ESSENDON battled through a second season of off-field turmoil related to the ASADA investigation, but managed to make the finals for the first time since 2011. That they were knocked out in an elimination final by North Melbourne did not stop coach Mark Thompson from declaring the season a massive success. Given the unique circumstances, the players proved irrepressible in achieving a berth in September. But they missed the chance to win their first final since 2004, which will burn over summer.
In his zany, quirky way, Thompson brilliantly handled the job of being Essendon's stand-in coach for 12 months while James Hird served his suspension. He also made some brave positional moves, swapping Jake Carlisle and Michael Hurley, and shifting Jason Winderlich to defence in the second half of the season. With his stint as senior coach over, Thompson will sit down with the club soon to see if there will be a suitable role for him in 2015.
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Essendon improved its defensive game, ranking fourth in the competition for points conceded. Given that used to be a weakness, growth in this area was important in sticking in games. Building some midfield depth in the absence of captain Jobe Watson for 10 weeks in the second half of the year was making the most of a bad situation. Paddy Ryder enjoyed a career-best season in the ruck, and finally found the consistency to take his game to the next level.
Essendon has only itself to blame for not going closer to securing a top-four position, such was its poor record against lower placed teams through the season. It lost to St Kilda and Melbourne – the bottom two clubs on the ladder – and struggled in wins over the Brisbane Lions, Western Bulldogs and Greater Western Sydney. The ASADA situation hung over the club like a dark cloud, and the forward line and converting inside-50 entries into goals were continual concerns throughout the season.
MVP: Dyson Heppell
The midfielder became an elite player of the competition in 2014, averaging 28 disposals over 22 games. An All Australian nominee, Heppell was used as an inside midfielder and excelled at the clearances. He proved almost impossible for taggers to stop, such was his ability to keep moving at stoppages. When big moments came, Heppell was always the one to lift his game and take the team with him.
Surprise packet: Patrick Ambrose
Few would have expected Ambrose to feature regularly in Essendon's senior side when the club picked him as a mature-aged rookie. The hard-working forward is tough, throws himself at marks and can run all day, largely taking on the role vacated by Stewart Crameri. Ambrose kicked 13 goals from 16 games and won a two-year contract extension.
Best rookie/first year player: Zach Merrett
The club's first pick at last year's NAB AFL Draft, Merrett played 20 games in his debut season and immediately showed his class. With zip, quick hands, some pace and a calm mind, Merrett averaged 15 disposals and kicked 11 goals. Looks a long-term player for the club.
Disappointment: Tom Bellchambers
Bellchambers required an ankle reconstruction during the pre-season that had a lingering impact on his year. The ruckman was set to be an important part of the club's new-look forward line before the injury, having kicked 28 goals in 2013. But the injury set back those plans and he struggled to hit peak form. The elimination final was probably his best game of the year.
Best win: 64-point win over Collingwood, round 17, MCG
Collingwood wasn't at full strength but the Bombers made the most of it, playing perhaps their most complete game of the season. Jake Carlisle was the star, taking 19 marks and kicking four goals from 26 disposals. The flogging was part of a three-game winning streak for the Bombers which pushed them towards the finals.
The Dons' season peaked with a stunning victory over the Magpies in round 17. Picture: AFL Media
In June, 34 current and former Bombers players were issued with show-cause notices by ASADA relating to the possible use of a prohibited substance. The club reacted, taking the matter to the Federal Court and challenging the legality of the AFL and ASADA investigation. About 16 months after the scandal exploded, it was not the news the players wanted to receive.
What needs to improve?
To be a top side, the Bombers must become more consistent. Last weekend's elimination final defeat was emblematic of their season: they had great patches of play, took a strong lead, but were overrun. The club's forward line has struggled for years to build any fluency and only marginally improved this year, kicking 11 goals or fewer in 13 games. It was looking more organised towards the end of the season, but will be interesting to see whether the personnel will face another change under the returning Hird.
Retirements: Jason Winderlich has announced his retirement, but there is some thinking he may change his mind and play on in 2015. Dustin Fletcher is likely to soon make a call about his future.
Delistings: Dylan van Unen and Sean Gregory are both out of contract and have been at the club for two seasons.
Trades/free agents: Leroy Jetta, Kyle Hardingham. Jetta will try to see if any club gives him a second home, while Hardingham could be another to play elsewhere after being starved of senior opportunities this year. Paddy Ryder's future is uncertain but the club is keen for him to stay.
What they need
Midfield pace. The Bombers got shown up for speed by the fast-moving Kangaroos, and their midfield lacks zip. Zach Merrett moves well and will play more and more in the midfield, and the addition of Travis Colyer in the second half of the season was important. But the main midfielders, like Dyson Heppell, Jobe Watson, Brendon Goddard, Heath Hocking, Brent Stanton and David Myers need some pace alongside them. Too much is left to David Zaharakis on that front.