Essendon was predicted by pundits to finish amongst the bottom four sides in 2021.
The Bombers had a first-year head coach, a captain who was struggling to stay healthy, and had completely overhauled the list. It left them as one of the youngest sides in the competition.
All of that became an afterthought once this team hit their straps. Players committed defensively and the ball flew around the ground, which translated to a high-scoring outfit that outperformed all expectations.
Sneaking into the finals with a record of 11-11, Essendon had an outstanding season that sees the club on track to make inroads into September for the first time since 2004.
Everything Ben Rutten touched turned to gold this year.
His impact on the club was tangible from day one, outlining his vision to connect with the past and form a blue-collar attitude in which his club wouldn’t go down without a fight.
Young players met legends of the club that once wore the number on their back. There was clear communication from above, and players benefitted from a fresh voice that wasn’t afraid to make changes.
Jayden Laverde and James Stewart became indispensable in the backline after years of stagnation with the forwards group. Dyson Heppell and Nick Hind joined the two in a makeshift defence, adding much-needed experience and pace respectively.
Rutten played Darcy Parish in the position that made him a top-five pick, and he duly repaid the faith. He unlocked Jake Stringer the midfielder, and made the acquisition of Peter Wright look like a masterstroke.
Without prompt, players at the club spoke glowingly of Rutten and his coaching staff. He had the collective buy-in of a young group eager to end its stint in mediocrity.
His blue-collar approach was reflected in the Dons’ percentage despite an even win-loss record. At 109.1 per cent, they finished with their highest mark in a home-and-away season since 2003.
Losses were often close, with the only blowouts coming early in the season to top-four sides Port Adelaide (Round 2) and Brisbane (Round 5) by a cumulative 111 points.
On the other hand, their wins were ruthless. It started with St Kilda in round three, putting a finals contender to the sword and running away 75-point victors. Wins against North Melbourne (72 points), Adelaide (63) and Gold Coast (68) were clinical for a side expected to finish alongside those clubs in the bottom four.
It was the product of a system that implored its 23 players to fight tooth-and-nail, win their share of contested football, and play with aggressive freedom to pile on goals.
Essendon remained untapped in its forward-half potential. It scored in bunches, but struggled to find a consistent avenue when up against great defences.
Too often opposition interceptors had a field day with the forward 50 entries that the Bombers produced. Harris Andrews (10 intercepts), Sam Taylor (12) and Jake Lever (10) were among the defenders that found themselves cutting off attacking forays at will. There didn’t seem to be a structured game-plan to nullify the influence of these players.
There was also a disconnect between the midfield and forward line, with fruitless inside 50s becoming a real issue in the many close contests that the Bombers found themselves in.
Forwards were lackadaisical in their movement, and lazy in efforts to block for one another. Too often key forwards were content in calling for the ball to the top of the square.
It all came to a head after the elimination final loss to the Bulldogs, when forwards coach – and former VFL head coach – Dan Jordan was let go. Highly rated assistant Daniel Giansiracusa took the defensive line, but could make the switch to the forwards coach in 2022.
With three best on ground medals and a maiden All-Australian selection, Darcy Parish well and truly announced his arrival as a premier midfielder of the competition.
Parish averaged 30.5 disposals this season to earn his first All-Australian blazer. 13.4 of those were contested to go with 7.6 clearances and 7.6 score involvements, finishing top-five in the league for those categories.
He was joined in the All-Australian team by vice-captain Zach Merrett who re-captured his best form. On-ball with them was Jake Stringer; the second-best player in the league since the bye according to Champion Data.
Bargain pickups Nick Hind and Peter Wright proved their former clubs wrong with their play, while Jayden Laverde should feature highly in the Crichton Medal after a tremendous season as a lockdown defender.
Without playing for 12 months in their draft year, top-10 picks Nik Cox and Archie Perkins burst onto the scene.
