In March earlier this year, I wrote a piece that pleaded with Essendon supporters to settle down and not get ahead of themselves.
In my opinion, the club had been overhyped during the summer. Due to James Hird’s return to Windy Hill as new senior coach, the Bombers were splattered all over the two major metropolitan newspapers in Melbourne and were the lead story on almost every television and radio sports bulletin.
But after an impressive NAB Cup campaign which culminated in a Grand Final appearance, the hype grew to new levels. Apparently the men from Windy Hill had the ability to finish in the top eight if they continued the good form.
Really? Top Eight? This was the team that won just seven games in 2010 to finish the home-and-away season in 14th position. They also conceded the most points in the league, proving the little emphasis on defense in former coach Matthew Knights’ game plan.
However after seven rounds of action this season, Bombers fans have every right to be excited, because their team is a genuine finals contender for 2011.
Essendon currently sits fourth on the ladder with four wins, two losses and a draw. It has scored more points than any other team in the league so far. On average, and more importantly, it has conceded the fifth least points per game. Things have certainly changed, and for the better.
However it’s not the win-loss ratio or impressive score lines that have impressed the AFL community so far. It’s been the attitude of the playing group.
During its match with West Coast on Sunday, Essendon was severely challenged during the first half. The Eagles applied brilliant defensive pressure and forced the Bombers into making uncharacteristic errors. They were down by five goals at one stage during the second quarter and in danger of dropping the match.
Past Bomber teams might’ve thrown the towel in at that moment. But not this team. Not Hird’s men.
Led by an inspirational three-goal haul from Kyle Reimers, the Bombers produced a gutsy performance to take the lead late in the third term. They didn’t look back and won an enthralling game of footy by 16 points.
We often find out how good a sports team is by how it responds under pressure. After Essendon’s gutsy comeback win on Sunday, it’s clear this club is going places.
The Bombers of 2011 are a hungry side – a unit that is relentless at the contest and desperate for success. There is almost an air of confidence about them, a quality Hird has no doubt brought to the club himself.
Certain individuals have increased their output significantly too, which has been a major reason behind the Bombers’ resurgence this season.
Jobe Watson is now a genuine A-grade midfielder. The Essendon skipper is currently ranked number one in the league for disposals, averaging a career-high 31 per game. Watson is kicking the ball on a more consistent basis this season and has managed to boot 11 goals from seven games. If the Bombers continue to win and he keeps those kinds of numbers up, a Brownlow medal is his for the taking.
However Watson has been well supported by his fellow midfielders. Ben Howlett has found the ball at will, Jake Melksham has added some much needed class and Leroy Jetta has increased his fitness levels significantly. This midfield group might be a classy player or two short, but their ability to work as a group certainly outweighs their lack of class.
Stewart Crameri is one of the footy stories of the year. The 22-year-old was elevated from the rookie list to replace the injured Anthony Long before the start of the season and has certainly made the most of his opportunity. Crameri currently sits fourth on the goal kicking table with 15 from seven games. Going on form, he is perhaps the best third tall forward in the competition and would be very stiff to be forced back onto the rookie list at some stage this year.
Many thought Essendon’s three ruckmen policy wouldn’t work with the introduction of the new substitute rule. However the combination of Tom Bellchambers, Patrick Ryder and David Hille has been productive and effective against the odds. Not only have the three big boys been competitive in the ruck, they have pushed forward and kicked 21 goals between them, a stat that must delight Hird and his astute coaching panel.
The backline is rock solid. Dustin Fletcher just turned 36 yet is playing like he’s in the prime of his career, Cale Hooker continues to improve with each game he plays while 18-year-old Dyson Heppell looks like he’s in his sixth year.
The Bombers definitely tick all the right boxes. Now the challenge is to continue this momentum and form for the rest of the season.
If they do, a top four spot is not beyond them.