How many more seasons should Essendon Bombers fans have to tolerate Pre-Season hype amounting to Home & Away Season heartache?

How much more punishment should these loyal men and women, boys and girls, have to endure, after watching their beloved football club ruin its reputation through the darkest saga ever to taint Australia’s greatest game, then squandering countless opportunities just when things finally appeared to be back on track? These are the frustration-filled questions circling through the minds of an angry Essendon army, sick and tired of the excuses and continual failings

This is, unfortunately, the sad reality facing these long-suffering fans of an underachieving football club, who haven’t experienced an AFL finals win in almost 15 years. No other club has endured such a long drought of September success, yet peculiarly, no other club continues to be hyped-up so much each summer either. There have been many theories put forward as to why this Club continues to fail. Most notably, some sections of the media point to the Club’s culture, while others point to the Club’s coach, and while I don’t disagree that each of these two factors play a role in the lacklustre results, there’s another theory which needs to be explored a little deeper.

Around January or February each year when the media sits down and analyses the playing lists of all clubs, the number of quality footballers donning the red and black is understandably attention grabbing – Shiel, Stringer, Smith, Heppell, Daniher, Hurley, Merrett, and Hooker make up the upper echelon, while the less-heralded second tier of Fantasia, Saad, McDonald-Tipungwuti, Bellchambers, Parish, and McGrath round out a list full of talent which is widely accepted within the football community as being more than competitive. Yet despite this, for some reason success continues to elude them.

Like every other Bombers fan out there, I wanted to explore why this is happening, and I think I’ve found one of the key reasons which until now, has rarely been spoken about within Melbourne’s football-mad media.

Without boring you too much and trekking too far back in time, when the Bombers made the bold decision around the turn of the millennium to ditch the MCG in favour of playing most of its home games at the new, first-of-its-kind roofed stadium at Docklands, I was quite concerned. Without doubt, the facility is a wonderful venue to watch football in, with its fan-friendly vantage points, array of up-market food and beverage options, comfortable climate control, and ease of access being so close to Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station. However would it have an impact on the Bombers’ ability to remain accustomed to the MCG, which after all is the venue a side must play well at in order to take home the holy grail?

Almost two decades have since passed and I think it’s fair to say the concerns have been realised, with the Club experiencing one of its least successful eras of its proud history which is soon to reach 150 years.

Unlike most other AFL clubs, Essendon players spend a very large portion of their time honing their skills at training, or playing games indoors. Since opening in 2013, the Club’s home base, ‘The Hangar’ is undoubtedly a state of art complex, with two senior sized football ovals outdoors and a large indoor training facility (among other facilities in the large complex). The Club’s training activities are split between indoor and outdoor, however in poor weather conditions, the option to move things indoors is often taken advantage of.

Has this helped create the softest club in the AFL?

Since the start of the 2017 season, the Bombers own an overall win-loss record of 30-27 (53%), which is about fitting of the mediocre ways which continue to plague the Club – they’re continually performing just that little bit better than average. However, delve a little deeper and you’ll find that at Marvel Stadium (Docklands) the team is a far more impressive 14-7 (67%), including a 10-3 (77%) record in their last 13 games at the venue. On the flipside, at all other venues they’re just 16-20 (44%), including 9-12 (43%) at the MCG. The comfortable surrounds of an indoor stadium, where nature’s elements of rain and wind are not required to be overcome, seem to influence the success rate markedly with a more than 23% swing. How much does 23% equate to? Five additional wins each season – enough to push them right up into Top 4 contention.

Some may argue that the quality of opponent is vastly different between the games played at Marvel Stadium and at the MCG, however that theory holds no merit when considering the Bombers have beaten Hawthorn, Geelong (twice) and Collingwood (twice) at the home of football since 2017, and lost games they were expected to win against Carlton on multiple occasions. The fact of the matter is, they haven’t been able to play consistently good football at the MCG or other venues around the country where they’re exposed to adverse playing conditions.

In addition to the vast difference in success levels between playing indoors and outdoors, the comforts afforded to the players during their weekly training regimes have left them highly vulnerable to injuries when having to brave the cooler, more slippery, and much harsher conditions outside. Their bodies are not battle-hardened and it has continually resulted in injuries to key players in recent years, having a devastating impact on the Club’s fortunes and finals aspirations. It’s a vicious cycle that keeps on repeating itself, yet nobody within the Club seems willing to admit there’s a problem at hand.

If the Bombers truly want to improve and return to their once all-conquering ways, then vast changes need to be made. A bigger emphasis must be placed on acclimatising the playing group to unfavourable conditions – be it dew, rain, cold, or wind. From an outsider’s perspective, when exposed to these conditions in recent years, the players implode. A silky-skilled, fast-paced, exciting team when playing indoors crumbles under pressure when exposed to the elements, making basic skill errors, panicking under pressure, and ultimately breaking down its structures. They look a completely different team – frazzled, indecisive, and lacking in confidence.

With nine games remaining in the 2019 season, the Bombers would need to win at least six, maybe seven, games to reach September action. Four of those games are indoors at Marvel Stadium and they’re likely to win at least three of those, perhaps all four. However the results of the other five games will be what determines the Club’s fate come the end of Round 23. Whatever the outcome, a change in approach must be prioritised in the nine months prior to the 2020 season starting. If this weakness continues to be ignored, then the frustrated fans will once again be left seething, with hopes dashed by an inability to play consistently well outdoors.