A new-look Essendon has drawn a big bold line under years of trouble and scandal, surging to overcome a 20-point deficit at the start of the final term and registering a heart-stopping victory over grand finalists Adelaide.
Down but far from out as the fourth quarter began, the Bombers were an unstoppable force as they booted six goals to one and ran out 14.15 (99) to 12.15 (87) winners at Etihad Stadium.
Big-name recruits Jake Stringer, Devon Smith and Adam Saad all made valuable contributions in their Essendon debuts, while Cale Hooker and James Stewart booted three goals apiece.
Skipper Dyson Heppell was best-afield with 35 disposals and eight inside-50s.
For Dons fans it was the sweetest of moments, continuing the club’s multi-year recovery from 2016’s wooden spoon – a journey which last year saw the men from Windy Hill scrape into the final eight on percentage.
Friday night’s performance suggests they will be major contenders, not least for the never-say-die spirit that left the hapless Crows unable to withstand the onslaught.
The Bombers took the lead in the dying minutes through Hooker after Adelaide star Rory Sloane dragged the ball in at a stoppage and was pinged for holding the ball.
Josh Begley then kicked truly on the run from 40m to seal a famous victory in front of a raucous 43,016 crowd.
“We’d seen enough to say that we could outscore them in the last quarter and be a bit stronger at the contest … we saw a big uplift in that,” Bombers coach John Worsfold said.
“We know we didn’t play anywhere near the perfect game but we still hung in there and had a strong win.”
The Bombers went a man down late in the first quarter when midfielder Zach Merrett was concussed after a heavy bump from Richard Douglas.
Douglas, who was reported for rough conduct, appeared initially to have made contact with Merrett’s shoulder rather than his head.
But the 22-year-old was slow to his feet and bleeding from the mouth as the trainers escorted him off.
Both sides were wayward in front of goal during a tightly contested first half with the Bombers ahead by five points at halftime.
Stringer made a strong early impression, winning the first centre clearance then taking a strong contested mark at fullback.
The former Western Bulldogs premiership player finished with 16 disposals in a solid first outing, while Smith (23 disposals, six clearances) impressed at the stoppages.
Adelaide’s own star recruit Bryce Gibbs had earlier turned the match in their favour, lighting the spark for his side with two goals in quick succession at the start of the third quarter.
Gibbs finished with 35 disposals while Matt Crouch had a game-high 41 touches and seven clearances.
Out for redemption after last year’s grand final defeat at the hands of Richmond, the Crows struggled in front of goal in the absence of skipper Taylor Walker and Tom Lynch.
Coach Don Pyke’s problems were compounded by half of his players going without a tackle during the frantic final quarter.
“The numbers don’t really lie,” Pyke said.