Essendon coach James Hird has spoken of the universal relief at the club in the wake of the AFL anti-doping tribunal’s not guilty verdicts.
And he predicts their interrupted pre-season will eventually work to the Bombers’ advantage.
On March 31, the tribunal found 34 current and past Essendon players were not guilty of charges relating to the Essendon supplements scandal.
The verdicts were the culmination of a controversial AFL-ASADA investigation that started on February 5, 2013.
“We’re not sure what normal is after two-and-a-half years of what we’ve been through,” Hird told SEN radio.
“But I remember the first session after the investigation started and the way the guys trained, the heads were everywhere.
“They were all over the shop – a crazy sort of training session.
“But Thursday last week, it was a normal session and – for the first time in obviously a long time – people were just concentrating on football.
“You could see the guys – they were maybe a little bit tired … (but) they had freer minds.”
Hird served a 12-month AFL suspension as part of governance penalties handed down in August two years ago.
At the height of the saga, media were regularly camped outside his home.
“Certainly, there’s a smile on my face every morning when I walk out the door and see there are not 15 people out there,” he said.
“I was just thinking it this morning, to be honest … how good it is to walk out in your jocks and pick up the paper and walk back inside.”
Hird said nothing could have prepared him and others at Essendon for the stresses of the saga.
“It certainly challenged friendships, challenged relationships, challenged everyone at all levels,” he said.
He added his relationship with the players was tested, but stayed strong.
“Certainly, it’s been challenged … because of media speculation stories, things that are written,” he said.
“The one thing I’ve been confident with is the players and myself have a good relationship.
“If there wasn’t a good relationship between myself and the Essendon players, I wouldn’t be coach.”
The tribunal hearing meant most of Essendon’s front-line players had no official pre-season games.
It showed in their round-one loss to Sydney, where the ‘Dons coughed up a 41-point lead.
“We were a bit rusty at certain times and, even in the coaches box, we were a bit rusty just trying to prepare the group when things happened,” he said.
“We will be a lot better for the performance against Sydney.
“But I think the preparation, in the long run, will probably be quite beneficial for us.”
Essendon face another stern test on Sunday when they play arch rivals and two-time defending premiers Hawthorn in a MCG blockbuster.