Essendon is one of only a handful of Melbourne-based clubs about which merger speculation has not focused in recent years. Indeed, since the mid 1990s the Bombers have rivalled Collingwood as Victoria's best supported club, and while nothing is certain, either in life or in football, it is hard not to see the club returning to the forefront of the game sooner rather than later. At the forefront of the game is where the 'Same Old' has spent the majority of its existence as a football club.
Some doubt exists as to precisely when the Essendon Football Club came into being, with 1871, '72 and '73 all being suggested as possible starting dates. What can not be doubted, however, is the immense, indeed almost unequalled, contribution made by Essendon over the years to the sport of Australian football both within and beyond the state of Victoria.
Equally, there seems little doubt that, whatever the exact date of its formation, the club's first official fixture took place on 7 June 1873 against Carlton's second twenty, Essendon achieving victory by the only goal.
Essendon, which from the outset was known as the 'Same Old' , was formed by a group with extensive farming and horse racing interests, prominent among whom were various members of the McCracken family. Robert McCracken was the club's first president, while his son Alex was appointed the club's first secretary at the age of just seventeen and later went on to serve as president of both Essendon (between 1887 and 1903) and the VFL (from its inception in 1897 until 1915). Another McCracken, Coiler (also sometimes referred to as 'Colyer'), Alex's nephew, was the Same Old's first captain.
At first Essendon was regarded as a junior club, and even after the formation of the VFA in 1877 the side was sometimes allowed 'odds' of, for example, twenty five players as against twenty, when confronted by the leading teams of the time.
During its early years in the Association Essendon played its home matches at Flemington Hill, but in 1882 it made a controversial move to the East Melbourne Cricket Ground which was situated near the centre of the city. The move made it easier for players to travel to training but also had the adverse side effect of disenfranchising many of the club's supporters. Nevertheless, the team continued to show improvement on the field, finishing second on three occasions during the 1880s, and attracting ever larger crowds to their games.
In 1883, Essendon travelled to Adelaide where it engaged in four matches, winning 3 and losing 1, and in 1888 it was one of several VFA clubs to confront a team of visiting English rugby players who played rugby while in New Zealand and New South Wales, and Australian football in Victoria and South Australia. Essendon won 7.16 to 3.5 (behinds were recorded in the score at this time, but were not actually to count until 1897).
In 1891, Essendon was the supreme side in the Association, comfortably securing the premiership with only 1 loss from 20 matches played. The following season saw the arrival of one of the club's and the game's greatest ever players, Albert Thurgood, [^1] who kicked a VFA record 56 goals for the year as Essendon once more marched triumphantly to the premiership, again with only a single defeat all season. In 1893 the team did even better, securing the premiership without losing once, and in 1894 it made it four premierships in a row with 16 wins and a draw from 18 matches. All told, Essendon won 66 and drew 8 of 77 VFA competition matches played during the period 1891-94, and if you add the 18 wins recorded in games against intercolonial opposition during that time you are left in little doubt of their pedigree.
In 1895, Albert Thurgood moved to Western Australia and this coincided with a slump in Essendon's fortunes. Nevertheless, the Same Old were still very much perceived as being among the Association elite, a fact brought dramatically into focus at the end of the 1896 season when they joined seven other leading clubs in establishing a break away body, the Victorian Football League. An implicit purpose of the schism was to raise the profile of football by providing a competition which was evenly contested and of a high overall standard, traits which had been notoriously lacking in the VFA over the previous few seasons.
Essendon made a welcome return to prominence in 1897, winning 14 out of 17 matches including all 3 games in the round robin finals series to conclusively clinch the inaugural VFL premiership. Notable members of the side included ruckman Charles 'Tracker' Forbes, rovers George Vautin and Arthur Cleghorn, half back and captain George Stuckey, forward Pat O'Loughlin and half forward August Officer.
The 1898 season saw Essendon participate in the club's first ever grand final but Fitzroy scored what was widely considered a surprise 15 point victory, 5.8 (38) to 3.5 (23). A crowd of 16,538 watched the match and saw Fitzroy take an early lead which was never relinquished.
