Regrets are an inevitable part of life. They come with the territory of breathing and are a part of the unwritten deal we all sign for the right to exist.

Although some contrition can feel enormous – such as the misery born when a relationship breaks down or after committing a far more criminal act – others are forgotten in the blink of an eye.

In terms of the unpredictable game of football, there are a plethora of scenarios that have made or broken careers.

What if your side picked a different player from a certain draft?

What if your star spearhead had kicked straight when it mattered?

What if the umpires had looked in your favour late in a lost grand final?

Well, for fans of every creed we have sought to answer the question that has rankled you for years and kept you up at night for far too long.

We can't promise that we won't open old wounds, as let's face it, that is the entire point of the exercise.

From Adelaide to the Bulldogs, from Fitzroy to the Bears, this series will go through every club's biggest 'what if' moments since the dawn of the AFL era in 1990. Here's part six, where we look at Essendon's biggest 'what if'...

OTHER WHAT IFS: Adelaide, Brisbane Bears, Brisbane Lions, Carlton, Collingwood

While we understand that this remains a wound that won't close for those who don the sash, we're here now, so we may as well press on.

What if Stephen Dank was never contacted by the Bombers?

As this dive into the near past involves entering a reality in which any mention of the shady biochemist's name would confuse, rather than enrage, Dons fanatics, this jaunt will involve absolutely no use of the infamous WADA and ASADA acronyms.

In the week between Collingwood and St Kilda's drawn grand final and the ensuing replay in 2010, Essendon took a punt on a man that had long been worshipped at Windy Hill to fill their vacant head coaching position.

James Hird – who in September of that year was only five years out of the game – shook hands with the hierarchy and agreed to a four-year deal with the club that his family's name will forever be synonymous with.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 25: Kevin Sheedy coach of the Bombers and James Hird captain and Anzac Day Medallist hold the Anzac Day Cup after winning the round five AFL Anzac Day match between the Collingwood Magpies and the Essendon Bombers at the Melbourne Cricket Ground April 25 2004 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Dadswell/Getty Images)
*** Local Caption *** Kevin Sheedy;James Hird

The 1996 Brownlow medallist's first season at the helm could not have been more even, with the coach leading his side to an 11-win, 11-loss and one-draw year. Despite proving to be the league's equivalent of a flipped coin in 2011, Hird's side did manage to return to the finals after missing out the previous season, however, they were bested by the Blues in an elimination final by a resounding 62 points.

With this first calendar year behind him, and the Dons slowly trending towards their 17th ‘preem-ya-ship' flag, Hird and the wider Essendon community could be forgiven for enjoying a slightly more rose-tinted summer than usual.

Still, by the time that the playing group had returned to the track following their Christmas breaks, the narrative had begun to darken.

In January of 2012, Bruce Reid - the late, and beloved, Essendon team doctor - penned a letter to Hird and the board about his concerns surrounding the supplements that the vast majority of the squad had been injected with the year prior.

Reid reportedly wrote in this document that he was both sceptical about the benefits of the immunisation regimen and that the club's course of action had the potential to end in tears.

Although ultimately prophetic, how had Reid come to this point? And when did the Dons decide to start treating their stars like pin cushions?

When Hird walked back through the doors on Napier Street prior to the 2011 season, he was followed by his captain from the 1993 premiership team, Mark ‘Bomber' Thompson.

Thompson - the architect of Geelong's 2007 and 2009 titles - had returned home on a lucrative deal that would see him work behind Hird during the club's rise back up the ladder.

From a footballing standpoint, ‘Bomber' was an astute hire. However, in hindsight, his appointment could be seen as the point that the Bombers lost their way.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 01: Bombers coach Mark Thompson looks in a reflective mood at the media during the AFL Finals Series Launch at Fox Footy on September 1, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

According to primary and secondary reports, it was Thompson who unknowingly set the chain of events in motion that led to the Dons' downfall when he expressed his desire to bring Geelong's former fitness coach, Dean ‘The Weapon' Robinson, into the fold.

It must be mentioned that we are not blaming the two-time premiership coach for what transpired afterward, but as Robinson's employment led to contact being made with ‘doctor' Dank, whether he likes it or not, he has become a key player in this tragic narrative.

