Essendon have started an urgent nationwide recruiting drive after resolving the impasse with the AFL over their pre-season games.
The matches next month against St Kilda, Melbourne and GWS will go ahead as planned, despite coach James Hird admitting the preparation will not be ideal.
Captain Jobe Watson, reigning club champion Dyson Heppell and veteran Dustin Fletcher are among 25 senior players who will not play.
Those players were at Essendon in 2012 and about 18 of them are before the AFL anti-doping tribunal.
All 25 are sitting out the pre-season to preserve the anonymity of the players facing the anti-doping charges.
The charged players are also serving provisional suspensions and not playing in the pre-season means if they are found guilty, they can backdate their bans to November.
But it also means Essendon must find 15 to 20 top-up players for the pre-season.
“It’s not an ideal preparation, but we’ll go down there and put our best foot forward,” Hird said of their first NAB Challenge game against St Kilda on March 7 in Morwell.
“The people down there deserve a game and AFL footy deserves a game.
“We’re excited about going down there – obviously, it’s going to be a different experience for us.”
Essendon football manager Rob Kerr told the AFL website they already had a list of potential players drawn up.
But they were waiting for the result of the negotiations with the league before starting to make contact.
The league and Essendon confirmed on Friday afternoon – and ahead of Monday’s AFL Commission meeting – that the games would proceed.
But the specifics around the use of the top-up players are still to be confirmed.
The had been weeks of media speculation about whether Essendon would forfeit the matches, something club chairman Paul Little and AFL Players’ Association chief executive Paul Marsh insisted was never an option.
Marsh also met Essendon players on Friday.
“It shows a real strength of character from all those players to stand by their mates and not give them up through this process,” Marsh said.
“There’s a view that the games themselves are probably going to be somewhat of a waste of time.
“It’s going to be a substandard Essendon team, with no disrespect to the VFL guys who may top it up.
“But it’s one of those situations where they’re doing the right thing by the competition, by the other players, and I think they need to be commended for that.”
Hird also hit back at Carlton coach Mick Malthouse, who said on Thursday that one club could not hijack the league.
“I just think those comments are ridiculous,” Hird said.
St Kilda chief executive Matt Finnis was more lighthearted.
“Saints confirm – we will turn up too! #CommonSensePrevails,” Finnis tweeted.
Essendon will also play GWS in Sydney on March 13 and then Melbourne on March 20 at Etihad Stadium.
The anti-doping tribunal is expected to hand down its verdict before the third match.
The tribunal hearing relates to the Bombers’ supplements scandal, with 34 current and past Essendon players facing charges.
Former Essendon players Stewart Crameri (Western Bulldogs), Angus Monfries and Patrick Ryder (Port Adelaide) will also reportedly sit out the AFL pre-season.