What went right?
2011 was a year of promise for a reinvigorated Essendon Football Club with 11 wins and one draw their best return since 2004. A team renowned for playing fast paced football under previous coach Matthew Knights saw change in 2011 under James Hird. Unlike 2010, defence became a priority, and for the first half of the season the Bombers were highly effective in their relentless attack on the ball carrier and zonal structure.
The number-eight draft pick Dyson Heppell was the standout youngster and was rewarded with the Rising Star Award at the seasons end after playing every game. David Zaharakis’ consistency was recognised with The Crichton Medal in only his third year of AFL football, while Jake Melksham and Stewart Crameri established themselves in Hird’s best 22.
What went wrong?
Five consecutive losses from rounds 9-14 (including a bye) after a strong start halted the Bombers finals charge. Four of these losses were to teams that finished below them on the ladder, the other a ten-goal loss to Hawthorn. Throughout much of this rough patch Hird had elected to play three ruckman – Hille, Bellchambers and Ryder, which proved to be an unsuccessful ploy. The Hawthorn loss was followed by the Geelong game in which Bellchambers was omitted – the result an inspiring four-point win.
Despite this uplifting win, the second half of the season was disappointing. Once in a strong top four position, the wheels began to fall off after their round ten bye. It became evident that Hird’s grueling pre-season was taking its toll on the young bodies that were unable to cope with such a physical game style for the entire season.
The elimination final was a reality check for the young Bombers, as a more hardened Carlton outfit outclassed them by 62 points. Seemingly Essendon had fired their shots too early and faded badly in the last two months of the season. After the game Hird concluded that they had been “outmuscled” by a bigger and stronger Carlton.
A rejuvenated Jobe Watson led from the front in 2011 – amassing 15 Brownlow medal votes from just 13 games. What was most pleasing was his newfound kicking ability. Like all A-Grade midfielders he hurt the opposition on the scoreboard while still finding his own ball in the midfield.
Michael Hurley is the key position player that must continue to grow and develop this season. In 2011 Hird thrust Hurley to centre-half-back in a bid to give the 21-year-old experience in a different role. The results were pleasing and Hurley was still able to foray forward, kicking 27 goals in 18 games. Promisingly, he has just signed a five-year contract to keep him at Essendon until 2017.
What to expect in 2012:
Expectations are predictably high to improve on their eighth placed finish last year. James Hird and his brigade of fitness and conditioning coaches have sought to maximize the pre-season in the gym, including a taxing week-long training camp on the Gold Coast in December.
Much of their success or failure will rely on their ability to maintain the defensive pressure that was synonymous with their early season form in 2011. More than ever winning the contested ball is an integral part of AFL football and Jobe Watson exemplifies this for the Bombers.
No longer rebuilding from the bottom, it’s time for Essendon Football Club to have a significant impact in September. Whether they have the depth and enough top end talent to do this are the major questions for a club who haven’t played two consecutive finals series since 2003, 2004.
3 Most important games:
Round 4 vs Carlton:
This game will give Essendon a chance to not only redeem itself against the team that comprehensively beat them last September, but also provide the first real test of the season. It will determine just how much the arduous strength work over summer has developed them.
Round 5 vs Collingwood:
An ANZAC day blockbuster follows the Carlton game, presenting Essendon with an opportunity to test itself against last years Grand Finalists. As always, this day is one of the most anticipated matches on the football calendar.
The first final:
If Essendon are genuine about improving on 2011, they must win a final this September. Anything less will be seen as substandard.
Tom Morris is a second year Bachelor of Journalism (sport) at La Trobe University