'Slay that dragon': An oral history of Essendon's incredible 2000 season

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.

Check out Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 here.

Part 4, Redemption: "We Went For It. No Holds Barred.":

During Essendon's 2000 finals campaign, they had to get past North Melbourne and Carlton. They slaughtered the Roos by 125 points, set up by a nine-goal opening quarter. Matthew Lloyd kicked his 100th goal. During their rest week they continued to train hard, which included a scratch match and simulated match training.

Harvey: I think if there was a team that was going to put us to the sword it was the Kangaroos. That wasn't to be. The players were sharp and the way we were playing was pretty devastating.

Misiti: Finals couldn't come around quick enough. It had been a build-up for 22 weeks. And then it pretty much just exploded. North Melbourne were reigning premiers. That was probably the perfect game. Everything just came off.

Shaw: Everything we had planned since Essendon Grammar went into this. The North Melbourne first final has so much more of a build-up than any revenge against Carlton hence the result. Has there been a more emphatic statement? This was [Denis] Pagan's Roos. This was the game we wanted.

Barnes: I looked at Mark Johnson and Jason Johnson to see where we were at. And those blokes headbutt lockers. And it was the tone that they set. Hardwick was killing blokes. Wally was punching blokes up. Fletch was unbeatable. Every bloke on that side was just foot on throat.

Fletcher: Being a neighbouring suburb, we used to really hate each other. We didn't like playing them. That game itself, records broke, Lloyd iced his 100th goal. Us beating North Melbourne was a great start to something bigger.

Caracella: It goes back to the Marshmallow Final (the infamous 1998 qualifying final, which saw Sheedy pelted with marshmallows after calling the Kangaroos "soft"). And years before that when they were a good team and they used to take the game up to Essendon physically. We made a stand in '99. We beat them both times we played them. I think we passed them that year. Then we beat them in the Ansett Cup. And then played them during the year and the first quarter was 47-0. And then we got to our first final and we went for it and no holds barred.

Long: They had a great side, North Melbourne. They were always hunted. Carlton had a strong culture. North Melbourne had a winning culture. I supposed from a rivalry side of it -- Sheeds, the marshmallows -- they were the sides that if you ever wanted to have a crack or go forward as a side, you had to beat those clubs. And that's how you grow as a team.

Wellman: You set out to win the game. You don't set out to win by that margin. We were never going to be satisfied until we actually won the flag. It's a strange feeling winning a final, because you're just progressing. You're just staying alive. I would've been just as happy winning by three goals.

Solomon: That was a deep-seeded rivalry. That's why we were absolutely furious we lost that game against Carlton in '99. We missed our chance to get after North Melbourne in that Grand Final.

Heffernan: The Kangas were the power team from '96 to '99. They were the top of the tree we needed to get over. We were confident and we were right where we needed to be.

Barnard: This is what we worked for all year. Unfortunately the Roos copped us in the qualifying final. Probably from that game [was when] I thought, 'we're on track here'. We didn't get ahead of ourselves by no means but we knew that our team -- minimal injuries, everyone was in form -- was switched on. Let's be clear: North were a terrific team. They were hard and ruthless.

M.Johnson: I was pretty sore. I dislocated my shoulder in the first quarter. So it wasn't the greatest game I ever had. I was in a bit of strife going through the finals with that.

Eddy: It was just one of the most magical days that I'll ever have in footy. To kick 31 goals, Lloydy gets his 100, Joe Misiti had 41 disposals, David King kicked seven for the Kangaroos - everything was happening. It was one of those days where if you could script something perfect for a club supporter that was the performance. It was just stunning.

Wellman: We were obviously super confident but in the back of my mind you're still thinking of '99. Just never really had that mindset that we were going to beat everyone no matter what. We still had a bit of work to do. Had to prepare well. And teams are going to throw everything at us. At the end of the day we had to show up. We had to perform.

Eddy: All through 2000, I thought we were ahead of North Melbourne, we moved past them, which really was the turning point for me, realising that Essendon was becoming a great team. And to do that you had to win a premiership. Between '99 and early 2000 was when we really moved to being the best team in the competition. But we still had to get past Carlton in the preliminary final.

