DAVID Zaharakis says it's important Essendon players remain in contact with their suspended teammates, especially as the banned dozen enter the most difficult phase of their time out of the game so far.
The new-look Bombers outfit opened its season with a 61-point loss to Gold Coast last week, and face an in-form Melbourne at the MCG on Saturday afternoon.
The club will use the occasion of its first home game to kick off its 'Stand as One' campaign, calling on fans and members to march to the ground from Federation Square in a show of support. Past players will also be involved in the lead-up to the first bounce.
"There were a few guys that I chatted to last week, and obviously coming into round one that's when it really hits you that you're not playing," Zaharakis said on Wednesday.
"They're mates, so you can talk to them about how they're feeling and how they're going. A couple of guys came up to the Gold Coast and watched us, which was great for them to be able to do that. Other guys were away but still watched the game.
Crunch time already after one round?
"This is a hard time for them when [we're] actually playing games and they're missing footy."
Retired defender Dustin Fletcher and midfielder Brent Stanton, both part of the group of 34 past and present players handed 12-month bans by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in January, were at the game at Metricon Stadium.
Zaharakis said it would be great for more of the banned players to come to Essendon games across the year, but understood if that only made it harder for the players to see what they're missing.
"When your career gets taken away from you I think you'd be pretty flat, especially when the guys are running out," he said.
"When you're missing training in pre-season I think it probably doesn't hit you as much as when you're missing playing for four points, and running out on grounds around Australia and playing with your team and representing your club. This is probably a really hard time for them."
It is also a challenging time for those who remain at the club, despite last week's second half against the Suns showing better signs after a sluggish start.
The Bombers have put a focus on being more competitive around the ball this week, having been overwhelmed by Gold Coast in contested possessions.
Zaharakis said the group would take more time to come together after signing 10 new recruits in the past two months to cover for their suspended players.
"It's just not long enough to completely gel with a side and with a new coach coming in as well. The fans and people in the footy world have just got to give a bit of time for the side to gel and come together," he said.
"I think it's been great over the past two months and if you'd come and watched our first training session in January compared to now, it'd be a whole lot different."
Zaharakis, who has been elevated back into the club's rejigged leadership group for the season having been left out at the end of last year, started his 2016 campaign with 33 disposals and two goals against the Suns.
The 26-year-old said he hadn't put any extra emphasis on leadership since the departure of most of Essendon's senior players, praising stand-in skipper Brendon Goddard.
"Brendon's been great so far in his leadership around the club. He's improved a lot over the last six months dealing with younger guys. He cops a lot of flak about that but it's been amazing to see his improvement," he said.