After what seemed like months of speculation, Zach Merrett opened up to Mark Robinson from the Herald Sun about where things are at with Essendon as he enters free agency at the end of this year.
A fairly candid Merrett told Robinson he needs to see more stability. More alignment. And he wants to be the kind of leader that mentors the baby Bombers.
Yet, we still weren’t any closer to knowing where he stands with Essendon.
“I haven’t made up my mind yet,” Merrett told Robinson.
For a 25-year-old that, from his own admission talking to Robinson, needed to be more transparent and open up to his teammates, Merrett bounced around the topic of whether or not he’ll be a Bomber in 2022. He gave nothing away.
So what can we glean from what he said? And does any of it point to him staying at Essendon?
Form is often a good measure of where a player is at when they’re on the fence about staying or leaving a club. A consistently poor performance would raise eyebrows that a player was tanking his way out.
But Merrett scorched the Giants on the weekend with 37 touches – the most on the ground – and had 644 metres gained. He’s the fourth best disposal-getter in the AFL, averaging 31 a week. He’s third for inside 50s and third for uncontested ball.
He’s having a Crichton Medal kind of year and doesn’t look like he’s in preservation mode at all.
Another tactic players opt for when they’re being coy about shifting clubs is that they try too hard to say the things that fans might want to hear, like ‘I’m just focused on winning games of football for the club’ or ‘I’m contracted until the end of the year and I’m going to give it my best for the club.’
Joe Daniher did a version of this during his final year at Essendon and it didn’t sound authentic. Not one bit.
Merrett, on the other hand, has addressed the media in a vulnerable and honest way and painted a picture of truth about his relationship with the club, airing his frustrations. It wasn’t an attack. It was fair commentary.
We still aren’t sure what he’s going to decide but at least the fans know where his head is truly at: Merrett wants a real team on the same page with all parts clicking together. He doesn’t want a dog-and-pony show, which Essendon have been for almost a decade.
If you look at the way Essendon are playing right now they are toiling and clicking in most games. They’ve lost three games by three points or less and if the dice had rolled their way they could have been 5-3, hovering around sixth.
The young talent is exciting: Nik Cox, Archie Perkins, Zach Reid, Nick Bryan and Harry Jones. Add to that Sam Draper, Mason Redman, Darcy Parish, Andrew McGrath and Jordan Ridley. The alignment between coaches, players, talent and game plan is being welded together. Even Merrett can see it.
“The clarity and alignment from all staff and the players is through the roof, the best I’ve seen since I’ve been at the club. By a mile,” he told Robinson.
Of course, Merrett leaving Essendon is a real possibility. If the things he spoke about last week doesn’t eventuate – mainly progress – then it’s feasible he’ll pack his stuff.
This is a business. Merrett has given Essendon 150 games in eight seasons. He’s entering a period of his life where he needs to get the maximum reward for his commitment to football.
Merrett has been a loyal servant to Essendon through the tough years, but every player has their tipping point. No-one would blame Merrett for leaving Essendon.
There’s a real divide among Bombers fans on Merrett. Some think he’s gone and that the Bombers will be okay without him as long as they get compensated with draft picks. Others believe he’ll stay and become Essendon’s next captain. The idea of Merrett leaving Essendon would leave a gaping hole in the midfield.
Not only is his talent irreplaceable but his durability makes him worth more when you consider the injuries he’s covered. Merrett leaving is the worst-case scenario and not a road the Bombers can afford to go down if they expect to make finals in the next two years, but it’s a scenario they need to plan for.
Whatever blemishes the Bombers might have are fixable. They’re still untidy in defence, turn the ball over too much for anyone’s liking and haven’t been able to kick the ball inside 50 with consistent composure.
But they have made ground in other areas of their game like contested ball and pressure, and they’re ranked the number one team in the AFL for points scored and tackles. Merrett has been a key figure in this transformation and also at the forefront of tightening the screws of the club’s culture, which is becoming more evident every week.
If Merrett wants to be a leader and mentor, and to help create better processes and stand for excellence and professionalism, Essendon will be able to give him the space to continue to be the example for others to learn from.
We’re already seeing this happen now. He’s already the face of change at Essendon. And if the Bombers keep gelling as a team, by the end of the year, Merrett will be further entrenched in the new-era Bombers and it will be hard for him to walk away.