For Essendon, the end of the 90s resulted in two failed preliminary finals, and three one-point finals losses (to the Lions, Swans in '96 and Blues in '99). But in 2000 a switch was flicked. Several stars returned from injury, some younger players emerged, and a club-wide determination after so many recent finals heartbreaks resulted in the Bombers delivering one of the greatest, devastating seasons in AFL history.
Some argue it was the greatest season of all time.
The 24-1 season by Essendon in 2000 played out like a fairytale sports movie where the protagonists feast on every obstacle in their way, fuelled from a previous agonising defeat. After the 1999 preliminary final anguish to Carlton -- a devastating one-point upset -- the Bombers had a chip on their shoulder and were determined to right the wrongs of that failure.
The 2000 season became a series of statements and each week it appeared the Bombers were climbing rungs on a ladder as they journeyed to the top. It started with a 5-0 run in the preseason Ansett Cup but it didn't stop there. There was the 94-point win over Port Adelaide in Round 1; the 7.5 to 0.0 first quarter against reigning premiers North Melbourne in Round 13; the 20-game winning streak and two prolific wins over Carlton in the home and away season. And if you thought their 53.8 point average winning margin through 22 games was ruthless and unbelievable, their finals campaign consisted of wins by 125, 45 and 60.
The 2000 Bombers were voted as the best premiership team of this decade and in that season they claimed everything but the Brownlow Medal and broke records: a 22-year-old Matthew Lloyd won the Coleman (109 goals); James Hird won the Norm Smith Medal after playing 22 games in his previous three seasons; the team averaged 131 points per game; and had eight players who kicked more than 20 goals.
So, what was it like to be on that ride? Over the past few months, ESPN has interviewed many of the major figures that made the 2000 premiership happen.
This is a five-part oral history of the 2000 Essendon Bombers, with each chapter to be released on Thursdays before, and during the finals series.
Part 1: The 99 preliminary final - Misery and Aftermath September 18, 1999, M.C.G
During the 1999 season, Essendon finished first and went 18-4. Carlton had scraped into finals with 12-10 and lost to the Lions by 73, then crunched the Eagles by 54 at the MCG, giving them a prelim berth. Essendon had played Carlton twice during the season for two convincing wins - 39 and 76 points. But the Bombers were far from full strength - captain James Hird only played two games due to stress fractures. Key forward Scott Lucas suffered a broken leg in Round 10 against the Crows. Jason Johnson was an emerging talent in the VFL. Heading into the preliminary final, the football world believed the Bombers would win in a gallop - they were $1.18 favourites to beat the Blues.
Dean Solomon (Bombers defender): We got marshmallows thrown at us in '98. We were called soft. Being called soft is almost the ultimate disrespect. We took that to heart. The pre-season we had heading into '99 was unbelievably hard. That got us going.
Michael Long (Bombers midfielder): We lost an enormous part of our side in Hird and Lucas who were out through injury. We watched the second semi the week before. We felt pretty confident that we'd beat Carlton.
Rick Edwards (Journalist and author of "We Are Essendon"): A bunch of the players, through a coterie member, got into the corporate box for the semifinal to see West Coast and Carlton. Some of these players were saying how great it was going to be for Wallis to play on [North Melbourne's] Wayne Carey in the Grand Final.
Scott Lucas (Bombers forward): At that point I was just starting to get some fitness back so I was hopeful that should we win that I'd have a decent chance to play in the Grand Final.
John Quinn (Bombers' head trainer): I started with the club at the end of '98 and I'd never seen a game of AFL. I had no understanding of the history of the game or any of those things.
Dan Eddy (Historian and author of "Always Striving" and "King Richard"): In '99 I was living in Leongatha playing local footy for the Leongatha thirds. Every time the Bombers were playing in Melbourne I'd be down there.
Quinn: There was this expectation that we'd roll through. I don't think it was arrogance. It was more a naivety.
Eddy: As I was walking into the ground -- it's probably the worst thing I've seen from Essendon supporters -- they were lining up for Grand Final tickets at the box offices around the MCG. I just shook my head and thought 'what are you doing, you're going to curse us'.
Mark Harvey (Bombers assistant coach): Moving through that finals series we were planning to go through to that Grand Final. My feeling throughout the course of the game was sometimes in prelim finals, anything can happen.
