The Essendon supplement saga has been the biggest Australian sports story of the last decade but fear not loyal reader, this article wont discuss that issue. It concentrates on how the Bombers' on-field short-term future looks and what can be done about it.
At half-time in last season's elimination final the Bombers looked set for a finals win and perhaps more. Things came crashing down as North Melbourne did what they do so well, got on a downhill roll and broke Essendon hearts around the country. This season has been and remains a lost cause as they languish in 14th spot and have lost Jobe Watson, Travis Colyer and Tom Bellchambers to season-ending injuries. The future doesn't look very bright for a number of reasons so lets take a look at those reasons and whether the Bombers can rectify them short term.
Over recent years the Bombers have recruited Brendon Goddard, Adam Cooney and Paul Chapman in an attempt to sneak through what may have looked like the premiership window. All three have been star players and seemed to be just what Essendon needed to take a list that looked a little short of the mark deep into September.
Unfortunately it hasn't turned out that way. Goddard has been a great addition, winning the Creighton Medal as best in fairest in his first season and providing leadership. The guy has polarised opinions but his two-man show with Lenny Hayes in the epic 2011 drawn Grand Final remains as good as any in the modern era. You might remember this highlight from a guy who now settles for marshalling the troops across half back...sorry Saints fans, this no doubt opens old wounds but what a game and what a mark!
The gamble on the Chapman seems to have failed, as injuries have cruelled the three-time Geelong premiership star. When he has been able to get on the park he has proven to be the player Essendon expected but as he nears his 34th birthday Father Time seems to have passed 'Chappy' by. He has also had his fair share of highlights on the big stage, none bigger than this
The young potential is there in Jackson Merrett, Colyer, Michael Hurley, Jake Carlisle, Joe Daniher, Patrick Ambrose, Jake Melksham and perhaps the best of the lot Zach Merrett. In just his second season, Merrett is a budding young star who seems set for a fantastic career alongside captain-in-waiting Dyson Heppell. These two players look likely to be bona-fide stars you can build a midfield around. When added to Michael Hibberd, Cale Hooker, David Myers, David Zaharakis and Bellchambers there is the foundation of a very promising list. The big man stocks are plentiful and while the midfield could use depth it is full of youth and promise.
This group is unfortunately not complemented by the likes of recent additions Shaun McKernan and Jonathan Giles, two quite baffling selections who are taking up list spots better filled by youngsters. To overcome this barrier the Bombers may need to shelve their attempt at topping up and focus on a long-term rebuild; with ten players aged 28 or older including list cloggers like Courtenay Dempsey and James Gwilt it is time to start afresh.
It would be shame but wouldn't surprise to see Chapman, Cooney, Watson and Dustin Fletcher retire at the end of this season. It might seem a mortal blow to a proud club but maybe the pain is best coming all at once.
There is not one game style that fits all (actually there is, but only Hawthorn are capable of delivering it consistently) but Essendon's insistence on short, ineffective kicking to uncontested teammates has failed to produce results. Ranking fifth in uncontested possessions, total disposals and marks and sixth in clangers this season, the Bombers go inside 50 just 48.7 times a game (14th in the AFL) and score the second-least points per game, ahead of just Brisbane.
Throw in the fact they rank 12th in contested possessions and 18th in clearances and the fact is that the game plan just doesn't work. Whether Hird can adjust his game plan or whether a fresh face is needed remains to be seen.
With Daniher and Carlilse up forward there seems to be no reason not to embrace the attacking style of Hawthorn and the West Coast Eagles and kick it to these dominant young forwards. Carlisle eviscerated the Western Bulldogs last season with 8 goals and 12 marks - you can't fluke a performance like this and it was simple football; kick it long to a kid who can take a mark and let him do it!
Daniher has shown flashes of what he can do in his short career, ranking amongst the leaders in contested marks and demonstrating that he can be an effective focal point in the modern game. Most clubs would look on with envy at these two young key position forwards, although for some reason Carlisle seems to be thrown around the ground far too often for someone who has obvious natural talent as a forward. Did I mention he kicked 8 goals and took 12 grabs in a game last year?!?
As a coach Hird has underwhelmed despite having all the answers. On evidence he seems to be a motivator first and tactician second. As a favourite son at Windy Hill, he has been given far more rope than he may otherwise have been given and the on-field results indicate that his message is not getting through for one reason or another. He seems unwilling or unable to adjust in game, without a Plan B when things go wrong. When suspended last season he seemed to have Mark Thompson play puppet while he pulled the strings, unwilling to give the reigns and total control to a three-time premiership coach. The relationship fractured and Essendon have been worse for this experience. The players say the right things about Hird when asked but of course they are going to do so. His record stands at 41 wins, 39 losses and a draw which is not terrible but is far from impressive.
The situation at Essendon seems to be mirroring what the West Coast Eagles went through with John Worsfold in 2013. A favourite son coaches a powerful club, has a degree of success and then it becomes apparent that all is not right but a change wasn't made when it should have been. Granted, Worsfold was a premiership coach but that was a world away from what he oversaw late in his career and the Eagles were lucky that they were able to replace Worsfold with Adam Simpson, who seems to be a ready-made senior coach. Essendon may do well not to sail as close to the wind as the Eagles did and part ways with Hird before it becomes an unsalvageable situation.
Essendon are seemingly at the AFL crossroads, nowhere near strong enough to make an impact in September but too talented to fall into tanking territory. If Hird is given the benefit of the doubt, then he needs to change his coaching style and oversee a list overhaul. It will take at least a few years to clear out those players offering little to nothing and absorbing the impact of the departure of those champions and stars nearing their swansong. If he is patient enough to be involved or has the skill to do that remains to be seen; perhaps the Bombers won't give him that choice.