ESSENDON is in the midst of a list calamity, with Adam Saad then Joe Daniher quitting the club, and Orazio Fantasia expected to follow.
But the Bombers can turn bloodshed into watershed. The club has a new coach next year (officially, at least), but must also take a new approach on a number of fronts after being a confusing and confused club in recent years.
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The decisions of Saad and Daniher in successive days this week to leave should mark the moment the Bombers look inwards and ask not 'What can we get for them?', but 'Why are they leaving?'
The Bombers this year dropped to 13th on the ladder, were called a 'laughing stock' by former captain Matthew Lloyd, and extended their competition-leading drought without a finals win to 16 seasons.
Here's AFL.com.au's plan on how Essendon can turn things around, on and off the field.
1. Come out of the Trade Period with three first-round picks
This has to be the starting point for Essendon's turnaround. The Bombers have to get this off-season right. If it ends up with three top-10 picks as a result of Saad and Daniher's departures, then the selections have to be winners, with at least one a premium midfielder and another a key forward, of which this draft has options. The club has made it known it will also target players in return for Saad and Daniher (if it matches the free agency bid), however, those players need to be in the right age demographic. Otherwise take the picks. Long-time list manager Adrian Dodoro has got his men in recent Trade Periods – now it's time to extract the most out of players who don't want to be there. In Ben Rutten's first post-season fully at the helm, they need to salvage the best of this situation.
2. Be physically durable
The Bombers had more than 15 off-season surgeries between the end of the 2019 and 2020 campaigns, putting them in a challenging spot even before round one. Then, throughout the season, they were hit by injuries to a line of key players, including Jake Stringer, Dyson Heppell, Daniher, Fantasia, David Zaharakis and Andrew McGrath. Worsfold lamented the Bombers' ability to get their best side together, saying they had been decimated by injuries. Last pre-season was new fitness boss Sean Murphy's first at the helm.
3. Get the leadership group right
The Bombers leadership group has had nine different members over the past two years and it remains a work in progress. Heppell should be captain again, but a new breed of leaders are emerging at Essendon, including McGrath and Kyle Langford, who should be in the group next year. Player feedback at the end of the season to the club indicated the standards expected of players must be consistent across the board. Saad had queries on Essendon's culture and it was not a happy group in the second half of this season. Rutten and the Bombers' choices as leaders in 2021 will be fascinating. Zach Merrett was ousted from the group this year but Essendon is better for him being in it.
4. Leave the supplements saga behind
By the time next season starts it will have been nearly a decade since the injection program took place that brought the club to its knees. Obviously the fallout took years longer to come to full fruition, but the point stands that the events of years ago now serve no purpose to reference. Even recent commentary from new president Paul Brasher saw him say that the Bombers had had two drafts wiped out by penalties as a reason for the fall down the ladder. Despite it warping reality (they picked up Merrett and Fantasia in 2013), the Bombers also got access to No.1 pick McGrath purely because of the anti-doping bans. Publicly and privately, that era must be left behind.
Newly-appointed President Paul Brasher has addressed Essendon members after an “incredibly disappointing” 2020 season.— Essendon FC (@essendonfc) September 24, 2020
5. Establish a game style that suits Essendon and its list
Rutten sees himself as a 'team first' coach, wanting the Bombers to be balanced between attack and defence. He wants his side to be grounded in defensive elements but play with flair and excitement. There is little doubt that elements of Richmond's plans where Rutten, and now assistant Blake Caracella, worked prior to joining the Bombers have been taken to Essendon with the forward handball style, outnumbering at stoppages and defensive press. But it hasn't suited the Bombers, who lack the number of hard running half-forwards the Tigers possess and don't have key defenders with the same athletic abilities as the reigning champs. There's elements to keep, and Essendon has traditionally struggled with defence, but the Bombers need their own brand, which itself has to be finals sustainable and also flexible enough to adjust to each opposition's strengths and weaknesses. The basics of the game plan are non-negotiable: improve contested ball, defend opposition turnover, lift forward half pressure and move the ball better.
6. Avoid the lure of a quick fix
Essendon has been the club of silver bullets and magic beans. This has been seen in recruiting, in coaching and in off-field appointments. There is room to lean on past greats, but the saviour complex rarely works around the competition. It is 20 years since the Bombers won the 2000 premiership, but nearly half of that side, plus its coach, have returned to the club in either coaching, assistant, specialist, football manager and director positions. The rise of the Bombers will take more than a big-name player, coach or board member.
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7. Be a media friendly club
Open the doors. Be a club that leans towards oversaturation. Essendon needs to sell its good stories and strategy better. This year, Jordan Ridley was the brightest thing at the club and yet he wasn't available for interviews. Worsfold's press conferences were at times terse and tense, and he admitted at the end of the year he did not enjoy that part of the role. Media conferences speak to the million plus supporters Essendon has around the country, not the seven or eight journalists in the room (or Zoom). Bring "Essendon people" along for the journey.
? 2020 Crichton Medal— Essendon FC (@essendonfc) September 22, 2020
? 22Under22 team
? 2020 All Australian squad
It's been a big couple of days for Jordan Ridley ?
8. Value the basics
The Bombers should be prioritising the development area of their football department. This year there were some improvers, including Ridley, McGrath, Darcy Parish and ruckman Sam Draper, but it has not been a strength of the club. Spending in this area will be hit by COVID-19 soft cap cuts, but if the Bombers are investing heavily in the draft, then development needs to be a focus. Doing things right off the field makes an impact, too. Telling four players they were delisted just before the club's best and fairest, where they then sat through presentations on off-field training programs, could have been handled better.