Albert Thurgood returned to the club in 1899 but the Same Old had a disappointing year to finish 5th. The 1900 season saw marginal improvement with the side ending up in 3rd spot before, in 1901, celebrating the proclamation of the Commonwealth of Australia with a convincing 6.7 (43) to 2.4 (16) grand final triumph over Collingwood. [^2] Best afield was the inimitable Thurgood who kicked 3 of his side's goals including 1 from an immense place kick which was reputed to have covered 93 yards (or 85.04 metres). Others to do well in a game watched by 30,031 spectators at South Melbourne included centre half back Hugh Gavin, centreman Harry Wright, rover Bill Griffith, and follower John 'Dookie' McKenzie. [^3]
Collingwood gained revenge over Essendon a year later, comprehensively winning the 1902 grand final by 33 points, 9.6 (60) to 3.9 (27). This precipitated a period in the doldrums for the Same Old with the team unable to rise above 4th place in any of the next five seasons. However, after an unprecedented drop to the wooden spoon in 1907 the side roared back the following year to reach the grand final and give Jack Worrall's magnificent Carlton combination a real fright, eventually going down by only 9 points after adding 1.4 to 0.1 in the second half.
By strange coincidence, three years later it was Worrall who was responsible for steering Essendon to its 7th premiership, and the 3rd since the formation of the VFL. Worrall, who had led Carlton to three consecutive premierships from 1906-8 was an immediate success with the black and reds, inspiring them to 15 wins and a draw from 18 home and away matches followed by a comfortable 21 point victory over his old club in the second semi final. In the grand final, played in front of 43,905 people at the MCG, Essendon led Collingwood narrowly at every change en route to a tense and hard fought 6 point win. Ruckman Fred Baring was best afield followed by rover Ernie Cameron, centreman Bill Sewart, wingman Pat Shea and half forward Percy Ogden. Final scores were Essendon 5.11 (41); Collingwood 4.11 (35). Football journalist 'Follower' commented that:
The victory of Essendon emphasises the previously well recognised fact that any team enjoying the benefit of Worrall's instruction and coaching has an immense advantage over its rivals. [^4]
After the grand final Essendon travelled to Adelaide to contest the Championship of Australia against SANFL premiers West Adelaide. However, the home side won by 3 points, 8.9 (57) to 7.12 (54).
Essendon enjoyed another successful season in 1912 culminating in a 5.17 (47) to 4.9 (33) defeat of minor premiers South Melbourne in the challenge final before an Australian record attendance for any sporting event held up to that time of 54,563. As in 1911, Fred Baring was the outstanding player afield, with Bill Sewart, Percy Ogden, half back flanker Len Bowe and centre half forward Frank Caine also prominent.
The red and black era of dominance came to an abrupt end in 1913 as the Same Old dropped to 8th (out of 10) with only half a dozen wins for the year. It was to be another decade before the side would even contest a finals series. In the meantime the club actually dropped out of the league in 1916 and 1917 after proposals that "all players play as amateurs" and "all gate receipts and membership subscriptions be pooled and held in trust by the League and at the end of the season be handed over to the Patriotic Funds"[^5] were rejected by the VFL.
The 1922 season saw the club re-locate to Napier Street, Essendon, after the Essendon Council indicated a willingness to spend over £12,000 to bring the facilities there up to League standard. The red and blacks celebrated by reaching the final four for the first time since 1912, eventually ending up in third place.
There was better to come. In 1923 the Same Old topped the ladder with 13 wins from 16 games and then survived the indignity of a 17 point second semi final loss to South Melbourne to overcome Fitzroy, conquerors of South Melbourne, in the challenge final by the same margin. Final scores were Essendon 8.15 (63); Fitzroy 6.10 (46) with starring roles for the Same Old coming from half forward flanker George 'Tich' Shorten, centre half forward Justin McCarthy, centre half back Tom Fitzmaurice, rover Frank Maher and wingman Jack Garden.
1924 proved to be arguably the strangest year in Essendon's entire history. For the first time since 1897 there was no ultimate match, be it challenge final or grand final, to determine the premiers; instead, the top 4 clubs after the home and away season played a round robin series of matches to determine the premiers. The result was an anti climax of the highest order with Essendon, having previously defeated both Fitzroy (by 40 points) and South Melbourne (by 33 points) 'clinching' the premiership by means of a 20 point loss to Richmond. With the Tigers having already lost a match to Fitzroy by a substantial margin the Same Old were declared premiers by virtue of their superior percentage, but rarely if ever can there have been such a hollow feeling accompanying a premiership success.
There was worse to follow, with various Essendon players publicly blaming each other for the poor performance against Richmond, and then, with dissension still rife in the ranks, the side plummeted to an embarrassing 28 point loss to VFA premiers Footscray in a special charity match played a week later, purportedly (but not officially) for the championship of Victoria. Rumours surfaced that several players had received inducements to 'play dead', and although the veracity of the allegations was never proven, the club's image was tarnished, and the side experienced its lowest period during the decade that followed, with poor results on the field and decreased support off it.
