ESSENDON will field a full strength team in round one after the AFL's Anti-Doping Tribunal cleared 34 of its past and present players of taking a banned substance.
Football's longest-running saga reached a dramatic conclusion on Tuesday when the players were informed at 2pm via video link that the independent body had found them not guilty of Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority charges of taking prohibited peptide Thymosin Beta-4 during the 2012 season.
David Grace, QC, one of two lawyers for the 34 players, was the first to confirm on Tuesday that they had been exonerated.
In a statement, the Tribunal said it was "not comfortably satisfied" that the players had been administered Thymosin Beta-4 or that they had violated the AFL's anti-doping code.
The finding was unanimous.
A finding on charges against Stephen Dank, the sports scientist at the centre of the 2012 program, will be handed down at a later date.
The Bombers are expected to hold a press conference on Tuesday.
The tribunal's chairman David Jones, along with panel members former County Court judge John Nixon and ex-player Wayne Henwood, have not yet released the reasons behind their judgment and are not likely to do so until the 21-day appeal period has run.
Each party involved in the investigation into the Bombers has the right to appeal the decision in the next three weeks.
If there is no appeal lodged by ASADA or the World Anti-Doping Agency, more details surrounding each player's circumstances are likely to be revealed.
ASADA CEO, Ben McDevitt, said in a statement: "What happened at Essendon in 2012 was, in my opinion, absolutely and utterly disgraceful. It was not a supplements program but an injection regime and the players and the fans were so poorly let down by the club.
"While I am obviously disappointed that the charges in this instance have not been proven to the comfortable satisfaction of the Tribunal, I am pleased that the Tribunal was able to finally hear these matters"
The decision means 18 or so players who are still at Essendon from 2012 and were provisionally suspended for the NAB Challenge will be free to line-up against the Sydney Swans at ANZ Stadium on Saturday.
Three former Essendon players – Angus Monfries and Paddy Ryder at Port Adelaide and Western Bulldogs forward Stewart Crameri – will also be eligible to feature in the opening round after the tribunal's finding.
Port Adelaide chief executive Keith Thomas said the club was relieved with the decision.
"Clearly we are pleased for Angus and Paddy," Thomas said.
"They have been through so much and we are very proud as to how they’ve handled themselves during this difficult time."
Their decision follows a drawn-out hearing which started on December 15 and ended on February 17 and was conducted in private.
It is an enormous relief for the players and club to be cleared, after more than two years in the spotlight and many casualties during the fallout.
Essendon's disaster began on February 5, 2013, when chairman David Evans and chief executive Ian Robson self-reported the club's concerns to ASADA and the AFL, and agreed to a joint investigation into its supplement program in 2012.
The Bombers launched an internal club report conducted by former Telstra boss Ziggy Switkowski, which said the Bombers had run "a pharmacologically experimental environment".
The damaging report led the resignation of Robson at a time when Essendon players and staff were interviewed by ASADA.
Evans was the next to depart midway through 2013 after the stress of the situation saw him have a physical breakdown in the Bombers' change rooms after a loss.
He passed the chairman's baton to Paul Little, who steered the club through the challenging period when it was charged by the AFL for bringing the game into disrepute for its supplements program.
Coach James Hird, football boss Danny Corcoran, senior assistant Mark Thompson and club doctor Bruce Reid were also charged and forced to front the AFL Commission.
After deliberations that spilled over two days, the Bombers were hit with the biggest penalty in football history, seeing them kicked out of the finals, fined $2 million and stripped of key draft choices.
Hird was suspended for 12 months, Thompson fined $30,000 and Corcoran was banned for six months, with two of those suspended.
It doesn t matter what club you barrack for, that is a great result for the game of Australian rules football. Bring on Thursday night!!— Matthew Lloyd (@MatthewLloyd18) March 31, 2015
Reid took his fight to the Supreme Court, where the AFL dropped its charges.
Thompson took over as senior coach in Hird's absence, and led the Bombers through another rocky season as the 34 players were issued with their first set of show-cause notices in June.
The next day, Essendon and Hird launched Federal Court action against ASADA, alleging the joint investigation with the AFL was unlawful.
The trial was unsuccessful for the Bombers and their returning senior coach, but Hird appealed the decision.
Brilliant news— Kane Cornes (@kanecornes) March 31, 2015
His appeal was also rejected and on November 13, infraction notices against the 34 players arrived.
They have been provisionally suspended since then, although captain Jobe Watson and veteran Dustin Fletcher played the following week against Ireland in the International Rules.
Those provisional suspensions meant the players chose to sit out the NAB Challenge so not to risk any backdated suspensions.