28/02/2024

Essendon slumped to a bottom four finish in 2022 amidst on and off-field upheaval. (Photo: Essendon FC; Design: Will Cuckson)

2022 may be looked back on as one of the lowest points in the history of the Essendon Football Club. Alternatively, it could be viewed as the disaster it needed for enduring, tangible change to sweep through the club.

Finishing position: 15th (seven wins, 15 losses)

In its 150th year, on-field performances were devoid of success, and turmoil raged off the field as presidents, CEOs and head coaches were ousted from their positions. Fans continue to be disenfranchised by a club that would reminisce of the glory days, but deliver nothing to support a return to those times.

What worked?

The pre-season supplementary selection period brought Alec Waterman and Kaine Baldwin into the club last year, and it provided two more gems in 2022.

Tex Wanganeen had his draft year cruelled by injury, but impressed over the pre-season. In a half of a practice match against the Western Bulldogs he produced dazzling highlights as a crumbing forward with his speed and dare on full display at the Hangar.

The biggest win of the Dons’ season was uncovering the talent of Nic Martin, who was their other SSP selection. Martin was a dominant goal-kicker in the WAFL, but over pre-season found a home as a wingman and high half-forward with the Bombers where he displayed his elite engine and field kicking.

The mid-season draft also reaped rewards once again, with Massimo D’Ambrosio showing off his elite ball use at both ends of the ground, and Jye Menzie proving a sharpshooter in the VFL and getting a taste of the big time.

It adds to Will Snelling and Sam Durham in MSDs of the past.

What didn’t?

Essendon faced three of the previous season’s top four in the opening three weeks of the year, so losses to start the season weren’t a surprise.

But the manner in which these losses came about – with a crumbling defensive structure and lacklustre pressure around the ball – signalled the year that the Dons were set to endure.

The club looked to have made inroads in Ben Rutten’s first season in charge when it made finals, but a mounting injury list and uninspiring football resulted in continued misery for fans.

Essendon was the more experienced side in a game just twice in 2022, and was the third-youngest team of the season behind North Melbourne and Adelaide.

It doesn’t excuse the performances that were devoid of effort, which eventually culminated in Rutten’s sacking. The board-room upheaval and fractures within the club became astonishingly external following the failed coup of Alastair Clarkson.

It all boiled down to a change of president, CEO, and coach by the end of the season.

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Breakout stars

Nic Martin produced an incredible season, finishing fifth in the Rising Star award. His debut performance in Round 1 will go down as one of the best ever, with 27 disposals and five goals in a drubbing at the hands of Geelong.

Martin could feature in the top three of the Crichton Medal at year’s end, and will be a vital player for the Bombers moving forward.

Peter Wright had an exceptional season to finish fifth in the Coleman Medal on 53 goals, while Mason Redman and Sam Draper produced career-best years and will feature prominently in the Crichton count.

Highest point

Michael Hurley’s return to the top level in Round 23 after a hip infection threatened his life was Essendon’s moment of the season.

The beloved fan favourite was given his send-off game as he announced his retirement, which was a fitting gesture after fans were denied the opportunity to see off Cale Hooker and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti with a final game.

‘Bear’ finished his fantastic career off with a goal in the final stages of the game, which produced a wonderful moment between Essendon and Richmond players.

Lowest point

The Bombers hit rock bottom in Round 22 when they lost by 84 points at home to Port Adelaide. It coincided with board turmoil, and a day later David Barham had taken over from Paul Brasher and Rutten was a dead man walking.

The performance in itself was unbefitting of a professional sports team. The players giving their all could be counted on one hand, and the lack of communication between players and coaching staff was evident throughout the afternoon.

The Power loss was the sign that Rutten had lost the players, and the 22’s performance a week later against the Tigers confirmed they weren’t playing to save his job.

Where to next?

This may be the biggest off-season in the modern history of the Essendon Football Club.

It has the vacancies of head coach, CEO, and multiple board seats to fill, all the while going through a rebuild that hasn’t been publicly acknowledged. From the top down, the club has lacked leadership.

It may now be set to lose its captain in free agency as well, which would result in just eight players on the list having 100-plus games of AFL experience (and just Dylan Shiel with 200-plus).

It seems as though Essendon hasn’t truly cared that supporters under the age of 30 can barely remember its last finals win, or that the powerhouse club spoken of at board level may as well be fable and fiction to its new generation of fans.

Up until this point, profits have come before on-field success and building the culture of the club has been left to too few.

Until supporters can see those changes take place on and off the field, there’s no reason to believe it won’t be the same in 2023.

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