While it is always difficult to assess the damage caused by events such as those which beset the Same Old at the tail end of the 1924 season it is undeniable that the club's fortunes dipped alarmingly, and persistently, in the wake of these events. Indeed, after finishing third in 1926, it was to be fourteen long years before Essendon would even experience the thrill of contesting a finals series. This is all the more surprising when you consider that players of the calibre of Dick Reynolds, Keith Forbes, Jack Vosti, Roland Watt, Howard Okey, Len Webster, Edward 'Nipper' Freyer and Tom Clarke represented the red and blacks during these years.
Dick Reynolds, who made his Essendon debut in 1933, was one of the greatest champions that the game has ever seen. Thrice winner of the Brownlow Medal, Reynolds went on to arguably even greater achievements as a coach, a position to which he was first appointed, jointly with Harry Hunter, in 1939 (this was while Reynolds was still a player). A year later he took the reins on a solo basis and was rewarded with immediate success (at least in terms of expectations at the time which, after so long in the wilderness, were understandably somewhat modest), when the side finished 3rd. Melbourne, which defeated Essendon by just 5 points in the preliminary final, later went on to trounce Richmond by 39 points in the grand final.
The 1941 season brought Essendon's first grand final appearance since 1923, but the side lowered its colours to Melbourne. A year later, however, with Western Australian Wally Buttsworth in irrepressible form at centre half back, the Same Old broke through for a long awaited premiership after comprehensively outclassing Richmond in the grand final, 19.18 (132) to 11.13 (79). The match was played at Carlton in front of 49,000 spectators, and although there were some who suggested that the achievement was devalued because of Geelong's absence from the competition owing to war time travelling restrictions, needless to say this was not an opinion subscribed to at Essendon.
In any case, there could be no such reservations about Essendon's next premiership, which came just four years later. Prior to that the Same Old lost a hard fought grand final to Richmond in 1943 by 5 points, finished 3rd in 1944, and dropped to 8th in 1945.
In 1946, however, Essendon were clearly the VFL's supreme force, topping the ladder after the roster games and surviving a drawn second semi final against Collingwood to win through to the grand final a week later with a 10.16 (76) to 8.9 (57) triumph. Then, in the grand final against Melbourne, the Same Old put in a vintage all round performance to overhaul the Fuchsias' seven year old grand final record score by 2 points, and, of much greater significance of course, win the premiership at a canter. Final scores were Essendon 22.18 (150) to Melbourne 13.9 (87), with 7 goal centre half forward Gordon Lane, livewire rover Bill Hutchinson, and defenders Wally Buttsworth, Cec Ruddell and Harold Lambert among the linchpins of the red and blacks' success.
The 1947 grand final has to go down in he ledger as 'one of the ones that got away', Essendon losing to Carlton by a single point despite managing 30 scoring shots to 21. Then, as if to prove that lightning does occasionally strike twice, the second of the 'ones that got away' came just a year later, the Dons finishing with a lamentable 7.27 (of which full forward Bill Brittingham contributed 2.12) to tie with Melbourne (who managed 10.9) in the 1948 grand final. A week later the Same Old waved the premiership good-bye as Melbourne raced to a 13.11 (89) to 7.8 (50) triumph. The club's Annual Report made an assessment that was at once restrained and, as was soon to emerge, tacitly and uncannily prophetic:
.... it is very apparent that no team is complete without a spearhead and your committee has high hopes of rectifying that fault this coming season. [^6]
The 1949 season heralded the arrival on the VFL scene of John Coleman, arguably the greatest player in Essendon's history, and, in the view of some, the finest player the game has known. In his first ever appearance for the Dons, against Hawthorn in round 1 1949, he booted 12 of his side's 18 goals to create an opening-round record which was to endure for 45 years. More importantly, however, he went on to maintain the same high level of performance throughout the season, kicking precisely 100 goals for the year to become the first player to 'top the ton' since Richmond's Jack Titus in 1940.
The Coleman factor was just what Essendon needed to enable them to take that vital final step to premiership glory, but even so it was not until the business end of the season that this became clear. The Bombers (as they were popularly known by this time) struggled to qualify for the finals in 4th place, but once there they suddenly ignited to put in one of the most consistently devastating September performances in VFL history.
