McPhee was the villain just minutes before as his set shot on goal went out on the full, but that was quickly forgotten when he snatched the 1.8.13 (70) to 1.8.12 (69) win.
The Bombers looked to be in trouble after the Dogs reeled in a three-goal deficit late in the final term, but a Matthew Lloyd poster with less than two minutes to play set McPhee’s score up just as the match looked headed for extra time.
However, it was always going to be about more than the result with the contest the centrepiece for the competition’s support of the victims of this week’s devastation in regional Victoria.
A pre-match address from Victorian Premier John Brumby, a minute’s silence and the national anthem added to the emotion of the evening.
And the tragedies were undoubtedly in the minds of the players who provided a very entertaining clash for a crowd of 35,123 patrons littered with the colours of the competition’s other 14 clubs.
Andrew Lovett and Courtenay Dempsey were in fine touch for the Bombers with 22 touches each while Jay Nash (26) and Jobe Watson (26) were also prominent.
For the Dogs, captain Brad Johnson booted four goals while Daniel Giansiracusa (27 touches) and Daniel Cross (24) played steadying roles.
The evergreen Johnson opened the scoring three minutes into the game, but the Bombers’ early pace netted two first-quarter goals. A courageous smother by Lloyd allowed Bachar Houli to get on the score sheet before Leroy Jetta nudged the ball home from point-blank range.
Young Dogs forward Jarrad Grant didn’t take long to catch the eye with his chase and tackle of Dempsey earning him a super goal after a 50m penalty took him inside the arc.
Nathan Lovett-Murray earned a free after he was infringed by a Dogs trainer late in the term, but his side trailed by two points at the first break.
Johnson added to his tally inside the first minute of the second term, but the Dons made their move with goals to exciting trio Jay Neagle, Scott Gumbleton and Jetta generating a 10-point lead.
The Dogs re-asserted themselves late in the term, but six shots on goal yielded just one major to Callan Ward and there was nothing between the two teams at the main break.
Neagle continued to impress after the restart, booting his second goal one minute in, but it was Essendon’s turn to be wasteful in front of goal with three straight behinds failing to punish the Dogs.
Brennan Stack halted the onslaught and his searing long-range goal was followed up by Wayde Skipper’s first to restore their lead. The Dogs spurned a couple of golden chances to extend that advantage and Jarrod Atkinson made them pay when he converted a nine-point opportunity after being taken late by Paul O’Shea.
Former Crow Hayden Skipworth’s promising night continued when he converted on the three-quarter-time siren to see the Bombers 11 points ahead.
He banged through his second to kick off the final term, but just as it looked like the Bombers might run away with it, the Dogs came roaring back.
It was their old hands who led the charge with Johnson adding two more from free kicks and Eagleton roving a Will Minson ruck knock to even the scores before McPhee had the last say.
Essendon will play the winner of Saturday night’s clash between the Brisbane Lions and St Kilda in two weeks’ time.
Essendon 0.2.3 0.5.4 1.7.8 1.8.13 (70)
Western Bulldogs 1.1.2 1.3.7 1.5.9 1.8.12 (69)
Essendon: Nine-point goals: Atkinson Goals: Jetta 2, Neagle 2, Skipworth 2, Houli, Gumbleton
Western Bulldogs: Nine-point goals: Grant Goals: Johnson 4, Ward, Stack, Skipper, Eagleton
Essendon: Watson, Lovett, Dempsey, Skipworth, Hille, Houli, Neagle, Nash
Western Bulldogs: Johnson, Cross, Boyd, Higgins, Hudson, Gilbee, Harbrow, Morris
25th February 2009