It is extraordinary, then, that less than 10 months on, the Bombers are on the cusp of returning to the finals.
A team that finished 2020 in a flattering 13th with the third-lowest percentage in the league could realistically have secured their top eight spot this year weeks ago, one of just seven sides to enter the final round with a triple-figure percentage, and having lost three matches by three points or fewer.
How have things turned around so quickly?
The answer is not simple, but there have been several key factors.
Firstly, the Bombers did not waste their crisis. Essendon kept Daniher against his will 12 months earlier, and tried again to retain both he and Saad. But once it became clear that he would not be able to achieve that, list chief Adrian Dodoro looked to make the most of the situation, ending up with three top-10 picks and a pair of very cheap and readymade senior players: Nick Hind and Peter Wright.
Wright has stood up at key junctures this season, while Hind has been a revelation – not that he should have been to the Bombers, given he was a VFL star off half-back – and looms as a top-five finisher in Essendon’s best and fairest.
Through serendipity, it was the early season misfortune of Jye Caldwell – one of the Dons’ other trade gains – along with an injury to Dylan Shiel, that opened the door for Darcy Parish to get an extended run in the midfield, where his extraordinary clearance feats and naturally attacking game have him as a likely All-Australian.
It has been a much better-balanced Essendon midfield for much of this season, with Parish, Merrett – again a believer in the club’s direction – Kyle Langford, and the pinch-hitting Jake Stringer flying the Bombers to heights they did not expect to reach in 2021.
Stringer has been magnificent, stringing together – pardon the pun – the best run of football in his rollercoaster career. In recent weeks he has taken his game to another level again, playing more team-oriented and discerning football.
Nik Cox and Archie Perkins – two of the club’s early draftees – have been senior regulars and shown flashes of brilliance, although their influence has perhaps been a touch overstated at times.
Indeed rather than being real “baby Bombers”, much of Essendon’s improvement has come from players in their sixth, seventh and eighth years in the AFL system: Parish, Langford, Merrett, Wright, and defenders Jordan Ridley, Jayden Laverde and Mason Redman, who have more than stood up without Michael Hurley and with Hooker on the way out and needed to prop things up in the attacking 50.
Despite the coach flagging a blue-collar defensive style, the Bombers have played probably the most attacking footy in the league. Heading into the last round they were the only side to have lost a match this season when scoring 100 or more points, and they’d done it three times.
Asked during the week what had changed at the Bombers this year, a rival coach said that Essendon’s midfield is stronger and that they just keep attacking. Their offensive game is closer now to what it looked like in 2017, before Rutten had moved from the Tigers.
Rutten ultimately deserves enormous credit, though. For a man who has worked on showing more empathy, he has against the odds united a bruised football department and in doing so brought former players and hoards of disgruntled fans back on-side.
“Looking from afar they seem to be a really humble group of players and really respectful for the opportunity they’re presented with to play at the Essendon footy club,” former Bombers vice-captain Andrew Welsh told the Sunday Age.
“That’s something I know that a lot of people involved with the history of the club – the past players, the supporters, sponsors have really enjoyed watching.”
In the pre-season Rutten made a concerted effort to educate the players about the club’s history, with Mark Harvey – no longer an assistant coach – also involved. Rutten – brought to the club by Richardson along with many now playing important football department roles -also empowered the next generation of leaders to take control. In part because some jaded and bitter people are no longer there, insiders agree that the football department is a much happier place, with the experienced Josh Mahoney harnessing his experience from a choppy decade at Melbourne.
Campbell has taken much more of a back seat in the football department this year. Whether he had been too hands-on in the past depends on who you ask.
While 2020 was unquestionably turbulent, the counter-argument is that Rutten would have been even more overwhelmed had he been thrust straight into the senior role given the unprecedented circumstances.
The challenge for the Dons – a view espoused by club great Matthew Lloyd – is not to get ahead of themselves, something insiders accept has been an issue in the relatively recent past. Aided by low expectations heading into the season, moderate success this year has been more than enough to get fans excited, but with growth rarely linear, there is recognition internally that the Bombers should not get carried away yet.
Unlike Lloyd, Welsh suggests finals experience is always beneficial.
“A lot of the rumblings that you were hearing in previous years from a lot of different groups have gone in my view, and it’s not just because of the success and the real excitement of our young players,” Welsh said.
“It really shows that what Ben’s putting in place, not just from a performance perspective but at a deeper level, is really something that is going to hold the club up for some sustained success into the future, I believe.
“I know Xavier Campbell does a lot of things behind the scenes that really no one notices in building those relationships with the history.”
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