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Footy Fix: 278 seconds and six moments to turn nine years of Dreamtime despair into Don delirium

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20th May, 2023
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This is the story of a football club, reborn.

If you’re under about 25 years old, you’ve basically never known Essendon as anything other than a running joke.

Twitter pages count the days since they last won a final to general merriment, rejoicing with every extra thousand added to the tally. Self-deprecating fans make YouTube channels decrying the fall of their once mighty club into ‘Essington’, because at times like this all you can do is laugh.

This is a club which, just ten months ago, embarked on a humiliating pursuit of a new coach in Alastair Clarkson, without bothering to tell the incumbent his time was done. They had a 24-hour CEO, board upheaval, all against the backdrop of a season in which a fan loudly and proudly proclaimed over the TV mics during a loss to Port Adelaide that his Bombers were a ‘f–king embarrassment’.

This is also a club which, 12 points down in the final five minutes against an opponent who had had their measure 13 times in a row, on a night they hadn’t emerged victorious out of in nine long years, with a midfield almost entirely lost to injury, defied every logical reason to claim a win almost worth the decades of suffering in and of itself.

This is the story of a captain ascendant.

Since bursting onto the scene as the brightest shining light out of Essendon’s doomed 2016 campaign, having arrived amidst the grisly aftermath of the supplements saga, Zach Merrett has been the game’s most frustrating elite player. One of the finest field kicks going around, blessed with a ball-winning nous few others can match, somewhere along the line he acquired a reputation as a soft touch and a one-way runner that, try as he might, he’s never really been able to shake.

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Ditched from the leadership on the eve of the COVID pandemic, having been almost foreordained as a future Bombers captain since his earliest days at the club, Merrett seemed destined to be a wasted potential, a good player who could never take the step up into the true top tier.

This is a man who, with kids, makeshifts and Jake Stringer around him in an on-ball brigade more likely at the start of the season to be seen in the VFL than on the Bombers’ biggest night of the year, had 39 disposals, nine score involvements, seven tackles and a domination of any other stat you could care to name. And just for good measure, a chasedown tackle on Dustin Martin in the dying minutes that instantly put to bed any stereotypes long since outdated about the type of player Zach Merrett is.

This is the story of 278 seconds, and six moments, that roused a sleeping giant.

The time read 4:38 on the clock. A boundary throw-in, deep in Richmond’s attacking 50, with even a score here almost enough to put this game beyond reach.

Patience had been the order of the Bombers’ night up until this point: they’ve taken a staggering 150 marks, content to deny the Tigers possession and any opportunity to enact their stifling pressure. Short kicks, moderate territory gains and then, quick as a flash, the dangerous bite-off ball to the corridor or the other wing to open up space.

Needing two goals at the minimum to win this, patience wasn’t going to get it done. So when Merrett – who else – wins the clearance and boots it as long and as high as he can muster, and the ball spills into the hands of Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, his first thought is to go inboard.

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He finds Alwyn Davey Jr, in his first Dreamtime. Earlier in the night, he might have chosen to switch wide to an outside runner: now, there are no options on the wing, and no inclination from the teenager to even consider them if there had been. All there is now is boot it long, and see what miracles the oval-shaped ball has in store.

The scene as Davey puts foot to leather might as well have been out of the NRL: three Tigers leading their opponents back, as though the Dons were worried about being called for offside. Earlier in the night, one or two might have given up the chase and instead moved to block up space for the next kick out, hemming in whichever Tiger arrived first.

Not now. All three – Kyle Langford, Sam Durham and Jye Menzie – keep up the chase, their hard yards paying dividends when Dylan Grimes, the first Tiger back, receives the mother of all nightmare bounces. It meant the fifth man back in six of the chasing pack, Durham, was the one to gather, reaching the ball at full pace and making a difficult pick-up look incredibly easy.

Moment one.

Dishing a handball over Broad, forced to commit to Durham with Grimes having overcommitted, the Dons can walk it in. Langford has the composure to give to the running Menzie, who with Tigers in his slipstream, runs to the goalsquare and boots it through.

