn’t been sacked, the curious and sudden timing of his succession plan with Ben Rutten being announced carried many of the same hallmarks.
The man known as ‘Woosha’ will always occupy a small part of Bombers folklore for his herculean efforts in steering them through the compromised 2016 season, but after a meteoric rise and subsequent stagnation, the reception hasn’t always been as rosy.
He defied all expectations by getting the Dons back inside the top eight the next season, only for them to get thumped. They traded aggressively that off-season but failed to make the eight in 2018 before returning to finals in 2019 and getting thumped in the first week again.
The common consensus appears to be that he’s failed to capitalise on a breakout 2017 and strong recruiting, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
To get the right context for Worsfold’s induction we need to go back a few years. With then-coach James Hird suspended for the 2014 season, two-time Geelong premiership coach Mark Thompson took the reigns and guided Essendon to seventh, from where they lost an all-time classic elimination final to North Melbourne.
Unfortunately they massively overestimated the quality of their list that off-season. ASADA penalties ruined their draft plans, but spending a second-rounder on Adam Cooney and signing James Gwilt in free agency – both nearly 30 at the time – was a clear sign they thought they were ready to contend.
They weren’t. The bottom fell out in 2015 with a 6-16, 15th-place finish, seeing Hird moved on and Worsfold brought in ahead of a season that was almost certainly going to be ruined by ASADA suspensions. Dustin Fletcher, Paul Chapman and Jason Winderlich retired, while another 12 players were rubbed out for 2016, including Dyson Heppell, Jobe Watson, Brent Stanton, Michael Hurley, Cale Hooker, Michael Hibberd and Tom Bellchambers.
Very few senior coaches have walked into such a difficult situation, but Worsfold and co. hit the ground running with an excellent draft haul that off-season, nabbing Darcy Parish, Aaron Francis, Mason Redman and Mitch Brown, the latter three players all coming from draft picks gained by offloading Jake Melksham, Jake Carlisle and Jonathan Giles. Then they plucked Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti in the rookie draft before nailing it with most of their top-up selections.
While the 2016 season itself was never going to end in anything other than a wooden spoon, their three wins for the season was five more than anyone expected going in. They also crushed it again in the off-season, drafting Andrew McGrath, Jordan Ridley, Josh Begley, Dylan Clarke and Sam Draper. The former two stand out from the others, but there are no rotten apples in that bunch.
Then, with the old cast back together, Woosha weaved some magic to get them to 12-10 and earn them a spot in the finals. It’s really, really, really important people take both 2015 and 2016 into account when they look back on 2017. This wasn’t a contender returning to their best after external forces halted their march the previous season; this was the full potential of a fairly average list being realised for a commendable result, but that was far as it was always going to get.
Where the narrative now insists that rising no further with the acquisitions of Jake Stringer, Adam Saad and Devon Smith that off-season was a failure, I present a more rational insight.
The equation was never as simple as ‘2017 Bombers + Stringer + Saad + Smith = top four’ – no matter how much Dons fans insisted it was – because they had the small matter of dealing with the retirements of contested possession leader Jobe Watson and halfback general James Kelly.
Smith and Saad weren’t really ‘additions’ at all; they were urgent reinforcements for a middling side who’d lost two very important pieces. While Stringer was supposed to be the icing on top up forward, Daniher’s injury woes over the last three seasons have meant he too has been required for maintaining their level rather than improving it. Without him the Bombers would’ve been forced to play Hooker exclusively up forward for the last three years.
Bombers fans may bemoan Worsfold for acquiring that trio and not moving forward. Instead they should be thankful they’re not languishing in the bottom four without them. If you could spend picks 11, 30 and a future second-rounder to replace your club’s best midfielder, halfback rebounder at an age discount while adding an experienced mid-sized forward, you’d do it in a heartbeat.
That’s not even mentioning that Essendon’s 2018 ‘failed’ win-loss record was identical to 2017’s and just 1.4 percentage points worse off – and it was actually better than the 2019 record that saw them qualify for finals once more.
Pick 9 for Dylan Shiel is the one people are still unsure of, but the Dons were without Smith for virtually all of last season and have been without Heppell for virtually all of this one, so we still haven’t really seen the midfield they’ve been trying put together on the field yet.
Would they be a premiership side with a healthy Daniher as well as having Shiel, Heppell and Smith in the midfield this whole time? Not quite, but it’s not unreasonable to assert they’d have been better than 12-10.
Their two finals thumpings under Woosha are also misleading. They came up against the hottest sixth-place team in VFL/AFL history when they got dumped by the Swans in 2017, a year they’d crushed fifth-placed Port Adelaide by 70 points and eighth-placed West Coast by 61. Last year’s elimination final drubbing was against a West Coast side who absolutely should’ve been in the top four.
Again, I’m not claiming fate conspired against them winning the flag, but the manner of their finals exits was a harsh reflection on their quality.
Worsfold leaves the Bombers with only five players over the age of 30 and a good core of players in the 24-28 age bracket, but what’s most encouraging is an under-24 group with 488 games under its collective belt. McGrath’s development has been managed perfectly, while Kyle Langford, Ridley, Francis and Parish have all blossomed under Worsfold’s tutelage. More recently the likes of Brandon Zerk-Thatcher, Sam Draper and Irving Mosquito have all shown promise.
They’ve drafted incredibly well during his tenure and their trades have almost all paid off. This year has been a disappointment, but they’ve pushed the likes of Richmond, West Coast and GWS all the way.
Their list isn’t perfect, but Ben Rutten doesn’t enter the job in 2021 needing to tear things down or kick off a rebuild. Some Bombers fans can’t wait to see the back of Woosha, but if they do secure that 17th flag in the next five or so years, he’ll have played an almighty part in it.