LAST year the Bombers, under James Hird's watch, jumped from 14th on the ladder to eighth. But first-year coach Hird was not happy. Their one finals performance was a 10-goal belting from the Blues. They also suffered 10-goal defeats in the second half of the season to Hawthorn, Collingwood and West Coast. They didn't have the strength and staying power to match it with the better teams.
So over summer the Bombers bulked up. This year they have already squared the ledger with Carlton and West Coast and fell short by a point to Collingwood. Now they sit second on the ladder and their premiership odds have dropped from $26 in the pre-season to $9. So, can they actually win the flag? I think the answer has to be yes and here are five good reasons for saying so.
1. THE COACHING COMBINATION
James Hird and Mark Thompson like, respect and importantly trust each other. Photo: Mal Fairclough
Is there a better pair than Hird and Mark Thompson? They are Essendon - they are former premiership heroes and captains - and they are current; Hird as a player and Thompson as a premiership coach. Both like, respect and importantly trust each other. Thompson doesn't want the senior job. He's been there and done that. He just wants to make Hird and Essendon successful.
So it's a happy working environment, and the pair have the players eating out of their hands. The players hang off every word and are desperate to please and earn the respect of their mentors. It is the perfect situation for a football club.
2. IMPROVED DEFENCE
Essendon's defence is exemplified by captain Jobe Watson. Photo: Paul Rovere
Last year the Bombers leaked goals. The average score kicked against them was 102 points a game. It was embarrassingly bad, as the average score against for the top three teams (Hawthorn, Collingwood and Geelong) was 73. A defensive mindset had to be hit home and the implementation of strong defensive techniques had to be delivered. This year with stronger bodies, the Bombers tackle with intent. At the stoppages, Jobe Watson, Heath Hocking, Brent Stanton, David Zaharakis, Ben Howlett and Sam Lonergan no longer get pushed around. The ball is pushed forward more often and, when there, is locked in better than ever before.
The back-line six, led by Dustin Fletcher, is settled and have become very predictable to each other in the way they play. The end result is that the average score kicked against the Bombers is down to 78 points a game in 2012 - a whopping 24 points a game improvement on last year.
3. RUCK RESOLVED
Tom Bellchambers has proved to be the answer to Essendon's ruck problems. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
For the past few years, Essendon has experimented with three ruckmen. Now, with the improvement of 22-year-old Tom Bellchambers, its worries are over. Bellchambers, who is averaging 14 disposals and 27 hitouts a game, can do 70 per cent of the ruckwork and let Paddy Ryder do the remainder. It's good for Ryder to have some freedom from the pressures of the forward line, and Bellchambers can go forward as he is a strong overhead mark and good kick for goal.
It means David Hille is no longer in Essendon's best 22, but that's the price you pay for progress.
Thompson will be pushing Bellchambers all the way. He knows that to be successful, you need a ruckman who can go all day and get plenty of the ball at the same time. Brad Ottens at his best did it at Geelong. Bellchambers will only get better and will play a huge part in Essendon's future success.
Among Essendon's numerous goalkickers, Stewart Crameri is on track to kick 50-plus this season. Photo: Pat Scala PDS
4. GOAL SPREAD
The Bombers have plenty of goalkickers, which is the way you want it. Last year they averaged 100 points a game, which was top five. This year, it's 107 points a game and there is a healthy spread of goalkickers emerging. Stewart Crameri is on track to kick 50-plus goals for the season. Small men Leroy Jetta and Alwyn Davey are doing their bit and will net 30-plus, midfielders Stanton and Zaharakis will be 20-plus, as will tall forwards Ryder and Michael Hurley. The Geelong model of having eight or nine players who score 20-plus goals a season is being closely adopted by the Bombers.
5. IMPROVEMENT FROM WITHIN
Courtenay Dempsey has returned from serious injury full of confidence and creativity to be in his best form across half-back. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
One of the hallmarks of really good coaches is their ability to get the best out of what they have to work with. Hird is doing this. In the space of 18 months, he has taken many of his players to new levels. Former Bombers star Scott Lucas told me last week that he was amazed at the improvement in so many of his old teammates. He mentioned the gut running of Stanton, which had lifted his possession rate.
Bellchambers' hitouts to advantage have gone through the roof, as has his contested marking. Crameri's strength and agility make him difficult to match up on and, but for his wayward kicking, would be the Coleman Medal leader.
Jake Melksham has benefited from a big weights program. He is stronger in the contest and his kicking has become elite. Courtenay Dempsey has returned from serious injury full of confidence and creativity to be in his best form across half-back.
So yes, things are looking good for the team I barracked for as a kid.
I recently asked Tim Watson if there was any room for me on the Essendon bandwagon, and whether I'd be welcome. He answered in the negative on both counts.