A goal built on desperation, perseverance, and yes, plenty of luck. At any moment in the play, from Merrett’s hopeful, hacked ball out to the fateful loose ball at the other end of the ground, the Bombers’ victory chances could have been snuffed out.

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Moment two.

Seemingly shorn of fortune in repeated close losses to premiership contenders in recent weeks, had Essendon’s luck turned at last?

You’ll never guess who won the next centre bounce – captain fantastic again, Merrett finishing as he had started. The Tigers’ defence placed under the most heated of pressure again, the ball bobbled hither and thither until finally landing with Durham again, who squeezed a handball to McDonald-Tipungwuti – surely the storyteller’s pick for any late-game heroics.

On the left foot, right on the boundary, this would have been a Dreamtime moment for the ages; but not to be, Walla’s kick just narrow. Still, it had a purpose: an old-fashioned ‘handy point’.

There are still 231 seconds left.

Having been taken to the cleaners in the previous two stoppages, a boundary throw-in was Richmond’s chance to hit back. Winning the clearance lottery thanks to a superb Shai Bolton tackle on Nic Martin, a long Jack Graham ball did just as Merrett’s had done 30 seconds earlier: driven long and to a contest, the ball spilled in dispute before Trent Cotchin, as he has done countless times throughout his glittering career, took possession.

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Perfectly finding Rhyan Mansell inside 50 with a left-foot pass, and time ticking below three minutes, would this be the moment the dream died?

No. In a moment of heavy symbolism, the pressure got to the youngster, spraying the kick horribly. Out of bounds on the full, the Bombers with the ball back, the score unchanged.

The next two minutes were an exercise in chaos. Bomber handballs into a sea of Tigers, desperate knock-ons from Merrett bouncing on a dime and out of the path of Nick Hind.

One minute and 32 seconds left, and Dustin Martin decided it was time.

Essendon players celebrate their Dreamtime at the 'G victory over Richmond.

Essendon players celebrate their Dreamtime at the ‘G victory over Richmond. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Fed a handpass by Tim Taranto, Martin, fending a Hind tackle in classic Dusty fashion, had the Tigers’ forward 50 at his mercy. Or would have, if not for a despairing, last-ditch effort from Merrett, wrapping his arms around the champion and forcing the kick to skew off the boot.

Moment three.

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It took a second for the camera to zoom out and for you to realise it wouldn’t have mattered anyway: the Bombers had not one but two spare behind the ball, exactly where Martin would have kicked. Even in the dying minutes, with all thoughts of process long gone, Brad Scott-coached teams are disciplined to a fault.

As it happened, Merrett’s tackle gave the Tigers a chance at forcing a ball-up, more time off the clock, and a chance to stack numbers around the ball. Surrounded by red and black, all Jack Riewoldt needs to do is pick the ball up, accept the tackle, make a token effort to release, and the umpire will call for the ball.

He, like Mansell, fluffs his lines. Inexplicably – and I hope Tiger fans have as much of an issue with this as with the younger man who made a simple skill error at the worst possible time – he chooses to soccer off the ground, directly to Jordan Ridley, in five metres of space guarding the goals.

The Bombers have back possession – and they go on the attack.

Out wide, Mason Redman has gambled: with Mansell sprinting to Ridley in a futile attempt to pressure his kick, the Bombers half-back has run into space on the flank, where a kick of any distance will land in a free path to run. Ridley does his job, and away they go.

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With Hind in his slipstream and two Tigers puffing behind them, Redman, fresh off the interchange bench, could have run for longer than he did – especially if Hind, instead of calling for the ball, had looked to shepherd the chasing Mansell. Instead, still on the wrong side of the centre circle, Redman sinks the slipper into it.

Call it luck, call it brilliant execution, but off a couple of bounces, the kick makes its way wide of the Tigers’ spare man back Nick Vlastuin, and into the path of the charging Jake Stringer. Quiet all night, albeit with the occasional fleeting glimpse of his brilliance, none shining brighter than his final-quarter goal to reignite the Bomber surge, Stringer gathers.

