Can Ben Rutten help Essendon supporters in their search for spirit?

In early 2017, 80,000 people were at the MCG to watch Essendon play Hawthorn.

The Hawks were the toughest task in the AFL back then. But on that sultry Saturday evening, the Dons were back.

Their senior players had returned from a year’s suspension, and they had unearthed some exciting talent in their absence.

They ran through the banner to a crashing wave of noise and red and black and quickly overwhelmed the Hawks.

Despite dropping their bundle a few times that year, they played finals. John Worsfold had them on the course to contend. The club’s darkest days were over.

Fast forward five years and Essendon have gone nowhere. On Sunday, they played a titillating first half against Fremantle, extracting the ball from stoppages, running forward, and hitting the scoreboard.

It was far from perfect, but with their best ball-winner and ball-user both sitting in the coaches’ box, it was something.

The warning signs were there, however, if you cared to take notice.

Halfway through the second quarter they had laid one tackle for the term, their defenders were near breaking point, and their doughtiest player was sporting peroxide hair and a pink mouthguard.

And then, like countless times before, they stopped.

Dylan Shiel

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/AFL Photos/Getty Images)

The ball began to bounce Fremantle’s way. White jumpers ran past their opponents in waves and bobbed up in perplexing amounts of space.

It looked like Fremantle had emerged from halftime with an entire team of activated medical substitutes. Essendon’s players looked like they’d never met one another.

Copiously compensated senior players shambled around Marvel Stadium like they were in the final stages of an ultra-marathon, searching for an electrolyte.

Dylan Shiel, whose athleticism and general presentation to games could not be improved upon, looked for all the world to be there under sufferance. Essendon’s inside midfielders had laid five tackles between them.

It’s hard to say if Sunday felt any different to previous episodes of Essendon capitulation. The entire thing has been done to death.

On their day, the Bombers look like they can beat anyone. Every few years they will string six weeks together, get the competition talking and play in an elimination final.

Save for some wet weather and Cody Weightman last year, they could’ve ended the Bulldogs’ season. Rinse, repeat.

Adrian Dodoro spends the summer topping up the list with some sought-after talent. The president fronts a video message to the members. Someone in the media tips them to win the premiership.

We can only assume the players drink their own bathwater. The season starts. They inevitably finish 11th.

Peter Wright

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Their supporters, for all their insufferableness, have gone nowhere. While the reigning premiers fail to quarter-fill the MCG, Essendon fans buy their memberships and resume their reserved seats.

They have more of an excuse to tune in from their lounge-rooms than most supporter bases. They have been starved of success this century.

At different stages, they have been let down by their team, their club and the game itself. One look at Twitter will show you many of them are convinced the entire AFL industry, not least the umpiring department, is conspiring against them.

On the wing at Marvel they often resemble a pack of wild dogs, hackles raised, gnashing their teeth and barking and booing at every questionable ruck infringement.

After Anzac Day in 2019 they threatened to incite a riot. The nerve of Nathan Buckley to give them a rap on the wrists that afternoon.

Twelve months in, and the coach is yet to lose the glint in his eye. Ben Rutten’s predecessors all saw the team on paper and were buoyed.

But they were slowly ground down by the week-to-week variability. They were stumped.

James Hird, Mark Thompson and John Worsfold all trotted out the same lines about training loads and the need to investigate and ask questions.

Rutten is a man of process and structure. He deals in facts. His is one of the youngest sides in the competition.

Ben Rutten, Senior Assistant Coach and Team Defence of the Bombers addresses his players

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Losses are disappointing, but all we can do is review this game hard and find out what happened.

It started around the contest, he theorises, which gave their receivers first use. One thing leads to the other. We’ll clean that up and go again.

Publicly, he is still prepared to give his players the benefit of the doubt.

In any case, Matthew Lloyd will do the video review for him on Footy Classified, his players will feel the spotlight and the team will probably produce an unprecedented pressure rating next week.

But therein lies the problem. Rutten’s supporter base and the power-wielding coteries have been pining for a consistency of effort – for something unconditional, for some sort of baseline – since he was playing for Adelaide.

And here is Rutten, the assistant coach so venerated that he rendered the search for a senior coach superfluous.

Here is the subject of a succession plan. Here is the man poached from the premiers to implement a team defence. Here he is with his structure and his shape.

But when Essendon people watch Richmond, Melbourne and now, heaven forbid, Carlton, they don’t see a sensational full-ground press.

They don’t see a beguiling zone. They don’t see Xs and Os. They see intangibles.

They see people and connection. They see team acts and self-sacrifice. They see spirit.

God help us if they don’t see some from their own side soon.

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