ESSENDON coach James Hird, interviewed on SEN the other day, was asked a question about the importance of the lesser lights to a team's continued improvement.
After responding appropriately, he was asked a question about midfielder Ben Howlett. Hird paused for a moment. Sounding almost taken aback, he responded: ''I wouldn't call him one of our lesser lights. He was outstanding on the weekend, and has been outstanding all year.''
Which, in a nutshell, said plenty about the course Essendon has plotted since the return of old boys Hird and Mark Thompson to take over the coaching reins.
For while the arrival of whiz-kid Dyson Heppell and the upward developmental curves of early draftees David Zaharakis and now Michael Hurley have helped, it has been the improvement of a range of once less-heralded types that has had as much to do with the Bombers now being seen as a side with sufficient talent and depth to do far more than make a token finals appearance over the next few seasons.
Stewart Crameri seemed to come from nowhere to become a major forward target. The once injury-prone and erratic Courtenay Dempsey has become a reliable contributor. But even they haven't had the sort of impact Howlett has had this year in a midfield for a long time dismissed as paper-thin and far too reliant on skipper Jobe Watson.
While Howlett's is a name that isn't among the first mentioned by those outside Windy Hill, after finishing in the top 10 in last year's best and fairest, this year he has taken another stride that's been so considerable that if the count was held now, he would have to be running second or third to Watson.
To shut Essendon's supply down is no longer nearly so simple, and last week's important win away to Port Adelaide was a perfect example. With Watson and Brent Stanton well held early, Zaharakis out injured, and Heath Hocking serving an untimely suspension, it was Howlett who held things together, so well that the out-of-sorts Dons were able to still stay in touch with, then overrun, the Power. ''He works extremely hard, he and [midfield coach] Simon Goodwin have done a power of work together,'' said a clearly admiring coach. ''I thought on the weekend he got us over the line with his continual hard running and his ability to win the contested footy, but also use it pretty well now.''
Howlett is one, though, for whom former Bomber coach Matthew Knights also deserves some credit, taking a calculated punt to elevate him from rookie status days before the start of the 2010 season after an outstanding pre-season. He hadn't been an initial part of Knights' senior plans, but forced his way in through sheer weight of numbers in the practice matches.
And gradual improvement has been pretty much the Howlett story since, his numbers in the most important statistical categories rising steadily to the point where he is now ranked second in the AFL for tackles, 30 per cent more than any of his teammates and, at his club, third for disposals. He is also second only to the perennial No. 1 Watson for clearances and contested ball.
Hird's ''now'' in relation to Howlett's ball use indicates where much of this year's extra level has been found, the 23-year-old also rating highly for effective kicking and goal assists.
But the current coach was happier to concede yesterday that an obvious personal favourite was perhaps only now creeping into the consciousness of others outside the Bomber coaching panel.
''I think Ben's even gone under the radar here a little bit, in terms of what he's done in the last 18 months and the way he's developed,'' he said. ''His hardness at the ball, his willingness to put his body on the line and then spread from the contest has been exceptional.''
You could sense the extra satisfaction for a coach in a player who comes without the frills and without the reputation turning into something a lot more than many would have bargained for.
''That's probably one of the big principles that Mark Thompson's brought to the club,'' Hird said. ''Find your own players and put as much time into them as you can, develop them as players. That seems to be working for us as a club.'' It's certainly working for Howlett, too.