Brad Scott, the 'blank canvas', and why 2023 feels 'a lot different' for Zach Merrett

Déjà vu isn't always a pleasant experience. Particularly if you support a football club which has had way more bad times than good for a couple of decades.

Which might go some way to explaining the displeasure of Essendon's considerable fan base after the Bombers' comprehensive loss to St Kilda in their last preseason hit-out, an ill temper far exceeding any emotion usually coming out of a practice match.

The Essendon fans had been here before, exactly 12 months ago. Then, a lacklustre practice match loss to the Saints was followed up by a Round 1 drubbing at the hands of Geelong so dire that many pronounced the season a write-off there and then. And given the Dons finished 15th with just seven wins, the prophecies of doom mightn't have been far off the mark.

So, does new captain Zach Merrett understand the level of angst? "I don't, to be honest," he admits, speaking to ESPN at the AFL captain's day. "I mean, obviously last year wasn't a great start at all. But we were probably underprepared last year. I think this year feels a lot different.

"Yeah, we didn't win (against St Kilda), but I felt like our ability to defend the ball was far, far better than it has been in the past, which has been a massive area of growth (over summer). So, for me and the boys in the group and 'Scotty' (new coach Brad Scott), there was certainly no level of panic at all after that game."

Nor is Merrett going to create too many expectations around Essendon's opening game against Hawthorn, which for the Bomber army, already appears to have taken on far greater importance than just one of 23 home and away engagements.

There's the Bombers' storied rivalry with the Hawks, of course, and now the special place Hawthorn coach Sam Mitchell seems to occupy in Essendon supporters' list of 'top villains'. There's the fear of losing to a team widely tipped to take out the wooden spoon. And there's the memory of a first-round loss to the Hawks two years ago, when the Bombers surrendered a 40-point lead.

The jitters caused by the lacklustre performance against the Saints will become something even more sweaty-palmed should there be another stumble on Sunday. But Merrett is resolutely eyeing off the bigger picture. And part of that is about avoiding those sorts of knee-jerk reactions which have landed Essendon in trouble too many times before.

"I might be a bit boring, but I just don't see it as a bigger game," he says of the Hawthorn clash.

"I mean, obviously in Round 1 there's always going to be bigger hype and emotion, and it's awesome to actually be able to play competitively for four points again, but I just don't see it detouring us whichever way the game goes. It's just going to be another opportunity to get better."

Getting better for Essendon involves a variety of focuses. But there's not much doubting the most important.

Essendon assistant coach Daniel Giansiracusa singled out Merrett's defensive work after the St Kilda game. And that came as no surprise, because the new captain's determination to lead the way with an increased emphasis on defence has shone through in virtually every public utterance since he inherited the captaincy from Dyson Heppell three weeks ago.

That alone has been music to the ears of the Bomber faithful, who have become all too used to seeing their team's defensive structure picked apart and scored against heavily. Indeed, lack of a defensive game, or mindset, seems to have been an issue for Essendon since the days of Kevin Sheedy as coach.

Is it coaching? Is it culture? Merrett can't pin down an obvious answer, but he's certainly hellbent on doing something about it, even more so now with an official leadership mantle beside his name.

"I'd love to put my finger on one exact science around what we could have done better. And I would have loved to have done it back then," he says. "But it requires a bit of everything.

"It's players, it's players' attitudes, it's players' positioning, it's coaching, it's all the elements that go into that. And, hopefully, we're working towards being a bit better at being more identifiable as a brand. I don't think we've had that in the past."

So what's the brand?

"What that looks like will evolve, no doubt, as time goes on, but we simply just have to get better. I mean, I think we've been 16th to 18th over the last five years in most key stats. So we just can't shy away from the fact we've been very poor.

"We've got a pretty blank canvas to build something. Brad's got a great understanding of where the game is at currently and probably where it's heading. But you need to build layers of trust and connection across the playing group as well; where guys are going to be at certain times, the execution, the coaching, the feedback, learning, there's so much that goes into creating a really identifiable brand."

Merrett isn't expecting to have to alter his playing style simply because there's now a "c" for captain alongside his name on the team sheet.

"It won't be a lot different," he says. "I think I'm always trying to get better as an individual player and trying to be a really good teammate, and some of that hopefully inspires my teammates to play well. So that won't shift too much.

"There's just areas that I think I hopefully I will sharpen up a little bit; our compliance and stuff on field to give us the best chance to be more disciplined and more consistent as a group. There's a few tangible things hopefully we'll see throughout the year.

"I'm just keen to get to work, to be honest. It's hard in preseason. You think you're doing everything well, but you need to play some real games to know where you actually are. So I'm just really keen to play the Hawks, and get some feedback."

Merrett smiles as he says it. Because he already knows for certain, win or lose, that his own club's very edgy supporter base certainly won't be shy of providing plenty of that.

You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at FOOTYOLOGY.