Collingwood succumbed first as the Dons powered their way to an 82 point first semi final victory, and a fortnight later it was the turn of North Melbourne as Essendon won the preliminary final a good deal more comfortably than the ultimate margin of 17 points suggested. In the grand final the Same Old were pitted against Carlton and in a match that was a total travesty as a contest they overwhelmed the Blues to the tune of 73 points, 18.17 (125) to 6.16 (52). Best for the Dons included pacy half back flanker Norm McDonald, ruckman Bob McLure, and rovers Bill Hutchison and Ron McEwin. John Coleman also did well, registering 6 majors.
A year later Essendon was if anything even more dominant, defeating North Melbourne in both the second semi final and the grand final to secure consecutive VFL premierships for the third time. Best afield in the grand final in what was officially his swansong as a player was captain-coach Dick Reynolds, who received sterling support from the likes of Norm McDonald, ruckman/back pocket Wally May, back pocket Les Gardiner, and big Bob McLure.
With 'King Dick' still holding court as coach in 1951, albeit now in a non-playing capacity, Essendon seemed on course for a third consecutive flag but a controversial four week suspension dished out to John Coleman on the eve of the finals effectively put paid to their chances. Coleman was reported for retaliation after twice being struck by his Carlton opponent, Harry Caspar, and without him the Dons were rated a 4 goals poorer team. Nevertheless, they still managed to battle their way to a 6th successive grand final with wins over Footscray by 8 points in the second semi final and Collingwood by 2 points in the preliminary final.
The Dons sustained numerous injuries in the preliminary final and the selectors sprang a surprise on grand final day by naming the officially retired Dick Reynolds as 20th man. 'King Dick' was powerless to prevent the inevitable, however, as Geelong kept their noses in front all day to notch victory by 11 points.
Essendon slumped to 8th in 1952 but John Coleman was in irrepressible form managing 103 goals for the year. Hugh Buggy noted in 'The Argus':
It was the wettest season for twenty two years and Coleman showed that since the war he was without peer in the art of goalkicking. [^7]
Two seasons later Coleman's career was tragically ended after he dislocated a knee during the round 8 clash with North Melbourne at Essendon. Aged just twenty-five, he had kicked 537 goals in only 98 VFL games in what was generally a fairly low scoring period for the game. His meteoric rise and fall were clearly the stuff of legend and few, if any, players - either before or since - have had such an immense impact over so brief a period.
According to Alf Brown, football writer for 'The Herald':
(Coleman) had all football's gifts. He was courageous, a long, straight kick, he had a shrewd football brain and, above all, he was a spectacular, thrilling mark. [^8]
Somewhat more colourfully, R.S. Whittington suggested,
"Had he been a trapeze artist in a strolling circus, Coleman could have dispensed with the trapeze." [^9]
Without Coleman, Essendon's fortunes plummeted, and there were to be no further premierships in the 1950s. The nearest miss came in 1957 when the Bombers earned premiership favouritism after a superb 16-point second semi-final defeat of Melbourne, only to succumb by over 10 goals against the same side a fortnight later.
Another grand final loss to Melbourne resulted in 1959, this time by 37 points, but the fact that the average age of the Essendon side was only 22 was seen as providing considerable cause for optimism. However, it was to take another three years, and a change of coach, before the team's obvious potential was translated into tangible success.
John Coleman returned to the club as senior coach in 1961 but a severe bout of hepatitis during the season prevented his exerting as great an impact as he would have liked. The Bombers finished a disappointing 7th that season, with nine wins and a draw from 18 matches, but in 1962 they were well nigh invincible. After sustaining only two defeats all year in the roster matches, they comprehensively overran Geelong in the second semi final by 46 points to enter the grand final as virtually unbackable favourites. Once there, they never looked in danger, and Carlton went the same way as the Cats, the margin this time being 32 points. Best for Essendon in a 13.12 (90) to 8.10 (58) triumph watched by a crowd of 98,385 were rovers Jack Clarke and John Birt, ruck rover Hugh Mitchell, ruckman Geoff Leek and half back flanker Alec Epis.
