Essendon players leave the SCG after their loss to Sydney in round two, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

IT WAS late August 2022 when David Barham publicly declared himself an "agent for some sort of change" at the Essendon Football Club.

Within days, Barham, having quietly occupied a seat at the Bombers' boardroom table for the previous seven seasons, exploded into action. He rolled president Paul Brasher and sacked coach Ben Rutten. Long-serving CEO Xavier Campbell quit, replaced by Andrew Thorburn who exited just 30 hours after his appointment due to a lack of due diligence.

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Barham threw a failed 'Hail Mary' to Alastair Clarkson before appointing Brad Scott as coach. It was mayhem as all aspects of operations were promised to be transformed.

"We need to change," Barham said at the time.

Essendon president David Barham addresses the media on July 19, 2022. Picture: Getty Images

Nearly 20 months have elapsed since he launched into that carnage of dismissals and appointments and promises and pledges, and yet it's the same old middle-of-the-road Bombers, off and on the field.

Extraordinarily, the ever-divisive Adrian Dodoro is still calling a lot of shots on player contracts despite the club publicly saying last year he would be phased out after 20-plus years in such roles. New CEO Craig Vozzo, who has a background at West Coast in senior football roles, has opted to stick with him, with Matt Rosa appointed last September as AFL talent and operations manager.

Adrian Dodoro at the opening day of the 2023 Continental Tyres AFL Trade Period. Picture: AFL Photos

Director Kevin Sheedy is still there, too. No other club in the competition would have tolerated a director publicly breaking board protocols and declaring he personally wanted James Hird as coach, not Scott. But this is cult-figure-driven Essendon, and Barham, despite his preparedness to roll others, and his commitment to clean up process, clearly has remained in awe of Sheedy, who still has an official seat at the board table.

The Essendon playing list is still brimming with both injured and unproven players. In 2024, there are a competition-high 12 top-10 national draft picks (drafted and recruited) on the Bombers' playing list. But doubt continues to hover, as it has done for 20 years, over the quality of that list. Equally adversely impactful is a worrying number of players, including Archie Perkins, Jordan Ridley, Zach Reid, Matt Guelfi and Will Setterfield, being placed on the injury list largely with soft-tissue complaints.

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Even with Scott sharpening up attitudes and commitment, and even with the off-season acquisition of seasoned players Ben McKay, Jade Gresham, Xavier Duursma and Todd Goldstein, at great expense to total player payments, the team is still middle of ladder at best. And it is also still prone to turning it up on game day when the pressure is ramped high – evidenced in last Friday night's 69-point belting by Port Adelaide.

Essendon has been mediocre since 2004, the last season it won a final in a year that was at the tail end of long-running success with Sheedy as coach.

Kevin Sheedy during Essendon's loss to Geelong in the 2004 semi-final. Picture: AFL Photos

It has not been able to compile a properly competitive list since, with player development also one of the club's deficiencies. Since that last year of finals success, the Bombers have had just eight players (on a total of 12 occasions) be acknowledged with All-Australian status. By a comparison, in the 2007 season alone, Geelong had nine players in the one All-Australian team.

Zach Merrett (2017, 2021, 2023), Jobe Watson (2012, 2013) and Michael Hurley (2015, 2017) have been multiple All-Australian Bombers since the end of 2004, with Dustin Fletcher (2007), Cale Hooker (2014), Dyson Heppell (2014), Joe Daniher (2017) and Darcy Parish (2021) the only others to get those jackets in that timeframe. 

If Dodoro's time at Essendon does ever come to an end, there is a chance he will bob up on TV show Australian Survivor, such has been his ability to stare down officials, coaches, board members and a list-composition record which has obviously contributed to the club's 20 seasons of on-field problems.

Of course, he cannot be blamed for what happened in 2012's drugs program, which exploded publicly the following year and which may still be present in some facets of operations in residual form.

In August 2022, Barham moved against Brasher and Campbell because he felt the club under the pair's post-drugs saga watch had meandered for too long, and had made the wrong calls with John Worsfold succeeded by Rutten as coach.

Essendon coach John Worsfold and his successor Ben Rutten at the MCG in round four. Picture: Getty Images/AFL Photos

Scott has been in charge for 27 matches, for 13 wins and 14 losses. The last four games of his debut season were bad – very narrow wins against two of the worst teams the modern game had seen in West Coast and North Melbourne, and then worrying losses to GWS (126 points) and Collingwood (70).

Scott's appointment is the one which Barham properly nailed when he sought to blow up club operations in late 2022, and in the pre-season, Scott spoke publicly of wanting facts to be married up with reality when it came to his young list, that the Bombers' profile was similar to clubs in rebuild mode.

With both a public declaration of an 'Essendon Edge' being immediately introduced to operations as well as reference to a need for patience, the season started OK – win versus Hawthorn, loss to Sydney, win against St Kilda.

Then came the Gather Round smashing by the Power, a worrying performance so early in a new season.

There has been change, but it's still the same Essendon.