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Why has Essendon gone 16 years without a finals win?

“Essendon (in 2000) were just an amazing team and they were an absolute powerhouse,” “They’re the best (I’ve seen), I can’t remember a stronger team on and off the field than them in 2000.” That’s what the legendary Bruce McAvaney said when asked about the greatest team he’s ever seen. And it’s hard to argue with, the Bombers side that year still holds the record of the best win-loss record in the AFL era with a 21-1 for the season, finishing a clear 20 points ahead of 2nd-placed Carlton. To cap it off Essendon romped to the flag with a 60-point victory over Melbourne in the Grand Final.

The bombers last finals win came four years and since then the club has been hit with issue after issue unable to recapture the brilliance of 2000 while other clubs formed dynasties.

On Premierships alone, Essendon stands equal with Carlton as the most successful club in AFL/VFL history, with each club currently sitting at a total of 16 flags in both eras of professional Aussie Rules.

The club itself has a major fanbase, consistently pulling some of the highest membership numbers in the league – 84,237 in 2019, the 4th highest that year – which is staggering given their lack of recent success and turmoil that always hovers over the club. Essendon are always a major talking point as well, never too far away from the media’s lips and fingertips. Due to their prestige and high standing within footy, the Bombers are always a fixture on prime-time slots, resulting from the sheer numbers that they draw.

 

Glory Years

Their success over the last four decades can be attributed to the introduction of Kevin Sheedy as coach in 1981, where the legendary figure of footy oversaw a period of tremendous success at the club. Brought in after a dry spell of 16 years without a flag, Sheedy eventually transformed the club into a winning machine for the next two decades, cementing his legacy as one of the best coaches in history, as well as establishing Essendon as a powerhouse in the transitional era of the VFL, as it morphed into the AFL. Sheedy coached the club to four flags in his tenure: 1984, 1985, 1993 and 2000, among plenty of other successes during this time. Essendon was always a feature in the mix and hunt for a premiership under Sheedy, particularly during the golden period of the 80s and 90s. All of this was whilst Sheedy led some of the best players in the club’s, and the league’s history. The likes of Tim Watson, James Hird and Matthew Lloyd all saw success and sealed their names in football history during this time and have Sheedy to thank for it.

However, it was this premiership in 2000 where their legend was born. This flag-winning side became known as the ‘Greatest Team of All Time’ due to their sheer dominance throughout the year. The greatest win/loss in history, coupled with thrashings in every game during their Finals series, secured the 2000 Essendon side as the greatest team ever.

Though it looked like this Essendon side would sweep all that would come before them for the next several years, the 2000 Premiership side was the last of its kind thus far for Essendon, with several changes taking place in the AFL following this monumental success at the Bombers.

 

Falling Short

 

Following their monumental victory in 2000, Essendon just couldn’t seem to get it done in the succeeding years.

Though in 2001 they finished as minor premiers again, they weren’t quite as dominant as in the year before, and they had the budding dynastical Brisbane Lions on their tail for the whole year, with only percentage points being the difference between the two sides. These great teams came at loggerheads in the Grand Final, where a monstrous second half from the Lions saw them win their first of three consecutive grand finals. Just like that, Essendon had been dethroned from the top of the AFL.

The next three seasons weren’t for the lack of trying, with semi-final appearances in 2002, 2003 and 2004 – with the latter two surprisingly on the back of eight-placed finishes. The premiership still seemed like a distant memory, as they witnessed the success of other clubs at the big dance while being unable to replicate their dominance from 2000.

Their win against Melbourne in 2004 still serves as their last victory in the finals series thus far – 16 years later. In a back and forth affair, that went down to the wire, neither team gave any breathing room to the other. Essendon rallied to a five-goal lead at halftime, but Melbourne charged in the third term, to enter three-quarter time up by two goals. Essendon surged back in the final quarter, booting four goals as they secured a nail-biting victory by five points, on the back of four goals by Matthew Lloyd and three goals by Davide Hille. Against all odds, Essendon pulled off an unlikely victory against the Demons.

Unfortunately, their miracle was short-lived, as they were narrowly beaten the following week by ten points at the hands of Geelong, and once again, Essendon were bounced out of the finals. Not since that victory against Melbourne have Essendon tasted finals success. We have to ask the question: why is this the case?

