Here are some observations on the Bombers in 2017.
Watching football has felt empty in the last three years. The Bombers have looked like a team full of soulless vessels. But 2017 felt different. It was the first time I felt like watching football again. A new chapter was about to be written. A new tempo. Everything to play for again. In my mind it didn’t matter where the Bombers finished in 2017, because 2017 marked the year the Bombers had a clean slate. And that had more weight than ladder positions, Brownlow medalists and to some extent wins and losses.
On a shoddy web stream from Toronto in February I watched the Bombers take on the Suns in a pre-season hit out. Darcy Parish took a handful of bounces along the wing in the searing tropical Mackay heat. He evaded a Suns defender, dished off the hands to Howlett who bombed the ball aimlessly inside the Bombers forward line. Begley collected the bouncing ball and snapped truly on his right, kicking the ball as he was being tackled. The big-framed Begley, who resembled a youthful Jonathan Brown, kicked four goals on debut. Stewart kicked a miraculous goal on his left foot from the boundary. It was ridiculous. The Suns won 79-76. My good feelings about the Bombers were back.
The Bombers have been largely irrelevant since 2004, the year Chris Judd won the Brownlow medal for the Eagles. It was when Kevin Sheedy was running the show. It was also back when the Bombers were used to winning and used to qualifying for finals more often than not. Sheedy was wily. He tried new things. He’d turn defenders into forwards and forwards into midfielders. The thing he was best known for: getting the most out of an average team. Some years the Bombers qualified for finals with average players; and oddly, other years where the Bombers should have won the flag – think 1999 – they failed. Historically I’ve been used to the club turning things around quickly from brief slumps. But the wait for the Bombers to turn it up a gear has felt like an eternity this time around.
For every lull or rebuilding year, under Sheedy, there were usually three to four good ones. But in 13 years the Bombers have only qualified for finals a handful of times. And there’s good reason for it. The team has been restless and coaching slots were a revolving door. Knights promised attacking football but his ideology meant that his team leaked goals like a sieve. Hird promised to correct the club’s drift into obscurity but the supplements saga changed the course of everything. In recent times their wins have been hard-fought and narrow. Their losses – although a lot more competitive in 2017 – were hulking. And for a club with a “draft to develop” policy, they never appeared to take risks with recruiting senior talent. For me, the Bombers have played the same song for more than a decade. Hope hung in the air each passing year as the drought set in but my optimism faded into worry.
So much has happened in the last three seasons. Most of it has been nightmarish. In 2014, I remember watching the Bombers and the Roos in a knockout final. After leading by 27-pts and looking the better of the two teams, the Roos fought back and won by two goals. Just like that. With only 10-games under his belt, Ben Brown kicked four goals that day. It was agony. In 2015 the Bombers went a miserly 6-16. And in 2016, the infamous 34 players involved in the supplements saga were suspended. This year, I thought, anything but a wooden spoon was passable. But nothing was certain. After going 2-0 early in the season and creating sky-high expectations, the Bombers lost four from five games and went 6-8 by Round 15. Reality set in.
Wins dried up for a while. The Bombers’ 6-8 start felt like it meant there would be no white knuckle finish to the end of the season. No mad dash to play finals. I didn’t expect them to make the finals – I don’t think anyone did – which made watching their games pressure free. All eyes were on how they played, whether or not they could be cohesive and whether or not they could improve. The eternal optimist would have noticed small wins in discoveries like the emergence of Anthony Tipungwuti, the rookie who rolled up to Tullamarine to train for a while and who’s now one of the most exciting players to watch in the AFL. His work rate off the ball combined with the magic he produces with the ball is reminiscent of how we all feel watching someone like Cyril Rioli in his prime.
The Bombers had losing swings in 2017. But they also had winning run-ons. We think about the 6-8 start, but the Bombers also won six of their last eight games. These are the type of runs that turn a lost season into hope. That 61-point win against the Saints, geez, it really felt like things were clicking. Even the five-goal loss against the Dogs – decided in the final quarter – felt like we were there and thereabouts. Based on the 2016 Dogs and their Grand Final run, the Bombers home stretch consistency gave me an unfounded belief we could go deep into finals. It didn’t feel right to think these things. It didn’t make sense.
When the Bombers had to play Swans in their knock-out final, I knew the season was over. In my head I gave the them a lowly 15 per cent chance of winning. The Swans are finals beasts. They were a team feeding off wild energy. The 10-goal second quarter by the Swans was a sign that the Bombers were not ready for finals. Out-muscled and didn’t take those early chances. I phoned a friend after the final and we dissected the match and came to the conclusion that 2017 wasn’t about going deep into finals or winning a flag. It was more about developing the glue that holds a team together and figuring out what our gaps were.
More thoughts on the Bombers season. There were still some things that irked me about 2017. The way the Bombers struggled against teams like the Suns, Lions and Dockers and couldn’t produce 100 minutes of the same football they were already producing for a 20 minute period. I’ve never understood that, when teams show prowess, then capitulate. The Bombers had holes in the football they produced in 2017 but they were closer to the best teams than they have been for a long time. They had speed and working parts. Their forward was potent. Their backline clicked. Their transitions worked. But when they were up against pressure, up against teams that could intimidate with blistering skill and had the knack of causing turnovers, the Bombers could only produce 50 per cent of what they were capable of.