Jobe-Watson

Story Of The Summer

Where do you begin? It was a year that can only be described as the low point in the history of the Essendon Football Club. We’re all too aware of the lingering ASADA narrative, it’s impossible not to be, and if it hadn’t already grown stale it’s certain to do so in 2014 with no resolution in sight.

There’s nothing worse than having football itself relegated from the forefront of focus but unfortunately for both Essendon fans and fans of the game in general the aura of the investigation, possible infraction notices, Mark Thompson’s adjustment and James Hird’s expected return will all consume the spotlight as opposed to results on the field.

Whatever your stance the 10 current Bombers who believe they took potentially banned substances will carry a cloud of mystery and no doubt opposition disdain wherever they go in season 2014. Maintaining a clear headspace will be paramount to Essendon’s success and the lessons of last year will no doubt hold them in good stead. It’s far from ideal but the club and players alike have been here before.

If off-field distractions weren’t bad enough pre-season injuries to key figures Tom Bellchambers, Michael Hibberd and Jason Winderlich have only magnified the rocky preparation to this year’s campaign.

How Essendon responds will be fascinating but unfortunately any success is likely to be met with ridicule and doubt from opposition supporters. It’s a long road back to the realms of respect in the AFL arena, fans don’t forget easily. There’s no quick fix for rebuilding Essendon’s brand and reputation, the process will take years, but on-field life goes on and continues as normal.

The Bombers still have expectations to adhere to; there are still games of football to be won.

It’s easy to forget that this is a team who were second on the ladder with five rounds to play just a season ago, and despite losing a pivotal contributor up forward in Stewart Crameri it remains an Essendon outfit that has the makings of a top four contender if healthy in both mind and body.

With an experienced coach in the chair and the addition of proven talent in Paul Chapman the Bombers prospects have little reason to waver. On paper and on the park there’s cause for excitement and optimism, only mentally does mystery remain.

We’ve witnessed many an Essendon meltdown in recent seasons, specifically as they draw to a close. You’d imagine being coupled with relentless off field adversity would have helped strengthen the Bombers’ psychological fortitude, yet its impact still remains the great unknown.

What we do know is the Essendon Football Club is in for another helluva roller coaster season.

Where They Excel

The Bombers unveiled a new attacking game plan last season which saw them break their opposition down and counter through the corridor with great success. Essendon’s elite rebounding ability saw them behind only Geelong for points generated from turnovers as they jumped from the 12th-ranked side in 2012 for points from turnover differential to third in 2013.

Behind an experienced and equally as classy midfield Essendon employed a short sharp kicking game with a play on at all costs mentality which saw them generate the third most inside 50s of any side. It comes as no surprise given their core midfield of Jobe Watson, Heath Hocking, Brendon Goddard, Dyson Heppell, Brent Stanton and David Zaharakis has all the hallmarks of one in its prime at an average age of 26 and 141 games played.

With developing support in David Myers, Jake Melksham and Ben Howlett the Bombers possess a midfield unit which runs 10 deep and should hold them in good stead against the interchange cap.

One area of concern Bomber Thompson may look to address is Essendon’s defensive work at stoppages. Essendon experienced a marked drop in output in 2013 from the season prior with teams finding scoreboard success when extracting first use.

Year

Points from Stoppages For

Points from Stoppages Against

Points from Stoppages Diff

2012

7th

7th

7th

2013

16th

14th

16th

With injuries forever a hot topic at Essendon the addition of Paul Chapman will add an extra dimension of depth and versatility to Essendon’s squad. ‘Hamstrings’ Chapman is no stranger to injury yet last season’s September romance proved there’s still something left in the tank. Chapman may be 32 when he dons the sash for the first time but if managed correctly could play an integral role.

As far as the Chapman fit goes there’s history with coach Mark Thompson and the departure of Stewart Crameri leaves a significant hole up forward. Chapman played six games with more than 70% game time in 2013 and the combined win/loss record of clubs he faced in that span was 65-47, so at least the majority of his high production came against quality opposition which further bolsters the narrative he has plenty left to offer.

It would take a miracle for Chappy to feature in every contest in 2014 but a return of 15 games would be a great result.

Hiccups On The Horizon

After injuries to Tom Bellchambers and Jason Winderlich the Essendon forward line is missing the necessary versatility that could have made it a competent one.

It’s clear that last season’s primary target Michael Hurley is best suited to a spot in defence. With leading goalkicker Stewart Crameri and depth in Scott Gumbleton no longer at the club the Bombers will have no option but to shake things up and get creative.

Impressive full back Jake Carlisle has been groomed as the early saviour to make a position switch and has looked dangerous at times but his experience as a key target has been scarce making him largely unproven. Other options in Patty Ryder will be required in the ruck almost full time and Joe Daniher is an exceptional talent but it’s not 2017 and he needs time to progress before consistent output can be counted on.

Ariel Steinberg was given ample opportunity in the NAB Challenge but looked to be too slow off the mark and Kyle Hardingham showed flashes after making the transition from defence but only added to the dysfunctional appearance of the Bombers forward line.

There will be days when the Carlisle/Daniher combination looks as dangerous as any but in large success in attack will come down to the spread of midfield contributions. 2013 saw eight Essendon midfielders register at least 20 shots on goal. If they can repeat the dosage the Bombers forward line issues may be limited in impact.

The Skinny

With all the lingering off-field mystery Essendon takes the honours as season 2014’s toughest team to predict.

Even if this year becomes too much of a distraction above the shoulders Essendon will still be in decent shape for the future assuming of course there’s no more lingering sanctions.

In terms of overall experience Essendon has only seven players with more than 100 games experience ahead of only expansion sides Gold Coast and GWS. 55% of the Bombers list is in the 22-25 age range with 15 of those players registering between 40-99 games, the highest number of any club. This suggests further improvement is still to come and as early as next season should produce a seasoned list profile on the cusp of maturing as a contender.

At this stage the 2014 campaign could deliver anything both on and off the field. It’s impossible to feel at ease with any kind of prediction outside of guaranteeing it will be another season high on drama and one memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Ladder Range: 5-10

Best 22

B: C.Hooker, J.Carlisle, M.Baguley

HB: M.Hibberd, M.Hurley, C.Dempsey

C: B.Goddard, D.Heppell, B.Stanton

HF: J.Melksham, J.Daniher, D.Zaharakis

F: J.Winderlich, T.Bellchambers, P.Chapman

Foll: P.Ryder, J.Watson, H.Hocking

Int: B.Howlett, D.Myers, N.Kommer

S: T.Colyer

 

You can follow Scott on Twitter: @ScottyBarby

All data courtesy of AFL.com.au, Herald Sun, Footywire and Foxsports