Joe Misiti (Bombers midfielder): We were red-hot favourites and red-hot favourites don't always win.
Edwards: At three-quarter time I was concerned. [Carlton's Anthony] Koutoufides sort of loomed large and that's the way it turned out. He just started marking everything. It was just a nightmare.
Sean Wellman (Bombers defender): Halfway through the last quarter I looked up at the scoreboard -- I think we were a couple of goals up -- and remembered thinking 'how are we going to win this game, the way we were playing?'
Eddy: That last quarter was one of the most dramatic in history and the Blues just kept finding ways to get in front.
Blake Caracella (Bombers forward): We were really poor in front of goal. Whether it was nerves, not sure, and it kind of snowballed.
Eddy: The siren sounded. And a few minutes after that, when Carlton had celebrated I looked up, and my girlfriend and I were the only two left in our whole section. I had been crying for about five minutes. We lost the unlosable. It still haunts me to this day.
Mark Johnson (Bombers defender): I think I kicked the last goal in that game in the last quarter to try and keep us in it. But at the end I remember it was like a weird feeling. I didn't understand the opportunity that was missed.
Quinn: I've been in professional sport for about 40 years - I'd say that's the lowest point I've ever had in sport.
Rohan Connolly (Essendon fan and The Age columnist): I was in the press box covering the game. I was pretty upset at the end of it. I was half-way through writing my story and my computer -- a tiny laptop with a tiny screen -- packed up. And I just picked it up and hurled it across the press box and proceeded to pick up the phone and dictate it to someone in the newsroom.
Robert Shaw (Bombers assistant coach): Carlton were the most consistent team on the day and were deserving. Their big-occasion players played well. We kicked 7.7 in the third quarter. We wasted it.
Edwards: I must have been on the third level at the MCG. I've never gone down the stairs so quickly. Then as soon as I got through the gates I just ran through Yarra Park. My greatest fear was encountering a Carlton supporter who wanted to remind me of the result or a cheap shot. I had this feeling of disbelief that it couldn't have happened.
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Jason Johnson (Bombers midfielder): I was heavily involved in the VFL at the time and was the first emergency for that final. I watched the game from the grandstand and was obviously just really in shock.
Matthew Lloyd (Bombers forward via AFL Media): I probably thought in '98 we weren't quite good enough but in '99, losing that, that's the biggest heartbreaker of a game that I've ever had. We blew a golden opportunity. Should never have lost. We were the best team in '99. We were heartbroken.
Edwards: I think [North Melbourne coach Denis] Pagan had gone on record saying that he expected Essendon to win that game. He was actually taking notes at the game just on what Essendon was doing.
Chris Heffernan (Bombers midfielder): We were all pretty crushed. And because we were so close to the Grand Final there was this perception that we let a flag slip away. We thought we were the best team that year. Only just. North Melbourne were very good.
Connolly: I always felt the thing about Essendon blowing that flag is a little bit overrated. There's absolutely no guarantee that they would have beaten North Melbourne. They blew that game. Whether they blew that flag I think is a bit more debatable.
Caracella: If you look at the bigger picture, a lot of the players had played in '96 and lost two finals by one point as well - one to Brisbane and one to Sydney. Then the Marshmallow Final in '98. It's kind of a story of failing but then finally succeeding in 2000.
Michael Long (Bombers forward): I think we froze a little bit. We didn't play our natural game. Koutoufides destroyed us. We had the players to do it, to actually beat Carlton but it was one of those days where we had our chances. Still today, you think, that should have been ours that year.
Edwards: People talk about the Dean Wallis-Fraser Brown thing, for me, it was the easy shots on goal that we missed through the whole game. Mercuri and Caracella ended up with no goals between them but seven points. I think it was a game of missed opportunities.
Lucas: That was the first poor performance the team had put in, in a long time. It's all about timing. On that day we weren't at our best. And Carlton played close to their best.
Solomon: We got to that prelim and we fell short. That ripped our hearts out. It was gut wrenching. I remember walking off and would have preferred to have gotten done by 100 points.
Dustin Fletcher (Bombers defender): It's a hollow feeling. Your season is done. You've got five or six months until the first game next year.
Edwards: It leaves just a terrible taste in my mouth. It's 20 years later but it'll continue to leave that kind of taste for as long as I live I think.
Paul Barnard (Bombers utility): We've all lost games before. I've lost finals by a point. But that one really hurt. That one cut. That was the lost opportunity.
