For Essendon, the end of the 90s resulted in two failed preliminary finals, and three one-point finals losses (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 football history.
Some argue it was the greatest season of all time.
The 2000 Bombers were voted as the best premiership team of the decade and in that season they claimed everything but the Brownlow Medal: 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 the second piece of 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 2: A deal with the devil
After Essendon's end-of-year trip to Barcelona in 1999, Bombers players returned in near peak fitness. John Barnes re-joined his old club. Hird and Lucas were back. Emerging players like Mark Johnson, Jason Johnson, Adam Ramanauskas and Gary Moorcroft were determined to earn a permanent position in the seniors.
Fletcher: We went on that footy trip knowing, still in the back of our minds, we lost and we could've been out here celebrating a premiership.
M. Johnson: I remember 'Mercs' and Joe Misiti by the pool and they were saying 'we've missed an opportunity and we've got to get it back'. It wasn't like a throwaway thing, they genuinely wanted to get back next year giving feedback for the younger guys.
Caracella: In Barcelona a few weeks after the game, four or five of us are in the gym training which normally doesn't happen. It probably showed the mindset of where the players were at.
Heffernan: I remember people there training their arses off. Going to the gym at the Barcelona hotel doing weights, which is just unheard of for a footy trip.
Misiti: The first day of pre-season we turned up and I've never seen a group of blokes look fitter. The boys were ready to go. The look in people's eyes. We could have played Round 1. We never looked back. We were only going to accept one result in 2000.
John Barnes (Bombers ruckman): I'd been given the sack from Geelong. I was looking for another club. 'Sheeds' (Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy) threw out a lifeline. I couldn't believe how relaxed Sheeds was. He was a bit more mellow. When I arrived in 86-87 he'd only been coaching for five years. He'd come off two premierships and they'd been in three Grand Finals in Sheeds' first five years. He was absolutely brutal. I think he learned that not everyone is tarred with the same brush as he is. It was good to come back and see the bloke a bit more relaxed.
Solomon: We all presented back at pre-season in great nick. That pre-season we did was physically and more so mentally challenging as you'd ever get.
Quinn: My background is athletics so it's all about periodisation and planning a season. And I planned a season like I would with athletes. We'd go three weeks up, really hard work, and then one week down.
Harvey: Guys like Lloyd and Lucas were evolving. There were a number of players that had already played in the 1993 Grand Final and had success. Ramanauskas and John Barnes had not won a premiership. Blumfield, Jason Johnson, Paul Barnard. Alessio. Moorcroft. All these sort of guys hadn't played in the '93 Grand Final so you had the mix of '93 guys that understood how to do it and then the balance of the players that went through the heartbreak of '99. The discussion was about getting back there and what we need to do.
Misiti: There were still boys thinking 'we were that good in '99 and didn't make it, how much more do we have to step up to win a Grand Final?' Peoples' mindset changed.
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J. Johnson: We were labelled probably a bit of a soft team. And then losing the '99 prelim, that sort of carried over a bit. It certainly drove us into the 2000 pre-season.
Quinn: It's a very important thing for people to understand the good things in life, you have to experience some ordinary things. One of the things I said to the players during a training session was 'you must first stand in the shadows before you can see the light' and after '99 we weren't only in the shadows, we were in the dark, from a sporting point of view. It lay the platform for where we're going to go.
Fletcher: It was the burn still that hung over us. It doesn't always work like that. You don't always play a prelim then the following year you make the Grand Final. It was a really strong group that affected each other and knew if we did the hard work there was no reason why we couldn't go that one extra step. And Kevin Sheedy, his positive energy, was a big part of that 2000 season.
M. Johnson: I was at the stage where I still had to prove myself. We came back and gave 100 percent at every single training session and that transferred into the games.
Barnard: Everyone returned with the mindset that no-one was going to beat us.
Barnes: These blokes were that switched-on and I was just a jigsaw piece that was missing from the puzzle that just slotted straight in. I was 31 years of age. I had matured a lot.
