All there is to know about the Bombers – the same Windy Hill Bombers that became handcuffed for the 2016 season during ASADA sanctions but are now free of that – happened at Etihad Stadium on Saturday night. The Power were in Melbourne and were fifth on the ladder; the Bombers were sitting precariously in 11th place. It was meant to be an even encounter, but the Bombers had shown they're prone to turnovers that cost them goals, while Port gives up the least amount of goals from turnovers in the AFL. But close, it wasn't.
In the first half, the retooled and versatile Cale Hooker kicked five goals and caused the Power headaches. Raging bull and dynamic-fleet-footed Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti ended the game with four exhilarating goals; one where he dribbled the ball along the right hand pocket boundary line, evaded a Port defender like a witches hat, then slotted a checkside goal from a sharp angle. Zac Merrett claimed a blistering 38 disposals, six marks and seven tackles. And rookie Andrew McGrath had a busy day accumulating 21 touches and six marks as he curbed Port champion Robbie Gray. Whenever he touches the ball, Bomber fans get jovial and noisy.
Worsfold told media after the game: "One thing coaches always think, to play better than that is to play the same intensity and same level consistently week after week," he said. "So that's definitely our challenge. That's not just now a benchmark that we can show every now and then – that's the way we want to play." You wouldn't have guessed that the Bombers won the game by 70pts.
It's hard to imagine or even contemplate that the Bombers have all these clicking parts to their team that could potentially take them well into the top eight and perhaps finals. It's hard to think of Hooker, a defender-turned-forward kicking five first-half goals or Tipungwuti holding his spot in the team after coming to train with the Bombers on a whim. It's especially difficult to think where they are now especially considering where they came from in 2016: an anguish-ridden 3-19 season. Those Bombers were different Bombers – young, aging, ill equipped and a complete mish-mash. And going back one more year: the 2015 Bombers were simply distracted.
But whatever they were or what they have been in recent years, they've been able to distance themselves and move on. What used to be a club under constant duress, week in week out dealing with criticisms of their 2012 supplement program, are now empowered men with a clean slate. Worsfold has seen their best and worst and they continue to make errors but wins have come and still he refers to his players as a continual work in progress. Their 13-goal win over Port all of a sudden has the AFL community paying attention to the Bombers. The Herald Sun asked the question: can the Bombers play finals? Well, we'll have to wait till the end of the season to answer that one. The Age believe the Bombers look slicker and dangerous which probably hasn't been said with conviction since the 2000 Grand Final.
After a promising start to the season, one that entailed two wins against the Hawks and Lions, the Bombers lost a close one against the Blues by 15-pts and suffered blow out losses against the Demons and Crows. They were simply outgunned in Adelaide. Turnovers hurt them brutally against the Demons. And contested ball was their main concern when they played the Blues, along with a forward line that wasn't functioning. But if you re-watch that 70-pt Power win, along with their 60-pt win over the Eagles, you can see that the Bombers are producing a rash of unsung heroes who are influencing results –Stewart, Hartley, McKenna, Tipungwuti, Fantasia. They are taking the game on, entertaining fans and surprising critics with their flare, skill and poise…the Bombers seem to be loving football again.
Worsfold will not want any kudos for this shift. If asked whether or not he contributed to the Bombers turnaround in form, he'll probably say it was all the players. Some AFL coaches would say this as well but Worsfold's conviction is laced with honesty and not as if it was stolen from some AFL Coach's media playbook. Whether he agrees or not, Worsfold has impacted the club greatly and he's been able to rebuild the Bombers football program to a point now where you can see the upward trajectory of where they are headed and that place is a very good one.
To fully understand why the Bombers look like they are loving football again, we must examine how they went from a decimated club to a 6-6 team (in 2017) mixing it with the big boys on their day. The short answer: all roads point to Worsfold. In 2015 the then 47-year old Worsfold signed a three-year deal to become the Bombers 32nd senior coach. He inherited a ghost team missing captains, leaders, high profiled draft picks. It was a team that was broken and had lost its collective grip on the AFL. Leading up to the Worsfold hire, the Bombers won a middling 61 games from 126 outings between 2010-15, which included a cluster of highs and lows, lackluster finals appearances and two coaches. The Bombers board believed in the former Eagles legend. He beat Brendan McCartney and Scott Burns for the job. His 26 years of football knowledge, nose for premierships players and cutting of dead wood, made him a critical pick to be the man to guide the Bombers back from AFL obscurity.
"Standing back from afar I've felt for the Essendon players they probably haven't had that love of the game as much as what they should have," Worsfold told the ABC. "So that's certainly an aim - to make sure that they love turning up to training, they love playing the game and they love representing the Essendon Football Club.
Worsfold walked into 2016 missing 12 key starters and players. He went about instilling structure and a culture that the suspended players could morph into when they returned. On his to-do list: adding attacking prowess and tightening up the defence, which leaked like a sieve under the Knights regime. Although the season ended at 3-19, the club was able to get most of the 12 suspended to resign and in 2016 saw an upward spike in production from Joe Daniher (43 goals), Zac Merrett (averaged 29 touches) and Orazio Fantasia (29 goals).
Kyle Langford's 2016 season produced 12 goals, and 15 touches; a great outcome for a raw 19-year old. Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti averaged 14 touches and enthralled everyone that saw him play. The scrawny Darcy Parish collected 20 touches per game and guys like Jayden Laverde (11 touches) and Conor McKenna (3g, 13 disposals) impressed at various stages of the season without dominating. Yet, in spite of missing three quarters of their senior team, the Bombers were able to conjure up wins against the Demons (13-pts), Suns (6-pts), and the Blues (24pts) – rare nuggets of joy in an otherwise a season full of despair.
In 2016, they only managed one score above 100. This year they achieved that milestone against the Hawks in the season opener and have accumulated six scores of 100 or more. In 2016 the Bombers were ranked 16 th in offense and contested possessions; this year they're 5th for contested ball and have the fourth best attack in the AFL, according to footywire.com. Worsfold may lie awake at night thinking of how to better strengthen his back six strategy, but the new work-in-progress Bombers have seemingly cracked a code that has unlocked execution, pace, skill and a work ethic that is starting to rival AFL's heavy hitters.
What Worsfold has created is a team that can finally breathe again, one that thrives on making mistakes and learning from them. The forward line has purpose with Hooker's contested grabs, Daniher's goals, Fantasia's speed and creativity and Tipungwuti's defensive pressure. Unlike some new coaches who chop and change and give players new weekly assignments, the Bombers have been especially settled. Case in point: Worsfold has stuck with Hooker experiment and the inside 50 structure during times where he could have easily pulled the plug on it all. And the gritty perseverance is starting to pay off.
We are more than half way into the 2017 season and the Bombers are probably exactly where you thought they would be – perhaps performing a tiny bit better than what football critics predicted. With more than enough football left in the year, the Bombers season could easily go sideways. The drubbing of the Power has most suggesting they could end up playing finals, which would be a miraculous effort. No one would be surprised if the Bombers didn't make finals especially if injuries occurred or returning players were struck from fatigue. Worsfold is not worried about wins and losses just yet and coming into 2017 he laid out to the public that there was no ceiling for the Bombers. He said: "Finals has to be realistic." But whatever happens, the Bombers are all about impacting and learning about the now to be better in the future which makes the present a wonderful joy ride.