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 third 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 3: "It Was Like An Addiction To Winning"
The Bombers took on Port Adelaide in the season opener at Colonial Stadium. It was the first game at the new venue. Michael Long kicked the first goal. Matthew Lloyd kicked 7.2, Joe Misiti had 29 touches and Jason Johnson collected three Brownlow votes. The Bombers won by 94 points.
Connolly: I covered that game. Port played finals in '99 so they weren't a bunny. Essendon just dismissed them.
Johnson: The real season started. It was like, 'let's make a statement'. And we did. We were able to put the foot down and hold the foot on the throat. We didn't want to be judged on just winning an Ansett Cup.
Misiti: We clicked pretty well in pre-season and I thought that can't carry over, but from Round 1 against Port Power, that's when I knew we're onto something here. We didn't think who could stop us, it was pretty much: what could stop us?
Heffernan: We were wound up ready to go. Primed. Playing in a new stadium. We were like a spring ready to take off. We came out pretty aggressively. For the first time since the prelim we hadn't had the chance to get out on the oval and actually do it.
Fletcher: There's no doubt we started well and people were thinking, 'are they able to sustain this kind of football?' We knew Port Adelaide were a good footy club. In a way coming out winning by 100-odd points, I think it really did start something. It was a mission. That was just one week.
Lucas: You never expect to have a win like that. I think the previous year Port had made the finals. They were a decent team.
Misiti: For us to come out of the blocks that quick and sustain it for the whole year is unheard of. We just had that belief, that hunger to keep going.
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Barnard: It didn't matter if it was Port Adelaide, Hawthorn, Geelong - didn't care. It was more like, 'let's get to work'. It wasn't about the margin, it was about the win.
Edwards: You couldn't tell from just that one game, but it started to emerge after a few games that something was cooking, that we had a team that was dominant and had the physical toughness, mental toughness. It just became like a steam train. And Port Adelaide was the first stop.
After back-to-back wins against Richmond by 43 and Fremantle by 36 in Perth, the Bombers played the Hawks in what was James Hird's first full game of football without minutes restrictions in two seasons. Hird collected three Brownlow votes and the Bombers beat the Hawks by 47 to start the season 4-0.
Greg Denham (The Age columnist, via The Age): James Hird was sensational as an onballer-half forward who had several opponents and collected 30 touches, 10 marks and kicked two goals.
Long: If we had Hirdy and Scotty Lucas in '99 we would have won. We all know what Hirdy brings to the team and his leadership. Hirdy was one of the hardest in-and-under players. People might only see the flashy stuff but he was one of the hardest players on the field. Having Hirdy back in the side added to what we were going to do in 2000. He lifted us to another level.
Lucas: He was one of the best players in the competition and then the following three years he had a lot of injuries. But the talent hadn't gone anywhere. It was just a matter of him to be able to get his body right.
Caracella: He's a great player really. And don't underestimate having Scott Lucas back in the team at centre half-forward. And Jason Johnson who was one of the best midfielders going around. We just had a lot of talent. It was all over the ground too.
Fletcher: So, with James Hird back - 30 touches in his first full game, coming back from a career-threatening stress fracture, it was massive. You can only imagine what it does to the team. He could win games off his own boot. When somebody needed to put their body or head over the ball he was the go-to man.
Wellman: He was getting back to his best then. He went through a tough couple of years which made him put things in perspective, just in terms of appreciating every game of footy, how important the game was to him, his love for Essendon and to not to take things for granted.
Connolly: It's hard to separate Hird's seasons from each other but his football that year was as good as any he played. He could be used in virtually any part of the ground so he became a troubleshooter, being thrown into roles where he could make a big difference. The quality of his football was at his peak. He was a very mature player by then.
Harvey: He was obviously a pivotal player. When the team was losing momentum or the game was slipping away, he had that uncanny knack to always get the team back into the game, kick a goal when you'd need it. And on top of that he had courage, ground coverage and the knack to find the ball. All the players looked up to him.
Barnes: Leaders talk about things. And then leaders follow up what they talk about. Whatever James Hird said, we had to do - he'd just lead by example. And he'd get it done.