So why not title this entry, ‘What if Essendon never hired Mark Thompson?' Well, as mentioned previously, from a pure coaching perspective, Thompson's hiring is crucial to this alternative reality of ours.

Let's say that following the dual hires of Hird and Thompson, the pair still had qualms about their side's spate of soft tissue injuries, as well as their perceived inability to run out games, but instead of looking for a quick fix, an alternative route was taken.

Sure, this may mean that ‘The Weapon' was still brought on board, but for the point of this exercise, let's believe that instead of dialling Dank, the pair put a pin in Robinson's spitball.

If this replacement route was walked instead of the moves made in reality, where would the Bombers be now? Would Hird be in the 13th season of his tenure at Tullamarine? Would the club's contemporarily dismal record in finals still remain?

Prior to the club self-reporting to the AFL about the goings-on inside their four walls in February of 2013, the partnership of Hird and Thompson had combined for 22 wins, and prior to the roof falling in on August 2, 2013, a further 13 were added from another 17 starts.

The Bombers were truly flying, as evidenced by their occupation of the ladder's fourth rung before the league hit them with simultaneous jabs, uppercuts and a knockout hook.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 11: James Hird and his wife Tania Hird leave the Federal Court after the first day of the case looking into the AFL-ASADA Investigation into the alleged use of banned substances at the Essendon Bombers Football Club on August 11, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

 

The Bombers were fined $2 million over three seasons, their invitation to participate in the 2013 finals series was revoked, Hird and Danny Corcoran were suspended for 12 months and 34 players were suspended for two seasons for participating in the program, a portion of which was backdated

The club was also prohibited from using their first and second-round picks in both the 2013 and 2014 national drafts.

Had the Bombers maintained their form before these sanctions, a final position of anywhere between fourth and eighth in 2013 seems more than a distinct possibility. For the purposes of this project, we have granted them a conservative sixth-place finish for this particular season.

With this in mind, the Dons could have realistically had access to players such as Dom SheedPatrick CrippsMatt CrouchJarman ImpeyAliir AliirBen BrownToby NankervisJames Sicily and Darcy Byrne-Jones.

Still, Essendon did manage to snare Zach Merrett and Orazio Fantasia following their delayed entry to the pool.

Had the Bombers again repeated their home and away season finish of sixth in 2014, then names like Isaac HeeneyJack SteeleJake LeverLachie WellerTouk MillerBrayden MaynardCaleb DanielHarris AndrewsDougal Howard and Ed Langdon could all have feasibly landed at Bomberland.

Despite the constricting sanctions, Essendon's list manager, Adrian Dodoro, was able to move pieces around and select Kyle Langford and Jayden Laverde instead.

In addition to this, if the club had not been sanctioned for their illegal immunisation practices, names like Paddy Ryder, Stewart Crameri and even Angus Monfries could also have finished their careers inside a red sash.

In a move that incensed those who back the Bombers, the sorry saga also saw Jobe Watson lose his Brownlow medallion. But had the club not fallen to the foot of the table following a season in which top-up players were required just to stay on the park, then fan favourites such as Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti and Andrew McGrath would have almost certainly never become Bombers.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 05: Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti of the Bombers celebrates a goal during the 2017 AFL round 20 match between the Essendon Bombers and the Carlton Blues at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on August 05, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

 

The ensuing decline of Hird's mental health would have also been spared, but with respect to a fellow human being's privacy, we'll leave this train of thought here.

With Hird's coaching record standing at 41 wins, 43 losses and a draw before he was marched out the door, the numbers point to the fact that the club legend could coach.

Had the Canberran been afforded the opportunity to stay in his post, and had access to some of the aforementioned draftees, then there is no telling how long the Bombers' golden-haired boy could have remained in the role.

Even though the nuts and bolts of this game-altering series of moments are plain to see, how one wishes to alternatively assemble them is up to the individual.

Some Essendon fans believe that their side was cheated out of a 17th flag, and this may well be true. Others, often those who pray at a different altar, believe that other sides of yesteryear would have continued to reign supreme in Septembers past.

Like the episode on the whole, we will probably never get to the bottom of exactly what happened and, in turn, what could have happened. But one thing seems likely: Had Stephen Dank's digits never been dialled by anyone at Essendon, then the club's current drought of September success would have been broken by now.