 

End of an Era

2005 was not a great season for the Bombers, with them finishing a mediocre 13th on the ladder. The team that destroyed the competition five years earlier, was now teetering among the rabble of the AFL. It began to look like Essendon’s golden era was surely being laid down in its coffin.

A near wooden-spoon finish in 2006 compounded further misery upon the club, as things went from bad to worse. Their premiership heroes were aging, with signs of an impending rebuild and restructure looming at the prestigious club. In 2007, the club finished 12th, with this being the final curtain call for an illustrious era, and on two illustrious figures of the club.

Kevin Sheedy retired as coach of the club after 26 years and James Hird retired from his playing career with the Bombers. Sheedy left as one of the best coaches in the competition’s history, while Hird – their former captain – left having cemented himself as one of the greatest to have ever played, as well as perhaps the greatest player in Essendon’s history. It was the end of a remarkable chapter and the confirmation that change was needed if Essendon were to stop their losing ways and return to the top.

Sheedy was replaced by assistant coach Matthew Knights at the end of the 2007 season, with Knights promising a ‘new direction’ at Essendon. The hopes of hundreds of thousands of fans rested on Knights’ shoulders, to carry them into a new era, one that was hoped to be similar to the same success that the club had seen in the prior three decades under Sheedy and spearheaded by James Hird.

 

New Direction

 

Knights got off to a rocky start with the club in his first season, leading them to yet another 12th placed finish in 2008. This was to be expected given the new-look side, featuring a slew of younger talents, such as Paddy Ryder, Jobe Watson and even Bachar Houli. The rebuild had officially begun, and like any rebuild, it would not be without headaches.

Progress was made in 2009, with the club finish 8th and making the finals for the first time since 2004. The season wasn’t without controversy and trouble, however, as their Round 22 clash with longstanding rivals Hawthorn exemplified. At the beginning of the 3rd quarter, Matthew Lloyd ran into the centre square and cleaned up Hawthorn’s Brad Sewell with a head-high bump, knocking the Hawk out and down for the count. What followed was a brawl, outrage and shock across the ground and the league. Lloyd was subsequently suspended for four weeks, missing their elimination final the following week against Adelaide.

The final itself was a drab affair, no doubt marred by the previous week’s incident from their primary goalkicker and club captain. Essendon were handed a hiding at the hands of the Crows, losing by 96 points in their return to September action. Lloyd retired shortly after the loss, with his decorated career ending on as sour a note as one could possibly end on. Though the 2009 season ended in disappointment and controversy, it still was an improvement after years of missing out on the finals. Jobe Watson was then named captain going into 2010.

But whatever progress was made in 2009 came crashing back down the following year in 2010, where Essendon suffered loss after loss, damning the club to a horrible 14th on the ladder.

Matthew Knights had been under fire all season but was backed by the club at the tail end of the season. In a cruel twist, Knights was sacked at the end of the season, just one day after their final game, a loss against the Bulldogs. Suddenly, they were back to square one.

Hindsight is 20/20, but it’s now clear to see the failings of the Matthew Knights era at the club. For starters, they had just replaced Sheedy after three decades at the helm. It doesn’t matter who you are, when you’re in charge of a project for that long, you’re irreplaceable, essentially. Knights really did have the impossible task of trying to replace Kevin Sheedy at Essendon, no one was going to envy his position.

But it wasn’t just the looming shadow of Kevin Sheedy that overwhelmed the new project, Knights himself simply was unqualified. Though he was an assistant at the club prior to his elevation to the senior position and was a respected footballer in his own playing days, Knights was too young and inexperienced to be able to live up to Kevin Sheedy and the era of dominance that Essendon experienced. Knights became the coach at age 37, barely older than most of his locker room leaders at the club. For many of those leaders, it was hard for them to listen and give the necessary respect to the new coach. None exemplified this approach more so than Matthew Lloyd. Earlier this year, Lloyd expressed his contempt for his final seasons at Essendon under Knights, how he “hated turning up to the football club in those last two years.” And how he felt that “Matthew wanted to create his own path to Kevin Sheedy,” discussing how Knights was seemingly culling all the former heroes at Essendon, like Jason and Mark Johnson, and Scotty Lucas. Lloyd felt that Knights was losing confidence in him as a player.