Eddy: James was my favourite player and still is. Even if he didn't touch the ball, just to run out with the team lifted the whole team to another level. He was back to his '96 best. In '98, '99 I was shattered. I thought he was done. And having spoken with him since you understand how hard it was for him to come back. He was that close to being finished.
Edwards: There's no doubt that he was such a powerful influence. He carried the team on his back. People forget he wasn't just talented, it was his courage, his one percenters, desperation. For such a sublimely talented guy his desperation was just extraordinary.
Connolly: Ironically he didn't even win the best and fairest - Dustin Fletcher did. You got a side that scores that heavily and is that dominant and yet a defender wins the best and fairest? It was a defensive effort that held opposition in check but it created a lot too. Fletch was a big part of that.
Barnard: It's like saying take Tom Brady out of the Patriots - you're not going to win too many. He was our best player. When you get your best player back and he gets a run of it, look out.
M. Johnson: Anyone who knows him knows how important he is as a bloke, as a teammate, as a captain, as a person, as a role model at the club. Anyone who was around and knows James knows how precious he is as a person. I've never seen anyone like him who says 'I'm going to make an impact on this right now' and just did. It's incredible. He'd make things happen. He wore a lot of things on his shoulders.
Heffernan: He was the clear emotional leader. It was a luxury to have a pretty good team and then to have him just drop in that year. It was more his composure. He wasn't a ranter and raver. He set the example and was incredibly professional and courageous.
After five weeks, Lloyd (25), Lucas (10) and Hird (10) amassed 45 goals between them. Jason Johnson had six Brownlow votes. The Bombers defeated the Blues by 24 points in their first encounter since the heartbreak of the 1999 preliminary final. Over the next three weeks, Lloyd and Lucas combine for 26 goals. The Bombers pummel the Bulldogs by 63 and Lions by 64. After trailing by 12 at halftime against the Pies, the Bombers flexed their muscle to win by 40. The winning streak extends to 8-0.
Greg Denham, via The Age: The Essendon juggernaut rolled on. Essendon's much-talked about all-conquering forward line faltered in the second half (against the Pies), Matthew Lloyd finishing at fullback; James Hird and Scott Lucas spending almost a quarter each in defence.
Martin Blake, via The Age: Sheedy won't have his current Essendon side compared with the premiership combinations of 1984 and 1985, and whatever happens, don't mention the word 'undefeated' around him.
Eddy: Not in your wildest dreams did you think that the club would go on the run that they did. The more wins that started to take place the more you thought something special was happening here.
Harvey: I remember being mindful of keeping the team fresh throughout the course of the year. If a player had a minor injury, we didn't want to take the risk, we'd play other players that would provide depth, fill the void and win the game. That added to the dynamics of the group.
Wellman: We didn't have any injuries. We were super fit. Quinn got us really lean. We were running better. I felt the depth of our team improved and we added some hardness and toughness as well. That was probably a reflection of the Ansett Cup and Round 1. We just improved as a footy team.
Missing the likes of Dustin Fletcher and Justin Blumfield, the Bombers won an arm wrestle against the Demons at the MCG by 13.
Jake Niall, via The Age: Melbourne had more of the ball, it went inside its forward 50m arc more often and unlike the past eight Bomber victims, it did not have a period of the match in which it was completely blown away.
Misti: It's pretty hard to replace guys like Fletcher but we had guys that could come in and do the job. We had hardly any injuries that year which makes life a lot easier.
Fletcher: I think the guys on the fringes or were close to getting a game, for them to get a game they had to maybe knock someone over, or go pretty hard at training and that competitive edge was definitely there.
J. Johnson: Every time we didn't have Dustin Fletcher on the ground there was a big gap. A lot of our surge and momentum was driven from our backline. We had really good depth. Guys, like Prior, Robran, Henneman. It was a massive win for us.
Sheedy, via The Age: That game (against the Demons) will be really good for us. It will test our strength and how deep our desire goes when you are tired.
Heffernan: We would watch the reserves every week. Peter Berbakov would just dominate the reserves and as good a player I've seen play anywhere else. But we just weren't getting many injuries. I think we only used something like 27 players.
Barnes: The rule of thumb is if you play 27 to 29 players, you end up winning the premiership. The instructions don't change that much.
