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Story of 2015

In what was a season where there were very little positives and many negatives for Essendon, the story of the season sadly was the departing club great James Hird prematurely after a round 20 thrashing at the hands of Adelaide.

This came out a particularly dark moment for the Bombers, as only weeks prior the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) announced that they would appeal the verdict to clear the players involved in the supplement program. This was the final straw for the playing group and indeed Hird, as the three-year long saga seemed to take its toll, with the players showing no real resistance in many games.

What went right

Moving Cale Hooker forward was one of the few positives. With Jake Carlisle injured mid-year and the Bombers’ goal drought escalating, they tried the star defender in attack. His ability to attract the footy and take strong contested marks made him the prime candidate. He proved a strong competitor in the role and gave Essendon’s midfield a target to in the forward half, kicking 21 goals in half a season.

Travis Colyer’s emergence as a midfielder was a bright spot for the Bombers. Before his season-ending foot injury in round 11, Colyer’s speed, run and carry and goal sense proved to be an important part of Essendon’s mix. Add the speed and class of youngster Zach Merrett and Essendon now have two young guns with plenty of pace to burn.

Michael Hurley proved his star qualities with the best season of his career with consistent outstanding performances in Essendon’s backline. The commanding defender proved almost unbeatable in one-on-one contests, adding plenty of flair to his game and controlled the back half for his team. His brilliant campaign was capped off by earning a spot in the All-Australian team.

What went wrong

Specifically speaking about Essendon’s on field performance in 2015, not a lot went right. The Dons’ struggles in the ruck were evident as the loss of Patrick Ryder left a huge hole in the team that wasn’t able to be filled by replacement Jonathan Giles. It also wasn’t helped by the injury interrupted season of first choice ruck Tom Bellchambers and the experimentation of Shaun McKernan through the ruck.

The Bombers also played one of the most frustrating and lacklustre brands of football. Over-possessing the ball and a slow build up play was the forefront of their game plan, largely to the frustration of their supporters.

Their forward line did not help either, as they were largely impotent near goal for most of the year. They struggled for any sort of cohesiveness and structure, which translated in a very predictable forward line for opposition defences to pick off. Their poor ability to score goals was evident throughout the season as they booted 10 goals or fewer in the 13 games last season.

2016 preview

It was a huge off season for the Bombers with a necessary influx of changes, after the decision that all of the 12 current Essendon players involved in the supplements saga will be handed 12 month bans which would see them miss out on the 2016 premiership season. Newly appointed coach John Worsfold arrived with much needed coaching experience from his time at West Coast and knows he is in for a tough 12 months.

In terms of the playing list, the Bombers wisely decided to focus on replenishing playing stocks in the draft, securing a second top 10 selection from St Kilda in exchange for the talented but troubled Jake Carlisle. Receiving an early second round pick for Jake Melksham from Melbourne was good value, Matthew Leuenberger’s arrival gives Essendon much-needed ruck experience and Craig Bird came as a highly valuable pickup at 27 years old and with a top 10 best and fairest finish in a premiership winning team just four years ago.

With their two top 10 draft picks, the Bombers selected Darcy Parish, widely regarded as one of the best midfielders in the draft and Aaron Francis, a swingman who’ll likely begin his career in defence and was rated by draft experts as having the best contested marking ability of anyone in the 2015 draft class.

Essendon also focused on bringing some maturity to complement the high-end young talent. Mitch Brown fills a key defensive role, as well as ex-Collingwood rookie Michael Hartley. They join the 10 top ups to help soften the clubs blow of losing 12 experienced players from their list. Players like Mathew Stokes, James Kelly and Ryan Crowley should bring much needed leadership and quality at least for the next 12 months.

A new coach and a makeshift team will ensure wildly varying performances and 2016 captain Brendon Goddard will need to change his on-field demeanour to ensure the team doesn’t collapse too often. There’s enough young talent and veterans with a chip on their shoulder to ensure they’ll be more than competitive in some weeks, while in others they will inevitably be heavily beaten by more experienced and cohesive units.

The Bombers’ best 22 isn’t what John Worsfold would have hoped his side would look like when he first was appointed head coach. They could be very competitive in a lot of games this year, with many young stars able to further progress their AFL development, but with so many young players it can be expected that slumps in form will occur at various parts of the season, particularly towards the end of the season where the fatigue sets in.

Best 22

B – James Gwilt – Mitch Brown – Mark Baguley
HB – Martin Gleeson – Michael Hartley – Courtenay Dempsey
C – David Zaharakis – Ryan Crowley – Adam Cooney
HF – Jackson Merrett – Shaun McKernan – Kyle Langford
F – Orazio Fantasia – Joe Daniher – Patrick Ambrose
Foll – Matthew Leuenberger – Brendon Goddard – Zach Merrett
I/C –  Nick Kommer – Darcy Parish – Jonathan Simpkin – Craig Bird

Ladder prediction

18th

Expectations will never be lower at Essendon than this year, but the Bombers still have much to play for in 2016. Worsfold has effectively a free year to implement his game plan before the majority of his stars return, but with a host of experienced names not featuring this season it will be a tough season for the Bombers.