Essendon Football Club have found new manager Brad Scott

The magnitude of the task Scott faced was made apparent when he unsuccessfully tried to persuade fast Irish centre-back Conor McKenna to return to the club after two years in Ireland.

McKenna made it clear to Scott that he was underchallenged by Essendon as the club were also keen to win back talismanic small forward Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti from retirement for personal reasons.

“We worked really hard to get Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti back because of the thought of ‘Walla’ making a comeback to AFL football but not wanting to play for Essendon and the background of – you know, that was one of the first Meetings I had with Conor McKenna when I was appointed and Conor wanted to come back from Ireland to play AFL football at a club other than Essendon. Basically… we have a problem here.”

Anthony McDonald Tipungwuti.

Anthony McDonald Tipungwuti.Credit:Getty Images

Scott said discussions with McKenna were helpful in clarifying issues the club was facing. “It became clear very early on, I mean, we weren’t really talking.

“I was able to have three or four meetings with Conor, both in person and on the phone in Ireland. And although he ended up choosing Brisbane, at least we were back in touch.

“He was actively considering returning to Essendon, where it hadn’t started in October. So I was able to learn a lot too, some of his concerns…the club were keen to get Paddy Ryder back [as Indigenous player development officer]. Paddy is a good person, he will do a great job.

“We want these players to want to return to Essendon. Rebuild all those things first before we move on.”

The entitlement problem

While noting Essendon’s historical status as a great club with plenty of support and tradition, Scott said the Bombers had to accept that not only did there not exist quick fixes, but they had no right to succeed.

“Essendon are a great club in every way. It’s a big club, it has a lot of history and it has a lot of tradition, a lot of success. But in the modern era there are 18 really good teams, in an 18-team competition we need to get away from that ‘we’re a big club so we’re entitled to something’.

“We are not entitled to anything and there are no quick fixes. We tried that. We brought in top-end players.”

Essendon, he added, has “vaccinated between thinking we’re a contender to meddle in the middle”. If Scott hasn’t said it, he knows fans have endured pleas for patience for decades.

Youth first and see what you’ve got

That realization that the Bombers are nowhere near the competition led to a trading period last October when, rather than desperately looking for players like Josh Dunkley, a previous target, the Dons avoided spending draft capital and opted to do so , not to trade with mature types.

Scott preferred to prioritize the highly talented but injured Zach Reid, Kaine Baldwin and Brandon Zerk-Thatcher in key defensive positions rather than filling that hole with a plug-and-play key defender. The same logic was applied to midfield, where he wanted to survey the talent that existed while also spotting Archie Perkins’ best role.

Zach Reid.

Zach Reid.Credit:Getty Images

“We want to see Kaine Baldwin play, we want to see Zerk-Thatcher play, we want to see Zach Reid play as soon as he comes back from injury. It will take a while before we get a clearer picture of what we want.

“In the meantime, it’s not about putting your finger in the dike to solve one problem and create another.”

When asked which player surprised him over the summer, Reid was the first name Scott mentioned. A true key defender is Essendon’s number one need. Valuable 2020 draft picks Reid and Nik Cox are recovering from back injuries.

“When we have Zach Reid by our side again, we want him back forever. Cox also fits into this category. They won’t play in the early rounds because we won’t be thinking in the short term.”

How culture needs to change

Scott feels that while the drug saga is a decade old, the impact is still lingering. One was the club’s prioritization of paying off a massive debt (over $12 million) and commercial recovery over on-field results after facing an existential crisis.

Scott therefore sought assurances from Barham and the board that he would be “given the authority and autonomy to work in football without undue distraction”.

The final word could relate to everything that has happened at Essendon over many years, including the upheaval on the board of 2022 when leadership changed over whether Ben Rutten should be retained.

“Yes, there is clearly a culture shift required and you know that 1) takes a little time to figure out what is required – I came here with a really open mind.

“I think it’s really dangerous to form an outside opinion… But I’ve formed some opinion based on facts… It’s not difficult to do that based on things like your age and experience list and where you sit positionally.

“But the thing is a little bit more difficult: ‘What’s the attitude of this group? How hard do they work.’ I see the hunger in the group.

“But you know, you’re retracing the last decade, and while I’m the last person to want to dig up the past, there are still some things that are unresolved, you know, almost 10 years ago.

“The club went through a traumatic period where I think the focus – and Dave Barham has said so publicly – was on fixing the balance sheet. They know we have to get the club back on track commercially. The footy, you know, sometimes it didn’t even come second.”

The consequence, from Scott’s point of view, was players who were just happy to be on AFL lists.

“And the players were, you know, maybe just content to compete rather than come back and compete and give us a chance to take on the best. This renewed focus on footy also comes with our playgroup’s responsibility to uphold an elite AFL lifestyle.”

The imperative to retain players demonstrated during the Saad/Daniher/Orazio Fantasia exodus arguably affected set pieces.

“The background is and the context is that you were in an environment where the players were going out the door like en masse.”

Scott said he understood the context from the saga, “trying to keep everyone happy, keeping everyone on board while trying to push an elite AFL lifestyle.

“I think the contradictions were strong. So I fully understand that as a club we tried too hard to keep our players and make them happy but there were compromises involved.

However, Scott emphasized that there was a lot right at Essendon and valued his inherited assistant coaches (including Blake Caracella and Daniel Giansiracusa) and the developmental coaching led by Cam Roberts.

The same old Essendon?

There is also a political element to Scott’s challenge, as he is an outsider who must deal with the specter of Old Essendon, played by Kevin Sheedy, Sheedy’s ally in recruiting boss Adrian Dodoro, and meddling with cliques. Sheedy, who had advocated the return of James Hird and implicitly criticized Scott’s appointment, was not an issue from Scott’s point of view.

Kevin Sheedy.

Kevin Sheedy.Credit:Eddie Jim

“I respect his loyalty to the players he’s coached,” Scott said of Sheedy-Hird’s push. “That’s the least of my worries. Sheeds and I have had a lot of conversations, we’ve had a lot of board meetings. He fully supports the direction I have set out for the board.”

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Ryan Sederquist

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