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The Essendon replacements: how the top-up players have handled 2016

Matt Dea was never going to say no. He had no idea what he wanted to do after being delisted by Richmond last year, other than keep playing football. Becoming a top-up player for Essendon seemed the easiest way to prove he was still good enough to do it for an AFL team. “I was 24, I didn’t have a lot going on outside the game and I was always going to spend a year in the VFL to see if I could get another chance,” he said. “For me, it was an easy call. For me it was a no brainer.”

For Mark Jamar, it was a harder decision. He hadn’t been training since he had finished up at Melbourne, other than a couple of summer sessions with the St Kevin’s amateur team. He had a new job to get started in, and a couple of businesses to start putting a bit more time into. But he had already started a one-day-a-week job as Essendon’s ruck coach, and coming back to play meant he could get to know his new charges as a teammate first. “I had to think for a couple of weeks,” he said. “But it felt like a positive environment. It was a chance to just play some footy again.”

''We've been pretty upbeat,'' says Mark Jamar.
”We’ve been pretty upbeat,” says Mark Jamar. Photo: Getty Images

James Kelly felt the same way, when he was also asked to sign on as an Essendon top-up player. He felt sorry for the club, and for the players left behind when their 12 teammates were suspended. He wanted to help, but then he started running again. “When I did that I started to think, maybe I shouldn’t have done this,” he said. “I think that was just me being a bit nervous, being around a new group of guys and wondering what they expected of me. It made me a bit jumpy but then I started to settle in and get to know people and think, this was a good thing to do.”

He still feels that way. The 10 top-ups arrived at Essendon at the start of the year, after the suspended players were sent away, with their own reasons for being there. Some wanted one more chance; some felt like they weren’t yet done. For Ryan Crowley, it meant not finishing his career as a player rubbed out for breaching the anti-doping code; for Nathan Grima, it was a chance to re-retire as an active player, not one who was in a lot of pain and in need of back surgery. “I think everyone say different things,” said Jamar, “that they would be able to get out of it.”w

The club chose who they approached for reasons, though. Their players had been through a lot and they wanted those left behind to be surrounded by positive people, who would turn up for work with a smile on their face no matter how the team was going, work hard, not talk about what had happened before they got there. They wanted selfless players, who would help their temporary teammates move forward. “We’ve been pretty upbeat, and I think that’s helped,” Jamar said. “We weren’t worrying about everything that had happened. It was ‘OK, what’s happening now’?”

Essendon also wanted players who would play. That’s been the (predictably) problematic part: soft-tissue problems have eaten into most of their seasons; even Kelly, who has played almost every game, has found it hard to get to the line each week. “For some guys it’s been frustrating,” he said, “but it was probably always going to happen and when it has, they’ve just gone into rehab and set themselves to play again, like they always would have.”

Others have found it as hard as it ever was to push into the senior team, but they, too, have coped well. “Sam Michael’s someone who’s done every single session and kept it at no matter what,” Jamar said. “He’s one of the most professional guys here, but he was only lucky enough to play one or two games. That challenge of having to earn a spot each week hasn’t gone away.”

That the team hasn’t needed them all up and running has been a good thing, too. None of Jamar, Kelly and Dea thought the young Essendon players were too badly affected by what had gone on, when they first got there. As summer rolled by they saw some of them start to realise the opportunity they were about to get, and really crave it. As the season has rolled on they have watched them grow up, take more on, get used to harsh results, work out how to move straight on to the next game and concentrate on what will make their team a good one again.

They can’t see them going back into their shell when their other teammates come back. “I think they’re more resilient now than we first got here,” Kelly said. “It’s hard to be overly specific about it, but I feel like they’ve matured quickly. They’ve all been beaten around a bit, had some tough losses and they’ve still had to front up and go again the next week. They haven’t had a choice, and footy clubs are like that. Even if you’re not really ready to move on, you kind of get forced to.”

Kelly knew his experience was one of the reasons Essendon wanted him – and Mathew Stokes, and Jonathan Simpkin – but has made a point of not walking around saying ‘this is how we did it at Geelong’. “I’d like to think it happened pretty organically,” he said of his leadership, and Jamar confirmed it had. “It’s been a really natural year, nothing’s ever felt staged,” said the ruckman, who feels he now has a head start on the coaching role he’ll be back to do next year.

“To play with the guys and be on the ground with them has been good. But I think just spending time with them as a teammate every day has been the main thing. I’ve seen what they’re good at and what they have to work on, but know them all more as people now too.”

When Jamar left Melbourne he felt a little stale. Doing the same thing in a different place has made him remember why he loves playing football. Dea never felt secure in the Richmond team in all his time there and started the season knowing there was nothing for him to lose.

It was a feeling that never went away. “Anyone who’s ever been on the fringe will say the same thing, you’re almost waiting every week to be dropped,” he said. “It’s a negative way to think, but to come here thinking ‘well, I’m supposed to be running around at Burbank Oval’ has been pretty refreshing. It’s been nice to play without the pressure of contracts and things like that, to have no real expectations but to go out and have a crack and play. It’s been good to be a part of that.”

Kelly has enjoyed his year too, the challenge of trying to get something other than wins out of a season one that has made him think in new ways. He thinks he has learnt how to deal with different sorts of people better; how to function in a new place, where he didn’t know everyone and they hadn’t known him all his adult life. “I’ve probably got back to thinking about the fundamentals of footy, rather than the five or 10 per cent that’s going to help you in a preliminary final,” he said. “I’ve actually enjoyed playing again. I’ve got back to just enjoying my job.”

Jamar feels like the players have liked having him and everyone else around. “I think they’ve enjoyed getting to know us,” he said, “and that means a lot.” Kelly feels the same way. “Guys have said, we appreciate your help and at the end of the day that’s what we’ve been here for, to help,” he said.

“Going back to when the boys got suspended, I felt sorry for the club. It was a bad thing that happened and I think most of us saw it the same way, that it we got the chance to help out, it would be a good thing to do and something that we would get a lot out of. I feel like we have helped, in some small way. And from a personal point of view, that’s something to feel good about.”

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