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 fifth and final 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 5, the 16th premiership: "To watch them play, It was like watching perfection."
In 2000 Melbourne finished third with a record of 14-8. They booked a preliminary final berth by upsetting Carlton in the second qualifying final by 9. Then they tackled North Melbourne and easily accounted for them by 50. Entering the Grand Final they'd won 12 of their past 14 matches. That Demons team included the 2000 Brownlow medallist Shane Woewoedin.
Heffernan: You sort of looked at Melbourne and there was a bit of wild card about them. We didn't beat them by much during the year. I think they'd won their last 10 or 12.
J. Johnson: Sheedy broke the football season down to essentially 50 hours of playing. That was his big thing. There's two hours of football to be played. This is how we want to play it. We were pretty well drilled in terms of how we wanted to play.
Heffernan: Sheeds always used to make the point: "Do you worry about this pressure, imagine the Olympics you can do four years of this stuff and have a bad day."
Quinn: Written on the Grand Final day banner was "The mountain near conquered, the summit's in sight, one supreme effort, for the premiership might." That was such a significant thing for the players. That encapsulated the whole year.
J. Johnson: They actually started pretty well the Demons. They had a bit of momentum in the first eight minutes with a few shots on goal.
Fletcher: I remember the first chance Melbourne had, David Neitz [took] his first mark and I thought it was over the line and he swung around and missed his first shot at goal. From that point on I just felt that thighs were going to go my way I felt I was in the game from the start.
Johnson: There was a bit of a dust up in the backline with Wally and Schwartz, then [we] got a hold of young Brad Green. At that point it was like, "we're here to play. We're not going to lose this one." He set the tone early, Wally, in the way we were going to play.
Lucas: We set a standard, set a scene for the game. The longer a team hangs around the more confident they can get.
Edwards: I think it was two teams that were not evenly matched. The Michael Long-Troy Simmonds incident, even though it was a pretty crude bump, it signalled to Melbourne, we were the stronger side and we are going to crush you.
Heffernan: Early on David Neitz took a mark early on Fletch and missed. I think that was a big thing. There was that bit of unknown about Melbourne. I think by quarter time we started to influence the game. The die was cast by then.
Barnard: I started on the bench. I came on halfway through the second quarter. And I go to centre half forward. One day I dreamt standing in the middle of the MCG on Grand Final day. There was a realisation for me when I first ran out there. The adrenaline was just enormous.
Fletcher: Half way through the third quarter, I remember a few of the boys saying we should really try and enjoy the last quarter-and-a-half as they felt we had the game won. I remember relaxing a little bit and letting that feeling sink in and when I say feeling, it was the feeling of '99, the feeling of pre-season, and it was 30 minutes of football knowing that you are relaxing in a game and it's the ultimate.
An #AFLDraft special! The team is joined by @ChrisDoerreESPN— footytips (@footytips) December 7, 2020
and @championdata's Christian Joly to chat:
🦠 COVID curveballs
🧐 A top 20 phantom draft
📈 Risers and sliders
👀 Ranking the No. 1 picks since 2000
Stream the latest @ESPNAusNZ#AFL pod herehttps://t.co/XHlrbAAC7Y
Misiti: The game was over by three-quarter time. After the huddle we go back out. We're walking back to the centre circle, I looked around at my teammates and they've got these big smiles on their faces, knowing we're half-an-hour from the siren going and we can really celebrate. That was probably the highlight of that day for me.
John McGrath, 'The Age', columnist: The cruel reality is that the Demons were never really in the hunt against the slickest, most aggressive team in the competition.
Barnard: I remember in the fourth quarter when we knew we'd got it, Hirdy turned to me and said, 'how do you feel about being a premiership player?" We won. And the euphoria that comes after that was mind blowing.
Caracella: In the last quarter when the game was over I remember running around looking at the crowd and seeing people cry. I probably realised then what football meant to people. That was a special thing.
Shaw: To watch them play it was like watching perfection. And they did it with ruthless, focused efficiency. Too tough for too long.
Wellman: I remember a couple of late goals. I think Boris (Darren Bewick) kicked one. And Barney (Paul Barnard). That's when I thought, 'geez, we've got this game'. It's all a bit of a blur in some ways. Then we belted out the song. I don't think we sang the song for 10 weeks. I think we sang it about 15 times in a row.
Shaw: Initially when the siren went I had great sadness to see Dean Rioli miss out after breaking his collarbone in the Dogs game. But I had so much pride in being privileged to be part of the journey with all of the people in our club.