It’s clear to see that Knights’ appointment was the wrong path to take for Essendon. Knights was flat out unqualified to take the job of rebuilding the club and leading it on a new path, while still maintaining the overall spirit of the Essendon Football Club. His alienation of leaders and key figures in the changeroom also left a sour taste in the mouths of many at the club, none quite like that of his own captain, which culminated in a tumultuous three seasons that eventually saw him sacked in acrimonious circumstances.

 

Favourite Son

Shortly after Knights’ success was hoped to have returned to Essendon. Three years after his retirement, James Hird returned to the club as the new coach going into 2011. Hird joined a long line of AFL coaches at the time, who were former club legends in their playing career. The real shock, though, came in the form of his assistant coach. Mark Thompson shockingly resigned from coaching Geelong, after two premierships in 2007 and 2009, and signed with Essendon to assist Hird in his new role. Observers felt that Bomber himself was to be the brains behind the game plan, with Hird the figurehead and beloved figure of the club.

It can also be considered that after the bitterness and chaos of the Knights era, Essendon wanted to return to the glory years of Kevin Sheedy. By bringing in two favorite sons of the club in ‘Bomber’ Thompson and James Hird, this was their attempt at showing the AFL world, and their fans, that they are still the great Essendon Bombers, a respected club that prides itself on excellence, teamwork and results. Ideals that embodied Kevin Sheedy as a man, and the club during his three decades as the boss.

Hird and Thompson’s debut season at the helm saw a return to the finals for the Bombers, with the club once again scraping a finish at 8th on the ladder, hoped as a sign for things to come. Rather embarrassingly, Essendon were trounced by Carlton in the elimination final, losing by 62 points, as Carlton themselves were looking for a return to their own former glory. Similarly, to the situation with Knights, Essendon hoped to build upon this.

2012 was not an improved season by the Bombers. Though they were in the mix for the finals throughout the year, maintaining a spot in the eight for a majority of the season, seven straight losses to close out the season doomed them to 11th on the ladder. Whatever hard work had been put in by the club, had just been unraveled by a difficult season. The only redeeming factor was Watson’s Brownlow Medal win in 2012, despite his team’s lackluster season.

 

ASADA Scandal

Now, this is the moment we’ve all been waiting for, where Essendon’s hard work and desire to return to the top completely unraveled, almost condemning the club forever.

Following Hird and Thompson’s appointments, which were seen as an attempt to return to the glory days, a reshuffle of the backroom staff was in order at Essendon. Mark Thompson brought with him Dean Robinson from Geelong, as the club’s new high-performance coach at the end of 2011. At Robinson’s suggestion, Stephen Dank joined at the club’s new sports scientist shortly after Robinson joined the Bombers. The club believed that it was falling behind the AFL in the use of supplements in the player’s programs, so Dank was brought in mainly to oversee the implementation of the new supplements program. The program itself primarily ran throughout the 2011 offseason and up until about May 2012. It involved injections of the supplements into the players, of which 38 of them consented to partake in the program.

There is no point in going into the nitty-gritty details of the program and the legal saga that was protracted for so many years. We all know the story and the finer details can be found in multiple sources. For the purpose of this piece, the supplements saga and scandal that followed will serve as key elements in Essendon’s September struggles, so only the main details will be focused on.

What we know is that the program began to cease in May 2012 and by the end of the season had stopped. A noticeable trend in Essendon’s performances in 2012 signaled that something was up, with several players suffering from soft tissue injuries around the time coinciding with the ceasing of the program. Their second half form withered, which demonstrated suspected foul play.

Essendon self-reported to the AFL and ASADA in 2013, with concerns over the program. Thus, began the long and protracted saga – the most infamous in AFL history. Following the initial report in 2013 by ASADA, initial charges were laid against Essendon in August 2013 by the AFL. Most significantly, a $2m fine was handed out against Essendon, the club was forfeited from participating in the Finals series in 2013 (where they had actually finished in the top 8 that year) relegating their sport to 9th-placed Carlton, and James Hird was suspended from footballing activity for a year. The latter meant that Mark Thompson was given the reigns for the 2014 season.

