Essendon was the talk of the town throughout the trade period, but the real test comes when the first ball is bounced in 2024.
After winning four of their first five matches under Brad Scott, the Bombers spluttered to the finish line after the mid-season bye, winning three matches and losing seven to finish the year in 11th spot.
The real intrigue came in the following months, however, as the Bombers embarked on a trade and free agency blitz that stretched until the final moments of the exchange period, but ultimately netted them four fascinating recruits.
Most sought after of that quartet was Ben McKay, who despite his struggles at North Melbourne throughout the year attracted large offers before ultimately opting to reunite with his former coach at Tullamarine.
Also arriving from the Kangaroos was Todd Goldstein, with the veteran ruck an interesting choice given Sam Draper should be ready to go despite groin surgery in the off-season, but more potential forward depth is nothing to be sneezed at for the Bombers.
Jade Gresham also picked the Bombers after interest from rivals, leaving St Kilda and looking to take his career to the next level after eight seasons of tantalising yet fleeting displays of his potential.
The deal that took the longest to strike and was done in the final minutes of deadline day involved Xavier Duursma, who joins the club from Port Adelaide looking to revitalise his career.
Underscoring the recruits and what they could bring to the club is an insistence from the leadership group – headed by Zach Merrett – that their fitness base will be markedly higher than it was last season, with a training camp in Arizona one part of their off-season regime.
It’s a determination led by the players but also, former Hawthorn sharpshooter Ben Dixon believes, one complimented by Scott.
“He doesn’t cop any below par standards. He would’ve said ‘Come back in decent shape so we can have a crack at this’,” Dixon told foxfooty.com.au.
“The standards haven’t been there for a long time.
“I’d be pretty bullish on them,” Dixon said of the club’s 2024 prospects.
“They’d be way better for the run (in 2023) … they’ve got to be a finals contender, they have to be, it’s a non negotiable.
“They’ve added in the bookends. There’s probably no excuse to not make finals to be honest.”
While McKay could benefit from the change of environment and Goldstein’s output is a known quantity, Dixon said it was Gresham who could prove the most exciting recruit in 2024.
“He might not have the tank to be a full-time midfielder, pinch-hitting is good, but he’s got a hit of x-factor,” Dixon said, with the former Hawk having worked with Gresham at St Kilda.
“He’s said he actually doesn’t sleep the night before a game at MCG because he’s so excited.
“He loves the big stage, he will go to another level at Essendon.”
Whether the Bombers will be able to go to another level, well, that remains to be seen.
When the Bombers were on in 2023, they were fun to watch. Their ability to transition the ball was elite; they were the third-best side in the competition at going from their defensive to attacking 50. When they were able to get those chains going, they also capitalised, ranking fourth in the competition for points from defensive half. When the Bombers get it going their way and on their terms, it spells danger for the opposition.
Zach Merrett is a star and the Bombers have some classy operators, but the engine room was just found wanting too much last year. The Bombers were 13th for contested possession differential and 12th for clearance differential. True it’s near enough to their ladder position, but if they want to rise up then those numbers will also have to grow. Their inside 50 differential was 16th and forward half intercepts also 16th, so there isn’t much stopping the opposition once it gets the ball in hand.
WHERE ARE THEY ON THE PREMIERSHIP CLOCK?
7pm: The Bombers have some good veteran talent but it’s really about the next wave coming through under Brad Scott that will determine when the club is ready to compete for silverware again. Injury has held a few back but there is still a bit to be excited about, but Scott has been insistent there’s no rush. They’d want to be playing in finals and going deep within the next few years before Merrett, Wright and the like start to decline, but equally there has been some future-proofing done with the list that should help ease the transition. If the young brigade can come along quickly, the Bombers should start moving up the ladder from here.