It is perhaps over dramatic to say that it was the Saga we had to have but ever since Hird fought his fight, a new CEO took the seat and the suspensions were served, Essendon has changed every aspect of itself. From the coaching staff, to the administration, and most obviously with the playing list. The Club, in 2018, is essentially reborn.
There is something tragic that reinvention required such a drastic and reputation-shattering series of events. But if you look back, the Club was not a relevant force for more than a decade. Now, with a new contemporary administration, a coaching panel that rewards performance on the field, and a revitalised squad full of young talent, the chatter about Essendon is more about Premiership potential rather than off-field drama.
This Saga, while scarring for many, has created that most valuable of emotions during periods of trauma - a bond. The resilience shown by the majority of players to remain loyal to a Club that had done them wrong, demonstrated to diehard fans the importance of staying together. Rather than tearing the place apart (as some in the media had suggested), the Club was brought together.
Was it the Saga we had to have? That would be too simplistic and would disrespect the reputations and contributions of those that lay tattered on the AFL landscape. This was a lesson that took the fall of multiple past heroes, the health and wellbeing of high-profile staff and players, and the imposition of a multimillion dollar fine for the Club to learn.
This is not to diminish the choices made by the previous administration. The distinction here is that fans must realise that winning is not an entitlement. Particularly at any cost.
To remain relevant in a highly competitive AFL environment, a Club must respect the past, cherish the now and have persistence and reinvent for the future. Glorious histories are easily eroded by a few poor choices. The Saga should teach us that we are not entitled to anything and that continuing to pursue Premiership number 17 and more requires a respect for impermanence - that everything is about now or start planning for a better tomorrow.
The Club has new administration, led by the youthful yet opportunistic Xavier Campbell. While shielded from the bulk of the Saga flak by Paul Little, Xavier Campbell was part of the leadership group that held down the defense and now laid the platform for the resurgence.
He has shown to be a man of reinvention and necessity. He had a job to do to retain sponsors and to ensure that fans continued to remain loyal to the Club. Not only did sponsors remain but Essendon has successfully added more.
In partnership with Chief Marketing Officer Justin Rodski, Essendon took every digital and physical means to be honest with fans and to give them a strong reason to remain members. The results are telling.
Fans returned in droves, gave up their dollars to support the comeback not only of the banned players but also of a Club willing to put in the hard work to earn back respect.
Administratively, Essendon lured Richmond’s Dan Richardson to head up its football operations. He replaced Rob Kerr, another stalwart during the Saga. This trend of hiring non-Essendon people is topped off with the appointment of Luke Ball to the rather modern day role of Manager, People Performance. Whatever that means.
This was a Club that traditionally tended to hire former Essendon people. Now, there is this infusion of quality, high-level external people.
Even the Board has strengthened its social media and digital experience adding Melissa Green (from the Melbourne Facebook office) and returned Katie Lio - a further sign that the Club was moving forward and more importantly, into the modern age.
The Executive Team also saw some changes with Adrian Dodoro receiving the vote of confidence for excellent recruitment over the difficult years. Here’s his list of accomplishments:
- In 2013, stripped of first round draft picks, the team trades Stewart Crameri and Scott Gumbleton for picks that became Zach Merrett and Orazio Fantasia respectively.
- In 2014, trades the unhappy Paddy Ryder and receives picks that became Kyle Langford and Adam Cooney (ok, this wasn’t that great). Adds the enigmatic Connor McKenna from the rookie draft.
- In 2015, trades the equally unhappy Jake Carlisle, the other Jake (Melksham), and Jonathan Giles receiving picks that became Aaron Francis and Mason Redman. This was also the rookie draft where Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti is officially added to Essendon’s list.
- In 2016, Dodoro sets up Essendon for the next five years. He picks Andrew McGrath over Hugh McCluggage and Tim Taranto at #1. Trades Michael Hibberd for picks that delivered Begley and Dylan Clark. He also astutely bid for Kobe Mutch which GWS didn’t match, while also picking up James Kelly, Matt Dea and Josh Green from the free agent pool. There was also the theft of James Stewart from GWS for pick 77 and craftily adds former soccer player Sam Draper in the rookie draft as a promising ruck prospect.
- In 2017, Dodoro is somehow imbued with the powers of Harry Potter, Lord Voldemort and Dumbledore all at once to trade brilliantly for Devon Smith, Adam Saad and held his nerve to acquire Jake Stringer. With the third last pick of the National draft (pick #76), he also picks up new hotness, Matt Guelfi. He who is the heir-apparent to Jayden Laverde’s potential (sorry).
In all, the administrative side of the Club has taken steps to improve operations and to modernise itself after a very testing period.
THE COACHING STAFF
John Worsfold had tough gig when he first came on. While there was the promise of a somewhat talented squad, this was quickly quashed by the bans. Rather than retreat, Worsfold’s first year was fruitful in accelerating player development.
Darcy Parish, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, Orazio Fantasia and Zach Merrett were forced to play time in the midfield and forward. At the same time, Worsfold reinvigorated future list players like Mitch Brown, Michael Hartley, Matt Dea and the now beloved, James Kelly.
In 2017, using some inventive forward line shenanigans, Essendon constructs its potent forward line consisting of talls Daniher, Hooker and the mobile Stewart, supported by the tackling genius of McDonald-Tipungwuti, Fantasia's speed and Green's hunger. Menacing in the air, efficient by foot with canny goal-sense and pressure on the ground.
All this seemed to come about when Skipworth, formerly the VFL and Development Coach, moved into the forward line role. That inventiveness earned him the promotion to midfield line coach for 2018. His vacancy was then filled by Paul Corrigan, the 2017 VFL coach. This was reward for taking the team into the finals and playing the Essendon brand of football.
Furthermore, James Kelly, reinvigorated by the challenge of nurturing a virtual rookie and cast-offs team, becomes a development coach. Even Mark Jamar, recruited as a ruck coach, donned the sash and played five games in 2016.
This reward for successful effort, of internal promotion is a sign of a contemporary organisation looking to improve. You do your job well, it will be recognised. It isn’t something you would typically associate with Essendon, particularly during the Sheedy years.
While sometimes driven by chance, the coaching panel was reinvented through major need. Staff have been promoted through visible effort, earning the right to greater responsibilities. And much like the squad they’re coaching, the panel has good days and bad days but they are working on their own improvement and the Club is better for that.
After five years in the wilderness of its own propagation, the Essendon Football Club has re-emerged a better version of itself. Every off-field component has been primed and the only station to pass for a complete resurrection is its performance on the field.
2017 held so much promise and it’s fair that this year is expected to be better. That part is for the players. The game plan, based on last year, appears sound. With an extra year to gel, the desire to win is high.
As fans, we tend to think of success in one year increments. Finals, Grand Finals, Premierships or bust. When you consider the body of work over the last three years, Essendon is reinvented, it is reborn. Perhaps a better frame of reference will be the next two years, then we judge if the resurrection is complete.