Quinn: I took a lot of responsibility for the fact that we did lose that game even though it was by a solitary point. I didn't prepare the players as well enough going into that game to win and was probably looking too far forward. It was a very valuable lesson.
Wellman: Carlton obviously made some changes and did a few different things. We belted them a couple of times during the year and they certainly mixed up their team. I was just flat.
Kevin Sheedy (Bombers coach, via The Age): It's got to hurt. We were there with an opportunity with 20 minutes to go. We were there with a good chance after 100 minutes. To lose after being two or three goals ahead that's the disappointing aspect. Is everyone who loses in life, do they choke? I'm not sure about that.
Solomon: I remember going into the change rooms and Sheeds was ruthless but had that element of care. He basically asked the question: Are we hungry enough to want to go to the next level?
Misiti: Sheeds looked us all in the eye and said 'We had the talent to get to a Grand Final. This may never happen again'.
Harvey: I remember after that game we were sort of reassessing ourselves. How could we have done it differently? I remember walking into the rooms after the game seeing the players, they were exhausted, obviously disappointed. John Quinn said "get your s--t together because Carlton just gave us a present and we need to open it next year."
Barnard: There's not much to be said after a prelim loss like that. I remember Sheeds said "our season will start from the Grand Final next week. You all will be attending."
Kevin Sheedy made the decision to organise tickets for all of the players to attend the 1999 Grand Final between Carlton and North Melbourne, followed by a two-hour team meeting at a city restaurant near the M.C.G called Geppetto.
Shaw: The team went to the '99 Grand Final to watch it. It was just part of the process to understand that we were good enough to be there and wasted an opportunity.
Quinn: I remember after the loss, Sheeds got everyone together only a day or two after. It was a very hollow time.
Shaw: We were all in it together. Close groups don't disband.
Lucas: Our VFL team was in the Grand Final. So there was also the need and want to go and support our teammates, combined with the fact we wanted to observe the game and take it all in and see what we really missed out on.
Barnard: You had Carlton supporters giving it to us in the crowd. And North Melbourne supporters. That Grand Final was hard to watch.
Solomon: It felt like it went for four days. Everything was in slow motion. It was horrible. I was filthy, getting abuse from opposition supporters but in many ways we deserved it. In the end they were right because we should have been there. But we weren't.
Fletcher: That humiliation I suppose, I think was a great move. It got us thinking about 2000 pretty much straight away.
Lloyd (via AFL Media): Halfway through the last quarter, when we knew North were going to win it, we crossed the road, there was a restaurant. Robert Shaw handed out folders and he said 'Sheeds and I have discussed - these are the three teams we need to beat'. And it changed our mindset from the heartbreak of seven days earlier to the mission we needed to go on, to win the 2000 premiership.
Shaw: We went over the season and started the plan for 2000. It started there and then. I remember he (Sheedy) got me to do a match analysis of our challengers for the next year.
Lucas: Robert Shaw spoke about a lot of different things, what the great teams do and what we can learn from the week before and how we needed to prepare over the summer to get it right in 2000.
Wellman: You could still hear the Kangaroos theme song playing. Over and over again. Sheeds just addressed us about how we gifted a Grand Final away. And that, the same time next year we're going to do everything we can to make sure we're celebrating a premiership.
Barnard: The moment we walked down to Geppetto's was the moment the pre-season started for us. A few home truths were spoken, not in a personal way, but more about accountability, what players needed to improve on and what we were going to do about it.
Fletcher: My memory after leaving that meeting, was that every player had in their head what they had to do to be a better player. For me, I had to work on my endurance. Everyone had their area where they had to improve on.
Heffernan: It was very much put on the table that night from Sheeds, this is not a normal break, that this next year starts now and he didn't want anyone to come back not ready to go.
Quinn: We just weren't quite hard-edged enough, mature enough to win the flag in '99. The fact that we lost absolutely lifted the focus and the intensity. It was almost like an obsession that 2000 became. That was the gift of losing the preliminary final which became the heights of 2000.
Harvey: What you normally find is a lot of teams who have gone through playing in finals in consecutive years, have learned their lessons throughout the course of that and we were one of those teams. It was reminded to the players to drive yourself further, that if we ever got in that position again, we were not going to go through those emotions of that particular final. Then we went about our business.