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Mids can aim high, Kelly

Performance coach James Kelly says Essendon's midfield can match it with the league's best.
Performance coach James Kelly says Essendon's midfield can match it with the league's best.

Essendon’s new-look midfield has what it takes to compete with the best engine rooms around the competition this season, according to assistant coach and retired Bomber James Kelly. 

The club's midfield group will be centred around some different faces this season, with Jobe Watson retiring at the end of 2017, and veteran Brendon Goddard set for more time across half-back.

The Bombers added Devon Smith and Jake Stringer during the trade period and both are expected to feature prominently in the midfield, which will be vital for Essendon's hopes after they were bullied by a strong Sydney onball unit in last year's elimination final.

In their first JLT Community Series clash with Richmond, the Bombers again struggled to match the bigger bodies of the Tigers around the ball, losing the clearance count 34-26. But Kelly is confident the club has enough depth to challenge the top sides.

"We'll get a bit more footy from David Myers [as an] inside [midfielder], Dyson Heppell plays inside and Jake Stringer comes in there. Darcy Parish is only getting bigger and stronger every year as well," Kelly told

"We might not have a Josh Kennedy (from Sydney) in our side, but we have a lot of players who can share the load, and that's always the philosophy that we have. We're not looking for one person to go and get us 15 clearances a game, but for everyone to play their role and do their bit, and we spread the load.

"A lot of teams that I've seen with a good even spread, if one goes down someone else will bob up. That's something we've been working on."

Essendon will face a good test in its second and final pre-season hit-out when it comes up against Geelong in Colac on Sunday. The Cats have named midfield guns Patrick Dangerfield and Joel Selwood, but Gary Ablett will not play after a niggling hamstring injury surfaced late last month.

With All Australian pair Michael Hurley and Cale Hooker among the key inclusions, a better performance will be expected from the Bombers after their 87-point loss to the Tigers. 

Kelly, who retired last season after two seasons with the Bombers having come out of retirement after a stellar career at Geelong, described the game as the Bombers' main "dress rehearsal" ahead of their round one clash with Grand Finalists Adelaide.

The development coach added there wouldn't be as much experimentation this week compared to their first outing.

"This time of the year you're always tinkering with little things and seeing what's going to work, and ideas you have you might implement them for a quarter and not the next quarter. It is a little bit unsettling for the players," he said.

"I've been in that position, so I understand that sometimes you just want a full run at it and you don’t want coaches messing with things. Being on the other side of that now, we want to have a look at certain players in certain spots and what things look like in preparation for the year.

"There'll be less of that this week and more trying to get that chemistry going and trying to look forward to round one."

The Bombers won't be quite at full-strength, however, after livewire forward Orazio Fantasia underwent knee surgery on Thursday. He will miss at least round one as he recovers. 

"He's frustrated by it, as everyone else is, but that's footy," Kelly said.

"These things sometimes you can manage players through them and they get better and sometimes you can't. This is unfortunately for 'Raz' once of those times we couldn't manage him through it, so it was time to make a decision."