While every year is typically new, 2017 for Essendon is newer than most.
New teammates that have never played together. New rules (unfortunately). New game plans that bring a new edge. In many ways, this Essendon team (and football club) is all new. The Captain is new. The head coach is new. The pegs to the defence are new. The speed and punch from the small forwards is new. Even the Club’s best player is new.
You could even say that for Essendon, the new is actually about what was old. These ten players, banned for a year, are part of the new excitement.
Perhaps it should have been the rebirth everyone had hoped for after the Sheedy era. Instead it comes a decade later and, after a period of utter darkness, things are looking bright.
The silver lining to the black year of 2016 was the premature blooding of many young recruits, the necessary unearthing of some gems and the resurrection of some careers deemed ended.
Had it not been for 2016, Matt Dea would have been a minor player in Richmond history. The same could be said for Michael Hartley. After a few years on the Collingwood rookie list, he had deemed himself somewhat lost after a few years of injury and took the long way back through the VFL. The second chance at the big time was all he needed. And James “Pops” Kelly, 273 games in Geelong colours and ready to savour the wide blue yonder of player retirement, is coaxed not only for one year but is inspired to provide the transitional glue in 2017.
Had it not been for 2016, we would not have seen the flowering of Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti.
2016 was also the year that Zach Merrett emerged. Having Zach at Essendon is a story of luck, foresight and unplanned greatness. Picked at #26 in the 2013 National Draft, Zach Merrett would not have come to Essendon had Stewart Crameri not been traded to the Western Bulldogs.
This would be Essendon’s first pick in the draft after being stripped of its first and second round draft picks as punishment for the Sorry Saga. Even then, Merrett had been tipped by some to go to Hawthorn (imagine) at #24 or St Kilda at #19. To fall to Essendon that far down the draft order was the Club’s good fortune.
In his rookie year (2014) he played 20 games for caretaker coach Mark Thompson. He has 18 possessions in the losing Elimination Final against North Melbourne. Since then, he has become Essendon’s most prolific and important midfielder. His evolution as an elite player echoes, and even exceeds, the path that his current captain made before him.
In Merrett’s first four years, he has shown to be an improving ball-winner and a worker between the arcs. In that time, he has won a best and fairest AND captained the team. To paraphrase the Bard, he was not born great, nor did he achieve greatness. He had greatness thrust upon him.
In that same fortuitous 2013 National Draft, with Essendon’s second pick at #55, the Club chose Orazio Fantasia. Again, that pick was part of good fortune, having been part of the constant robbery of Fremantle, exchanged for Scott Gumbleton.
At the time, the 176cm Fantasia weighed only 65kg (!). Other than having one of the best names in football, he did very little in his first two years, playing an aggregate of eight games, four times as the substitute. In the last game of 2015, playing from half back with his usual dash, Fantasia gathered 27 possessions and earned a Rising Star nomination.
When Worsfold took over for 2016, he probably looked through Fantasia’s pre-draft sizzle reel and realized that this guy was a forward. The return for 2016 was 29 goals, second highest for the Club. This year, while it’s early, Fantasia is leading Club goalkicking with 9 and a scoring accuracy of 90%.
Fantasia’s zeal and effectiveness has been helped by swift and decisive ball movement. Aided by a more efficient game plan plus the inclusion of more skilled players, Essendon’s offense has seen marked improvement over the last three years.
The obvious caveat is that the 2017 sample is represented by two games. Time will tell whether it can be sustained. It is apparent that Essendon is playing a more free-flowing style with offensive players able to find open space to move in.
In recent times, the typical Essendon game story is a plucky start converting to a lead. This is then followed by an inability to suppress an opposition comeback, leading to a deflating defeat.
Both 2017 wins have followed the first part. The side has had strong starts to establish handy leads. Seven goals was the gap against Brisbane and twenty points the equivalent to Hawthorn. By the third quarter, the lead had evaporated.
Rather than capitulate, the team has found a way to regenerate the initial momentum and eventually overrun the opponent and win handily. This pattern is atypical. The difference in 2017 is that players named other than Heppell and Watson have played a role. Aggressive running play through the corridor was decisive in the final quarter against Hawthorn while clutch goals from Fantasia, McDonald-Tipungwuti and Langford were crucial against Brisbane.
A plucky Carlton now awaits in Round 3. The old Essendon would have thought that game won before it was played. If Essendon wins that, it would be the Club’s best start since 2013 when it went 6-0. This would be reassuring signs of a new Essendon.