Journalist Alf Brown had no doubt as to who deserved the lion's share of the credit:
When Essendon play their first League match at home next season they will unfurl a pennant which will read 'VFL Premiers 1962'. Underneath it should be 'By courtesy of John Coleman'. [^10]
In 1963, the Bomber missed the finals on percentage while in 1964 they went down by 19 points to Geelong in the first semi final. Essendon fans with long memories could have been excused for experiencing a sense of déjà vu a year later when, just as in 1949, the team qualified for the finals in 4th place and then proceeded to sweep all before them in a triumphant march to the premiership. Geelong in the first semi final were the first to go by the wayside, the Bombers getting home by 52 points, 14.19 (103) to 7.9 (51). Next it was Collingwood to the tune of 55 points, 14.13 (97) to 6.6 (42), and in the grand final there was only one side in it all day as Essendon overwhelmed St Kilda by 35 points, 14.21 (105) to 9.16 (70). Ruckman Brian Sampson and 7 goal full forward Ted Fordham vied for best afield honours, with centre half forward Ken Fraser, half forward flanker Geoff Gosper and half back flanker Barry Davis also performing impressively.
St Kilda gained revenge over the Bombers in 1966 with a 42 point preliminary final victory, and at the end of the following season, which saw Essendon finish in 6th position, John Coleman was forced by continuing health problems to resign as coach.
His replacement was another Bomber legend, Jack Clarke, who had retired as a player early the previous season after a career total of 263 VFL games. On taking up the appointment Clarke announced:
"I don't propose to make any radical changes in training routine, but I want to try to put more fun and enjoyment back into football. I would like to prove that football is not the deadly thing that people like to make out it is." [^11]
There was plenty of enjoyment for Essendon supporters for most of the 1968 season as the side finished the home and away games in pole position, but things turned sour very quickly come September as Carlton proved their superiority in both the second semi final (by 36 points) and grand final (by 3 points). Interspersed between these two matches there was a comfortable 24 point triumph over Geelong in the preliminary final, but on grand final day, despite the narrow margin, 116,828 spectators were seldom in any real doubt as to where the 1968 VFL premiership pennant was heading.
There was plenty of enjoyment for Essendon supporters for most of the 1968 season as the side finished the roster games in pole position, but things turned sour very quickly come September as Carlton proved their superiority in both the second semi final (by 36 points) and grand final (by 3 points). Interspersed between these two matches there was a comfortable 24 point triumph over Geelong in the preliminary final, but on grand final day, despite the narrow margin, 116,828 spectators were seldom in any real doubt as to where the 1968 VFL premiership pennant was heading.
The 1968 grand final defeat signalled the start of a prolonged barren spell for the Bombers under a succession of coaches. After Jack Clarke's departure at the end of the 1970 season John Birt took the helm for a single unsuccessful twelve month stint, following which Des Tuddenham (1972-75), Bill Stephen (1976-77), and Barry Davis (1978-80) all experienced similar levels of frustration.
The arrival of former Prahran and Richmond champion Kevin Sheedy in 1981, however, heralded a change of fortune. Sheedy, a veteran of 251 games with the Tigers, had actually barracked for Essendon as a boy, and indeed the Bombers had previously sought to appoint him as coach as early as 1976.
Under Sheedy the Bombers won an unprecedented 15 home-and-away matches in a row between rounds 7 and 21. They also won three consecutive night series games during the same period, including a 24-point victory over eventual day premiers Carlton in the night grand final. The finals proved a major disappointment, however, with Essendon bowing out to Fitzroy, a team which often seemed to have Essendon's measure during this period, in the elimination final.
The 1982 season ended in similar fashion with North Melbourne ousting the Bombers from premiership contention in the elimination final, 19.14 (128) to 16.19 (115). In 1983, however, the Sheedy formula finally appeared to be working, and finals defeats of Carlton (by 33 points), Fitzroy (by 23 points) and North Melbourne (by 86 points) gave the club its first grand final appearance for 15 years. Once there, however, the Bombers lost the plot completely, succumbing to Hawthorn by a humiliating 83 points in one of the most embarrassingly one-sided premiership deciders of all time. "I hope you're hurt," said Sheedy at the club's post match function. Sheedy himself most certainly was, and in 1984 he ensured that everyone connected with the club embarked together on a single-minded crusade to erase the memories of the 1983 debacle.
The only way to do this, needless to say, was to win a premiership, something which Essendon had now been unable to accomplish for the longest ever period in the club's senior history. A comprehensive victory over the Swans in the night grand final bolstered confidence and this was further reinforced when, after winning 18 out of 22 home and away matches, the club secured pole position going into the finals. Confidence was damaged somewhat after an eight-point loss to Hawthorn in the second semi final, but the Dons had the minor consolation of having participated in a match which was widely regarded as a classic. As one football writer put it:
If the VFL wanted a game to get the adrenalin flowing and the crowds back then it was yesterday's memorable affair. [^12]
The adrenalin was certainly flowing in full measure a week later as Essendon proceeded to annihilate Collingwood by a VFL preliminary final record 133 points. Essendon's total of 28.6 (174) represented one of the most astonishing displays of accuracy in front of goal in senior Australian football history.