Sheedy, via essendonfc.com.au: When you look back at the team going in against Melbourne, it was so important that we had a very flexible bench. And when you look at the 2000 bench it was quite an incredible bench because we had Bewick, Alessio, Barnard who kicked four goals and could play anywhere half back, wing, half forward. He comes on and kicks four goals. I think that was one of the best stories of the Grand Final where a bench player has kicked the most goals of the Grand Final at that period.
Solomon: What was amazing for me about that year it was created from disrespect. We had a chip on our shoulders. We were on a journey for two to three years to achieve that. As players were part of building that journey with Sheeds, Harvs, Shawy. And that group is still so, so tight.
Misiti: It was a lot of hard work. In '93, it was my first year of footy and didn't really respect it as much, as I just thought it was going to happen every year. The second one in 2000 was just a testament to all the hard work I had put in personally and the team, and to get a reward for a lot of hard work, clubs are respected on how many flags they've won and to win that flag was a great honour.
Solomon: The biggest takeaway I still carry with me now is the connection we all have through a series of setbacks and upset losses, it was just an amazing journey together. We went after it. We achieved it.
Long: It was a pretty unselfish side. Players did things for other players. And did things that aren't on the statistics. That's the stuff that actually made us a great side. We played as a team. And the hurt from the year before played an enormous part.
Connolly: There's something about 2000 that mills into one. It was just one incredible roll ... 1984 was always my favourite Essendon moment. '93 is very special because of the unexpected nature of it. But 2000 was just like this juggernaut and there were so many convincing wins. It wasn't necessarily a season full of incredible highlights, it was just complete domination. No one could measure up to them and they were hardly ever challenged.
M.Johnson: The older I get the more I appreciate the people who I played footy with that year in particular. There were a few exceptional talents but by and large they were just great people who could play great football together.
Edwards: The premiership will always be remembered as the most dominant Essendon premiership team, the most accomplished Essendon premiership team, the most powerful season put together by any team wearing the red and black.
Connolly: The other thing about that group of players is the continuity they got. It was a really injury-free year. They had 15 players that played at least 23-25 games. All the planets aligned for them in a luck sense in their injuries but they also made all the planets align. They just got every facet of the operation ticking over perfectly.
Caracella: As a kid you follow footy, you want to be a football player, then you play footy and then you get there. It wasn't just playing football you wanted to win a Grand Final, to reach the pinnacle. When you do that it's probably the story along the way - being drafted, gaining a bond with your teammates and coaches, and going through the ups and downs.
Eddy: I just started a new job at Channel Nine, working in the mailroom. I started to get to know everyone in the office. Once people realised the new kid was an Essendon supporter, that became the greeting and discussion each week. I then started to have a real identity around the fact that my team was such a good team. I think there would have been a lot of fans like that who walked around on air.
Lloyd, via AFL Media: The bond I have with that team is stronger than any other team I had because of what we stood for and what we achieved.
Wellman: A premiership is not done over a year. It's done over a period of time. Going through disappointment. Then achieving the element of success. I loved the guys I played with - then, and still love 'em now. You've always got this connection. There have been some great players that have never won a Grand Final. So you have to be grateful as well.
M. Johnson: We were having pots and fried dim sims down the road at the pub just to catch up and be together as a professional AFL team. I can tell people that they don't believe it.
Shaw: We were such a close club. From players to finance departments. Office staff and volunteers. It was about being Essendon. The team was the pointy end but we all shared in it. Everyone mixed together and departments interacted all the time. There was no isolation of departments.
Fletcher: I was lucky enough to play in '93 and win a premiership while I was still at school. I just wanted to get the chance again on the big stage. The 2000 one was very special for me. My son was born that year. It was a fantastic year.
Lucas: We're judged on the success of the teams we play in, so to be able to win (in 2000), was a huge thrill. It's my favourite memory in football.
Harvey: It was unbelievable, even as assistant coach, to be part of it. Just a fascinating way that these players evolved and what they did. It was a serious way that they played - excitement, tough, and brutal. And then on top of that you had the flair of guys like Mercuri, Ramanauskas, Bewick, Long. The mix and combination was sensational.
J. Johnson: To be recognised as a premiership player that's the one great thing about the football club, you know you always have a place to go to, a home away from home. Super proud. Really lucky that I came into the club at the right time. It makes me feel really content about my career and the time I had at the footy club.
Connolly: There was also a real psychological resolve as well. It was sort of like Essendon collected themselves and said "okay, we let that one slip we are going to do absolutely everything right this time -- football wise, tactically, physically, physiologically."
Heffernan: As a football lover you want to play at the highest level. And when you get there you want to win there. I felt like we worked up the hard way and deserved it and won it. It was incredibly satisfying and fulfilling. I was 21. I was supremely confident at that point I'd win more.
