Essendon is a broken club, both on and off the field.
The Bombers, who on Saturday night finished the season the way they started with a 66-point loss, are on the hunt for a new coach after Ben Rutten was sacked by the club’s board.
New club president Dave Barham said Essendon wants “success as quickly as possible” for its members. Therefore Rutten, according to the board, was not the man to take the club forward after a season that yielded just seven wins.
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The Bombers last week made an audacious, last-minute play for superstar coaching free agent Alastair Clarkson amid reports he was over the line at North Melbourne. Clarkson met with Barham out of respect, but later admitted during his unveiling as Kangaroos coach he had no intentions of having “ongoing discussions with the Bombers” due to the 11th-hour nature of the pitch.
Clarkson would’ve been a terrific coup if the Bombers had landed him. After all, he was able to turn one big Victorian club around in Hawthorn after it too found itself lacking direction in the early part of the millennium.
Now Essendon is back to square one, with Barham saying “a more experienced coach might be able to get more out of this list”.
The club is hopeful it’ll be in a good position to announce its next coach by the end of September. Whoever steps into the role will have a huge job ahead of them to repair it.
While the Bombers had a trickier draw this year compared to their 2021 campaign that led to a finals appearance, it was the way they lost many of their games, particularly their lack of defensive accountability, that left AFL pundits and Essendon fans frustrated.
“Right now they lack system, they lack motivation and they lack standards as a footy club and I reckon the Essendon faithful are sick of it,” dual North Melbourne premiership player David King told First Crack.
“I’m looking at the Essendon hierarchy – are they ruthless enough from the top down?
“The 2020 Worsfold handover year, six-and-a-half wins – Rutten was in charge of the tactical side of the game then. They won 11 games last year, they’ve won (seven) this year.”
Triple premiership Brisbane forward Jonathan Brown told On The Couch Essendon “has wallowed all over the shop for the last 20 years”, while Melbourne Team of the Century member Garry Lyon added: “This is a big, massive football club who have been sitting in the dark for too long.”
These are some of the major issues facing Essendon that will be at the top of the new coach’s agenda.
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Sweeping changes will need to be made to the Bombers’ off-field operations.
The board has just undergone a civil war and emerged with a new president in Barham, who replaced Paul Brasher a day after Essendon’s humiliating 84-point loss to Port Adelaide.
Barham called for an external review of the club, so you get the feeling both Rutten and Brasher won’t be the only casualties of a significant and much-needed clean-out.
The board has been racked by politics, power hunger and self-preservation for years, with club legend Matthew Lloyd of the belief that some higher-ups have “protected their own patches of turf”.
“I’ve been frustrated for years, and I suppose over the last number of years you might change a head of footy, you might change a coach, or an assistant coach, but nothing ever really changes,” Lloyd told 3AW.
“You feel like guys have protected their own patches of turf because of their appointments, but now I think this is the first time where you think things could seriously change for the better with Dave Barham coming in.
“Paul Brasher has wanted nothing but the best for the football club, he’s a good person, but what’s going on at the moment hasn’t worked.
“What we saw (against Port Adelaide) in a seven-win season, to see them lifeless, spiritless, it looked like the performance of a coach who’s about to go.
“I think the CEO needs to be looked at, the head of footy … needs to be seriously looked at as part of this external review.”
As Lloyd pointed out, chief executive Xavier Campbell, one of the key stumbling blocks along with Brasher in the way of Essendon pursuing Clarkson earlier than they did, could be in danger of losing his job, especially as he devised the calamitous Worsfold-Rutten coaching handover and despite the fact he re-signed for two years earlier this year.
Bombers great Tim Watson said last week he couldn’t see Campbell continuing in his role. Barham said Campbell had the board’s “full support”, while Campbell said he felt “supported”. Time will tell.
Should the new coach be “experienced”, as per Barham’s wishes, they’d likely want to bring lieutenants to the club. What that would mean for the likes of football manager Josh Mahoney, as well as assistant coaches Blake Caracella, Daniel Giansiracusa, Dale Tapping and Leigh Tudor and long-time recruiter Adrian Dodoro, remains to be seen.
Over the course of two decades, Essendon’s reputation as a ruthless, hard-nosed club under Kevin Sheedy has slowly but surely evaporated.