Eddy: It's a sign of any great team or great club, a recruit can just walk in [and] fill shoes. That's been true of the great Hawthorn teams under Alastair Clarkson, the teams under Mark Thompson at Geelong, and Leigh Matthews at Brisbane.
Barnes: Blokes like Mark Fraser and Sean Denham, Robran, Michael Prior, Judd Lalich, and Danny Jacobs, to have those blokes as back-ups for when we did have an injury, they just slotted straight into their role they knew what to do and it just makes the game a hell of a lot easier.
M. Johnson: Even the game-time play was really high. We didn't have many rotations. You knew who you were kicking to. Then if someone did go out you had quality people like Danny Jacobs and 'Henno' to come in. They were big units themselves and great players. They could come in and take on a role.
Barnard: It didn't matter if you were No. 1 or No. 40 on the list, the expectation was, if you come in, we expected this off you and to do a job. Whether it was Aaron Henneman, Danny Jacobs, Dean Rioli, Mark McVeigh, Michael Prior, Sean Denham -- all these guys that were on the periphery -- they were good enough to play in that team. Everyone bought in.
In Round 13 the Bombers took on the reigning premiers North Melbourne.
Jake Niall, via The Age: The hype said this was the match of the season. Essendon took about 12 minutes to debunk marketeers' myth. By then the score was 3.4 to nil. By quarter time the scoreline was 7.5 to nil. The game was dead.
Fletcher: As the season went on, a lot of times, a lot of the other clubs didn't believe they could beat us. And that's a good feeling to have.
Caracella: I remember having this feeling we were playing games of football and you could tell sometimes even five minutes into a game teams had given up.
Fletcher: When we basically stopped singing the team song after wins, I remember it was John (Quinn) said to the leaders at the time, 'I'm not sure why you're singing the song after every game that you play. Isn't winning the Grand Final the ultimate'? And we did. We stopped singing it.
Misiti: We'd win a game. No theme song. No fanfare. Sheeds would tell us where we went wrong, what we did right. Then we just refocused on the next week. That was our mindset.
Eddy: Bombers started to have commanding performances against big clubs. They flogged Geelong and the Saints. They started to get these really massive wins. Then in Round 13 to beat the reigning champs the Kangaroos by 49, that's when you start to think 'this is how we're going to play'. We were really able to put teams away.
Long: The belief among the group was stronger than anything. We just didn't beat sides, whether the first or last quarter, we just kept going. There was always someone who popped up. It didn't always come from Hirdy or the leaders, it came from the younger group.
Wellman: If someone was down, someone would step up. It was just about winning. People say you get close after premierships. We were really close. There were no separate groups.
Fletcher: There were times during the year where we'd finish our session on a Monday and walk down as a group to a local pub, and we were allowed a few beers. Mainly to release that energy and some of the pressure we did have. That confident, positive energy, was in everything we did.
Barnes: I had a mate of mine who owned a restaurant in Essendon. It was $10 all you can eat and drink and they roped off an area. We went there for the last 14 weeks of the year. It was about making us guys get together again. That's what I tried to fit into the club. Getting the James Hirds and Matthew Lloyds to talk to the rookies and the guys that would only play 10, 20 games. Everyone just got along really well.
Sheedy, via The Age: We've won 15 on end. It's a damn good effort. It hasn't been done often in the history of the game. We won by five goals against West Coast and we didn't play well.
Shaw: About Round 15 or so, we had realised that something special could be achieved. While we didn't discuss it as an official meeting it was driving us. To be a team to go through undefeated that's incredibly special.
Connolly: When a side is that good what ends up happening (in the media) people get sick of writing about how good they are and the narrative becomes 'what's their weakness'? As a result of that the story became, 'maybe their midfield is not quite as good as the other parts of the machine'. I remember the midfield group were really pissed off by that. That they were seen to be the potential weak point in the whole operation. Which they weren't. But that spurred them on.
J. Johnson: We were an aggressive team. We tried to bring the ball inboard. And get it in quick. Play on quick. Free-flowing game style.
Misiti: We'd try some daring things and it would come off. If you look at old footage now you'd see two or three blokes out in front of the ball by themselves and people ask 'how does that happen'. We were that confident in each other's ability that if it was a one-on-one contest we knew that 95 percent of the time we'd win that ball.
