Here it is…
John Worsfold reveals what’s driving him to deliver Essendon a premiership
John Worsfold could hardly have been any further away from the MCG — yet still in Australia — on Grand Final day last year, but his connection to the classic encounter that unfolded thousands of kilometres away still had his competitive juices flowing.
Having a short break after his third season of coaching Essendon, he was holidaying in Broome, in the far northern reaches of Western Australia.
But for almost three hours he was engrossed by the contest that saw West Coast — the club he twice captained to win flags and once coached to the crown — overcome Collingwood in the dying moments to win a remarkable premiership.
While he was pleased for his old club, his real joy came from seeing those players he had previously coached at the Eagles achieve what he had many years earlier.
“I wasn’t there; I was tucked away up in Broome,” Worsfold told the Sunday Herald Sun in an exclusive interview. “But I watched it.
“I was very proud of what the 2006 West Coast boys were able to achieve and I was really proud of Shannon Hurn, Josh Kennedy and Mark LeCras, and what those boys were able to do last year, and what they achieved.
“You form a really strong relationship when you are working with young athletes who are striving to achieve the best they can and they all want to be a part of a successful team.”
It’s that same passion that is driving him at Essendon, working with a group he helped to bring together and galvanise through some tough times.
Worsfold, who turned 50 last September, is far from sated by his past successes.
He craves more … for the group of players he is so closely connected to and for the Bombers supporters who have dealt with a rollercoaster of emotions throughout a tumultuous decade.
“I’ve been lucky enough to be there, these boys haven’t, and I would love to see them achieve it,” he said. “It gives me great satisfaction to work with them to try to achieve the ultimate.”
Essendon is deservedly one of the main spruik teams of 2019. The Bombers recruited class midfielder Dylan Shiel to add to the 2018 acquisitions of Devon Smith, Jake Stringer and Adam Saad.
The club also won 10 of its final 14 games last year, albeit it finished 11th.
The coach is happy for players and fans to embrace that expectation, but said there was plenty of hard work ahead, and the team is still building for the future.
“We should feel good with the fact that the general footy population thinks we are going to be a strong team,” Worsfold said.
“(But) that doesn’t mean you train less hard because people are saying that.
“Our fans have seen how we have built the list over the past few years and have seen the attitude of the players in terms of wanting to work harder together.
“We’ve got a lot of feedback around the style of footy we are playing. “We want to get our supporters to see another premiership as soon as possible. “That’s ultimately what we are working our backsides off to achieve, but we can’t get there without the hard work. “It’s just about getting that balance right and keeping your feet on the ground.”
As expectant as Worsfold is for the year ahead, he anticipates the Bombers will still have plenty of development in the next few seasons.
After all, they rank 16th in terms of average games this season and have an average age of 23.9.
Importantly, he noted the chemistry within the team is reaching maturation.
“There are not too many teams that have won premierships who haven’t had a real core of players playing a lot of footy together,” Worsfold said.
“That’s what we have been keen to build over the past two or three seasons and it is all about consolidating that now.”
In an era of sport where hype so often holds sway, Worsfold is a measured antidote.
He prefers to keep things in perspective. That was evident through the disastrous start to last season, in which the club won only two of its first eight games, including a Round 8 loss to wooden spooner Carlton.
“It was a really tough period for us,” he said. “You don’t let external noise distract you from what you are trying to achieve. “If you react to people saying you have to change, to do something different, that will keep them happy for a week, but it won’t make you a really good team.
“The core strength in the player leadership group and coaching leadership group meant we were never going to be flustered.”
Those fortunes turned spectacularly as the Bombers produced a strong second half of the season with an attacking brand that won critics over. As “wonderful as it was to see”, Worsfold said only hard work, commitment and a selfless approach can take the club to the next level.
“I was very conscious that the top teams — Richmond, Hawthorn and the Magpies — still beat us late (in the season),” he said. “Even playing some good footy still wasn’t enough to beat the teams higher up the ladder. That drives us for improvement.”