It is now a shambles, having now begun its search for an eighth senior coach since Sheedy departed 15 years ago (including caretakers, and excluding one-game Covid replacement Caracella).
“When was the last time Essendon were genuinely ruthless as a football club? It was a long time ago,” King said.
The protracted supplement saga has clearly made the club image conscious and PR-cautious. Its main objective since has been to be liked rather than respected.
But that image hasn’t paid off on the field, with another three finals losses extending their 18-year September losing streak to seven matches. In fact, Sheedy is still the only man who has coached the Bombers to a finals win in the last 54 years.
That all has to change.
As an extension of the previous point, leadership has been a huge issue for Essendon, again both on and off the field.
The off-field struggles have already been touched on, so the on-field problems will now be put under the microscope.
Dyson Heppell has been a tremendous servant of the footy club and captain for six seasons. But pundits were critical of the Bombers this year for a lack of guidance on the field when the going got tough. This was apparent in games against Geelong, Fremantle, Sydney (in Round 9), GWS and Port Adelaide (Round 22) especially.
On each of those occasions, the Dons just let the game slip away and showed little resistance as their opponents got a run-on.
“Essendon have been this year, and for a period, a club devoid of system, of leadership on-field, we see it every week, and of standards and accountability,” St Kilda legend Nick Riewoldt told On The Couch.
To drive home this point, King highlighted vision from the second quarter against the Power when Bombers players were walking and allowing their opponents to get forward of the ball.
“This is Essendon in a nutshell,” King lamented.
“How lax is this? Have a look at them just standing around, ambling around. This is the forward 50. There’s 10 players within arm’s reach of this stoppage. That (game style) is going nowhere.
“I can’t understand what they look at when they review games at the moment if that is the output of a weekend.
“We can only judge the actions they put in front of us – that is not AFL standard.”
The likes of Heppell, Zach Merrett and Andrew McGrath all made strong public statements throughout the course of the year. But their actions did not marry up with their words, according to Riewoldt.
“How many times have we heard the club this year say, ‘We don’t stand for that’, yet it keeps happening,” Riewoldt said.
It could be time for Heppell to hand over the captaincy – something that will, obviously, happen if he joins Gold Coast. Should Heppell not be Essendon skipper next year, the new coach will have to identify a replacement to drive the high standards.
The knock on former Richmond captain Trent Cotchin for a while was that he was perhaps a bit too nice. But he transformed himself into a tough and hard-at-it skipper that led from the front to guide the Tigers to three premierships.
Merrett will most likely be Essendon’s next captain. But is he capable of undergoing a Cotchin-like transformation?
Of all the issues that are apparent in Essendon’s style of play, defence is clearly the most glaring one.
Overall, they ranked 16th for points conceded and opposition score per inside 50, as well as 17th for both opposition defensive 50 to inside 50 percentage and opposition points from defensive half.
The Bombers seemed incapable of whole-ground defence, often found badly wanting when opposition sides transition up the ground from their backline.
Again, the Port Adelaide game was a prime example of this serious problem. On numerous occasions, Power players found themselves streaming up the middle of the ground under virtually no pressure. It was a damning display from the Bombers.
Injecting defensive steel to all aspects of the Bombers’ game plan next year will be the new coach’s top priority.
With Devon Smith, Michael Hurley and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti retiring this year, the Bombers now have three players aged 29 or older: Dylan Shiel, Heppell and Andrew Phillips.
And with the future of Heppell up in the air, the Bombers could have a major lack of experience next season, which would compound the issues they already have in the leadership department.
This is a huge concern, because the Bombers actually have a decent core of younger players, but they need to be guided in the right way. The club could look to experienced players from other clubs to fill the void.
But a lack of experience isn’t the only gaping hole on Essendon’s list. The absence of McDonald-Tipungwuti has been telling this year, so the Bombers desperately need another pressure small forward. That’s why they are pursuing North Melbourne’s Cam Zurhaar.
They could probably do with another key forward to not only help Peter Wright but also assist in the development of Harrison Jones and fill in if/when Jones loses form, or either Wright or Jones get injured.
The Dons could also definitely do with another big body or two in the midfield, while another key-position player down back wouldn’t go astray to bolster their defensive depth.