Prior to the season Essendon were tipped to be a fringe top 8 side with most having them narrowly missing out on playing Finals yet again in 2013.  Their top 8 credentials took another blow when the AFL announced that the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) would  be investigating the controversial supplements program undertaken by Essendon in 2011/12, casting a shadow of doubt over the Bombers’ 2013 campaign. Bound For Glory News predicted that Essendon would finish 12th in 2013.

The football world was strongly focused on Windy Hill for much of the season amidst rumours that Coach James Hird was on the cusp of stepping down or being removed from his post by either ASADA or the AFL. Despite this and the players’ uncertainty over whether they would face bans Essendon showed no sign of allowing off-field controversies to negatively impact their on-field play.

The playing group showed resilience in the face of adversity, stringing together a group of wins with their backs to the wall as ASADA closed in on laying charges. Flying out of the gates by winning their first 6 games – including interstate triumphs against top-four fancies Adelaide and Fremantle and a big win in front of 93,000 people against Collingwood on ANZAC day saw Essendon cement themselves in the top four – a position they held for most of the season.

After 17 rounds Essendon sat second on the ladder with a mouthwatering clash against Hawthorn the next week providing an opportunity for the Bombers to join the premiership favourite Hawks on equal points at the top of the table. The Hawks had other ideas, however, sending Essendon into a tailspin from which it only recovered once – to record a second stirring win against traditional rival Carlton for the season.

The Bombers lost 5 of their last 6 games of the season to Hawthorn, West Coast, Collingwood, North Melbourne and Richmond by an average margin of 54.4 points – dropping from second to seventh on the ladder in a matter of weeks.

On the 27th August – 5 days prior to the commencement of round 23 – the AFL charged the Essendon football club and individuals at the club and imposed penalties upon them on the back of the ASADA interim report on their investigation. Coach James Hird was suspended from any involvment with the club for 12 months, the club was fined $2 million, the club was ruled out of participating in the 2013 Finals, Football Operations Manager Danny Corcoran was suspended for 4 months, Assistant Coach Mark Thompson was fined $30,000 and Essendon was stripped of first and second round draft picks in the 2013 and 2014 National Draft but was granted the last pick of the first round in 2014.

Positives:

On-field performances – Despite missing out on playing Finals Essendon showed that they are a top four calibre team through the first two thirds of the season and will be looking to finish in the top four in 2o14 assuming players escape sanctions from ASADA.

Young, promising playing group – Essendon’s core is still reasonably young and with career-best 2013 seasons from Michael Hibberd (23), Dyson Heppell (21), Jake Carlisle (22) and Tom Bellchambers (24) the current list will be able to hold the club in good stead for years to come and should see a Premiership window opening soon.

Improved defence – Having been a major problem for years the Bombers looked to have plugged their leaky defence in 2013. The entire playing group dropped off dramatically in the final 6 rounds of the season but from rounds 1-17 Essendon had the 4th best defensive record in the league. This can mostly be attributed to key defenders Jake Carlisle, Cale Hooker and Tayte Pears having their best seasons to date as well as Michael Hibberd becoming one of the premier small defenders in the competition.

Negatives:

 The ASADA investigation – The obvious negative. The ordeal hung over the entire AFL season like a storm with the football world left wondering what penalties it would bring down upon the Essendon Football Club. The investigation is far from over with ASADA making it clear that Essendon players could still face bans for up to two years despite players not knowing what substances they were being administered. We may not know the psychological damage on Essendon players from the uncertainty which has come with the investigation for years.

Late season drop in form – Death, taxes and Essendon suffering a sudden dramatic drop-off at some point in the season. In 2011 and 2012 the collapses came at the halfway point of the season, Essendon can take some comfort in knowing it came much later than previous seasons and later than everyone expected in a year full of stress and off-field distractions for the club but it is an issue which must be dealt with if the Bombers are to be serious contenders.

Forward-line mismanagement – With a plethora of key position players the envy of most clubs in the competition finding the combination which functions best up forward was an important task which Essendon failed to do.  Those who secured themselves a regular spot in the best 22 were often moved between playing back and forward meaning the forwards did not have the time to learn how each other play and thrive like a stable group would.  Finding a formula which works and sticking with it will be high on the list of Essendon’s priorities for 2014.

Key Signing and Departures:

Mark Thompson – Although he was already at the club and is taking on the Head Coach role in unprecedented circumstances ‘Bomber’ was the right man to fill the void while James Hird is suspended for 12 months. Already a dual Premiership Coach with Geelong in 2007 and 2009 Thompson knows what it takes to push a team to the next level and is already familiar with the system implemented by James Hird during his time as coach.

James Hird & Danny Corcoran – Although their absences are temporary for the time being having two key football department roles vacated will have an affect on the club.  Players and staff may take a while to adapt to the way their replacements run the department and the reputations of both Hird and Corcoran have been tarnished.

David Evans & Ian Robson – Essendon’s Chairman and CEO both resigned during the 2013 season amidst the ASADA investigation.  The resignations left the club in a tough spot of having to fill two major roles in the organisation while also focusing on the AFL season and dealing with the ASADA investigation.

Stewart Crameri – Crameri, Essendon’s Leading goalkicker for 2012 and 2013 chose to accept a lucrative offer from the Western Bulldogs and requested a trade away from Essendon. Negotiations were prolonged by Essendon but eventually their hand was forced by the threat of Crameri walking to the Bulldogs for nothing so Essendon accepted pick 26 for the forward.

Draft:

Having had their first and second round draft picks stripped but retaining the ability to trade into the draft Essendon only recruited 2 players from the National Draft.

Pick 26 – Zachary Merrett: Zac joins his brother Jackson at Essendon with the pick Essendon received for Stewart Crameri. Zac is a small forward with similar size to his brother who could one day play as an outside midfielder once he improves his endurance. With great ability to apply pressure to opposition defenders Zac will be hoping to fill the vacant spot as Essendon’s small forward. You can read more about Zac here.

Pick 55 – Orazio Fantasia: A pick out of left-field for most, Fantasia’s selection is undoubtedly the result of his former coach at Norwood Nathan Bassett taking up a position as an Assistant Coach at Essendon. At just 65kg Fantasia has plenty of bulking up to do before he’s considered to play for Essendon but his speed, agility and intelligence playing as a small forward were enough for Essendon to take a punt on him.

Overall Grade: B

On-field Essendon showed plenty in the first two thirds of the season but another late-season collapse cannot be ignored even if it did come in unprecedented circumstances. The club had its reputation irreparably damaged by the ASADA investigation which is far from over and could cripple the club if players are to be issued infraction notices.  While not yet clear the loss of draft picks for two straight years will set the club back a few years down the road and could prove to be extremely costly indeed.