Bomber squadron swoops in on Ballina
By DARREN MONCRIEFF
EXPECT something different from the Essendon Football Club this year with new coach Matthew Knights declaring a radical departure from former coach Kevin Sheedy will be key to his side’s chances in the AFL this year.
While rain may have conspired to prevent the high-profile Bombers from holding a training run and a junior school-based Auskick footy clinic at Fripp Oval in Ballina yesterday, Knights provided Essendon supporters a ray of hope that the club’s uncharacteristic absence from finals football may be about to end.
Essendon last played finals in 2004.
Knights said a rebounding defence was to feature strongly in the Bombers’ game plan this year.
The Bomber squadron swooped in on Ballina yesterday on the first leg of its three-day Community Camp to the Northern Rivers and South-East Queensland.
With the majority of its senior and rookie-listed players, coaches and support staff in tow, Essendon is the first AFL club to visit the region en masse.
The run at Fripp Oval was replaced with a workout at the Ballina Fair Swim & Gym and today’s Auskick clinics replaced with smaller clinics at various schools.
Stepping out of former coach Sheedy’s 27-year shadow may have been some cause for apprehension, but Knights said he is his own man and will coach the club according to his football philosophies and ideas.
“One of my philosophies coming into the club as coach was the run from defence,” Knights told The Northern Star at the Ramada Hotel yesterday, where the club was officially welcomed by Ballina Mayor, Phillip Silver.
“We certainly have some strong bodies down there in Mal Michael, young Paddy Ryder, who was strong last year in a key post at centre half-back, and Courtney Johns who, at 6ft 5in (195cm) with good closing speed, can play down back.
“So what we want out of these sort of players is an extra bit of rebound from that part of the ground.
“Part of that equation in defence is to mind your man and play one-on-one, so it’s just not only about providing rebound, it’s about being accountable, too.”
Essendon skipper Matthew Lloyd said that Knights and Sheedy are poles apart in their approach.
“(Last year) we found our skills were not as good as we would have liked when we were put under pressure,” said Lloyd, a three-time Coleman Medal winner (AFL leading goalkicker).
“(Knights) puts us under match conditions as much as possible at training so when the pressure’s on come Round 1 in March we’ll be ready.
“That’s the difference with him: you walk off the training track feeling like you’ve just played a game. He also puts a massive emphasis on defence.”
Part of the legend of Sheedy was his religious-like zeal in promoting the code to ‘heathen’ areas. Knights said that he too would not hesitate to take up that role.
“Anything I can do to help and assist the AFL brand, to get it out there, I’ll do it,” he said.
“I really enjoy mixing with people and whether that be coterie groups or (AFL) Community Camps or watching the (Essendon VFL affiliate) Bendigo Bombers at Bendigo and talking to supporters, I love mixing with people.
“Kevin was unique but I’ve said all along I’m going to be a very different person to Kevin. He was someone who did it better than anyone else but I do have a responsibility to do that, too.”
Knights said he would welcome any potential new Bombers from the Northern Rivers.
“Wherever the players would come from (we’d take them),” he said.
“But with international frontiers (opening up) these days, with Ireland and now South Africa, it’s no precise science where players are going to come from.”