In the lead up to Saturday's Grand Final, author Dan Eddy will reflect on some of Essendon's greatest September triumphs. The extracts are from Eddy's book 'Always Striving', which is available for purchase from the Bomber Shop.
Always Striving covers the good, the bad and the controversial—mainly the good—and, in many cases, with detailed and entertaining first-person recollections aided by painstaking, meticulous research. There is a modern emphasis that starts with the Baby Bombers of 1993 and finishes succinctly with great expectations of the current crop of ‘Babes’, Always Striving celebrates the past while looking to the future. In ’93, it was James Hird, Mark Mercuri and Joe Misiti; today, it’s Darcy Parish, Zach Merrett and Joe Daniher making Bombers’ fans excited for the future.
This extract reflects on the Bombers dominant win in 2000.
The disappointing loss to Carlton in the 1999 preliminary final drove the Essendon players over the following summer. “It was always at the forefront of our minds that we had left one out there that we should have won,” Scott Lucas said. “We were never going to let that happen in 2000.” Kevin Sheedy wanted the loss to burn in the stomach of his players. Almost immediately, he turned their attention to 2000. “The coaches made us go and watch the ’99 Grand Final the following week as a team, and they had us leave half-way through the last quarter when the game was over,” Matthew Lloyd explained:
"They then took us to a restaurant and ‘Sheeds’ and our assistant coach, Robert Shaw, handed out folders on the teams we needed to beat the following year to win the flag. We then spent two weeks in a full-time camp, honing our game style and our skills, and the focus went straight on to 2000, instead of us dwelling too much on 1999. We were on a mission that year, and it felt like we had half the teams beaten before we even ran down the race each week."
According to Dean Wallis, the defining moment of pre-season was during the two-week camp at Lorne, when fitness coach John Quinn was supposed to bring the team in after an hour’s work. But, “two and a half hours later, we were still going,” Wallis said. “‘Hirdy’ stood up and said we were going to be faced with challenges in the course of the year, and the other teams would never be able to break us mentally or physically.”
Essendon’s 2000 season is one of the greatest in VFL/AFL history. They belted reigning premier, North Melbourne, in the pre-season competition, then, in their new “home” at Colonial Stadium (now Etihad Stadium) in the Docklands, they thrashed Port Adelaide by 94 points. Under the roof at Colonial—Australia’s only roofed football stadium—the Bombers were near-on unbeatable, winning their first eight games at the venue by an average winning margin of 69 points. In all, they won their first 20 games, and appeared on course for the first unbeaten home and away season since Collingwood went 18-0 in 1929. Geelong’s record winning streak of 23 matches (1952-1953) was also in sight. The belief in the playing group was integral to the unbeaten start, as star midfielder, Joe Misiti, explained:
"The great thing about being a part of that side was that we were so confident in our own ability, and that of our teammates, that we could run ahead of the play knowing full well that we were going to win the ball; and more often than not you would end up receiving it! I know my opponents used to see me take off, and they’d be wondering where I was going, then, suddenly, the ball would be in my lap and I’d be out in the open. It wasn’t arrogance, we just knew that we were a good side. Most of the games were over by half-way through the second quarter, so ‘Sheeds’ used to experiment a bit, which sometimes had an effect on the final score."
In round 21, however, the Western Bulldogs shocked the football world when they ended Essendon’s run by employing a flood in the Bomber forward line. “The Bulldogs played a really different game against us than other sides had,” Lucas recalled. “They got a lot of numbers behind the footy, and we loved to kick the ball long into our forward line, so we really played into their hands that day. But I think losing that game was the best thing that happened for us, because it gave us a chance to go back and refocus. I’m sure ‘Sheeds’ wasn’t too disappointed with the result in the end.”
In fact, the coaching staff were aware that a loss was possible, as they were in the midst of a block of intense training under Quinn, that would cease come finals time. “To be honest, we were just waiting for the finals to come around,” Misiti said. Regrouping, they defeated Collingwood in the final round, becoming the first team to win 21 home and away matches in a season.
Having not had the opportunity to test themselves against North Melbourne in the ’99 Grand Final, Essendon were on a mission in the first qualifying final against the reigning premier. Within half an hour, the game was as good as over: The Bombers kicked nine goals to four, opening up a 29-point lead. It was 57 points at the half, then a 10-goal third quarter pushed the margin past the century. Lloyd kicked seven goals, Misiti accumulated a massive 41 disposals; the 31.12 (198) to 11.7 (73) victory a statement to the rest of the finalists: Don’t mess with us, because you will come off second best.
The Bombers of 2000 had everything: Up forward, Lloyd, Lucas, skipper James Hird, Mark Mercuri, Darren Bewick, and any of Adam Ramanauskas, Michael Long, Paul Barnard, or Gary Moorcroft could hurt opposition sides on the scoreboard. In the midfield, Misiti, Chris Heffernan, Justin Blumfield, and Jason Johnson were relentless in winning first possession from the likes of John Barnes and Steve Alessio; while their defence was the toughest in the AFL. Hard-nosed players such as Damien Hardwick, Dean Solomon, Mark Johnson, and Dean Wallis, complemented the cool heads of Dustin Fletcher and Sean Wellman. It was a coach’s dream.
It seemed like destiny that Essendon and Carlton would meet again in the preliminary final. This time, however, it was the Bombers who prevailed: 18.17 (125) to 12.8 (80). By half-time the following week, leading Melbourne by 41 points, Essendon knew that they had won the premiership. “We enjoyed the second half, knowing we were going to be premiers,” Lloyd said. With Hird turning in a Norm Smith Medal performance, and with 10 different goalkickers, the Bombers cemented their greatness by claiming a premiership they felt should have been theirs twelve months earlier: 19.21 (135) to 11.9 (75).
While a number of teams have won multiple Grand Finals as a group, Essendon’s three-year dominance only produced one premiership. On top of the heartbreaking 1999 preliminary final loss, they also lost the 2001 Grand Final to an emerging Brisbane juggernaut, leaving some to question whether Kevin Sheedy’s men underachieved. “You look at the English Premier League, and if we had a similar model over here then we would have won three premierships, because we finished on top in 1999, 2000, and again in 2001,” Lucas said. “But, the reality is that we only have the one premiership to show for that three-year period. The Brisbane Lions never finished on top and they won three flags in a row. In my mind, we’re one short of what we should have earned during those years. Having said that, I’m extremely proud to have played in a premiership, because there are hundreds of players that never get to that position.”
While they may have missed opportunities in 1999 and 2001, what Essendon achieved over those three years was exceptional, winning 62 matches, and losing just 12 times, for an overall winning percentage of 84 per cent. Importantly, they secured a 16th premiership, equalling Carlton’s record as the two most successful clubs in VFL/AFL history. Lloyd said: “I believe that in a one-off year, we were the most dominant side of all time. Overall, we were as complete a team as you could ever hope to see.”