For three quarters the 1984 VFL grand final was a tight, torrid affair, with Essendon battling desperately to break the shackles of Hawthorn's vigorous, hard tackling, no-nonsense approach to the game. At the last break Hawthorn held a 23 point lead. But during the last quarter Kevin Sheedy made a series of inspired positional changes and the floodgates opened, with the Bombers piling on 9.6 to 2.1 to win running away, 14.21 (105) to 12.9 (81). Bill Duckworth, who had been moved by Sheedy from full back to the forward line during the last term, won the Norm Smith Medal for best on ground, while centreman Leon Baker, half forward Glenn Hawker, half back flanker Shane Heard, and back pocket and later centre half forward Paul Weston also shone.
Twelve months later, Essendon had developed into arguably the most awesome combination in VFL history. The 1985 Bombers had everything: pace, skill, aggression, power and height, all reinforced by cohesive teamwork of the highest order. After suffering only three defeats during the home and away matches, Essendon proved comfortably superior to Hawthorn in the second semi final (by 40 points), and then thoroughly annihilated the Hawks a fortnight later in the 'big one'. Final scores were Essendon 26.14 (170) to Hawthorn 14.8 (92), with the Bombers' winning margin of 78 points being the third biggest in VFL grand final history up to that point. Ruckman Simon Madden was named Norm Smith Medallist after a typically commanding all round performance, with others to shine including ruck rover Tim Watson, rover Darren Williams, centreman Leon Baker, and six goal full-forward Paul Salmon, who some had expected to be left out of the side after a mediocre showing in the second semi final.
As almost always seems to happen after a team has recorded a spectacular grand final triumph, people were quick to leap onto the bandwagon proclaiming the onset of a 'dynasty', but, as is equally often the case, reality proved a great deal different from expectations. The remainder of the 1980s developed into something of a depressing time for Essendon, with the side going out in the first week of the finals against regular nemesis Fitzroy in 1986, before nose-diving to consecutive 9th places in '87 and '88. 1989 was, in some ways, even more disappointing, the side flattering to deceive with a 76 point annihilation of Geelong in the qualifying final before successive crushing defeats at the hands of Hawthorn and a revitalised Geelong decisively put paid to their premiership aspirations.
The 1990 season commenced in promising vein with the Bombers comfortably defeating North Melbourne by 36 points in the night series grand final, and for a while the season looked to be developing into a carbon copy of 1984 as the side went on to clinch the minor premiership as well. The finals soon put paid to any illusions, however, as Collingwood proved to have the Dons' measure in both the second semi final (by 63 points) and grand final (by 48 points). A year later there was further disappointment as the side failed to progress beyond the first week of the finals (which this season, for the first time, involved the leading six sides at the end of the home and away season), and in 1992 there was a further drop to 8th.
The 1992 season also saw Essendon's members vote 2,085-413 in favour of a move to the Melbourne Cricket Ground for home games. The club continued to use Essendon Recreation Ground (or 'Windy Hill' as it was popularly known from the 1950s) as training and administrative headquarters, however.
The 1993 season had a memorable opening as Essendon overcame rank outsiders Richmond 14.18 (102) to 11.13 (79) in the night series grand final at Waverley. The match was watched by a record crowd for the competition of 75,533.
The Bombers continued their fine form into what developed into a very evenly contested home and away season, finishing the minor round on top of the ladder with 13 wins and a draw from 20 matches. Injuries sustained by five key players in the last home and away game of the year against Geelong meant that Essendon entered the qualifying final against Carlton with a seriously under strength side, a fact which made their eventual 2 point loss almost commendable. With their injured stars back in action a week later the Bombers easily accounted for West Coast by 32 points in the first semi final, and then, in one of the most absorbing preliminary finals of all time, overcame a 42-point half time deficit against Adelaide to record an emotion-charged victory by 11 points.
After that, the grand final was almost an anti-climax, with Carlton succumbing meekly by 44 points, a margin which frankly flattered them. Aboriginal wingman Michael Long reminded everyone that this was the Year of the Indigenous People by winning the Norm Smith Medal for best on ground, but such was the all-round brilliance of Essendon's display that players like ruck-rover Gary O'Donnell (who earned 24 kicks, 9 marks and 9 handballs), centre half back Mark Harvey, five-goal full forward and ruckman Paul Salmon, and half back flanker and skipper Mark 'Bomber' Thompson could all have laid almost equal claim to the honour. Final scores were Essendon 20.13 (133) to Carlton 13.11 (89); it was the Bombers 15th AFL/VFL flag, a record they now shared with their vanquished foes. (However, Essendon also have 4 VFA premierships compared to Carlton's 2, not to mention 6 night flags compared to 2 for the Blues.)
