ESSENDON coach Leigh Tudor feels for his VFL-listed players who have now missed out on virtually two years of football at a crucial stage of their careers.

The Bombers, like every other club, have been badly affected by COVID lockdowns at VFL level, but the flipside has been the chance to look at a large group of NAB League players out of necessity due to injuries to VFL listers such as co-captain Danny Younan, who missed five matches with an AC joint injury after playing his 100th game in round one.

Essendon used an unbelievable 59 players in just 10 matches this year, including the 11 who answered an SOS for its match against Southport in Queensland last month that ended in an agonising last-kick loss after leading all day.

"It has been hard but when it’s out of your control you just do the best you can to make it as easy and as fun as you can for a lot of the guys," Tudor said.

"They've had a really tough two years, it’s been terrible for them footy wise and I feel sorry for the NAB League guys that were in there last year and this year – it has been really tough for them to get games in.

Coach Leigh Tudor addresses the Essendon VFL team in round three, 2021. Picture: FL Photos

"I feel really sorry for the VFL boys, they put in so much work – they’re all full-time workers and they spend a lot of time trying to be the best they can be.

"There’s a lot of different reasons guys play VFL footy – some are to get drafted, some are to play the highest level they can and they’re always testing themselves, and for the second year in a row they just didn’t get a consistent season.

"We know that’s just the way of the world at the moment, but they put in so much hard work and they didn’t really get enough reward for it.

"But the exciting part for us is we got to play quite a lot of Calder Cannons and Bendigo Pioneers boys, as well as Billy Cootee (Western Jets) and Charlie Byrne (Murray Bushrangers) and we’ll be stronger for it next year.

"(Younan) was a really big loss, he’s been around the club for a while. He’s the heartbeat of the VFL system and all the boys really respect him and love being with him, because he’s a really good leader … it was disappointing, but that’s the footy world isn’t it?"

Essendon’s crowning glory was its second and final win of the year, over Frankston at Windy Hill in round five. The Bombers entered that clash with only five players who had played more than three VFL games, plus Alec Waterman (WAFL) and Joe Atley (SANFL), and none who had played more than Williamstown recruit Sam McLarty’s 44.

But the one that really turned heads was the Southport clash after the Bombers had been forced to flee COVID to Queensland and had to find 11 players at short notice, doing such a good job that it was only a bounce of the ball that stood between them (when fill-in Abraham Ankers bounced a late shot into the post) and a monumental victory.

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"We put the feelers out to pretty much everyone we knew," Tudor said.

"Our strength and conditioner in the VFL Jake (Giannakis) works with Alex Rance (at The Academy) and gave him a phone call, and ‘Truck’ (AFL coach Ben Rutten) gave him a phone call and, luck of the draw, he happened to be on holidays at the time in Queensland.

"Then there were a few guys we had talked to about coming to join us on our VFL list this year that were playing in Darwin or around the traps, so we found a couple that way.

"We had some great conversations with the Queensland AFL and they found a couple of players – we found the captain-coach of Yeppoon who had played a bit of VFL before (Christian Burgess, Coburg) who came in and played a fantastic game.

"It was just ringing around and seeing who we could find – and the AFL were great, they helped a couple fly in from Darwin and Northern Territory and Yeppoon and all sorts of things.

"It was a really fun game. We could’ve, should’ve, would’ve, all the ifs and buts and we only got beaten in the last 30 seconds in the end."

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Tudor said there were plenty of positives for the Bombers despite all the interruptions, headed by the form of late addition Nick O’Kearney, a former St Kilda player who had been out of the system for three years due to injury, and the suite of youngsters who got a taste.

"'Nicko' came in round three from Keilor. He is a fantastic VFL player and he had an unbelievable year for us – I think first game he had over 30 possessions (36) - so that was a real highlight.

"Joe Atley was fantastic for us, his first year here coming in as co-captain (from Port Adelaide) – he’s a really good club person, the sort of person you want around your club.

"He’s a very caring person and we had a lot of injuries this year and he was the guy who showed a lot of care and empathy – so that really stood out.

"Of the younger guys, the Bendigo boys shone a bit, Jack Hickman and Sam Conforti, Billy Cootee from the Western Jets showed he’s got some class as well.

"We had to really test ourselves and look outside the box a bit and try to find some players when we had so many VFL-listed blokes out.

Jack Hickman gets a kick away against Geelong in the VFL round 12, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

"We found a couple and we learnt a lot about our list and a lot about certain players, so we definitely took a lot out of the year."

Tudor admitted being an AFL club had its advantages, with the ability to do whatever it took to put matches together, sometimes at short notice.

"We've been really lucky, the AFL has done an awesome job to be honest to be able to still get games in for the AFL-listed guys, because as much as you can train really hard, the scratch matches are fantastic and there has been great cohesion between all different clubs," he said.

"We've played games with two, three and four AFL teams and it is really important for the guys that are on the fringe of playing AFL to get a game in, and we’re really thankful we’ve been able to do that throughout the year.

"It has been tough for our VFL boys, but our AFL boys have got everything they needed out of it."

2-8 win-loss, 20th

What went right: The highlight came in round five when they took on Frankston with 17 players that had played no more than three VFL matches going in and outlasted a bigger, more experienced opposition for a 15-point win that ended up being their last win for the year. They blooded an unthinkable 30 debutants across their AFL and VFL lists – 21 aged under 21.

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What went wrong: The injuries to experienced players, headed by co-captain Danny Younan, meant Essendon struggled to get cohesion due to regular changes to the team – the Bombers used 59 players in just 10 games. The home loss to then-winless North Melbourne in round six undid the Dolphin triumph of the week before.

Best and fairest prediction: Nick O'Kearney made a wonderful return to VFL football, averaging 30 disposals a game. He is a clear favourite ahead of young ruckman Nick Bryan and key forward Patrick Ambrose.

Best young players: Plenty of kids got a chance, and a lot of them shone, with Bryan and Ned Cahill at the top of the list. Of the VFL listers, Sam Conforti, Jack Hickman, Josh Smithson and Billy Cootee showed promising signs, among others.

Coach status: Leigh Tudor is contracted to continue for a third year at the helm unless higher honours come calling.

Twitter: @BRhodesVFL 

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