Zach Merrett celebrates a goal during th match between Essendon and Adelaide at Marvel Stadium in round 17, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

ESSENDON is in the top four and its second-year captain Zach Merrett is a Brownlow Medal favourite. This week ahead of the Bombers' clash with West Coast, the champion midfielder joined Cal Twomey for Cal's Q&A for one of Merrett's most insightful interviews.

From Steph Curry to Cooper Kupp, Leigh Matthews to Brad Scott, Merrett reveals the extraordinary work that's gone into training one of footy's sharpest brains, the importance of emotion, being tagged and how long he wants to be a Bomber.

Let's take it back to the end of 2022. Another coach is sacked. The CEO goes, then the next CEO goes. Board members leave. What were you thinking about your football then?
I haven't reflected that much on what it was like during that period. If I try to stretch back now it was a unique period given I'd just signed on the year before for six years so I'd committed myself to the footy club. At any stage when your club is going through a bit of turmoil or isn't performing well, you take on responsibility in trying to find ways to help it. Those decisions were clearly way above my head and I couldn't impact that. We went overseas as a group, which was publicised, but I think it was great the boys stuck together. I got back from that trip and I had two weeks where I was just at home and was mentally and physically so drained. I was sick for a month I reckon, constantly coughing up phlegm, probably had COVID, I was rundown, really tired. I spent a few weeks to myself and reflected on where I was at individually, where the team was at and what I could do to help. I tried to really reset my body, mentally, physically and emotionally.

Zach Merrett leads his team up the race ahead of the match between Essendon and North Melbourne at Marvel Stadium in round 10, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

What were the emotions like?
I'd never really thought about emotion before until I caught up with Leigh Matthews during that season. We were struggling and through a mutual friend we organised a coffee and I had an hour chat with him. I chucked a million questions at him, he's obviously a legend, if not the legend of the game, so I was keen to get his thoughts on everything and he was very generous with his time. That was the biggest lesson I took out of it – there's physical and there's mental challenges of the game for even him. He talked about one to one-and-a-half times every month on average he was still losing through his career as a player or coach, which is still ridiculous. But it highlighted the importance of the emotional side of the game and dealing with the ups and downs. Since then in the past 18 months I've been a lot more level and process driven and not swayed by wins and losses or good and bad games individually. I feel I'm pretty level-headed now and that's the way I'm trying to lead the boys.

It's like that Roger Federer quote the other day about winning only 54 per cent of his points, despite his success.
Yep I saw that. Through that 2022 time we obviously lost our coach, our CEO and there was a lot going on but I got some really good feedback off people I trust. I thought about how I saw myself as a player, how other people see me, what I thought I could work on and areas I thought I could grow in and once I worked through that feedback over the off-season that year I made a really clear five-year plan. I'm 18 months into that plan and I felt I could really get better. I came back at the end of '22 super energised and motivated and wanted to make the most of the second half of my career.

Did you second-guess your free agency call at all?
Not really to be honest. I love the footy club, I have so much respect for the history and I couldn't see myself running around in another jumper. I explored that in due course and did it properly when I was out of contract, as I encourage everyone to do going through that phase. At no point did it turn to moving away from the club. Once I made the decision to stay there was never ever going to be any regrets regardless of success on-field or not. But there was also the challenge of what's next: Who's going to be the new coach? All those doubts you have but it was about getting back to work, making sure my backyard was clean so to speak and leading the team through that adversity.

Since then, Essendon's focus has been on stability. How have you seen that impact under Brad Scott?
As players we ultimately just want to be given an opportunity to succeed on the field as a team and individually be in an environment where you can get as close to your ceiling as you can. Brad's provided amazing stability across the board in terms of coaching and our department is really stable and clear about where we need to get to. We have so much trust upstairs is getting taken care of so there's no whispers or sideways talk in the locker room. It's very clear we're here to do our job and everyone else will do theirs.

The team's consistency has been on show this year and your role in the evolving midfield mix has meant giving others some exposure there. How has that change been?
When Brad walked in I reflected a lot on what I was getting from my career. I felt personally we had these really young talented players like (Jye) Caldwell, (Archie) Perkins, (Sam) Durham coming through and I don't know if it was the captaincy or the turmoil of 2022 but I felt a switch internally about what I wanted to get out of my footy, trying to be a better teammate and trying to empower those around me. As captain, my style is to really empower and give responsibility to other guys and to be there to pick them up if it doesn't work. But I've found for the most part when I've given guys responsibility or stepped out of the way they've mostly taken it, like (Ben) Hobbs and Caldwell last year and Durham this year has really taken responsibility, Perkins shows he's going to really drive us forward. It means I've played more forward than mid at times this year and that's really going to grow further with Nic Martin as well. I try to be really versatile and ideally I want the coaches to be able to put me anywhere on game-day – whether that's half-back, on the wing, forward, deep forward, in the centre bounce. I'm really open to what the team needs.