In the preliminary final rematch, Essendon blew Carlton away in the third quarter kicking 6.6. to 1.3 and ran out winners by 45 points. Lloyd and Mercuri combined for seven goals.

Eddy: Leading up to the prelim, it was a long two weeks because we'd had the week off. Carlton lost their first round, were still able to turn it around and suddenly they're in a prelim. Those last two days leading up to the prelim I was really, really nervous.

Wellman: The year before we had soft prep going into the prelim. We just had a very light training session on the weekend. In 2000 we had match simulation and match practice. We had a very different approach. The week off for us we trained really hard.

Lucas: Unfortunately for Carlton in Round 20, we had a good win, but more significantly for them is that they lost Kouta [Anthony Koutoufides] for the rest of the year. Kouta had played the best 12 weeks I've seen a player play. Not only did we get a lot of confidence out of Round 20, but we knew we were playing a team without their best player.

Long: Sheeds was big on 'ok this is what happened last time' so the psychology of the whole week and lead-up to the game was a big part ... 'this is what they took away from you'. That would have been a huge part in the back of the mind of all the players not forgetting the main goal of getting back to a Grand Final.

Wellman: They were a really good footy team in 2000. We needed to be at our absolute best and that would've been enough to win the game.

Shaw: Carlton was a hurdle to get in a Grand Final. Sheeds was outstanding. He got players past and present to write letters to the group and each other about playing finals for Essendon. He announced the team with a video of each player's highlights. As each position was announced the edited highlights of the player came up. It was unique but inspirational at the same time. I also remember Long and Wallis talking to the group.

J. Johnson: Everything we'd done to that point didn't really matter. We were massive favourites. A bit like '99. It was about us really proving to ourselves and the wider community that this was our year.

Eddy: Pretty much from the start of the game you realised things were different. We really had a lot of shots on goal - 35 to 21. We seemed to be in control most of the day.

M.Johnson: I think they started pretty well and sort of put the acid on us a little bit. Then we steadied. I did something to my ribs in that game.

Jake Niall, The Age columnist: The Dons didn't blow Carlton away with one withering burst. Rather, they held an almost constant edge that, by game's end, translated between seven and eight goals. This was an accurate reflection of the distance between the teams.

Fletcher: Beating Carlton in that one was one we got them back for from the year before. Looking back at that preliminary final, to win by a fair margin, you have to say it's in the top half-a-dozen games of best wins for me.

Edwards: They (Carlton) stole that game from us in '99. I think it was really important to slay that dragon.

Harvey: Everyone said it was the monkey of the back. But it was more about getting to the Grand Final. The players may well have got spooked based on what happened the year before but they had this determination about them this time. It was a completely different combination of thought process and approach to the game. It was always going to prevail.

Misiti: After that game, that's when we talked about the previous prelim loss. Thank God we got over that. All the pressure the boys put on themselves. We didn't want it to happen again. It's the most relieved I've been after playing a game of footy.

Lucas: You feel more pressure prelim weekend because you're not there yet. Once you're in the Grand Final you're not trying to make it - you've made it. After '99, you think, there are no guarantees. Anything can happen prelim weekend and things can go wrong. This is the point we got to in '99 and went no further.

Heffernan: We were a much better team than we were the last year. There was a layer of comfort, we had matured. By that stage we were thinking bigger. That was just another step in the road. If we had lost the Grand Final, that win wouldn't have meant anything.

Wellman: To get over Carlton, that was a big step for us. And getting to the Grand Final as well. And there's no doubt that gave us confidence.

Caracella: It was a relief. Personally I had only played one final - in the '99 finals series. You can get distracted and nervous too. Having that experience even though you lose you know how to deal with the attention and nerves and what's needed to win.

Eddy: There was a real sense of redemption. That was almost the theme for Essendon supporters. Sheeds would have let them know in no uncertain terms what they had missed the year before. So I don't think they needed much reminding. It was burned in everyone really wanting to redeem what we'd lost.

Barnard: Prelims are always the hardest games. But we had bigger things to do the following week.