Has Anyone Checked In On The Bombers Lately?
Whatever Essendon’s best life is, they never seem to live it at this time of the year.
Despite well-documented years of underachievement, the Bombers continue to feel they’re just a player away from contention. Which is kind of like your fat cousin telling you he’s just a new pair of shoes away from running a marathon.
In a vacuum, their latest pursuit of premiership Bulldog Josh Dunkley is more than understandable.
They’ve identified a very good young footballer who'll doubtlessly help them.
Yet identifying established footballers who are good at what they do is the easy part. The much harder element is recognising where you stand within the broader competition, along with a good idea of what time it is on your own premiership clock.
Unfortunately Essendon’s clock broke some time ago and they haven’t really bothered to fix it.
To land Dunkley it’s going to take the Bombers a lot more than finding Kyle, Josh’s younger and less talented brother, an AFL home. No, to get Josh to Tullamarine it’ll take plenty of money and a heap of premium draft capital, the latter of which Essendon simply can’t afford to keep jettisoning.
At some point last decade the Bombers decided that their post-drugs suspension rebuild was over, and that the draft wasn’t for them.
In 2016 they finished last, had the first pick, took Andrew McGrath, nailed Jordan Ridley 21 spots later and then started packing up the ute.
Essendon’s aversion to the draft would perhaps be a little more digestible if it was indeed on the cusp of premiership contention. Instead, we’re talking about a club who hasn’t won a Final in 16 years, nor finished top-four since 2001. It’s one that’s gone 3-23 against top-4 teams over the last 5 years and which hasn’t had an All-Australian since 2017.
Despite their obvious on-field troubles, the Bombers have bought in just three first and second round picks over the last three drafts- only Hawthorn has had fewer- while the problem's only compounded by the fact those three players have cobbled together just four games at AFL level.
If Essendon paused their trade period feeding frenzy for just a moment they might be able to see that this upcoming draft is presenting itself as a life-raft of sorts. The likes of which could potentially set them up for their next golden period, and perhaps even help them land that record-breaking 17th premiership.
More importantly, by abandoning the Dunkley pursuit and focusing on the draft, the Essendon rebuild project needn’t be so arduous. They could conceivably add at least three first-round picks (at minimum two in the top-ten) which could be added to a squad that’s already proven itself decent enough to hang around the fringes of the top-eight.
Alternatively, Essendon may well ignore that life-raft and continue to its strong push for Dunkley.
According to Stats Insider’s Players Ratings, the arrival of the young Bulldog would instantly provide Essendon with their second best player outside of Zach Merrett. Furthermore, it's also worth noting that our rankings presently have Dunkley as the fifth best player in the competition under 24 years of age, with only Harris Andrews, Clayton Oliver, Jade Gresham and Jacob Weitering currently ranked higher.
Dunkley's without doubt a salivating prospect, while surely adding a top-50 player to your ranks is never a bad thing, especially when your club isn’t isn’t exactly teeming with such talent.
Yet it could also be argued it's the Essendon midfield where the bulk of its class is already concentrated, and that adding Dunkley won't solve any of their other innumerable problems.
Last season, and in spite of captain Dyson Heppell playing just three games and a ruck department that placed 16th for hit-outs, the Bomber midfield was still good enough to rank 7th for clearance and 3rd for tackle differential. Getting their hands on the footy, and even winning it in the clinches isn't the most pressing of Essendon’s problems, especially with the likes of Dylan Shiel, Devon Smith, Zach Merrett and Darcy Parish in their absolute primes and with Heppell set to return to full health.
Rather it's up forward where they're crying out for help. Offensively, Essendon slumped to 14th in the competition in 2020, averaging a measly 41.2 points per game over its last four matches. Interestingly, in two of those games they out-possessed their opponents and generated more inside-50s despite losing by a combined 25 goals.
This is a forward line that's already lost Joe Daniher and is about to lose Orazio Fantasia. Jake Stringer, another former Bulldog premiership player the Bombers couldn't resist, averaged just 7.3 disposals from his tengames this year while he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in 12 months time.
Instead of adding another midfielder, Essendon might be better served thinking about why they continue to fall for the bright lights of the trade period, rather than undertaking a realistic assessment of their diminished status in the league.
Essendon lived their best life somewhere around 1984, yet there’s no reason its next best can’t arrive sometime soon. With the bones of a decent squad already in place, the Bombers have the opportunity to surround a fringe finalist with a host of exceptionally talented and relatively cheap players.
As it is for so many struggling clubs, particularly at this time of the year, the prospect of a quick-fix or a big name is highly alluring. Yet if played correctly, and by understanding precisely who you are as a football club, that dreaded ‘rebuild’ needn’t be so painful.
As always with Essendon's sordid telenovela, there's no shortage of drama to be found, while it will enjoy its customary high ratings over the next month.
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