Essendon's 1993 premiership team was one of the youngest for many years, and continued success was almost universally predicted. However, in 1994, partly it is true because of a rash of injuries to key players, the side performed dismally to record only 11 wins from 22 matches and finish 10th. With coach Sheedy still at the helm, however, and most of the 1993 premiership combination still at the club, the Bombers were most people's tip to be the big improvers in 1995, and to some extent this proved to be the case. The side ended the home and away rounds in 4th spot and then scored an encouraging 19 point victory over reigning premiers West Coast in a qualifying final. However, after establishing a commanding 5 goal half time lead against Richmond in a semi final the Bombers suffered an uncharacteristic fade out to go down by 13 points and earn an end of year report card which read 'Could have done better'.
With coach Sheedy reportedly pondering his future involvement at Windy Hill the club's immediate prospects seemed shrouded in uncertainty. However, 1996 saw Sheedy still very much at the helm as the Bombers went within a single point, kicked by Sydney's Tony Lockett after the final siren in the preliminary final, of making another grand final. James Hird's popular Brownlow win afforded some consolation.
After a spectacular start to the 1997 season which saw the Bombers installed as early premiership favourites things took an equally spectacular turn for the worse and the club failed even to qualify for the finals. Injuries to key players, notably the irrepressible Hird, quite obviously did not help, but it has never been the Essendon way to proffer excuses for failure.
Season 1998 brought slight improvement with the Bombers qualifying for the finals in eighth spot, but eighth spot was where they ultimately remained following a 22-point qualifying final defeat at the hands of North Melbourne.
Defeat may have been difficult to bear, but at least it was predictable; the same could not be said a year later after Essendon's shock preliminary final defeat at the hands of Carlton. The Bombers had finished the home-and-away season at the top of the ladder and a 69-point qualifying final demolition of Sydney only served to emphasise their flag favouritism. The Blues, meanwhile, had qualified for the September action in 6th spot and then endured the mother and father of a hiding at the Gabba in the opening week of the finals. Their 'reward' for this capitulation, however, owing to a scandalous agreement between the AFL and the MCG authorities, was a home final the following weekend against West Coast, which had finished one place higher on the ladder than Carlton before downing the Western Bulldogs in Melbourne in their qualifying final. The Blues duly won this farcical semi-final and made the most of their good fortune the following week with a nerve-wrenching solitary point triumph over the depressingly inaccurate Bombers. The absurd frailties of the AFL's final eight system had seldom been more starkly revealed, and it would not be long before the league took notice and addressed the matter. [^13]
Essendon's performances in season 2000 were among the most noteworthy in football history. After waltzing unbeaten to the Ansett Cup the Bombers won all bar one of 25 home-and-away and finals matches culminating in an apparently effortless 10-goal grand final demolition of Melbourne. Such bare statistics cannot convey the full extent of Essendon's supremacy, however. At times the Bombers seemed to be performing on a different plane than every other team. For instance, in the qualifying final against reigning premiers the Kangaroos, Essendon shattered virtually every finals record in the book in amassing a score of 31.12 (198) and a winning margin of 125 points. [^14]
For much of the 2001 season it seemed that Essendon was on course to repeat its previous year's triumph. However, late in the season a few cracks began to appear in the hitherto impregnable Bomber facade, and although the side once again contested the grand final it was significantly outplayed after half time by an effervescently determined Brisbane Lions outfit.
Season 2002 brought a further decline in fortunes as the Bombers succumbed to Port Adelaide in a torrid semi final to finish a disappointing 5th, while an identical end to the following year yielded an even less auspicious 6th position on the premiership ladder. In 2004, Essendon managed to oust Fremantle from the last spot in the 'eight' on the final weekend of the home and away season before raising expectations with an exhilarating closely fought win over Melbourne in an elimination final. The following week, however, despite going into their semi final clash with Geelong as favourites, the Bombers faced an uphill climb after a torpid 1st half and ultimately fell short by 10 points. Near disaster followed in 2005, as the team played inconsistently all year to record just 8 wins from 22 home and away matches, and slump to 13th place on the ladder, its worst finish since 1997.