Wellman: I didn't know much about 'Barnsey'. I just remember him getting to pre-season and how fit he was. He was coming over from Geelong. I was really impressed. We had our first run over at Princes Park and he was just flying.
Barnes: After about four weeks of settling in I just said to the guys 'do you want to do breakfast'? Me and my best mate Wally and Dustin Fletcher went. I put it on the rest of the blokes for the next Sunday and six came. It turned into 12. The Sunday after that we had 30 blokes. I'd order the bacon and eggs in advance. And the cafe that we picked, which was opposite the oval, can only hold about 20 people.
Shaw: Peter Somerville was a great Essendon man and premiership player but John Barnes took Essendon to another level.
Lucas: There was scope within the list to grow. Certainly the disappointment of '99 was a huge driving factor throughout the year. We weren't going to redeem ourselves or consider it all successful until we had won the premiership.
Misiti: I didn't change much. I'm a pretty routine, set, person. It was just my mindset of this year we're going to win, with no ifs or buts. We got close to the top of the mountain the year before.
Barnard: You've got to remember, everywhere in Melbourne, if you jumped in a cab or go to a pub or the movies, everyone wants to talk footy. It's a religion. And everyone would call you chokers everywhere you went. We were embarrassed. It was really pushed home to us.
Training started earlier because of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Led by Robert Shaw and John Quinn, for the first time ever, Essendon's pre-season included more theoretical and strategic training and a three-week stint at Essendon Grammar.
Shaw: It was the pre-season where Essendon went full-time, five days per week. Nine to five. Training, meetings, conditioning, lectures, game plan. My role was to instruct on strategy and game plan. Everyone had a job to do.
Quinn: We developed more of a running game. I was doing a lot of sprint work with these players. My area of expertise back then was in the 400m - lots of accelerative work. Lots of repeat sprint ability. Essendon became this explosive, athletic, running team that could repeat and repeat again.
Lucas: It was a really driven group. It wasn't a group that needed to have to be having rants and raves to get guys up to play.
Solomon: 'Quinny' demanded the absolute best out of us. If we had three, six-minute runs, with a two-minute break, he'd expect you to empty out. There would be blokes vomiting. Then you'd do a cool down run. He'd make us do another one or another two. He tapped into our psyche knowing we always had more. He broke down the dam walls from that point on.
Shaw: John was a brilliant coach. He was more than just High Performance. Sheeds leaned on him as part of the coaching decision-making. John kept challenging us all. He was a unique genius.
Quinn: During the pre-season camp we brought out a snippet of a movie with Robert Redford called "Jeremiah Johnson", a film from the 1970s. Redford played a soldier who had been to a war in America and he'd had enough of the fight and just wanted to find himself. He fled to the mountains where a tribe of Indians wanted to get him off the mountain. They kept attacking and attacking. And he'd take them on one by one. There's one integral scene that became the Bombers of 2000. There's an old trapper and he's talking to Jeremiah Johnson and says 'why do you stay up here, it's best you go back into town and get out of these mountains'. Jeremiah looks at him and just says 'I've been to a town.' And that was Essendon. We'd been to a town of losing in a preliminary final and knew what it was like to be everybody else. We wanted to know what it was like on the mountain and do whatever that took to be there.
Long: John Quinn brought that insight to success and professionalism and looking at yourself as a professional athlete and how you go about your training in the gym, after training hours. It was just a different perspective on ethics and attitude and being ruthless for success.
Barnard: John's job was to push and prod and poke. And push you right to the edge. And the other coaches too for that matter. Robert Shaw's tactical mind was brilliant.
Misiti: John Quinn was unbelievable in pre-season. He didn't worry that we were all footballers and went and turned us all into athletes. His fitness regime was a place none of us had ever been before. To the boys' credit they just took it all onboard.
Barnes: I don't think Johnny Quinn gets enough kudos. He got the group together and didn't take any sh-t. It was a good leveller.
