ESSENDON has had better wins this season, and will have more, but few will be as important as its eight-point victory over the Western Bulldogs on Saturday night.
After three consecutive losses and its place on the ladder precarious, the Bombers entered the clash with the Bulldogs knowing they had to find a way to restart their faltering season, whatever that meant or took.
They went the long way – surrendering an early lead, falling behind and then fighting back – but got there in the end to claim the 10.13 (73) to 9.11 (65) win at Etihad Stadium.Click here for full match coverage
The Bulldogs didn't make it easy for them. For every time the Bombers looked set to break away, the Bulldogs pulled out a plucky moment to keep within distance.
That wasn't Essendon's only scare. Late in the fourth term, forward Jason Winderlich grabbed at his knee after it twisted in a tackle.
The speedster, who has endured a horrid run with injury through his career, including a knee reconstruction in 2011, hobbled off the ground and down the race but returned later to the interchange bench.
It is hoped to be just a knock, with the club waiting on further details.
Dyson Heppell continued his consistent year with 25 disposals through the midfield, but the competition's oldest player, Dustin Fletcher, with 25 disposals, was probably the best afield – his smarts, sure kicking and reading of the play helping cut off countless Bulldog forward forays.
Brendon Goddard's value to the Bombers, having missed the past two matches with an adductor injury, was evident in gathering 22 touches and providing some class in the front half of the ground.
Michael Hurley also had perhaps his best game of the season in defence, blanketing former Bomber Stewart Crameri, holding the powerful forward to just 11 touches and one behind.Five talking points: Essendon v Western Bulldogs
"We were happy with how hard we had to fight for the victory and how we handled their pressure because the Western Bulldogs played pretty decent footy. They beat us about around the ball and at times they kept it off us and made it hard for us to play the way we wanted to play, but I thought the boys handled it well," coach Mark Thompson said post-game
"We were much happier with the third and fourth quarters but especially the third.
"What we have to learn to do is be that team and look like that team consistently and that's the real challenge for us. The worst thing that can happen to us is to get a few early goals and everyone wants to be on the end of them and we go away from what makes us good."
After a slow start, the Bulldogs were sparked by Luke Dahlhaus. Although his influence was curbed by Heath Hocking later on, Dahlhaus finished with 32 disposals, eight marks and two goals in a terrific effort.
Shaun Higgins (35 disposals) gave some drive off half-back and through the wings, while the tagging jobs of Koby Stevens on Jobe Watson and Liam Picken on Brent Stanton are sure to win rave in-house reviews.
"[Essendon] lifted and we probably needed to deal with the game better, which is a bit of a message I've had on the board most of the night with the players," he said.
"In the last two weeks we've been sideswiped in different ways.
"All I know is, if we keep working hard with our players, and they keep applying pretty much the effort and intensity they gave us tonight in just having a good crack, we're going to give ourselves a chance to win some games."
The Bombers' first quarter gave the impression they were in for a more comfortable night, dominating the clearances and showing their intent to use the centre corridor.
Their first two goals came via quick link-up passages of streaming play through the middle, and they continued to use it as the passage forward, trying to expose the Bulldogs for run.
They jumped to a 19-point lead in the opening term, but McCartney's men worked their way back into the contest, even taking the lead by the first change after closing down the Bombers' space.
That trend continued in the second term, with the Bulldogs getting the game on their terms.
It became a contest full of repeat stoppages with fast breaks forward, and when Cooney capitalised on the bold play of Jake Stringer and Jackson Macrae, the Dogs took an eight-point lead.
That was extended to 14 points by the main break, courtesy of Dahlhaus, who finished the Dogs' good work from the top of the goal square.
The 21-year-old epitomised what the Bombers all of a sudden lacked. He had energy, was efficient and creative when in possession.
Essendon, meanwhile, was kept goalless for the second term – the third consecutive game it has endured a goalless quarter.
It could have been an all-too-familiar story for the Bombers having had their early lead pegged back, but this time, unlike recent defeats to St Kilda and Collingwood, they found a way to strike back.
The third term saw them put it into action, slamming on five of the first six goals of the quarter to establish their own 13-point lead by the final change. They weren't going to give up that advantage again.
Bulldog Luke Dahlhaus marks strongly in front of Bomber Mark Baguley. Picture: AFL Media
ESSENDON 3.3 3.6 9.10 10.13 (73)
WESTERN BULLDOGS 3.5 5.8 7.9 9.11 (65)
Watson 2, Goddard, Howlett, Daniher, Winderlich, Stanton, Chapman, Heppell, Dempsey
Dahlhaus 2, Macrae, Liberatore, Cooney, Jones, Higgins, Stringer, Hunter
Fletcher, Heppell, Watson, Zaharakis, Hurley, Hooker, Goddard
Dahlhaus, Cooney, Higgins, Liberatore, Picken, Morris, Stringer
Jackson Merrett (cork), Jason Winderlich (knee)
Jason Ashby replaced Jackson Merrett in the third quarter
Marcus Bontempelli replaced Koby Stevens at three-quarter time.
Leppard, Meredith, Armstrong
33,289 at Etihad Stadium