Jump Ball Sports
Joe woke early in the half light, rolled over and tried to make out the figure lying on the other side of the bed.
As the drowsy realisation dawned that his bedmate was not the Swans, but Essendon, it all came flooding back.
A footballing marriage that had once promised so much had come crashing down, only for the divorce papers to be left unsigned at the eleventh hour the night before.
Essendon had heard him stir, having woken earlier to a feeling of cautious optimism.
Of course, the club had never wanted him to leave, and now has 12 months to make sure he doesn’t for a long time to come.
Neither of them yet ready to face the other, instead contemplating an awkward reality and an uncertain future.
But having been to the brink, they remain together…for now.
The trade deadline day rock bottom is likely to have either served to shatter an already damaged relationship or perversely save it.
While Joe’s want-away declaration was met with the standard big Melbourne club indignance by Essendon fans and former players alike, the seeds of discontent were sown in plain sight.
Joe chose the Bombers over his father Anthony’s other team, Sydney in late 2010. A time when the recent head coaching appointment of one-time favourite son James Hird had infused Windy Hill with long-gone positivity.
Needless to say, he was sold a dud.
The first four years of his Essendon tenure were played out in semi-darkness amid the shadows of the club’s infamous supplements saga.
After stepping into the sunshine of a breakout 2017 season, Joe’s next two years were blighted by a persistent groin injury.
While the club’s handling of the problem has never really been called into question, there is little doubt as to Joe’s frustration at a two year injury that was the subject of two different courses of treatment and included a failed comeback attempt in between.
There is also the very real issue of a two metre tall young man - who is reportedly far from obsessed with the game of football - trying to carve out a normal life in a football obsessed city like Melbourne.
Against this backdrop, one can readily understand Joe’s designs on a move to the relative anonymity of the harbour city and a football club that he would have likely come to second guess spurning in the first place.
But of course it takes three to tango in AFL trade-land and Sydney wouldn’t dance, or at least it refused to follow Essendon’s lead.
And if the Swans’ failure – despite leading him to the altar - spoke to a lack of want, then the Bombers reluctance to let Joe go was the polar opposite.
He may not have been looking for affirmation of Essendon’s love, but he got it by the bucket load.
But perhaps just as important was the fact that this love was mixed in with some hard truths delivered by those outside the club as to Joe’s work ethic. Former teammate, Brendon Goddard questioning Joe’s injury rehabilitation efforts was particularly pointed.
The hope for the Bombers is that this criticism, together with Sydney’s ultimate valuation and all the time spent on the sidelines provides the sort of motivational spark that the wildly talented Joe has perhaps been missing all along.
And it’s not as though Joe could fault his club for sitting idly by as it sensed its star full forward slowly slipping away into Sydney’s outstretched arms.
In the wake of Joe’s much publicised catch-up with Swans’ CEO, Tom Harley in early August, the Bombers announced the season-end departure of fitness boss Justin Crow and acquisition of Blake Caracella as assistant coach.
This was later followed by news of the senior coaching transition that will see current Essendon assistant coach Ben Rutten take over the reins from incumbent John Worsfold in 2021.
Speaking of which - and factoring in both Joe and teammate Orazio Fantasia potentially revisiting their exit plans in 12 months’ time - there is an exciting ‘free swing’ aspect looming over the Bombers’ 2020 campaign, the result of which will likely inform the path beyond.
But first Joe and Essendon must roll over and face one another in the early morning light.
The club looking for remnants of affection from across the divide, the player searching for what he saw as a kid.
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