Quinn: I remember Courtney Johns, he turned up to a meeting about 35 seconds late. And I pulled him aside and ripped shreds off him and told him he was the most unprofessional player I'd ever worked with.
Solomon: The expectation of what you did, when you did it and to the level you did it at, was just nothing I've felt before. It was just a bunch of guys who were really close, deeply connected, pushing each other to the max and knowing that the reason we were doing that was to get the best out of each other. You never took anything personally. There was always feedback. We looked at feedback through curious eyes. We got to learn more because of feedback.
Barnard: Sessions were pretty gruelling. Then we'd do a deal with the devil - if you do this, I'll give you that. What he was trying to do was train our minds. If you think you're done, you're not. That resonated with me.
J. Johnson: You didn't know when the sessions were going to end.
Quinn: It's all very well to say 'I'm kilo overweight, I can get away with it' and I wanted to show them what difference a kilo would make. So I went to the butcher shop down at Moonee Ponds and got 50 1kg bags of sausages in plastic bags. I turned up to training and I strapped 1kg of sausages above the backside of every player and made them do the session with the extra kilogram of sausages on them.
M. Johnson: He (Quinn) was more like a psychologist than a fitness advisor. He knew exactly what to say to get the best out of everyone. He'd test the coaches. He'd push everyone. Everyone was swimming in one direction.
Barnard: John changed the way we went about training through a holistic approach - mind, body, the way you go about your approach. And it's not just the two hours that you train. It was 24/7.
Barnes: He (Quinn) was the type of bloke where you couldn't hide from it. He knew if you were bludging when you were running. That's all he's ever done - taught athletes how to run.
Barnard: The physical side of training, the bunsen burner was turned up. We didn't need more kicking drills or handball drills; we needed more application from the shoulders up. But it was more the mindset.
Fletcher: We used to do some big, big fitness sessions. We're out on the 'Tan' track a fair bit. I probably noticed for the first time, if we had to do the extra work, it was a lot more positive and that extra one could maybe get us into a Grand Final.
Barnes: The one story I always tell is 'butterflies'. Everyone gets butterflies. And it's great. Quinny always encouraged everyone to get the butterflies and bring them on. He saw it as athletes being ready to play.
Long: People like John Quinn changed how we perceive ourselves. A reminder of the loss and reminder of losing an opportunity to another premiership. We owed it to ourselves to get back there again. That pre-season is where we had a lot of players back from injury. It was a real mindset that we were going to get back there again. And that coaches never let you forget that.
Quinn: We talked about zero compromises. The little things you do make a big deal to pre-season and how a little upon a little becomes a lot. If you were asked to run 50m and you're taking your foot off the accelerator 48m, then you're not the type of person we want in this team. In some ways it was probably a bit over the top.
Heffernan: Quinny was an out-and-out genius. A trailblazer. His influence spread throughout leagues. The impact he had on the game was probably underrated. He had a huge impact on the group.
Caracella: We were really close as a group. Training was intense. It was combative. We all loved the challenge the coaches put out to us. I remember the place was just so much fun to be around. The teams that are really successful they're fun places to be.
Barnes: We put deep heat on jocks. Filled shoes up with hot dogs. Put red dye inside shampoo. Anything you can get a laugh out of. Itching powder inside talcum powder. The ladies would cook sausages on the off nights and you'd put tabasco sauce in the sauce bottle instead of normal sauce. There was nothing off limits.
Heffernan: I remember we got to January and everyone was fit and ready to go. We did something we hadn't done before - we went full-time at Essendon Grammar for three weeks. It was a lot of strategy. It was the first time we'd actually done a lot of theoretical training without ball movement. Things like what you should in certain phases of the game.
Shaw: The full-time camp was significant.
Wellman: We were harder on each other in terms of setting higher standards and a bit more ruthless. It was a healthy competition and you wanted to be part of it. And Sheeds had a hard edge about him, that pre-season in particular.
