For the second straight year, Essendon go into an AFL season under a huge cloud of uncertainty.
Skipper Jobe Watson admitted at the season launch that the ongoing supplements scandal – with 10 current players still to learn whether they would be issued with infraction notices by ASADA – had at times left him disillusioned with the sport he loves.
From the outside looking in, it appears to be a hugely difficult situation for Mark Thompson, the Bombers’ coach for a year.
But Thompson is unequivocal.
He is very much up for the unique challenge of coaching Essendon in 2014.
And he is just as ready to hand the reins back when James Hird’s 12-month suspension ends in late August.
In short, the three-time Bombers premiership star and dual Geelong flag-winning coach realised he was the right man in his club’s hour of desperate need.
“The pressure I feel is to service the players with a good football department,” Thompson told AAP.
“So no matter what happens and how we go, we hold it together.
“I think that’s really important because they’ve put up with a fair bit, they’ve been fantastic and they have the right to have the best chance.”
Thompson can’t ignore any potential fallout from the ongoing ASADA investigations.
But he can’t be distracted by it either.
In each of the past three years, the Bombers have got off to flying starts only to drop away badly at the tail end of the season – although the 2013 fadeout was exacerbated by their expulsion from the finals despite finishing the home and away season in seventh spot.
Thompson knows the team needs to stay in contention for longer – both in individual matches and the campaign as a whole.
Having spent the last three years as Hird’s right-hand man, there will only be tweaks to the game plan under Thompson, rather than a wholesale revamp.
“Even though Hirdy isn’t there this year, we haven’t gone about changing 50 per cent of it,” said Thompson.
“We’ve just done what we’ve done every year with a little adjustment.
“You’ll pretty much see the same type of game plan but hopefully we do it for longer.”
A key to getting that message across on the field is Watson.
The club’s best player and captain did it tough last year, unfairly bearing the brunt of opposition fans’ opprobrium after acknowledging publicly he thought he had been injected with AOD-9604.
“We are so lucky to have someone like Jobe in the position, because right now there could not be a better person to lead the club,” said Thompson.
“He has been outstanding.
“Last year did affect him, but he didn’t let it into his life while he was playing.”
Watson leads a strong midfield group also including last year’s club champion Brendon Goddard, Dyson Heppell, Brent Stanton and David Zaharakis.
With Stewart Crameri gone to the Western Bulldogs, Jake Carlisle and the hugely promising but still unproven Joe Daniher will likely get first crack at the key forward posts.
That frees Michael Hurley up to make his mark at centre half-back.
The most high-profile pick-up is Paul Chapman, who won two of his three flags at Geelong under Thompson’s tutelage.
Paddy Ryder and Tom Bellchambers are one of the league’s best ruck double acts.
On paper, the Bombers look very much like a finals outfit.
So what does Thompson do when 2014 is done and dusted?
“At the moment I just want to get into it and do it,” said the man who was suffering from burnout when he left Geelong in 2010.
“I can already see some changes, I’m starting to wake up with some ideas.
“It’s brought some more urgency into my life.
“After this year, I honestly don’t know what is going to happen.”
That’s a problem for another day.
This year, Thompson could not be more ready to coach.
Coach: Mark Thompson
Captain: Jobe Watson
Last five years: 8-14-8-11-9
Premierships: 16 (1897, 1901, 1911-12, 1923-24, 1942, 1946, 1949-50, 1962, 1965, 1984-85, 1993, 2000)
Key five: Jobe Watson, Brendon Goddard, Dyson Heppell, Jake Carlisle, Tom Bellchambers
One to watch: Paul Chapman. Reunited with his Geelong premiership coach Mark Thompson, the ultra-combative Chapman shapes as a real wildcard for the Bombers. If the hamstring issues that plagued him in 2013 are a thing of the past, the former Cat could be one of the bargain buys of the year.
Ins: Kurt Aylett (Greater Western Sydney), Paul Chapman (Geelong), Shaun Edwards (Greater Western Sydney), Orazio Fantasia (Norwood, SANFL), Zach Merrett (Sandringham U18).
Outs: Stewart Crameri (Western Bulldogs), Alwyn Davey (delisted), Luke Davis (delisted), Scott Gumbleton (Fremantle), David Hille (retired), Natahn Lovett-Murray (retired).
Best 22: B: Michael Hibberd, Cale Hooker, Dustin Fletcher
HB: Courtenay Dempsey, Michael Hurley, Mark Baguley
C: Brendon Goddard, Jobe Watson, Jason Winderlich
HF: Paul Chapman, Jake Carlisle, Dyson Heppell
F: Tom Bellchambers, Joe Daniher, David Zaharakis
R: Paddy Ryder, Brent Stanton, Heath Hocking
I: Ben Howlett, Jake Melksham, David Myers, Nick Kommer
Predicted finish: 7th
To win the flag: $21
To make the top eight: $2.20