For the first time in a long time, James Hird looked truly serene at his post-match press conference on Saturday.
In a game of few surprises, Essendon (16.9.105) overcame Carlton (11.18.84) at the MCG by 21 points, moving their record to two wins and one loss to start the season.
After enduring a coaching exile and two seasons from hell, the noose has finally been removed from around the neck of Hird and his team.
Whether found guilty or not guilty, 2015 was always going to be bit of a mystery for the boys from Tullamarine.
Due to precautionary ASADA-related suspensions to a large majority of the core player group, genuine match fitness was always going to be an issue for the club in the opening rounds.
Now, three games in, the fitness issue is dissipating, a winning mentality is developing, and for the first time in what seems forever, a sense of week-to-week simple football normality is returning to the club.
This wasn’t a spectacular victory like they pulled off against the Hawks last week. It was a workmanlike win, without the fuss and magnification; and that, I think, pleased Hird the most.
“If you’re an Essendon supporter you can turn up to work on Monday and you can crow about your team, you can talk us up,” Hird said with grin that’s been rare in recent times.
“And that’s a different thing for Essendon supporters over the last two years.”
With ASADA announcing they won’t appeal the tribunal’s decision and the troubles of the past now vanishing in the rear-view mirror, how far can this unshackled group go?
Building before and throughout the crisis, thanks to good drafting and even better recruiting, Essendon now appear strong across the board.
The team’s versatile spine and hardened bodies, so imperative to premiership sides, is striking.
Tall forwards Joe Daniher and Jake Carlisle were first and second in the club’s goal kicking last year, and with Daniher in his third year and Carlisle making the move from defence in 2014, there appears to be room for improvement in the combination this year.
Ben Howlett, in his 100th game, chipped in with three majors on the weekend and is also providing another route to goal.
Down back, Michael Hurley and Cale Hooker also seem to have found their niche, with both looking assured in defence.
However, it’s the ability of the pair to swing forward if required that gives Hird and his team a real X-factor with their adaptable big men.
Hooker surging into the front arc against the Hawks and snapping the winning goal in the dying minutes exemplifies this invaluable trait.
The Dons’ core midfield group is another area where the stars are starting to align.
Clearly you can’t go past captain Jobe Watson and 2014 All-Australian Dyson Heppell in the middle, but the support cast in the centre is now getting the job done too.
With onballers such as David Zaharakis, Brent Stanton and youngster Zach Merrett on the field, Essendon’s engine room is starting to look imposing.
But what really stands out about this group is the team’s recycled players.
Besides his wonderful playing ability, 250-game star Brendon Goddard’s leadership has been vital, triple-premiership Cat Paul Chapman keeps proving the doubters wrong, and James Gwilt and Adam Cooney are important links in the chain.
With individuals growing in stature around them, this fortified and experienced group takes Essendon from top-four pretenders to contenders.
But, besides these abundant attributes, a question mark still looms over Essendon’s ruck stocks.
With the departure of Paddy Ryder and his 20 goals to Port Adelaide, the onus has fallen on Tom Bellchambers. For Essendon to flourish, the capable forward will have to step up to the plate in the hit-outs for his team to compete with the top clubs.
So, with wins on the board, and Dustin Fletcher’s 400th game ahead, Hird has a good reason to be smiling.
It will be interesting to see what effects two years of compromised drafts will have on the Bombers in the future, but, at the present, they’re on autopilot.
As we now count down to Collingwood, surely the relaxed demeanour of the coach will diminish, but it can be nothing compared to Anzac Days of recent past. The gift of returning to normal football, without the weight of ASADA on their shoulders, is the biggest plus of all for this team.
Now playing with clear heads, it will be interesting to see how far the group can go. With high-quality outfits like Hawthorn, Sydney, Fremantle and both Adelaide teams jostling for the top spots, the top four might be just out of reach for the re-emerging Bombers. But, with the club’s handy stockpile of key position players, the near future looks promising.
So as he basks in listening to supporters crow about his team, surely there’s more smiles ahead for James Hird in 2015.