Finally about the footy: why it's fun to be a Bombers fan again

It's feeling like the old days again for Essendon lately. On several levels.

None the least, there's the fifth place the Bombers occupy on the AFL ladder, the highest they've been this deep into a season for a decade.

On Saturday night, there'll be more feelings of nostalgia as the Bombers do an old-fashioned road trip from the VFL era, a journey down the highway to Geelong, to the intimidating fortress that is GMHBA Stadium for just their second clash with the Cats there for 30 years.

But ask any Essendon supporter what feels most like the old days right now, and it's likely simply to be just following a normal club fielding a normal team playing consistently normal, competitive football.

What does that mean? It's as much about what that doesn't look like. It doesn't look like a club perpetually in crisis relying on enormous emotional charges or backs-to-the-wall desperation. It means strong team performances not based around individual bursts of brilliance. And it means a coach not waffling or talking in riddles.

It's been so long since Essendon didn't rely on those sorts of antics (and we're talking even before Kevin Sheedy's long reign as coach had finished) that some Bomber fans are too young to remember such a time. But if it could be summed up in a phrase, it might be something like: "Orthodoxy Is Good".

It was a line which resounded particularly strongly after last Sunday's win over Adelaide. Not for the first time in recent years, on-ballers Zach Merrett and Darcy Parish were prolific. But there was no burst of outrageous brilliance from one-time talisman Jake Stringer, kept subdued by the Crows.

Instead, Essendon relied on solid forward craft from Peter Wright and Kyle Langford, who shared six goals, and plenty of defensive pressure from ground-level forwards Matt Guelfi and Jye Menzie.

Down back, the Bombers had their issues with keys Jordan Ridley then Mason Redman injured. But where last year that would have been a jolt from which the Dons couldn't recover, last Sunday the likes of Brandon Zerk-Thatcher and Jayden Laverde stepped up to cover any disrupt, while veteran Dyson Heppell showed a different level of leadership even without the captaincy tag now attached.

It's perhaps in midfield, though, where the newer, more "normal" Essendon is now exemplified.

Merrett and Parish have had similarly dominant games before without the Bombers prevailing. But the support cast is now full of teammates who show up in terms of performance week after week.

There's Ben Hobbs, a 19-year-old who plays with the composure of a far more experienced hand. There's Jye Caldwell and Sam Durham. All three have been not only consistently durable, but consistent in delivering the sort of disciplined football the consistently good teams have in their DNA.

Then there's Archie Perkins, who might be the embodiment of Brad Scott's Essendon as opposed to previous versions of the Bombers.

Explosive, exciting and confident were words used to describe the talented youngster when he was drafted to the club at the end of 2020.

He's still all of those things, but it's being shown now less as cameos and more from quarter to quarter, Perkins up on last year and his first season for contested ball, tackles, clearances, score involvements and metres gained.

Perkins has had games where he's been more noticeable, but maybe not any as valuable as his career-high 24-possession game against Adelaide last Sunday. He's less mercurial and more methodical, but more vindication of Scott's talents as a development coach.

Essendon can still be an exciting team to watch when the Bombers link up through midfield surging out of their defensive half. But it's all now underpinned with more solid foundations, Scott's side more capable than its predecessors of turning around a bad start or simply hanging in a contest even when things aren't going well.

That has bred more efficiency, backed up by the numbers. For example, Essendon ranks poorly for inside 50s on the differentials (but uses those it has well), and is ranked third for scores per inside 50. Ditto defending efficiently, the Dons ranked sixth for opposition scores per inside 50.

Indeed, aside from that, Essendon doesn't rank particularly high for anything other than its No. 1 status for defensive 50 to forward 50 transition, and is in the lower third of rankings for both midfield and territory indicators.

And yet here we are with just seven games remaining, and the Bombers are fifth on the ladder at 9-7, just a game away from a top four spot, having already beaten Melbourne, the team immediately above them, and pushed top two teams Collingwood and Port Adelaide (twice) oh-so-close.

Anything could still happen this season, but regardless, it's now hard to see Essendon's immediate future as anything but bright. And that more than anything is a sensation which for the Bombers' long-suffering fans really will be a case of "just like the good ol' days".

You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at FOOTYOLOGY.