Barnes: Sheeds was good at not letting us get ahead of ourselves. Not being arrogant, but we should have won every game by 100 points that year in my eyes. When you get so far in front you get complacent.
Long: I think Mark Mercuri grew so much that year too. Some games were Mark destroyed teams by himself. Not too many players could do the things Mark could do.
Shaw: The impact of the Barnes recruitment was significant. His year combination with Misiti was elite.
M.Johnson: We had full complete trust in each other. Once you've got that continuity with each other you knew exactly how each other played and you trusted each other. The reliability we had from the get-go and it rarely changed.
Lucas: In '99 we thought we were the best team in it rightly or wrongly. Nothing had changed in terms of confidence within the team. We had no chance to redeem what we considered a failure the previous year until the last game. In many ways we just had to manage the season. Get into a position to compete come September. Every game we played we expected to win. And we did.
Long: It was just relentless. Anyone we'd come up against we were going to spoil the party.
The Bombers defeated Carlton for the second time in 2000 in Round 20. "Essendon stretched its unbeaten run to 20 games, continuing to live the impossible dream of a premiership to cap an undefeated season." - Len Johnson, The Age reporter said. With two games remaining in the season, the undefeated dream was starting to become a real possibility.
Lucas: The main game for us was Round 20 when Carlton had been on a long winning streak, also like us. When Carlton started to win we knew they were our main contender. Going into Round 20, we were still confident but Carlton had put together a great list of victories, it was the biggest game of the year up until that point. And the confidence you get from a win like that going into a finals series can be critical.
Harvey: There were some moments in that '99 preliminary final that we had played to the players throughout the course of the year just to remind them. It's fair to say whenever we played Carlton it would be an enormous build-up to that game. They are one of our arch-enemies. And Sheeds always portrayed it that way.
Caracella: It was the biggest game of the season. The big build up to that game probably had an affect on the next week as well.
Solomon: I think when you start winning 15, 16, 17 in a row, you get to the point where you want to win every game. We were the hunted. Every side was finding another level to go to play against us. But we were the hunter. We were never going to let anyone get on top of us.
Fletcher: You see it a lot. Teams going through undefeated and losing that one game and sometimes it was that last game in the Grand Final. I was still a little bit nervous. That was the only thing I felt was hanging over the team.
Eddy: Particularly for us supporters who love history, to think Essendon was on the cusp of doing what Collingwood did in 1929 and going unbeaten throughout the year -- even though [that was] was only an 18-round season so we'd already surpassed them in that sense -- I was just hopeful they could get that history of being the first undefeated team in such a longer season.
Caracella: There was the game against Sydney where we got over the line by a couple of goals. I recall then there was potential (to go undefeated). But by the time Round 20-21 came around it was more about playing finals and winning the Grand Final.
Heffernan: My mind wandered a bit. It wasn't our focus. We hadn't won the flag the year before. So there was no great joy in setting some kind of record like that.
Wellman: Going undefeated wasn't something I personally thought about. It was all about getting to the Grand Final and winning the premiership. Even now when I look about, I think it would've been nice, but does it really matter?
Quinn: Essendon peaked that year. The cost of that peaking process was that we were a bit fatigued coming into Rounds 20, 21.
J. Johnson: We were probably looking more ahead at finals. Obviously there was an opportunity to create history. It was more about the bigger goal, winning the premiership.
Barnes: To sit down and think about playing Carlton, Collingwood, Richmond - the only thing different was the crowd.
Edwards: From a club perspective it didn't really matter if they dropped a game or not as long as they won the premiership. But from a supporter perspective you wanted to win every game. It was like an addiction to winning. You didn't want to lose any games.
Eddy: In the lead up to Round 21, the pessimist side of you comes out and thinks 'gee I hope we're not going to drop one in the finals given how great we've been throughout the year'. You're feeling good but I was just that little bit nervous, is the bubble going to burst like last year when we get to September.
In Round 21, Bulldogs forward Chris Grant kicked a freakish left foot snap from the boundary line and sunk the Bombers for the first and only time in 2000. Bulldogs coach Terry Wallace successfully implemented "the flood" that ended a phenomenal collection of wins at 20.
