In what’s been a great season of footy, the margin for error has been incredibly small. Some teams have met expectations; others have fallen short.
While both Essendon and Port Adelaide have excuses, their seasons can only be described as failures, despite how close they’ve come to securing places in September.
So often we hear the spin: “The year wasn’t a waste. We got game time into a lot of young players, and we showed improvement in certain areas.”
But supporters can and should see through that. If you look through rose-coloured glasses, you could argue no year is wasted. Even Carlton and Gold Coast are getting minutes into youngsters.
At Essendon and Port Adelaide, pre-season expectations, both externally and inside the walls of Tullamarine and Alberton, should mean they are judged more harshly.
For the Bombers, losing to Carlton back in round eight has ultimately sealed their fate, even though they’ve played much better football in the latter half of the year.
In contrast, Port Adelaide were sitting comfortably inside the top-four after round 15 with 11 wins and four losses. Since then they’ve faded badly.
Last week’s loss to Collingwood almost typifies Port’s season. Right in the contest until three-quarter time, they simply didn’t show enough grit for long enough.
If they’re honest, both clubs should look back on 2018 with frustration, particularly in light of bold recruiting at the end of last season.
Essendon’s three big recruits have done quite well. Devon Smith has been excellent, Adam Saad very good and Jake Stringer has overcome a sluggish start to deserve a pass mark.
A fit Joe Daniher next year should really help Stringer, as he’s more suited to being a third forward rather than a No.1 or No.2 target.
Port’s inclusions haven’t performed as well. Steven Motlop, Tom Rockliff and Jack Watts have all played decent footy at times, but probably only Motlop has been consistent enough.
Watts has had his critics as a former No.1 draft pick and no one knows that better than Jack himself. But going to a team where he was meant to complement an already established forward line hasn’t quite worked out for him.
Rockliff had an interrupted pre-season and has been chasing his tail ever since.
Even the best players in the competition can struggle without having a great summer, so much that you almost put a line through them. The struggles of those recruits, and injuries at key times, perhaps explain why Port haven’t repeated their finals appearance last year.
It also makes Essendon’s season more puzzling. They were well beaten in an elimination final last year, but the Bombers should be featuring again in September given the output of the guys they’ve added and the natural improvement of others.
Yes, they have missed key personnel, but so have so many of the top eight sides. Just ask Collingwood or GWS.
The Bombers, at their best, have been about as good as anyone. They play an exciting brand of footy and can open teams up with their pace. Clearly, there has been improvement since earlier in the season when it looked like they changed the gameplan, trying to control the football by patiently chipping it sideways and backwards.
But even now there seems to be recurring problems. When they’ve been challenged, there rarely seems to be a plan B. Against Hawthorn in round 20 and again against Richmond last week, they continued to pick out the opposition’s spare man.
Be it Ben Stratton, Alex Rance or someone else, how is this allowed to happen? Is it coach driven or players not executing a plan?
Hurting them even more is the fact that their spare man hasn’t been nearly as damaging. It means Friday night, just like next season, will be intriguing for these two teams. Which of these clubs can finish off a year of disappointment on a high note and build into the next pre-season?
Looking ahead, 2019 already looms as a crunch campaign for both coaches. John Worsfold is contracted until the end of 2020 and Ken Hinkley has another year on top of that, but pressure will always build if you don’t meet expectations. That is just the reality of modern football.
Even with their aggressive recruiting and lofty ambitions, missing finals once can be written off as an aberration. But if September comes and goes two years in succession, then the blowtorch will clearly heat up.