The Bombers have made minor tweaks to their game plan. They are looking to improve their defensive output while maintaining that attacking streak.
“We have a quick rebounding team and a pretty potent forward line so we want to give the opportunity to show what they can do,” he said. “But we also know the premiers are so often in the top few in terms of stopping the opposition scoring.
“Being 12th or 11th for scores against last year is not going to cut it.”
The addition of highly regarded assistant coach Ben Rutten will assist in that area.
He has been working with the back half, including Michael Hurley and Cale Hooker, but also with Joe Daniher in one-on-one contest work.
“Ben is an exciting young coach coming through with really clear ideas and a good way of communicating,” Worsfold said.
A series of single-word values that a streamlined leadership group — captain Dyson Heppell, vice-captain Zach Merrett, as well as David Myers, Daniher and Orazio Fantasia — settled on as a guide on and off the field has been a driving force.
“I won’t put them (the values) out there publicly, but you will probably pick them up throughout the year,” Worsfold said.
“The players are embracing it. “We are on a growth phase in trying to improve our footy.
“We have brought a squad in and everything we do now is about getting better year by year, to the point where we can (one day) win another premiership for the Essendon Football Club.”
ON A BACK-UP RUCK OPTION FOR TOM BELLCHAMBERS
“We are still working through what we will do with the second ruck type. Whether it is (Shaun) McKernan, or if we go with Joey (Daniher), or whether we use someone like Mitch Brown, as we did at times last year. We have a few options and we have Sam Draper and Zac Clarke, who have had good pre-seasons. T-Bell (Bellchambers) is in good shape. But, touch wood, if we lose T-Bell at some stage for any reason, we are confident with the back-up boys we have there.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF DYLAN SHIEL
“We targeted him. We thought another quality midfielder in our squad was going to be really beneficial, so that was a focus for (recruiting boss) Adrian and his team throughout the (2018) year. They did a mountain of work in sourcing a lot of names who were going to be available. Dylan was obviously very high on that list. It is a credit to everyone, not only that we were able to secure him, but that he was interested in talking to Essendon at the start, because that wasn’t happening a few years ago.”
AFTER KICKING SEVEN GOALS IN INTRA-CLUB THIS WEEK, IS IT FORWARD OR MID FOR JAKE STRINGER?
“Jake is going to be a good player for us wherever he is on the ground. He is helping us with the ball through the middle and sending it down to Joey Daniher and Orazio (Fantasia). But if Jake is stationed up forward, he is going to be a big threat, too. He has had a very solid pre-season. He didn’t really get going until after Christmas last year. He had bad hamstrings (last summer). But he has really been up and going this pre-season. He has set himself up for a strong season.”
PLAYING THE LONG GAME WITH AARON FRANCIS
“(Francis’ mental health battle) was another focus that was bigger than footy. It was a serious issue for Aaron and you don’t want to see people sad and not enjoying their lives. That was a massive focus for us and the fact that he was able to get to a point where he could come in and play some AFL footy late was great for Aaron and for everyone. We don’t take it for granted that he is 100 per cent. The aim was ‘don’t rush him’, to not get games into him until he was physically and mentally ready for it, or we could lose him to the game. We are working really closely with Aaron to make sure he has a wonderful career (with Essendon).”
A DIFFERENT MICHAEL HURLEY
“‘Hurls’ will be in a lot better physical shape this year. He had an interrupted pre-season last year and was carrying an injury where he couldn’t train for five or six weeks. We decided the player we were seeing on the field didn’t look like the Michael Hurley we know. We rested him for a week where we hoped to get him back training during the week. Injuries can get to a point where they really inhibit (players) from being themselves. He is another one who is miles ahead of where he was this time last year.”
A POSSIBLE ILLICIT DRUGS CODE AFL REVIEW
“I don’t have a view on whether they (the AFL) should alter it. But like any organisation the world keeps moving and changing, and we should review things we have in place and see if they are delivering what we want then to deliver, and if we need to make slight changes.”