There's no I in Heppell: All about the team for Essendon skipper

They burn inside Dyson Heppell. Approaching the end of his seventh year as an AFL player, the Essendon captain has clear memories of his two finals in the big league, both of which ended in losses, part of a miserable tale of the Bombers' September action since the club's last finals win in 2004.

There was the elimination final thrashing at the hands of Carlton at the end of Heppell's first season in 2011, days after he had been voted the league's Rising Star. "It's super deflating. It's not what you want to be about when you get to the big stage," Heppell told Fairfax Media this week.

Then there was 2014, a 33-point third-quarter lead against North Melbourne somehow coughed up. "We just didn't keep playing our style of game. We probably got a little bit ahead of ourselves after half-time and North were just far too strong after that.

"They sort of burn inside of you, and we're making sure that if we get our chance, that we'll be ready to go."

That chance is there for the taking. A game and 1.2 per cent outside the top eight, and with matches against lowly Gold Coast and Fremantle to finish their home-and-away season, Essendon are on the verge of returning to the finals. The club has emerged from the pain of the supplements saga bruised but still standing. With 10 wins and as many losses in 2017, the Bombers sit right in the middle of the AFL's bell curve. Yet Heppell clearly takes a glass-half-full view to Essendon's season, having kept his expectations "pretty well in check" before the season. "I think we've had a really successful year," he said.

"You talk about bringing guys in from different places. The group now, we've only played 20 games of footy together. And if we can get ourselves a look into finals, that'd be super successful. We've made massive inroads from where we were at the start of the year to where we are now.

"I didn't expect just to go bang, top four and win a granny. Overall we've been quite solid."

Only two players remain on the Dons list from the team that beat Melbourne in the 2004 elimination final: the retiring Jobe Watson, and Brent Stanton, who hasn't played at senior level since round 11. It seems clear that Heppell has a fondness for Watson, who he says has remained generous despite all he has endured. "He's a super leader, and someone that shows genuine care for his teammates. That's something that I've really cherished from Jobe. He's constantly checking in with you. If you have a bit of a flat game he'll make sure he follows up and make sure you're travelling all right.

"I feel this year's been one of his strongest years in terms of leadership and helping develop other players. He's going to be sorely missed. I've loved playing with him."

At his media conference last week, Watson conceded that the the speed of the game was rapidly moving past him, while Stanton, along with Heath Hocking and Ben Howlett - also returning from drug suspensions - have also struggled to hold onto their seats as the Bombers shuttle has relaunched into orbit. These are players who could conceivably have felt cheated by the game, having experienced the football version of returning to an old home to find a younger man sleeping in their bed. It could have made for a hell of a first year in the job, even for the affable Heppell. But helping Heppell has been what he called the "selflessness" of the likes of Watson, and James Kelly, who has also announced his retirement, with the collective put ahead of the individual, done so in the belief that decisions must be made in the team's interests.

So there have been words of encouragement for emerging players such as Kyle Langford and Jayden Laverde, an urging from more senior players for the kids to bash down the selection door. "That's the message that those boys have always given, 'make sure you guys are driving us, don't just be complacent with where you're at because you're so young, try and get a look in the side now and forge your career that way'."

While it would be a stretch to say that "I" is a dirty word at Essendon these days, the sense of the group coming first appears pervasive. Heppell was happy to talk this week, provided the focus was on the team, not on him. And perhaps his most memorable moment as captain came following the capitulation earlier in the year against the bottom-of-the-ladder Brisbane Lions, with Heppell slamming his teammates for playing "selfish" football. Although that's not to say there is no room for individuals. Take Joe Daniher and his ruffling of the hair of junior teammate and now Adelaide Crow Rory Atkins. "I love that," Heppell said. "You've got to have characters in footy, and Joey's certainly a character."

It's Daniher, Zach Merrett and Andrew McGrath who Heppell identifies as being central to the changing culture of the club's playing group, with the younger brigade already starting to take charge. Part of the desired culture is that Heppell is encouraging teammates to let him know what they think of his captaincy. "I think I've really developed my leadership throughout this year and gained a really healthy respect from the playing group," Heppell said.

"I'm seeing responses from when I do talk. I voice opinions and what not. I'm constantly asking for feedback as well. Part of our cultural piece is you take feedback on board, you don't arc back at it.

???"We're really starting to shift our culture and build something quite strong. I think I'm pretty confident saying we're building something pretty special here."

Heppell knows the stakes are high this week. Losses to Carlton and the Lions help guard against complacency when coming up against another side whose finals chances were long ago shot. Still, his thoughts do stray at times to September. "It's certainly in the back of the mind. It's just something that you really strive for. You don't want to focus too far into the future but it certainly burns inside of you that you want that excitement and it could be really exciting."

And while he insists there is plenty of motivation to succeed anyway, the chance to return to the finals along with the other Bombers dragged through the saga, not to mention send Watson and others off on a high note, would make the occasion that extra bit more significant for Heppell. "Yeah I think so. For sure. Once you look back at it, it would be. And to be able to play with a number of those guys would be super.

"I think the guys that have come back this year, we all just have a real appreciation for footy. We just really enjoy the game, enjoy the camaraderie of the group, and we want to prolong our season as long as we can."

This story There's no I in Heppell: All about the team for Essendon skipper first appeared on Brisbane Times.