Stuck in the middle with you: Essendon are in no man’s land

Stuck in the middle with you: Essendon are in no man’s land

The Essendon Bombers have gone fifteen seasons without a finals victory – their last coming in 2004 – and if their performance against St Kilda on Sunday is any indication, 2020 is looking like it will be No.16.

With six games left in their season the club sit in 11th spot on the ladder with a percentage of 86.1, the fifth-worst of any side in the AFL.

Their remaining matches are against Richmond, West Coast, Geelong and Port Adelaide – four sides currently in the AFL’s top six – as well as Hawthorn and Melbourne.

Simply put, a finals appearance from here would require them to not just to engineer a stunning reversal of form, but to do it against some of the best sides in the competition – unlikely to say the least.

That’s a poor result for a side whose recent list management decisions have publicly broadcast their intentions to contend for the premiership.

Essendon haven’t taken a first-round selection at the draft due to 2016, trading away three consecutive top picks in the pursuit of mature players like Dylan Shiel and Devon Smith.

Taken individually most of those moves have been successful. Smith has won a best-and-fairest at the club, Adam Saad is an All Australian threat, Stringer has played plenty of good football.

Shiel has delivered everything Essendon could’ve reasonably expected of him. He’s probably not living up to the price tag of two first-round picks, but who does?

Good individual decisions however can still be part of a bad strategy, and Essendon’s focus on mature recruits in recent years has put them in a no man’s land where it’s not clear what direction they’re going in.

David Zaharakis of the Bombers handballs

Two things in particular have undone them. The first is that they probably overestimated where their list was at off the back of making the finals in 2017.

It was a great moment for the club to return to September footy after winning the spoon the year beforehand, but an underrated factor in their performance that year was the contributions of some soon-to-retire veterans.

Jobe Watson and James Kelly both played important roles during the year – Kelly finishing top-ten in the best and fairest – but called an end to their careers after the elimination final loss.

The second is the injuries of Joe Daniher. When they started targeting mature players at the end of 2017, he had played 45 games for 108 goals in the previous two seasons – in two and a half years since, he’s played 11 for 15.

No doubt part of the impetus for the pursuit of mature players would’ve been the desire to build a team around Daniher and strike at the premiership during his peak years, an opportunity that simply hasn’t materialised.

And no matter how deep heads are buried in the sand it now seems inevitable that it’s simply not going to. Daniher appears destined to change colours at the end of the year and has probably already played his last game for the club.

That leaves Essendon in an awkward position: having a mature core that is competitive when fit but probably not enough so to contend, but only a middling youth contingent compared to the wider competition.

The development of Andrew McGrath and Jordan Ridley have been probably the best stories to follow for Bombers fans this year, but no other side in the league has seen fewer games played by players 20 and under in 2020.

2020 has been a difficult year on the injury front – on Sunday they were missing Dyson Heppell, Orazio Fantasia, Cale Hooker, Jake Stringer and of course Joe Daniher – and also ‘managing’ the likes of David Zaharakis, Devon Smith, Tom Bellchambers and Aaron Francis.

There’s no doubt that given a better run with injury they would be a better side, quite likely in or around that fifth-eight bracket once again.

Joe Daniher

But is there enough emerging talent on the list to do better than that? Right now the situation’s uncertain, and it will only become more so when Daniher departs.

That leaves Essendon with two options: top-up again and hope that whatever set of mature recruits comes next proves to be the one that makes their present malaise a thing of the past.

Or, return to the draft and follow the path that’s more likely to eventually produce results, but will be asking for yet more patience from a fan-base who’ve already given fifteen years of it.

Both paths have some merit, neither is entirely appealing. That’s the awkward position Essendon find themselves in: stuck in the middle, a place AFL clubs often find it hard to get out of.

Can they fare better than past sides who’ve spent time floundering about in footy’s no man’s land? Only time will tell.