If Dons fans thought that was bad, however, many of them would have been unprepared for what happened in 2006 as the side endured one of the very worst seasons in its history, managing just 3 wins and a draw to miss the wooden spoon only on percentage. The 2007 season brought considerable improvement in what was to be the last of Kevin Sheedy's twenty-seven year stint as coach, but 10 wins from 22 matches was still not quite good enough to secure finals participation, while an 8-14 record the following year in Matthew Knights' first season at the helm was even further off the mark, although there were times when the side showed glimpses of promise. That promise began to be fulfilled to some extent during a 2009 campaign that ultimately saw the Bombers qualify for the finals for the first time in five seasons. Their involvement was brief though, and rather undignified, as they succumbed by 16 goals to a rampant Crows combination in an elimination final in Adelaide. The 2010 season was one to forget with the side managing just seven wins for the year to finish ahead of just two other clubs.
The appointment of favourite son James Hird as coach, late in 2010, with an all-star support cast including Mark Thompson (who had left Geelong in controversial circumstances), Brendan McCartney, Sean Wellman, Simon Goodwin and Dean Wallis, gave Bombers' supporters renewed hope that a resurgence was just around the corner. A finals appearance in 2011 (albeit a losing one) reinforced these hopes but the Bombers then started well before fading out badly during a 2012 season which ultimately yielded just 11 wins and saw them finish eleventh.
Disappointing as this was, it was as nothing compared to the furore which was to explode in 2013. During the year the Bombers were investigated by both the AFL and the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority over their 2012 players supplements and sports science program. In particular, there were concerns relating to the possible illegal use of peptide supplements. An internal investigation subsequently delivered a damning assessment as a result of which, in August 2013, the AFL found the club guilty of bringing the game into disrepute. It was fined $2 million, deprived of participation in the 2013 finals (for which it had qualified in seventh place), and stripped of early picks in the 2013 and 2014 drafts. Coach James Hird was also suspended for twelve months, with Mark Thompson, his assistant, taking the reins for the 2014 season.
All things considered Essendon performed quite commendably in 2014 but the illegal supplements controversy still had a final sting to deliver. On the field, the Bombers won 12 and drew 1 of their 22 home and away matches to qualify for the finals in seventh place. Opposed in an elimination final by North Melbourne they dominated the first half, after which they led by 27 points, and still maintained a 9 point advantage at the last change. However, North then added 5 last quarter goals to 2 to win by 12 points. Disappointing as it always is to lose a finals match there was also a sober realisation that the team had probably performed better than expected. However, any thoughts of building on the promise shown would soon evaporate: in June 2014 thirty-four players who were at Essendon in 2012 were accused of having taken a banned peptide, and subsequently required to face the AFL Anti-Doping Tribunal. On 31st March 2015 this Tribunal returned a “not guilty” verdict but any relief on the part of the club and players concerned, only twelve of whom remained at Essendon, was short-lived, for during the 2015 season the World Anti Doping Authority announced that it was appealing against the Tribunal’s decision. This had an immediate negative impact on the Essendon team’s morale resulting in a dramatic drop off in form and despite a solid start to the season the Bombers ended up winning just 6 matches to finish fifteenth. Not surprisingly this placed coach James Hird under enormous pressure, and on 18th August, three days after the Bombers had been crushed at home by Adelaide by 112 points, he resigned.
The worst was still to come, however. On 12th January 2016 the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned the verdict of the AFL anti-doping tribunal and the thirty-four players accused of taking a banned substance were therefore deemed to be guilty. They were subsequently suspended for two years each, meaning that Essendon would have to see out the 2016 season without a dozen first choice players. To their credit, the Bombers took the punishment on the chin, and even if on-field results left much to be desired there was no denying the team’s energy and spirit. Coached by John Worsfold Essendon won just 3 matches in 2016 to end up with their first wooden spoon since 1933. After that, the 2017 season could, surely, only bring improvement, and so it proved as the Bombers won 12 of their 22 home and away matches to qualify for the finals in seventh place. That was as good as it got, however, as Sydney at the SCG in an elimination final proved to be a bridge too far, and Essendon slumped to a hefty 65 point defeat. Given how poor they were in 2016 the Bombers had every right to feel proud of their achievements in 2017, but those expecting further improvement in 2018 were to be disappointed as the failed to qualify for the finals entirely, and ended up in 11th place. Subsequent seasons have seen the Don s finish eighth (2019) and a highly disappointing 13th (2020).
Note: This article was written by John Devaney and subsequently updated with additonal material from australianfootball.com writers.