Eddy: I went to that game and as the game started to play I remember thinking 'something isn't working here'.
Heffernan: What I do remember about that game is Chris Grant kicked a left-foot snap from the pocket. I was standing side-on in the area where if the umpire calls 'play' you can run in. I knew he was quite good on the left. I went flying in and I jumped and could honestly feel the wind of the ball on my finger. No-one had any idea that the ball was so close to being touched.
Misiti: Terry Wallace put in the flood in that no-one had seen before, we'd never trained for it before. So we didn't know how to adapt. We nearly won the game anyway.
Heffernan: I remember they kicked a goal on the siren. We had started to walk off as the game was already over. Sheeds was always huge on the small stuff, like ruckman stands on the line, tallest man on the mark, and always squeeze out every degree. I remember Sheeds ripping into us after the game because we didn't have anyone on the (goal) line.
Wellman: I remember Fletch, his attitude after the game was 'it's only one loss, it won't do us any harm.' I remember training for the opposition flooding us. The fact it happened in Round 21, I think the Bulldogs did us a favour.
Harvey: Purely it was a loss that needed to happen for our playing group. I remember constant conversations with other coaches about what it's going to be like if we go through the home and away season if we don't have a loss. Is that going to be a detriment to the playing group, their attitude?
Shaw: The flood was overrated and fits the narrative. They made sure they kept the game close but we were still 14 points up at three-quarter time. The focus turned to Collingwood very quickly.
M. Johnson: In hindsight I was filthy on that Western Bulldogs game, that we did lose because basically they played everyone in our forward line. And they took a lot of credit saying 'we beat them' but it was just a really average way of getting a win. It wasn't in the spirit of the game.
Barnes: To look up and see 18 blokes inside the forward 50 and we couldn't score from it, that we weren't that good at stopping the rebound, it just put us off guard. The fans were more disappointed than the players. All we practiced for the next five to six weeks was how to beat the flood.
Solomon: Even the ability to adapt the way we did, to confront something different like that and almost find our way through it, was still a pretty amazing effort. The outcome of that game was that we were more furious. It stimulated more drive in us.
Fletcher: It made us think if things don't go right, you can lose football games. I think I was the one that actually kicked it out on the full. The ball got kicked onto my leg. It was a loss we had to have.
J. Johnson: I think it was the best thing to ever happen to us, the Bulldogs loss. It reset us a little bit. It was the first time we were stopped in a way. They flooded. We weren't smart enough.
Heffernan: It felt like we were 70 percent fine. We played horrifically. Pressure was off. And it was 30 percent 'oh, are we losing form at the wrong time of year?'. It wasn't like we were a trainwreck but it was a little nag for us - have we peaked? Are we screwed?
Barnard: When we played the Bulldogs I actually got dropped. It was warranted. I had to go and play in Frankston. I parked my ego at the door. Terry Daniher was our VFL coach. I put my hand up again and I was lucky enough to get picked the following week. There was no way I was going to lose my spot.
Edwards: I was really dirty about the Bulldogs game. It was horrible to watch. As I walked away from that game I had a sense that we were cheated. I just thought the Bulldogs employed tactics that were just not very sportsmanlike. I hadn't seen anything like that. I think one of the newspapers called it the 'biggest flood since Noah'. It just felt like it was the wrong way to play the game.
Eddy: I just felt afterwards It's probably the best kick up the backside we could have. It reset everything. But you were sort of shattered because you didn't have the history of the unbeaten season.
Lucas: We didn't handle the Bulldogs game as well as we could have. I don't think anyone thought that the loss was to derail us or make it harder to be successful come finals. I think Sheeds was happy enough to let that game unfold as it did. Have us try and figure it out.
Long: It woke us up. It was just a tactical thing we were beaten on. It wasn't about our arsenal or players. I think the week after Collingwood tried it but we overcame that tactical side of it.
Shaw: Interestingly we were very flat for that start of that (Collingwood) game (Round 22). Which shows losing to Bulldogs did matter, as we trailed all through the first half. It was a good effort to have to work hard to win which gave us a tough lead up game to the first final (against North Melbourne).