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BARRETT: Hitting the hard road of change

Essendon's brilliant win over West Coast in Perth showed how far the Bombers have come - AFL,Essendon Bombers,Western Bulldogs,Collingwood Magpies,Adelaide Crows
Essendon's brilliant win over West Coast in Perth showed how far the Bombers have come

IN the AFL, the toughest type of change is voluntary, within-season change.

It is a path rarely taken.

In a competition where clubs ultimately win when they lose, where more losses mean better national draft picks, it is too often too easy to give up and wait for the season to end before making meaningful change. 

In-season change doesn't always result in success.

But analysis of Essendon's preparedness to take the hard road of change back on May 12, in the hours after it lost its sixth of eight games of a season which had begun with media premiership predictions, proves that no matter what happens in the remainder of 2018, there was a positive turning point. 

New general manager of football Dan Richardson refused to concede 2018 was over for the Bombers. 

Two days after watching Carlton win its (still) only game for the season, the Bombers had dramatically and instantly revamped their coaching structure, removing assistant Mark Neeld from the club's operations as a way to open up communication channels between players and coaches, and the coaches themselves. 

Six matches and five wins later, Essendon has given itself a chance to make the finals. Even if it falls short, the changes made after round eight have resulted in a better Essendon. 

It's never too late, or early, to make the change you know you need to make. 

Neeld's relationship with senior coach John Worsfold was a tight one, and Worsfold didn't like the change. But he embraced it quickly, worked with it, relished the fact it ultimately freed up certain aspects of his job requirements and brought him closer to his players. And he has clearly benefitted from now operating within a very open coaching structure. 

The change reinvigorated Essendon. Despite key forward Joe Daniher being sidelined indefinitely on the day Richardson made the changes public, the Bombers have thrived. 

Captain Dyson Heppell deserves most credit for the turnaround. In the period surrounding the dreadful loss to Carlton, he went out of his way to lay himself bare to his younger players, all but apologising for the failings of the team in the opening rounds of 2018, and accepting full responsibility on behalf of the leaders. 

Dyson Heppell's leadership has been key in the Bombers' reversal of fortunes. Picture: AFL Photos

The flow-on effects of the forced change have been profound on-field. A midfield which had been way below par is now impactful, which has largely rectified the early problems where the ball was spending too long inside the Bombers' backline, and being moved suffocatingly slowly, regularly sideways, out of it. 

Conor McKenna, Michael Hurley, Brendon Goddard and Adam Saad, one of the big-name recruits, have all benefitted. 

Of the two other big recruits, Devon Smith had been solid in the early team slump, and has flourished since, and Jake Stringer has been very good. Tom Bellchambers is occasionally having his name raised in the conversations that were once restricted to Brodie Grundy and Max Gawn. Zach Merrett has returned to his 2017 highs. 

GWS, too, has resuscitated a season which was headed nowhere after being prepared to make change, and benefitting from the spin-off effects. 

Injuries had hit the Giants like a Philippines-Australia brawl on a basketball court, so there were excuses for the club's standing after its four wins, five loses and a draw in the opening 10 rounds. 

As strange as it sounds four matches later after four straight wins, GWS can start to ponder finals again, and maybe even dream of something more significant if the injury gods send some fitness toward Toby Greene, Tom Scully and Brett Deledio. 

While the return from injury of Josh Kelly has been the single biggest reason for the Giants' rejuvenation, the shift in Leon Cameron's coaching methods, where he sought to focus on the scrappy, hard-working, dour elements of his once silk-laden team, have set the Giants up for an exciting run in to September. 

A commitment to grit and Josh Kelly's class have rescusitated the Giants' season. Picture: AFL Photos

The decision to drop the highly-profiled Jon Patton to the NEAFL, after a dreadful patch of form, was a change that is now benefitting Cameron, given the seize-the-moment impact of his big forward late in last weekend's win against Hawthorn. 

Luke Beveridge changed his post-match coaching methods when his Western Bulldogs lost a game they should have won against North Melbourne in round 14. In a throwback to the Denis Pagan, Ron Barassi, John Northey, David Parkin ways, Beveridge went against his established and successful methods, and angrily and loudly berated his players post-match. 

It worked. A week later, the Bulldogs upset Geelong, the players clearly benefitting from the Beveridge sharpen-up. 

Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley changed his Collingwood team early in the year. While the crucial first win for the Magpies came in round three against Carlton, it was Buckley's courage to open up his forward line to create space and opportunity in round four against Adelaide at Adelaide Oval for first-year player Jaidyn Stephenson. 

Jaidyn Stephenson's debut started something big for Collingwood. Picture: AFL Photos

A star was born that night. A coach was reborn, on the back of being prepared to make courageous change. 

Maybe it's not too late for the Crows in 2018. While they have butchered most things to this point, they too made significant change when they finally severed connections with the mind-training organisation which left so many players angered, and even traumatised. 

The Crows' management finally came down from its higher than thou positioning. Was it coincidence its players found a way, seemingly out of nowhere, to beat West Coast in the last quarter on the weekend? Maybe, but quite possibly not. 

Either way, football clubs are proving in the 2018 season that nothing is going to be turned around unless they are prepared to change.

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs