Mark Thompson: 'It's fantastic for them.' Photo: Getty Images
With his side's spot in the 2014 finals all but booked, Essendon coach Mark Thompson has paid tribute to the mental resolve of his players in overcoming the ongoing distractions of the long-running supplements saga.
The Bombers haven't played finals since 2011, when they were thrashed by Carlton in an elimination final, and haven't won a final since 2004. Thompson labelled the efforts of the players to get in a position to do so "incredible".
"We should be proud. I definitely am of the players," he said after the 19-point win over Gold Coast at Etihad Stadium. "They've been an incredible group. They've been dealt a hand that's been awful.
"So for them to make it, it's fantastic for them. I'm glad they get something out of it and that's the reason why we're all here. For them. Because they've been treated pretty badly. They haven't had great memories of finals, and then it got taken off them last year. Now I hope they do make amends. I hope we play a decent finals game."
Thompson said he believed the pressure on Essendon as its players attempted to perform against a background of uncertainty about their playing futures because of the ASADA saga had been underestimated.
"I've never experienced anything like it, not so much pressure on young men," he said. "It's easily understated how much pressure is on them. We just take it for granted now that we're allowed to do anything to them."
But proud as he was of his team's achievements this season, Thompson also conceded he was at a loss to discover a remedy to Essendon's mid-game lapses of concentration.
The Bombers' 24-point lead over Gold Coast midway through the third quarter evaporated as the Suns slammed on four straight goals, leading by six points midway through the final term before the Bombers kicked five of the last six goals.
"If I knew where the key was, I'd go and get it," he said. "I've tried everything. There has been times when I pressured them. I got some good results.
"But I went away and I thought you can't just challenge them all the time. You've got to cuddle them sometimes and tell them how good they are. We've exhausted things. You've constantly got that challenge of how are we going to get to change certain individuals. How do they learn? What's going to open up the lock?"
Typically, Thompson also found time for a laugh when asked about the difference between coaching his Geelong premiership sides and the Essendon of today.
"I work a bit harder here. I didn't have to do much [at Geelong]. I had all the staff all fine-tuned and the players knew how to play. It was a pretty easy job. I don't know why I gave it up," he chuckled.