Was that difficult?
It was definitely a shift. When I was younger I thought I just wanted to be the mid the whole time and not come off. It's a natural maturity, speaking with really good mentors who have helped me through. I feel I have hit my individual things that you set out for at the start of your career and the sole focus now is winning premierships. At the start of your career you say that and you still want to win premierships, but your ego still wants to be the guy, get the ball, be in the midfield. But now I understand the importance of being really evenly spread and making sure I can impact wherever.

Andrew McGrath, Brad Scott and Zach Merrett during Essendon's 2024 team photo day at The Hanger. Picture: AFL Photos

Carlton threw Alex Cincotta at you for a full-on tag last game. What's it like when you know you're going to have company all night?
Growing up I was never really a talented kid so I was never tagged in junior footy. It wasn't until year four in the AFL that I started to get more attention from clubs. The tag is a really cool aspect of the game. Every year I prepare in the pre-season to be tagged 23 games a year. That's how I prepare mentally. Whether that happens or not is other teams' choice. Over the past seven or eight years it's happened probably every second or third week, whether it be a full-blown tag, a guy watching you or a cooler for a half or a quarter. In the first seven rounds I had someone go to me for either a quarter or half or midfield stoppages or transition. The last couple have been full on tags where everyone sees it because it's more of a follow, but it's a bit of a badge of honour, but you also use it to grow other parts of your game. I want to be really good defensively and that's what I pride myself on, so to get 11 tackles against the Blues and show my pressure and try to disrupt (Patrick) Cripps and (Sam) Walsh's game far outweighs me getting the ball. If I wanted to get the ball, I could go take kick-ins, get one-twos, get handball receives and get your 30 but does it help the team? Not necessarily. Brad and the coaches give me so many options to go to.

It feels like because Essendon has played better this year, people have taken more notice of your form. But those who've watched you closely have seen you at this level for a long time. How have you found that changing narrative?
I probably laugh because the last 18 months I've done a lot of interviews as captain and the question is always 'Is this the best form you're in?' or 'You've improved your defence' and I do want to improve every game, every year, so hopefully I am playing better footy than when I was 21. But I feel like I've been at a similar level since I was 20, to be honest. I think statistics and data would back that claim up. Probably the only bit that annoys me a bit is the defensive stuff. I've always felt like I've valued that since day one. When I walked in at 18 that was how I got a game when 'Bomber' Thompson gave me an opportunity based off pressure acts and tackles. That was the only reason I played 20 games in my first year. My teammates loved and respected that aspect of the game but over 11 years now I think my pressure acts and tackles would be really high. That was probably the only frustrating part when the narrative was that I don't defend and this is a new thing, because I've always done it. But I know it's a team sport and you need to be winning for the discussion to shift. When we were losing and having the same type of games it was 'You're not having an impact, you're selfish' and now it's probably a different narrative.


You're 28 and have been super durable through your career, playing 219 of a possible 233 games since debut. How long would you like to play?
That's been a bit about trying to be more versatile. I don't know where the game is going but the trends will change over the next few years and I want to be able to be flexible and play anywhere on the ground. I'm not sure my partner will love me saying this, but I have ambitions and have set my life up with the way I go about my footy to still be playing in six, eight, 10 years' time. That's the goal at the moment. The dynamic's shifting a bit and guys are playing for longer which is awesome but I've certainly got ambitions to play for a long time.

Ten more years would be nice.
It would be nice. There's a lot of work to do. I have to keep the motivation at a high level high. If I feel I want to keep improving then I'll keep going and if that happens to stall I'll probably stop.

10 more years might put an end to the nickname 'Junior'. Who first called you that?
Michael Hurley. Day one at Essendon he called me 'Junior' and it stuck.

Michael Hurley and Zach Merrett walk up the race ahead of the match between Essendon and Fremantle at Marvel Stadium in round one, 2020. Picture: AFL Photos

That was because your brother Jackson was already at Essendon. He played 56 games and seven seasons at Essendon. How did you both find that?
I was very fortunate to have him here. He's someone who is not at all jealous, we never compared, we just had our own journeys but we were connected being at the same club and living together, which was amazing. He helped me out at the start in asking silly questions and guiding me at home, directing me at the club early days. I think we played about 40 or 50 games together as well which is something we'll look back on. He's coming to the game on the weekend with his daughter, my niece, who is two-and-a-half, so it'll be fun to see her. He's still playing footy at East Point in Ballarat and he's never short of a message if I've had a shit game.