He can’t shake the tackle of Nathan Broad, but his strength forces the hand of Jack Ross, who leaves his man Nic Martin to try and cut the handball off. It leaves Martin free, and with a low, worm-burning pass, his kick churns inside 50 and… lands just short of the leading McDonald-Tipungwuti. Maybe Walla in 2019, in his physical prime, could have got there, maybe not. We’ll never know.

He can’t gather, but what McDonald-Tipungwuti can do is pressure, getting to Short just in time to impact his clearing kick. Off the left foot, it sails high, wide… and Dyson Heppell, Merrett’s predecessor as captain, who up until three weeks ago was seemingly as cooked a footballer as you could ever see, outpoints Mansell in a one-on-one to mark.

Moment four.

One minute exactly remains. We’ve officially reached the last-chance saloon.

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Heppell’s first instinct is to go inboard, to open up the corridor and try and find space on the opposite side of the 50. But Tigers sub Judson Clarke is in the area, one of the few with legs still pumping at maximum speed, and Heppell, who turned the ball over something chronic earlier in the year, perhaps doesn’t trust himself to hit up Merrett. A better option presents: Redman, who had followed his kick down into the 50 and never left, is found ahead of Short 75 out from goal.

Redman’s kick could hardly have hit a worse spot: aimed at Sam Draper, a sizeable target, he nonetheless arrives at the contest in a five-on-one. Toby Nankervis trails him, but in his way is still Taranto, Vlastuin, Broad and Liam Baker. Any could take the match-winning intercept mark.

None do.

The kick might have been ill-directed, but it found a perfect spot: far enough away from Vlastuin that Taranto was forced to go up, and high enough over his head to force a despairing spoil from the former Giant. The problem is that, with so many Tigers in the marking contest, if Taranto doesn’t find the boundary the Bombers will have numbers at the spill.

Taranto doesn’t find the boundary.

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Moment five.

At the loose ball, once again, is Stringer, having sat off the Draper contest and watched his man Broad get taken to ground along with the flying ruckman. Gathering cleanly and wheeling onto his left foot, he chooses not to do as McDonald-Tipungwuti had done, and take an ambitious pot shot on his non-preferred. Instead, he goes inboard.

Enter Durham again. Running tirelessly all night, it was he who had gathered the ball amid a sea of Tigers to set up Menzie’s hope-rekindler minutes earlier. A mid-season draft pick back in 2021, he’s the type of player only Bombers fans and ultra-serious stats nerds ever really realised existed before now.

He’s not in the perfect spot for Stringer’s kick, starting three metres behind Daniel Rioli, but he reads where the drop of the ball will be in a flash. Sprinting to make up the distance, Rioli, turning and steeling himself to mark, sees a flash of red and black streak towards him, and has but a split-second to realise he won’t be marking this ball, and must spoil or lose the game.

Durham’s hands are strong. He holds on.

Moment six.

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The wonder of smartphones and the 30-second set shot rule means Bomber fans everywhere must surely know they’re as good as home. Durham, heart surely pounding, turns away from the goals, steeling himself for the kick and all the while wasting precious, precious seconds.

He doesn’t quite take all of them – still five remain on the shot clock when he begins to run in. He owns the moment anyway.

One centre bounce left, one last chance for the Tigers. But no. This time it’s Draper, he who fought a five-on-one to leave Stringer free for the match-winning goal assist, rising to the heights to smash the ball as far as he can muster. Fittingly, it’s Durham again who gathers, holding the ball with all his might as Rioli, once again a half-second behind, does all he can to prise it from his grasp.

Siren. Pandemonium.

The Bombers didn’t do everything right in those 278 seconds. Equally, the Tigers didn’t do a whole lot wrong. It was the sort of frantic finish that, last year, or the year before, or in any year you can care to name since, oh, the days of Kevin Sheedy maybe, Essendon just don’t come out the other side of smiling.

They did tonight. With their VFL midfield. With a captain who stepped up because he must, and played what must surely be his finest game. With a former skipper far closer to the end than the beginning coming up clutch. With a noted lair doing the team thing. With a mid-season rookie channelling David Zaharakis.

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This is the story of a football club, reborn.

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