ESSENDON has craved finals and premiership success it last tasted it in 2000 and the club is on the verge of challenging for silverware.
At the end of 2015 when I analysed the Bombers’ list for a similar Herald Sun column the club was coming off finishing fourth-last on the ladder but I wrote it wasn’t all doom and gloom, that their list was much better than their performances suggested and it was the weight of the supplements saga that saw them drop away dramatically.
And that’s the way it’s turned out coming out of that drugs cloud now after its experienced players were suspended for 12 months.
However, it was a really disappointing end to the season for the Bombers and that performance in the elimination final loss to Sydney will burn in the guts of the players over the off-season.
That aside, Essendon’s year definitely gets a tick.
Finishing eighth with 11 players returning from 12-month bans was a huge effort and it’s a credit to John Worsfold and his coaching team.
The challenge now is to back up that level of performance next year and go one step further.
The list is in really good shape with Dyson Heppell — who is a star — as captain and is in the enviable position of having a very good spine with Michael Hurley at full back, Patrick Ambrose or Michael Hartley at centre half-back, Joe Daniher at centre half-forward and Cale Hooker at full forward.
They also have quality all over the field with the likes of veteran Brendon Goddard, who is still a gun, Orazio Fantasia who took another step after a breakout season, Andy McGrath is going to be a star, David Zaharakis, Zach Merrett is a star, Darcy Parish, Travis Colyer, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, Tom Bellchambers and Matthew Leuenberger.
That is the nucleus of a really good side.
Then there’s Jayden Laverde who I rate really highly and is still developing, Kyle Langford looks good, Conor McKenna shows plenty of dash and has good skills and James Stewart added a different dimension up forward.
Even Josh Green had a good first season at the club.
In order to take the next step I am pleased to see the Bombers are going to be big players this trade period because that is the way forward for them probably for this year and next — depending on what the club thinks it can get in the strong draft in 2018.
Given Essendon has invested in the draft over the last few years the time is now to target players from rival clubs and trade away your picks for guys who can come in and have an immediate impact and help this side go from a good one to a great one.
The time is now to top-up to try and jump into the top four.
The Bombers want Jake Stringer and Jake Stringer wants the Bombers — the price tag is the only sticking point.
I wrote last week I would have no hesitation in giving up pick No.11 as a straight swap for the Bulldog but that pick is now in GWS’s hands. The Dogs erred in not taking that deal, even though the Bombers were asking for a second-round pick in return.
Now Essendon hold the upper hand. It’s getting late in the trade period and with two second-round picks — Nos. 25 and 30 — the only realistic option for the Dogs things get tough. The Bombers traded its future second-round pick to Gold Coast for Adam Saad so it now can’t trade a future first-round for Stringer.
In my opinion the two second-round picks is still not enough to get Jake Stringer.
Stringer is explosive and has a huge amount of x-factor whether it be playing inside 50m or pushing up into the midfield where he can be a real weapon.
Add him to the likes of Daniher, Hooker, Fantasia, McDonald-Tipungwuti and Green and that is a seriously potent forward line with plenty of flexibility, which is what clubs need in the modern game.
But with the Thursday 2pm trade deadline fast approaching, the clock is ticking. Will the Bulldogs blink? I know they have said he could return to the club but I don’t think that will happen. By all reports it won’t be pleasant if he is forced to go back there — will the players and coaches welcome him back?
Two second-round picks in this draft will still get the Dogs a couple of nice players but will they equal a Jake Stringer? I have my doubts.
On the Essendon side, Smith and Saad are officially Essendon players and if they can get the deal done for Stringer, that fast-tracks their premiership hopes.
I originally wrote Essendon will be premiership contenders in 2019 but with the addition of the big three, a 2018 flag for the Bombers is a realistic goal. It will fast-track them.
Those three will be walk-up starts in Essendon’s best 22 and then what that does is improve the depth because other players who were in the 22 because fringe and depth players but if injury strikes, coach John Worsfold knows they can play a role.
Aaron Francis has requested a trade home to South Australia and I think he is worth a second-round pick — could the Power, who have been huge trade players so far, make a late play with one of their second-round picks? Or perhaps he might be better suited at Adelaide given the departure of Jake Lever?
I believe Francis’s best position is as a third defender who can intercept mark — he could be an immediate Lever replacement.
WHAT THEY NEED
The list is reasonably balanced but with Jobe Watson and Brent Stanton retiring and Heath Hocking being delisted, the Bombers need more depth in the midfield, particularly inside players who do the grunt work and win the contested ball.
That’s why Devon Smith is a good fit and why I’m sure he chose the Bombers because he sees a role for himself in a more midfield capacity.
Essendon do also need a few more outside players with speed to suit that fast, high intensity brand of football it plays. Rebound defenders and wingers with pace, endurance and good ball use are on the wish list, preferably via trades to get that immediate help next year.
UNDER THE PUMP
Aaron Francis is really interesting. He has requested a trade but is under contract and the Bombers could hold him to that and I wouldn’t be surprised if they do despite the fact trading him could help them get all three of their trade targets.
Francis can’t break into the best 22 and if he stays at the Bombers, 2018 will be a make-or-break year for him.
He’s always had a bit of a lazy streak, even going back to under 18s level, and never looked as fit as he could be and in today’s game even if you have great talent and athleticism like he does, if you can’t sustain it then you don’t survive.
He has the potential to be exactly the same type of player as Eagle Jeremy McGovern as that third defender who intercepts it because he reads it so well. The penny has to drop. He’s at the crossroads now — does he want an AFL career or not?
Craig Bird arrived from Sydney a few years back and has been really disappointing.
He hasn’t produced the level of performance he showed at Sydney at all during his time at Essendon and despite all the issues at the Bombers has never cemented a spot in the best 22. If he stays on the list, for contractual reasons or for depth, he’ll need to show something to avoid being left on the scrapheap at the end of next year.
Mitch Brown is another one after being drafted on the back of really strong VFL form in 2015 but he struggled with form and injury this year.
He’s behind the likes of Hurley, Hooker, Daniher, Ambrose, Stewart, Hartley and even Matt Dea in the pecking order at this stage.
BUCKY’S LIST CHANGES
Watson, Stanton and James Kelly have already retired as has rookie Yestin Eades and the club has decided not to offer Hocking a contract for next year, so that’s four primary list changes and a rookie list change.
I’d also move Bird on and potentially Shaun McKernan but he could survive for depth.
Essendon should definitely make finals in 2018 after the acquisition of Saad and Smith and potentially Stringer. I originally had the Bombers challenging for the flag in 2019 but if they can get Stringer over the line, then they are a genuine premiership threat next year.
Gary Buckenara helped build Hawthorn’s three-peat premiership list and now he runs a rule over club lists in an exclusive column for the Herald Sun.
Buckenara was a major part of Hawthorn’s recruiting team between 2004-2015 and was responsible for bringing Lance Franklin, Jarryd Roughead and Jordan Lewis to the Hawks in 2004 when he was the Hawks’ sole full-time recruiter.