AFL 2024: Essendon wants to make uncontracted stars ‘feel valued’

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Essendon captain Zach Merrett says the Bombers will ensure their out-of-contract teammates feel “valued and supported” with half the playing entering the 2024 season without a deal for 2025 including a host of star players.

The Bombers have 22 players who are yet to commit beyond 2024 including key quartet Andrew McGrath, Archie Perkins, Sam Durham and Jake Stringer, as Merrett acknowledged contract status would play on the minds of some players during the season.

He said teammates accepted the “reality” players would not decide on their futures until later in the season as more variables continue to enter the realm of player movement, and was confident the club would secure signatures during the year.

“It’s real. I mean, I think it’d be I wouldn’t be human if you weren’t thinking about that if you were out of contract,” Merrett said.

“It’s a natural process this industry has – I think the more player movement that keeps coming up – mid-season trading potentially next year, I think everyone just accepts that is the reality of this abnormal life that we will live in.

“No doubt it plays some aspect in the scheme of things … but you’ve just got to navigate through that, internally making sure they feel valued and supported to get the most out of themselves.

“I think we all know, the more games you win and play well, typically guys stick around and play more games together, so that will be the motivation for all of us.”

Merrett said Stringer, who last week expressed his intent to remain at Essendon beyond next season, was in a “great spot” this summer and could still be a “special” player if he could increase his running capacity from an indifferent 17-game campaign in 2023.

“Jake is one of those guys I think all around the league you look at who’s got untapped talent all the time, and so how do you get that more consistently,” he said.

“I think if he’s in a good mental space and physically feels fit and can run and cover the ground, I think demands of the game continue to increase you need to be able to run at a high level now … if he can cover the ground and get to more contests he’s so special in those contests.

“The type of player he is, I think every club wants that type of player, but you have to be able to do it consistently and we’ve seen that with guys like (Jordan) de Goey, (Christian) Petracca and (Dustin Martin) over the last four of five years, real matchwinners who when the game gets bigger and the pressure comes on, they seem to step up, as we’ve seen last year in the grand final with Jordan, who had an amazing September.”

Merrett said the Bombers accepted their winless finals run would be a talking point this season whether they made the top eight or not, but said he took confidence from rival coaches’ comments that the gap between them and the top teams was narrow despite their dismal finish to 2023.

“It’s going to be talked about until we win one, isn’t it? So I wouldn’t say it hangs over our head, I think we know it’s there, it’s real, it’s not going away,” he said.

“I think it’s great listening to Craig McRae, Chris Fagan, (Adam) Kingsley … these coaches talking about I guess how close they feel the competition is.

“That little gap also feels massive at times … winning two or three more of those games all of a sudden slingshots you up pretty quickly, but you lose them and you’re obviously sitting in that middle pack.”