Considering the turmoil surrounding the club over the ongoing investigations, and the chaos that was the 2013 season, Essendon had a relatively successful campaign in 2014. Thompson guided them to a respectable 7th on the ladder, and had it not been for a miraculous comeback by North Melbourne in the Elimination Final, Thompson would’ve led Essendon to their first Finals win in a decade. But it was here where perhaps the most crucial mistake by the club was made, given all that had happened.

Hird’s suspension was up and he was inexplicably given the reigns once again, despite Thompson’s obvious demonstration that he was the better fit for the job. Aside from the fact that Thompson is a Premiership coach that helmed those legendary Geelong sides, Thompson kept Essendon afloat during a season where everything else around them was crashing down. Stability was necessary at the club, and Bomber would’ve offered it, whilst Hird returning perhaps showed that Essendon were their own worst enemy, shooting themselves in the foot in their quest for September glory.

2015 was as tumultuous as it could get for a football club. The AFL tribunal found the 34 players implicated in the program not guilty of taking illegal supplements, which opened up a WADA investigation in the case. These events left a black cloud looming over the club, with Essendon unable to replicate their good form from the previous year. The club slumped to 15th on the ladder, as it became evident that the saga and the chopping and changing of personnel had ruined them. Hird resigned at the tail end of the season and Essendon’s future and hopes were left up in the air.

In January 2016, the case was decided by the CAS, which found the 34 Essendon players guilty. We all know the story, those 34 players across Essendon and the entire AFL were suspended for the entirety of 2016, leaving Essendon particularly ravaged. The club had to bring in a slew of top-up players just to be able to field a side, given that half their list was suspended. John Worsfold was ushered in as the new coach, hoping to ride the storm of the write-off season and get the club back on track, after four years of heartache and headache.

The club fell to bottom of the ladder, becoming almost pitiful to watch and to hold witness to. To make matters worse, it was announced that at the end of 2016, Jobe Watson would hand back his Brownlow Medal from 2012, which then by default was awarded to Sam Mitchell and Trent Cotchin, whom each finished equaled second to Watson.

It can be said that the Supplements Saga almost destroyed the club, bringing it to its knees. For a club with the prestige and history of Essendon to have gone through such a dramatic event was staggering for all to see. It was unquestionably the biggest scandal in Australian Sporting History. The fines levied against the club, the missed opportunities, loss of memberships and ticketing revenue have no doubt had a knock-on effect, so much so to the point where it can still be felt even all these years later. This period of their history still lingers around Essendon like a bad smell, more so now as they’ve gone hard in their efforts to move on and finally win Finals.

 

Moving Forward?

 

After an expected wooden spoon finish in 2016, Essendon welcomed back their slew of suspended players coupled with emerging young stars, led by 2016 #1 draft pick Andrew McGrath. It was hoped to be the new dawn that the club had been wanting for years, now that they had finally seen the back of the scandal.

2017 was a moderately successful year, with the club returning to the finals and finishing 7th on the ladder, a respectable outcome given that they had returned from the abyss. The good times were short-lived, however, as they were handily beat by Sydney in the Elimination Final. Still, there seemed to be a lot to like at the club. One important event of note was the retirement of Jobe Watson, which exemplified the club’s need to build their list for the projected future of prosperity. Players such as Joe Daniher, Orazio Fantasia and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti emerged as stars at the club, showing a bright future at Essendon.

Going in 2018, Essendon went hard for new recruits, bringing in Jake Stringer and Adam Saad, hoping to bolster their ranks, push further into September, and bring some more X-Factor to the team that would stand up in finals. Safe to say that 2018 did not go as planned, as the club finished 11th. It was a backwards step for a club that otherwise would prefer to be further up on the ladder than the year before, not further down. Compounding their miseries was the mysterious injury to Daniher’s groin – a case of protracted osteitis pubis. This injury has kept him out of the side for virtually the entirety of 2018, 2019 and at the moment, all of 2020 as well (along with other injuries). Speedy forward Orazio Fantasia also has experienced a slew of injuries, among many others at the club unable to stay fit. Injuries have become a cause for concern at the club.