Solomon: We had ultimate competitors -- Barnard, the Johnsons, Moorcroft, Sean Denham, Wellman, Hird, Lloyd -- all different but all really strong competitors. It didn't matter what they were doing, they just hated losing. It was on.
J. Johnson: We had some heated games. I vividly remember Adam Ramanauskas, he was a confident kid. And Gary Moorcroft coming off the wing and literally ironed him out.
Lucas: Having not played for a while and seeing the team play so well, for me it was getting back to a level of fitness to play and contribute. I think everyone in the team felt we were chance to be part of a premiership. So the whips were cracking because you didn't want to miss out on selection.
The Bombers embarked on a dominant pre-season Ansett Cup run, going 5-0 and defeated the reigning premiers North Melbourne in the Grand Final by 41. Hird got through the preseason unscathed on a minutes limit. Matthew Lloyd kicked 17 goals in the space of three games. The hype grew around the Bombers on the eve of the 2000 season.
Karen Lyon (The Age columnist, via The Age): Essendon, the team many thought would win the flag in 1999, had the betting experts on its side in 2000, with the Bombers at 9-2 to go a couple of steps further.
Eddy: I felt confident especially after we won the Ansett Cup Grand Final against North Melbourne. You just thought 'ok they haven't dropped off'. You felt good about beating the reigning champs. The night Grand Final actually still meant something back then.
Connolly: In the night Grand Final Essendon was not only dominant, they looked stronger than North physically. That was pretty important as North had really beaten up on them physically over the years. I do remember watching the 2000 night Grand Final thinking 'gee this team is tough'.
J. Johnson: As much as we had incredible players, we had incredible coaches. He (Robert Shaw) was pretty ruthless. He gave me a big spray pretty early on in the season after the Ansett Cup. I hip and shouldered John Blakey and he came off second best. And Rob maybe thought that had gone to my head. He came up to me after it and said 'so you think you're a tough guy now?' We had a lot of people that year keeping everything in check. Not getting ahead of ourselves.
Edwards: The one memory that stands out for me was the Grand Final against North Melbourne. I went to that game with my best mate Mark. We could see the Jason Johnson-Blakey incident. And for me that was an exclamation mark. I felt that was a real statement that we were going to be aggressive, that we had some real intent and focus.
J. Johnson: In the stands, opposition teams, and reporters, calling Essendon chokers and 'can't get it done"' that really did us for the whole season. We weren't able to shut that up until we actually proved that we could win it.
Quinn: We weren't going to accept mediocrity within ourselves. It was about being consistent with everything that we did. And not compromising. We just developed this ruthlessness. It was unquestioned.
J. Johnson: I hadn't been an established player before 2000. My focus was just on being a senior player. The first preseason game we played I looked at Rama and I said 'we're never going to play VFL again.' We all drove each other pretty hard.
Heffernan: There was always that expectation. It was real. We felt pressure. But for us it was just pressure on ourselves.
J. Johnson: The external noise was there. Sheeds used to remind us of it every two or three weeks. It motivated us more than anything else.
Lucas: The pressure a player puts on himself is far greater than any external pressure via media or commentary over form or issues. We didn't care. We wanted to win. We thought if we played near our best we would win. But that's not a given. Any pressure was the pressure we put on ourselves.
Edwards: I had one doubt (heading into the 2000 season). That was on Hird and whether he would come back. If he came back fit and capable I knew that we'd have a good year and a really good chance of winning the premiership.
Barnard: I don't remember reading newspapers or anything that year. The expectation from outside was huge but we'd already put that on ourselves at the end of '99.
Shaw: There was an attitude of 'this is why you play. We exist to play finals'. Personally, I never experienced any pressure other than our own internal standards. If we met them, we felt we could get in the Grand Final.
Eddy: I don't remember going into the season thinking no-one can beat us. It was a case of 'I'm going to be nervous every week still.'
Misiti: Nothing less than a premiership was going to satisfy any of our hunger, or desire, or belief.