Patrick Smithers, The Age, columnist: As with any Grand Final there was no shortage of subplots. The sweetest of these belonged to Hird, whose father and grandfather played for the Bombers, and whose childhood dream was to captain the club to a flag. He was on a different plane to the mortals around him then.
Quinn: There were good stories in the background for me and that was James Hird. Had been told previously he'd probably never play footy again. And here he was in a starring role, captain of the Bombers in a Grand Final of a premiership team and he gets a Norm Smith Medal. That's almost like a sporting fairytale.
Eddy: The biggest story was James Hird's ability to come back. Matthew Lloyd getting 100 goals - that was a really thrilling ride. The James Hird comeback is quite remarkable. When his daughter Stephanie was sick in the final week and had pretty much restless nights during Grand Final week.
Harvey: Paul Barnard was a guy that came from Hawthorn. Was always trying to find his way in our team. And on Grand Final day, came off the interchange bench and kicked four goals, that's a great story.
Barnard: For me it goes way back when I started. I'm from Bunbury, Western Australia. As an 18-year-old driving 380km trip each weekend. All the way through to going to Hawthorn. Getting demoted because I wasn't good enough. Someone thought I was at Essendon. This is what I was maybe destined to do. And we're not to know that when we set out. I feel for the guys that missed out. That could have been me.
Harvey: Stephen Alessio took up footy late as a 19-year old. Finished up playing a second tier ruckman to John Barnes. Gary Moorcroft was a nuggety left-footer who was just tough, really good dynamics, could take mark of the year or kick goal of the year. He had the real determination and fierce competitive nature and really bored into the opposition. The Johnsons were both rookies. You saw them transpire from rookies to the playing list and winning a Grand Final.
Edwards: Wallis and Barnes, it was good to see them win a Grand Final. I remember watching them at Windy Hill playing reserves and struggling to get a regular game. They both did it hard.
Johnson: Barnesy doesn't get enough credit for his 2000 season. Off the field he really gelled the group of guys together organising Friday lunches. After our last training session we'd go to a local cafe and there would be 16 blokes having lasagna.
Eddy: I guess John Barnes was the pull-at-the-heart-strings story. You'd seen him have so many failures at Geelong you were really willing him to get there and have another crack.
Barnes: Obviously I lost three (Grand Finals). I finished the last five minutes on the bench. I was looking at the scoreboard. The siren went. I started crying. And then ran to Wally and gave him a big hug. Then met up with the rest of the guys in the huddle. Kissed and hugged all of them after that. I carried the cup off the ground. Mum, Dad, and my siblings got to have a crack at it. It's just one of those things you'll never forget.
Edwards: The only disappointment of the 2000 Grand Final was that Rioli couldn't play. I was devastated. I actually wrote him a letter in 2000 -- I'm not sure if he even read it -- just saying how much I felt for him and how much he deserves to play in that team, that I hoped he gets another chance to taste premiership success eventually. He was just so brilliant in that '99 season, came in, 17 games, 29 goals. He was just a delight to watch.
Quinn: I still feel for Dean Rioli who was an absolute superstar person and a player. If you went through the team of that day (Grand Final) it was such a fabulous team and someone was always going to miss out. He was right on the cusp of that but didn't quite get there.
Sheedy, via The Age: Relief is the nicest thing for me and probably 800,000 other Essendon fans. This team could be (better) but I still think they've got to win another one yet. After 20 years of coaching this one is pretty sweet.
Quinn: I've never been in an environment where there was such a single-minded focus with perhaps the exception of the relay squad that I was coaching in 2000 at the Olympics the same year. Everyone wanted the same thing.There was no questioning by any of the players and staff.
Shaw: The players played for Essendon. They believed and understood they were joining history sharing the stage with Reynolds, Hutchison, Coleman, Clarke, Fraser Thompson, Harvey. It meant the world to them.
Long: It's pretty special what we did that whole year. Getting back there again and winning with a whole bunch of players you've never won one (Grand Final) with. Everyone was part of that success. That's when we were at our greatest. We created something I've never seen before.
Eddy: To think 20 years later we'd still be waiting for another premiership, it's the most unbelievable thing you could have as an Essendon fan.
Quinn: Essendon wasn't just a place I worked, it's a place I became. Whether you were the door man. Whether you were the strapper. Whether you were the physio or head doctor, secretary. CEO. Or James Hird the captain. You were Essendon. We were all on a mission. It was one of the most unique times in my life.
Eddy: It's a real tipping point of an era for Essendon with so many years and years of dominance, very few years without a finals appearance or back to a Grand Final and to just have nothing since. That (2000) team will remain pretty powerful for Essendon supporters until we eventually get another premiership. It's surreal to think that one of the most dominant single-season teams in history, for that to still be the last premiership 20 years later is still hard to fathom.