The 2017 season was a lot more than a 12-10 record for the Bombers, who travelled a long way in a short period – from the wooden spoon to the top eight
As the sunlit corners of the SCG started to fade, Joe Daniher sat on Heath Grundy’s shoulders for what felt like an eternity and took one of his now trademarks hangers. He converted truly and gave Essendon the early lead in spectacular fashion. The Swans replied by kicking 13 of the next 15 goals in a devastating avalanche that Essendon appeared ill-equipped to deal with.
This is what raw potential looks like. It’s full of ups and downs and there’s a glimmer of hope sandwiched in the middle. This year the Bombers showed they are an enthralling work in progress to watch, despite their 65-point finals exit at the hands of the Swans in last weekend’s elimination final.
As much as that game was about how fluent and ruthless the Swans looked, we also learned that the Bombers aren’t ready to go deep into September just yet. That said, their “comeback” season was admirable in many facets. For a team that went through the wringer with years of unprecedented change and upheaval – losing its coach, president and 34 players to the supplements saga – it’s been a whirlwind 12 months. Essendon have travelled a long way in a short period: from wooden spoon to a top eight finalist.
Think back to 2016 when John Worsfold possessed a team that was a concoction of kids and also-rans. The club was operating on virtually new staff from the top down. For an AFL football club this was as close to the apocalypse as you could get. Media critics and punters mused it would take Essendon a decade to recover from the supplements saga.
Fast forward to pre-season 2017. Worsfold picked up 12 core suspended players. His first-year kids have 20-odd games under their belts. And No1 draft pick Andrew McGrath arrived at the club. On the one hand the club’s clean slate injected fervour and a new tempo; on the other new hurdles arose in selection woes. The one question that would have kept Worsfold up at night: how long would it take for Essendon to gel, if at all?
At the conclusion of an AFL season, teams know where they stand. Some teams are brimming with confidence and are on the up, others are confronted with years of improvement or rebuild. Before the 2017 season started, the Bombers were an obscure quantity. They had attack woes. They leaked goals.
For a season coated with no expectations Essendon managed to win over suspect observers with solid victories over finals-bound teams including Geelong, West Coast and Port Adelaide – the two latter results in excess of 60 points. And to their credit they finished the season with momentum, winning six of their final eight games.
We were also reminded about characteristics of their game that still need tinkering. Some things will take longer to perfect, like chemistry, but it was obvious that when they lacked intensity they produced sub-par results. The eight-point Lions loss will be on Worsfold’s lowlight reel for it only took 16 minutes for Brisbane to unravel a 27-point deficit.
But 2017 was a lot more than a 12-1o record for Worsfold. He started the season faced with a batch of unanswered questions but finished the year knowing exactly what he needs to one day go deep into September.
One of the key questions confronting Worsfold was whether or not former Brownlow medallist Jobe Watson could make an impact on the game. Watson managed 20 games and averaged 23 disposals, but weary legs and lack of speed forced the heart-and-soul leader into retirement. He had mates that fell into this category in James Kelly, Brent Stanton and to some degree Heath Hocking, who found it tough to crack the best 22.
We learned more about Daniher’s journey and how his 65-goal season will do a world of good for his goal-kicking confidence. He still scares Bombers fans every time he lines up for goal with the ball held in a snap position, but he is kicking more than he’s missing these days (65 goals from 104 shots). Rising Star Andrew McGrath shone. He came with wraps on his silky skills but delivered much more in composure and a maturity beyond his years. Michael Hurley went into fire-breathing All-Australian mode like we knew he could and now looks like one of the players the club will rebuild around.
Then there were small things, such as how ball magnet Zach Merrett learned how to blanket a tag and how David Zaharakis used his speed to become an effective tackler. And Anthony Tippungwuti showed us not only can he kick goals – 34 in 2017 – and perform brutal chase-down tackles, but he can do it on a big stage. The Bombers became more cohesive as the season rolled on. In that mix, we saw role players and dominant players emerge, along with quick rebounders – like Irishman Conor McKenna. There were more moving discoveries for Worsfold this year than heartfelt departures, which will only strengthen their playing list.
When Worsfold was first spoke of the 34 players and their 12-month suspensions, he stood in a media scrum after a training session with a dozen microphones in his face. There he told the public he knew how to deal with adversity through his time at Adelaide after the tragic death of senior coach Phil Walsh. If a significant moment was needed to reassure that he was the right man for the Essendon coaching job, that was it.
This year he has enjoyed finding out who his best team is, and knowing that in patches, when the Bombers click, they are compelling. He told Essendon fans he wanted to build a team that played fast and attacking football and according to footywire.com he accomplished that: Essendon were ranked the fourth best attack in the competition in 2017. There are other areas that now need his attention – inside grunt, another quality defender and perhaps another mid-size forward.
Worsfold has been the glue the club needed. His clinical, transparent and honest approach in all forms of his role has tempered expectations for the large faithful of fans that haven’t seen a premiership since 2000. He’s been an influential figure since he arrived at Essendon and has set a platform where the Bombers will become a consistent competitor in the years ahead. They still have inconsistencies and personnel kinks to iron out, but those imperfections are shrinking. An intriguing journey into 2018 and beyond awaits.