Returning stars, prized new recruits and a bevy of new faces awaited eager Essendon supporters on Thursday night as the freshest iteration of the red and black team lined up for the first time.
And Bombers fans would have left Etihad Stadium pleased with what they saw on every front – well, that was at least until Collingwood's barnstorming finish ruined what looked like being a perfect night for the Dons as they enter their new era.
That the Bombers gave up a 27-point lead in the third quarter to be defeated by 11 points at the hands of Collingwood in the opening JLT Community Series match on Thursday night was not the most significant takeaway from the game. Nor would it have been had the Bombers held on, with both sides missing important players.
Within the 2.13.9 (105) to 0.14.10 (94) win for Collingwood was a number of more telling storylines for both clubs – one aiming to get back into the finals for the first time after a poor year in 2016 and the other aiming to lift itself off the bottom of the ladder.
The losers were the centre of attention, and for obvious reasons. For one, there was the six (midfielder Heath Hocking did not make the final squad) Bombers who played their first games for a year – a comeback that finally puts a full stop on football's longest and worst saga.
Jobe Watson took no time to get involved with the first kick of the game and opening two centre clearances. The former skipper was also given a rapturous reception when he lined up for goal in the second term (a moment that would have drawn an even bigger cheer had his shot not sailed wide).
Of the other returning Dons, new skipper Dyson Heppell (17 disposals) was his busy self, Travis Colyer kicked two goals in a lively showing up forward, and Michael Hurley was composed across half-back. Ben Howlett also hit the scoreboard, while David Myers didn't really get into the game until the third term after spending most of the first half on the bench.
The Pies, though, had their own comeback stories to tell, which made their impressive fourth-quarter fightback (which included two supergoals and four regular majors) all the more encouraging.
Jamie Elliott did not get much of the ball – he finished with eight disposals and a goal in a half – but proved his importance to the Pies' hopes this season. After not playing a game last year due to a debilitating back injury, the star small forward showed glimpses of his ability with a high-flying grab early on and his presence will be important if the Magpies are to return to the finals.
Lachlan Keeffe, returning after his own anti-doping ban, was solid as a forward and pinch-hitting ruckman, while Matt Scharenberg, after his well-publicised knee struggles, was quiet but looked comfortable for the Pies.
The win was marred for the Pies by an injury to luckless speedster Ben Sinclair, who left the field with a leg issue in the third quarter and didn't return.
After a scrappy first half, the Pies looked set to drop their opening pre-season encounter when they trailed by 21 points at the final change, but two supergoals early in the last term – to former Demons defender Lynden Dunn and ex-Cat Travis Varcoe – sprung them into action and they overrun the Bombers.
The last-quarter lift came from a young midfield group that was without skipper Scott Pendlebury, Adam Treloar, Brodie Grundy and Taylor Adams for the night.
Tom Phillips was in everything early – he had 15 disposals to half-time in an effort to razz his teammates into action – and he finished as the game's leading possession winner.
But just as positively, it was Jordan De Goey's two-goal last term that all but iced the win for the Pies. On Thursday night's evidence, both will be important in shaping the Pies' fortunes this season.
COLLINGWOOD 0.3.0 0.5.4 0.9.4 2.13.9 (105)
ESSENDON 0.2.2 0.6.5 0.12.9 0.14.10 (94)
Collingwood: Dunn, Varcoe
Collingwood: Hoskin-Elliott 2, Crisp 2, De Goey 2, White, Varcoe, Phillips, Moore, Mayne, Elliott, Aish
Essendon: Fantasia 4, McKernan 3, Colyer 2, Green 2, Stewart, McDonald-Tipungwuti, Howlett
Collingwood: Phillips, De Goey, Smith, Sidebottom, Greenwood, Ramsay
Essendon: Fantasia, Parish, Z.Merrett, Watson, McKernan, Dea
Collingwood: Sinclair (hamstring)
Umpires: Nicholls, Fisher, Mollison, Hocking
Official crowd: 16,521 at Etihad Stadium