The first interview we did was before the draft in 2013 with Jackson and yourself. Reading it back you said, "When you're a kid, AFL players don't seem human".
I was at an event a couple of nights ago 'Did you think it was possible to be where you are now?' and it honestly just wasn't. Growing up I copied the AFL stars. I'd wear their jumpers, pretend to be them and kick and move like them and handball like they did. I probably never envisaged myself in that position. On Grand Final day it would be the Swans in '05, West Coast in '06 and then Geelong in '07 and you'd try to be (Gary) Ablett or (Joel) Selwood. But I never envisaged my own face and body in that moment. I still pinch myself. It's a nice moment when you see fans and want to talk footy. I love footy, I love engaging in those conversations.

Zach (left) and Jackson Merrett ahead of the 2013 AFL Draft. Picture: AFL Photos

Jackson also said then that you asked him for advice in your draft year and he said relax – "He generally overthinks and overanalyses a lot of things". Have you found a balance?
It's probably never something I'll fully get. People talk about balance and you're too obsessive or you have to find balance in your career and for me it's just never been a thing. I've always embraced the obsessiveness of footy. It's a 24/7 job, 365 days a year. There's no off-switch. I can never properly articulate the data of overthinking or the visualisation of footy but I read a great article on (NFL star) Cooper Kupp and his ability to almost see it like science. And that's how I've always seen it. I just basically watch five or six games of footy each week, watch heaps of vision, visualise everything basically, so that I feel most moments I have I've already seen them in some respect. It's just about replicating that movement or feeling. Everything I see is just data going into a computer and it spits out a result of what I should or shouldn't do in that moment. I don't see it as overthinking, I just see it as getting more data to put into my brain that I can maximise off at the right time.

Watching games you know the players who you have full faith in when the ball is near them they'll do the right thing.
Yeah there's heaps of work in that but in that 2022 planning I did I listened to a Steph Curry podcast and he's clearly the best shooter ever to exist in the NBA and he talked about at 33, 34, 35 what he's still working on and he was about efficiency. So I went through all the data and averages in the AFL and my averages in kicks, handballs, marks. Everyone thinks you need to be 100 per efficient but the AFL average is only about six out of 10 kicks that you hit, with defenders a bit higher, but it's actually not that high. All I tried to work on was going from 62 to 64 per cent. It might be one kick a fortnight that hits better but I've got a pretty good grasp on being able to feel the game and when to go for more difficult kicks or the simple stuff.

Zach Merrett gets a handball away while being tackled by Kane McAuliffe during the match between Richmond and Essendon at the MCG in round 11, 2024. Picture: Getty Images

It's still a young list. Who excites you most at Essendon?
Durham's the obvious one. We had a good discussion over the off-season over a coffee. I asked him for a coffee and he shit himself and thought he was in trouble. He asked Andy McGrath 'What have I done wrong?' But I reached out and could see things last year, I think we all could, of what potential he had to be a more inside, versatile player. We had a good discussion and I don't think he saw himself as an inside mid at that stage. To see him come back and engage being an inside mid at training and evolve to now being able to play on Cripps, (Marcus) Bontempelli and impact the game that way with so much growth left. To see the growth when you have a conversation and then you see it evolve and play a small part in his development is the most exciting part. And one who hasn't played yet – I think Archie Roberts has a fair bit of talent. He reads the game really well and has a knack to be in the right spot at the right time.

Sam Durham in action during Essendon's clash against West Coast in round eight, 2024. Picture: Getty Images

If you win the best and fairest this year it'll see you join James Hird on five and sit behind only Dick Reynolds and Bill Hutchison at the club. But it seems clear from how you've spoken that every effort is on bringing success back to Essendon.
Last year we had our best and fairest a month after we finished the season and we'd finished poorly and I was talking to Brad on the phone and we both just wanted to get it out of the way and move on to this year. We've got a really good relationship and bond but it's all about maximising the team. It sounds funny when I hear my name somewhat in the discussion as Hird and (Tim) Watson, who has won four. Consistency has always been my No.1 focus from day dot. But those things – it's pretty hard to celebrate with yourself. The one thing I've always thought was amazing is a best and fairest in a premiership year. You see Josh Daicos last year and you have to have an unbelievable year individually within a team full of stars to get that award. I think that is the ultimate.