When Ben Rutten officially took over as Essendon's new coach at the end of last season, he wanted the change at the club's headquarters to be obvious.
So by the first day of the Bombers' pre-season, as players returned to Tullamarine following their break, they entered through the premiership walk, celebrating the club's historic 16 flags. They were greeted by red and black decals celebrating the Bombers' history and superstars, and a freshness that signified this was a new start.
Rutten hasn't stopped there. Once a week over pre-season the Bombers have trained at their spiritual home, Windy Hill. Past players have been invited to speak at the club and to present jumpers. He has implored his players to get to know the story of Essendon's foundations – through the McCracken family – and the suburb in which it was formed. In looking back, Rutten has also started anew.
"It's important that we draw upon the past and we've got a rich history of success, a really strong heritage and we need to bring that with us in creating this next little chapter in the history of the Essendon Football Club," he told AFL.com.au.
After a tough 2020 that saw the Bombers win just one of their last 10 games of the season, lose stars Joe Daniher, Adam Saad and Orazio Fantasia in the off-season and officially hand over the coaching reins from John Worsfold to Rutten, the former Adelaide full-back has a clear idea for what he wants his side to be: the blue-collar Bombers.
"That's the way Essendon has played in the past and I think that's been the cornerstone of its success in the past," he said.
"For me and for us and what we're trying to build now is to go back to that and ensure that we're building our game on the fundamentals, built on being a really disciplined, hard-working team. If we're able to do that we can build some real consistency and dependability in our game."
Signs of that were evident against Geelong in the club's AAMI Community Series clash, with a youthful Essendon line-up playing with purpose and direction (and a bunch of new faces).
The Bombers slumped to 13th on the ladder last season in Worsfold's fifth and final year, as Rutten struggled to get in the training time he desired to bed down his gameplan, and he enters this year without clarity on how his side will fare.
"I know it's one that everybody wants the crystal ball and to let us know what's going to happen this season but I seriously don't know what the season's going to look like, and that, for me, is really exciting," he said.
"We've brought some new players to our footy club via the trade and also three top-10 picks. I've got a lot of belief in our playing group and there's a lot of growth and improvement in us and we're trying to fast track that as quick as we possibly can.
"From what we've seen the guys are really enthusiastic and want to be good, and want to be good quickly. We're not putting any ceilings on what we can achieve this season."
Setting the tone for 2021.— Essendon FC (@essendonfc) February 1, 2021
The Bombers' big draft haul came as a result of their exits, and the club knows it needs more players to take a jump, like Jordan Ridley did last year in his breakout best and fairest season. But they don't view themselves within a rebuild, nor will they be preaching patience for a slow, step-by-step rise. Essendon has confidence in its list, and is investing in its development programs to help grow a group that is predominantly young, but driven. It wants to see progress.
It is new-look on a number of fronts. The club is weighing up naming four debutants – top picks Archie Perkins, Nik Cox and Zach Reid, and 2019 selection Harrison Jones – against Hawthorn on Saturday night, while recruits Peter Wright (whose nickname has morphed from 'Two-metre Peter' to 'Two-litre Peter' and 'Two-seater Peter' at the club), Jye Caldwell and Nick Hind are set to play.
Stalwarts of defence Michael Hurley and Cale Hooker won't be in the back half – Hurley due to his severe hip infection and Hooker as he's pegged for a forward role – while captain Dyson Heppell has been shifted to half-back as a breed of Bombers' midfielders takes more responsibility.
Rutten said he didn't address the exchange period exodus once the Bombers got back to training.
"I had really strong relationships with all three of those guys and all of them left for various reasons and I can completely understand those reasons for them. They've made those decisions to pursue their careers at different clubs which we understand and accept. But we've moved on," he said.
The leadership group has also been whittled down, with Dylan Shiel, Devon Smith and David Zaharakis left off the reduced squad, with young gun Andrew McGrath elevated.
"Andy has really embraced that and has a great appetite to lead and I think that's the next little progression in his development is taking on a bit more responsibility," Rutten said.
"Dylan, Dev and also Dave Zaharakis last year led the footy club in a really challenging season but I think what we're doing is I want to put performance at the forefront of what we do. And for those guys performance is their No.1 thing that they can contribute to the club."
Zach Merrett has also been re-added to the leadership group, with the star midfielder heading into his free agency season. The Bombers feel like they are a building a culture that will make it an easier call for Merrett to stay after he assessed his future at the end of last year.
Rutten has backed Ridley to improve again – "'Rids' can get better, I've got no doubt about that," he said – and said Kyle Langford, another 2020 success story, will mix his time forward and in the midfield. He has also backed young ruckman Sam Draper to continue to build as he settles into the No.1 spot.
The ones to watch in 2021 ??— Essendon FC (@essendonfc) March 14, 2021
Some of the boys reveal their pre-season standouts. pic.twitter.com/wOEFzucKIZ
Rutten likes Harry Jones as Wright's forward partner, is giving Ned Cahill a chance as a small defender and sees this season as being Aaron Francis' best as the top-10 pick enters his sixth year in the system.
"He's done every bit of pre-season for us," Rutten said. "I'm really looking forward to seeing what we can see from Aaron – he's matured a lot as a kid and is really ready to take his game to another level."
In a period of change at Essendon, Rutten too faces some time away from the club. In coming weeks, he and his family will pack up in Melbourne and relocate to a farm outside of the metropolitan area, where he can enjoy his love of gardening and cooking on the barbeque and expand his chook pen.
However, the 37-year-old, who will coach from the interchange bench this season, has his mind firmly fixed on building the Bombers back to success as his team.
"I'm loving it," he said. "I feel like I've got the best job in the world to be able to lead a footy club, a group of determined, committed young men, and hopefully help them to achieve their dreams is something I'm really excited about and looking forward to."