Cox is like no other player in the AFL. He announced himself as the Dons’ time-trial king in his first pre-season, and impressed with his clean hands, elite evasiveness and smart disposal – all in a 203-centimetre frame.
Perkins showed glimpses that he could become an explosive midfielder in due course. His ability to keep his feet and win 50-50 contests was a stand-out.
The exciting duo was joined by Harrison Jones, who offered flashes of the great Essendon goal-kickers of yesteryear in his 16 games. All three young guns received Rising Star nominations and will form the nucleus of Essendon’s next Premiership tilt.
Despite a young list, no games were gifted, only earned.
The immense talent of Sam Draper was on full display when he was fit, Jordan Ridley backed up his Crichton Medal with another superb season, and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti was the consensus All-Australian small forward in the first half of the season.
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In another season where spectators were scarce, the crowd of 78,113 people that bore witness to an Essendon onslaught at the MCG was invigorating for football’s heartland.
It set the record for the largest crowd world-wide since the beginning of the pandemic, and was a momentous day for sports in Australia.
Essendon ran away four-goal winners after Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti electrified the crowd kicking five majors.
Darcy Parish was a man-possessed, collecting the ball at will with 42 touches and kicking two goals. He added nine clearances, nine score involvements and two goal assists to win the ANZAC Medal in one of the great individual performances of 2021.
It’s always a tough pill to swallow for Essendon when losing to Hawthorn, but in the circumstances of Round 1 it was all the worse.
For the first time in close to a year, crowds were allowed at the football in Melbourne, but Essendon fans may wish they weren’t.
Leading by 39 points at half-time, it looked assured that Ben Rutten would chalk up his first win as a head coach, and the Bombers would be able to build some early-season momentum.
What ensued was a complete collapse of structure and effort. The Hawks cut a game-high 40-point lead to a solitary point at three-quarter time, and held on to that lead by the final siren thanks to a Tim O’Brien major.
It was a monumental fade-away that felt like the Essendon of old. The Bombers eventually evened the ledger with the Hawks later in their campaign, and it fortunately didn’t cost them a spot in the finals.
The Bombers have made the tough decisions already. David Zaharakis – after playing nine games in 2021 – wasn’t offered a new contract. They also didn’t extend another year to stalwart Cale Hooker, with the two club legends unable to receive send-off games during the finals pursuit that the Dons had on their hands.
Patrick Ambrose called time on his embattled career, while there may be a nervous wait for rookies Marty Gleeson and Dylan Clarke, who received lifelines last year but may be on their way out of the club despite playing games towards the end of the season. Irving Mosquito could also see his time with Essendon cut short after a slow recovery from a desperately unfortunate ACL tear.
With Dyson Heppell (29 years of age) often the oldest player on game-day, this list is set to grow organically together for the next few years.
Number one off-season priority
For this club, off-season priorities won’t come in the trade period, or free agency, or the draft.
Merrett, Stringer and Parish turned their backs on other clubs to sign deals with the Dons during the season, and this group is heading forward together with their destination in sight.
The critical part of the off-season comes on the training track. Instilling Rutten’s vision isn’t a one-season task. To grow organically together means hard work in getting better each day, and building consistency in performance.
The club will re-integrate long-term injuries Michael Hurley and Kaine Baldwin – who are at either end of their careers – to the fold.
A plug-and-play tall such as Mabior Chol may be on Adrian Dodoro’s radar, and there will be temptation to have talks with the Victoria-bound Adam Cerra.
The key components of this list are in place to continue building over the summer.
It all came together for Essendon in 2021. The club has had a gloomy veil lifted, exposing an immensely talented squad that has time on its side to become a powerhouse once more.
Young leaders stepped up, emerging talents made the leap to stardom, and youngsters gained invaluable exposure while still maintaining a winning culture.
With a coach in Ben Rutten that has full support of the playing squad, there is building expectation of what this group can achieve in the coming years.
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