One simply does not think of the Essendon Football Club without Dustin Fletcher.
Throughout his time in the game from 1993-2015, he became a two-time Premiership player, earned a club best and fairest and two All-Australian selections. ‘Fletch’ was one of the great defenders in the game’s history.
The opportunity to sit with the 400-gamer was incredibly exciting, and he was more than happy to share inspiring stories from his life and career, and all the highs and lows that come with it.
LISTEN TO THE PODCAST HERE.
Dustin Fletcher has been involved with the Essendon Football Club from a young age, with his father Ken playing 264 games for the Bombers. Together, he and Dustin combine for the most games for a father-son in the game’s history.
“Although he never forced me into sport, my father had a massive impact,” Fletcher said.
“He was always the first one taking me out to kick the football. There were some times where I was a bit lazy, but he was always teaching me the game.”
Interestingly, the 400 gamer and dual premiership player didn’t take football seriously until his late-teens, with his first sport of choice being tennis. He matched up with some elite company too.
“I played doubles with Chris Anstey,” Fletcher explained.
“We both began playing from the age of 10 through to 17. I also played with Andrew Ilie, Mark Philippoussis and Joseph Sirianni.”
When asked why he eventually decided on football over tennis, Fletcher was quick with his rationale.
“Tennis was a sport where you have to the best 100-200 in the world. Whether I could have done that was questionable.”
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After being drafted to Essendon for the 1993 season, Fletcher had never played in defence, and says Kevin Sheedy was the man who made that position his.
“I was always full forward or centre half forward growing up, and never played full-back or had the kick outs,” Fletcher said.
“‘Sheeds’ made me the defender. I learned so much playing on forwards like Tony Lockett, Gary Ablett Snr, Jason Dunstall and Tony Modra.”
Fletcher would face Adelaide’s 129-goal superstar Tony Modra in the famous come-from-behind 1993 Preliminary Final where the ‘Baby Bombers’ would snare an 11 point victory after facing a 42 point half time deficit.
“I came into that half time break thinking we couldn’t win it,” he explained.
“But Sheeds said we just needed to kick the first two goals, and then we would be well and truly in the game. Modra only kicked one in the second half and that was a very special one.”
Fletcher then became a rare first-year player to claim the ultimate glory, after Essendon beat Carlton to claim the flag.
“It’s what everyone dreams of, and it’s the feeling everyone wants. I was lucky as we were up by a fair bit and I got to enjoy the last quarter,” Fletcher said.
This was all when Fletcher was trying to balance school life too, bearing in mind he was studying in year 12 that year.
“We were coming into exams at the time, after the game I got the Monday off school,” he recalled.
“My teachers were fantastic, I bought my premiership medal in for show and tell for my mates on the Tuesday.”
Heartbreak and glory
After the highs of his first season, both Fletcher and the Bombers were hit with several reality checks. This included missing the finals in ’94, and losing two Preliminary Finals by close margins.
There was the famous Tony Lockett point after the siren in ’96, and the Anthony Koutoufides-frenzied Carlton comeback in ’99.
“You have to get into Grand Finals to win them, we had our chances and they both hurt,” Fletcher said.
“We actually went to the 1999 Grand Final as a team, we had opposition supporters giving it to us and it was not a good feeling thinking we could have been playing in that game.”
The devastation of the two prelim losses led the foundation for what would become the single-greatest season in AFL history. The 2000 Essendon team would blitz the competition, losing just one game all year on the path to destroying Melbourne in the Grand Final.
‘We started that 2000 season so well and it was such a special year,” Fletcher recalled fondly.
“Our average winning margin was about 40 points and we had so many great players, we were such a strong side.”
Being unbackable favourites in the Grand Final, ‘Fletch’ admitted there were nerves upon the opening bounce.
“I felt that pressure from an individual sense. David Neitz took a mark on me early on, but thankfully he missed the shot.
“I didn’t have an overly great game but I did my bit, we were pretty confident and ultimately too strong.”
Descending from the peak
After the triumph of 2000, the Bombers hoped to go back-to-back the year after, but ran into the Brisbane Lions at the beginning of their three-peat dynasty.
Fletcher believes this game was his last true chance to win another flag.
“In 2001 we lost, I played football for another fifteen years and never really got another look in. I realised when I retired how special those premiership times were.”
The next few years went from bad to worse, and after three consecutive missed finals series, it was time for two immortals of the club to finally retire.
“Kevin Sheedy never dropped me once, he was the best coach I had. James Hird was the best player I played with, so 2007 was a very tough year when they left,” Fletcher said.
After an ultimately failed rebuild under Matthew Knights, the Essendon Football Club went through the biggest club-scandal in AFL history.
The supplements saga was the darkest time in the club’s long and proud history. Fletcher says the stress through this time heavily impacted his passion for the game.
“We weren’t talking about football at all, it was all about the drugs saga and it was a massive thing at the time,” he said.
“There were players who were not even tested by the AFL, I was one of them. To be suspended and be part of that was pretty tough.”
Being one of the 34 players suspended, Fletcher would not have been able to play even had he not called it quits in 2015, and says it hurt him for a long-time post-retirement.
“I wanted to play local football, but I couldn’t even watch my kids play. I couldn’t coach or be on the ground at junior level, I couldn’t walk into Windy Hill or be involved in any sport at all.”
Six years after retirement, Fletcher is back involved at the club he has loved for much of his life, and says he is happy to put the difficult times late in his career behind him.
“I’m still involved as an ambassador and part of their next generation football academy. I also do some tennis coaching, so there are plenty things to keep me busy.”
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