IT WILL be remembered as a messy year for Essendon. After a promising start to the season, when they won four of their first five games, the Bombers only won two of their next 12 games, and one of their last 10 of the season, to finish the year mired in 13th position on the ladder.
Essendon was injury-hit throughout, with Joe Daniher, Jake Stringer, Orazio Fantasia, Dyson Heppell and David Zaharakis among the senior players to miss big chunks of the season with respective concerns.
But the reality is Essendon, which had played finals two of the previous three seasons, fell backwards down the ladder as the Bombers tried to undertake a new game style under senior coach-in-waiting Ben Rutten.
Rutten has now taken on the coaching job officially after the succession plan with John Worsfold, but that too wasn't without criticism throughout the season. It is a big task to get Essendon back to challenging at the top of the ladder, with the Bombers' competition-leading drought without a finals win extending to 16 years.
It was a good year for some younger Essendon midfielders. Andrew McGrath was on track to finish in the top-two of the best and fairest before his ankle injury late in the season but the No.1 pick had an excellent season, including an outstanding performance against the Hawks in Essendon's comeback win. Kyle Langford, who remains out of contract, also put in a career-best year to finish fourth in the best and fairest, while Darcy Parish settled into a more permanent midfield slot and finished sixth overall.
Selling the message. The Bombers' coaching handover was always going to be a major talking point in 2020, but the club couldn't find a way to get its messaging right at any stage. Worsfold's primary role was to front the media, a job he admitted in his last week was not one he enjoyed, and from week to week he jumped from preaching patience, to saying that the club was not far away from success to then telling "Essendon people" it does not happen overnight. Essendon fans and the wider AFL competition left the season confused about where the club sees itself and where, in fact, it is placed in the realms of a run to a flag.
It has to be Jordan Ridley. The youngster climbed into the AFL's elite with a brilliant season off half-back. He claimed the Bombers' best and fairest after 26 games and was named in the 2020 AFL All-Australian squad of 40. The 21-year-old became Essendon's intercept king in the backline, playing every game and offering a calming presence in the air and with his brilliant foot skills. A huge part of the club's hopes in the future.
Sam Draper has already lifted himself into the 'fan favourite' category despite only playing eight games so far in his AFL career. The young Essendon ruckman stepped into the key role and impressed this season with his aggressive, competitive and athletic approach. He took on some of the AFL's best rucks, including All-Australian big man Nic Naitanui, and threw his weight around. Draper has all the makings of a dominant ruck for a long time.
It was another injury-hit season for Orazio Fantasia, who managed just five games and one goal between calf and quad problems. Fantasia has been a barometer for the Bombers when up and going but the speedy and classy half-forward has not hit those heights as he continues to have fitness issues. He is considering a trade request with a year to go on his contract.
Collingwood kicked the first three goals against Essendon in round five and looked set to continue its recent dominance over the Bombers. But the Bombers struck back to claim their best win of the season, a 15-point victory over the talented Collingwood line-up. Essendon's defence held up, its midfield lifted to the challenge and its forward line was busy, with Stringer starring with three goals. Unfortunately Stringer finished with an ankle injury that ruled him out of the next seven games.
It was an embarrassing first-half performance against Geelong in round 16 for Worsfold's side as it limped to the end of the season. The Cats burst out of the blocks with 12 goals to two in the first half of the clash at the Gabba, with Essendon trailing by 59 points at the main break. The Cats eased off thereafter, winning by 66 points, but when the game was up for grabs the Bombers were found wanting.
How should they approach list management?
A lot of this is out of Essendon's hands. The club has presented Joe Daniher a longer-term contract but are waiting to see what the restricted free agent chooses to do, while Adam Saad is also a chance to leave the club and Fantasia is considering a trade request, too. Star midfielder Zach Merrett, who is a free agent next year, has also been weighing his future but it is hard to see the Bombers trading him while under contract. Essendon's plans will be shaped by the decisions of those players, but there is no doubt that the club needs more tall forward options, inside midfielders and probably some key defensive back-up, too. Already they have farewelled seven players, including retirees Conor McKenna and Tom Bellchambers.
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Early call for 2021
McGrath to be in the All-Australian side. The future skipper is on the cusp of becoming a star of the competition.
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D. A bitterly disappointing campaign for the Bombers, who dropped out of the finals, were out of reach of the best sides and appear some time from being a contender.