Following a dismal 2018, Essendon didn’t play around once again in the trade period, snatching up a last-second deal for Dylan Shiel, a midfield dynamo that was expected to propel them to greater heights. In a repeat theme, there was renewed optimism going into 2019. However, they limped to a paltry 5-6 start going into the bye, and things looked dour. It took a hard run at the finals to seal place in the top eight, though they were once again thrashed at this hurdle in the Elimination Final, this time at the hands of the Eagles.

The offseason was as dramatic as ever, but for different reasons. Joe Daniher wanted out to the Swans, but the Bombers didn’t budge. A deal could not be completed, which now leaves Essendon hanging on to their star forward, with injury troubles rendering him barely able to play, and with him having already once expressed his desire to leave. It’s a sour taste in the mouths of those at Essendon. To make matters worse, Worsfold announced that 2020 would be his last year at the club, mentoring the eventual replacement in Ben Rutten as he looks to return home to Perth. While Worsfold has clearly got family back home he wants to be with. It leaves his legacy as Essendon in a odd position. Coaching handovers have happened before. Malthouse to Buckley and Roos to Longmire as examples however, in these circumstances, there was a coach finishing up after years of success for that team rather than a coach finishing abruptly after only coaching a few years himself. Possibly a more appropriate handover could’ve been taken from the Roos to Goodwin takeover where Paul Roos stated from the start he wasn’t coaching for the long haul and only to get the club ready for the next stage. While this hasn’t been completely successful so far, it at-least let the fans and footy public aware of the plan from a long way out.

If Essendon are not careful, the recent seasons post-Supplement Scandal could become cyclical, leaving them stuck in a rut of making finals, but never actually winning anything, which they have dedicated so many resources towards, often at their own detriment. While finish in the top 8 is an achievement in of itself. As the years go longer without a finals win, the fans and media have become more and more restless with their position.

 

Why can they not win a Final?

 

It’s too tough a question to simply answer, but one response may serve as an umbrella for their overarching mistakes: Essendon have tried to artificially manufacture a side capable of winning Finals, rather than letting it happen organically.

The Supplements Saga showed the ‘win at all costs’ mentality that has seeped into the club, with their desire to make noise in September bordering on desperation. For that to have happened showed the recklessness in their wishes to once again return to the glory years of times gone by.

Their list changes have also been questionable. Rather than letting players age out, going to the draft and then rebuilding from the ground-up, Essendon have sought quick fixes and band-aid solutions that have brought them back to September, but leave them wanting in the way of actual success. A focus on adding in ‘proven’ talent, such as Stringer and Shiel, rather than working from the ground-up – especially after the Supplements Saga – was a horrid mistake. The club had the chance to start fresh, and move on from their mistakes, but instead, have repeated the same mistakes albeit in a different fashion. The unwillingness to hit the reset button and start again has cost them and left them in limbo, rather than leaving them on the brink of something special, as shown by clubs willing to rebuild (no better example of this being the Brisbane Lions, who let their list grow and develop organically, rather than just throw themselves into a mix without any long-term planning and vision).

Perhaps, most notably, the legend of Kevin Sheedy still looms large. It cannot be underestimated that replacing a coach of 26 years is not easy. But the consistent changes in coaching since his retirement have left them unstable. Moving on from someone like Sheedy takes all the time in the world. To keep chopping and changing in the hopes of replicating his era was naïve and foolish. It was never going to happen. This ties into the earlier points of growing the team artificially and going way too hard for a Finals win, that hump that they cannot get over.

Essendon now needs to take a look at themselves, and perhaps finally, build from the bottom up. As it stands, their list is good enough to make Finals, but not good enough to seriously contend. There are no signs of that situation improving, so should things stay the same, that cycle will continue of barely scraping into the eight and getting smashed by clearly better sides. Essendon may pinch a finals win this year or next and finally break the streak but the problem overall likely won’t be fixed and only cover up overlying issues that won’t give them sustainable success.

Essendon hasn’t won a final because they haven’t built a contending side properly and efficiently. They need to start again and work their way up if they have any hope of returning to their former years of glory. Whether their diehard fans will be happy to hear that is likely the question that stops them from making the move.

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