Brent Stanton, pictured after a goal against the Swans in 2012, believes Essendon's youngsters can help raise the bar in 2013
BRENT Stanton saw a lot of his friends leave Essendon at the end of last year.
Ricky Dyson was drafted in 2003, the same year as Stanton. Angus Monfries arrived in 2004, and almost all of his 150 games for the Bombers were played alongside Stanton.
Henry Slattery started at Windy Hill with Monfries and stayed for eight years; Sam Lonergan came a year later and called it home for seven seasons.
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Mark McVeigh was into his sixth AFL season when Stanton debuted in 2004, while Brent Prismall was recruited to the club to combine with Stanton and others to build a stronger, more complete midfield. Through a mixture of retirement, trades and list cuts, all of those players are now former Bombers.
Stanton misses those who have moved on, knowing the reality of the football cycle demands people come and go from clubs every year.
But he has also noticed the change of being one of the fewer experienced players at Essendon, and, at 26, one of the most senior.
"It's a different dynamic around the football club," Stanton told AFL.com.au
"But unfortunately that's AFL football. The clubs have to turn over their lists and I've been fortunate enough to stay there. It is different, but it's an exciting time to be at [Essendon] … It gives these other guys opportunities they might not have gotten two or three years ago.
"Unfortunately I was pretty close mates with all those guys [who left] because you do build relationships. But it's an exciting time and that's the brand of football, people have to go and new people come in. Hopefully [the younger players] can make the most of those opportunities."
Stanton backs Bomber bosses
Essendon understands its hopeful rise in 2013 won't come solely on the back of star recruit Brendon Goddard. One of the most important ingredients could be a gradual development from second and third-year players, like Michael Hibberd, Alex Browne, Luke Davis, Nick O'Brien, Jackson Merrett, and Elliott Kavanagh, who now find themselves closer to holding down senior spots.
A common goal has already been established. Everyone at the club is keen to atone for the disappointing finish to last season.
The Bombers played imposing football in the first half of last season, winning eight of their first nine games, before falling away with seven consecutive losses to close 2012. They missed the finals having sneaked into eighth in 2011.
Since James Hird was appointed coach at the end of 2010, Essendon has focused on consistent and continual improvement. Despite a slip down the ladder last season, Stanton saw signs the group had developed, and said the drop would provide the impetus for a better 2013.
"Fortunately we started off pretty well [last year] and unfortunately, for all different circumstances, we dropped off in the second half of the year," Stanton said.
"We don't want to be known as that sort of football club. I think we did take a few steps forward but unfortunately that last six or seven weeks we might have been fatigued or tired or whatever it was.
"But I still think we did see a lot of improvement, we got games into young kids. We've had the last five or six months to dwell on that, and it's probably burning inside us at the moment that we did allow that to happen."
Stanton has enjoyed an injury-free pre-season, which started at a high-altitude camp in Colorado. The 182-gamer continues to be at the top of the team's time trials, but has a new challenger in O'Brien, whose endurance and attitude have seen him push up the ranks at Essendon.
As well as an increased output from the younger batch, and a closer eye on team defence across the ground, Stanton is confident the club's midfield is ready to take the side to a new level.
Reliant on captain Jobe Watson and Stanton in recent years (only once in the past eight seasons has one of the pair not featured in the top three of Essendon's best and fairest), there is now a better sharing of the load.
David Zaharakis will be back after a severe quad injury ruined his 2012
, while Dyson Heppell looks set to use his nous and smarts around the midfield this season. David Myers will be there, so too Goddard, whose influence continues to grow since crossing from St Kilda.
"We knew we had a really good group coming through, it's just going to take a bit of time to click," said Stanton, who signed a three-year contract with the Bombers last year.
"David [Zaharakis] was unfortunately injured for half of the season last year and now we have Dyson Heppell coming through the midfield, Brendon Goddard, and Elliott Kavanagh. We're looking forward to really putting it all into action this season.
"It's always good to have amazing, hard-working midfielders around you and I think that's been building for a couple of years now.
"I think the boys have really taken this pre-season head-on. We're not going to stand still and wonder what's going to happen, we really want to get into it."
Brent Stanton is a midfielder in NAB AFL Fantasy. He averaged 106.55 points in 2012. Register your team at our AFL Fantasy Hub.
Follow AFL website reporter Callum Twomey on Twitter at @AFL_CalTwomey.