I have a bit of a theory about this Collingwood team and the way they’ve evolved to become a power in the current AFL landscape.
Looking at the team from top to bottom, it’s difficult to find a weakness. The midfield is stacked with talent. Pendlebury, Sidebottom, Treloar, Beams, Adams… most teams would kill to have two of those names running through the middle. Collingwood have this embarrassment of riches that has seen their dual best and fairest winner willingly accept a completely different role, moving to a largely outside role despite being a great driver in heavy traffic.
The backline is a finely tuned machine, with the addition of a healthy Darcy Moore elevating their play to a rebounding level that is the envy of many other teams. Jeremy Howe floats around, a forward-cum-defender that is one of Nathan Buckley’s greatest success stories, and his aerial prowess is complemented by the hard run and play-reading ability of Jack Crisp and Brayden Maynard.
While the Pies have lost key defenders in Lynden Dunn and Matt Scharenberg, the team’s ability to replaced one working part with another to keep the machine running perfectly, has been a marvel.
You move to the forward line and see the wrecking ball known as Jordan de Goey coming out of the square, with smalls, like Josh Thomas, Jaidyn Stephenson and the returning Jamie Elliott at his feet. But wait, there’s more! Mason Cox, Brody Mihocek and Ben Reid add marking options on the off chance de Goey can’t get away from his opponent. They’re a team working in perfect harmony, currently.
And when you add in the fact they have the best ruckman in the competition, and the number one ranked player in our most recent player power rankings, Brodie Grundy, to the mix, you have a mixture that would be giving opposition coaches nightmares. How do you capitalise on a team that seemingly has no weaknesses?
Despite some evidence in press conferences to the contrary, AFL coaches are not a stupid bunch. They will be pawing over video of the Collingwood gameplan, picking holes in it. Someone will crack the code – someone always does, but cracking a gameplan is one thing. Breaking a team is another, and there is an important factor that has emerged in the last 12 months around Collingwood.
“Side by Side” is more than a line in a theme song. It’s more than a slogan. It has become the driver of a club that has experienced turmoil in the coaching ranks, which may have seen a group splintered at one time come together under the leadership of their former club champion.
Ownership of a role is something Nathan Buckley had to fight for. I’m not sure how many of you have been in a workplace where a popular and successful supervisor has been replaced or moved on to a different role despite their wishes to remain. It can leave a team flat and disenfranchised. It breaks the spirit of a group, and it takes a lot of time to rebuild a sense of camaraderie and to get everyone to buy in, particularly when the new supervisor has some ideas that are quite different.
Even more so when the ways of the previous supervisor had the team performing at a high level.
And that’s where Nathan Buckley found himself when taking over from Mick Malthouse; a man who was as much a father figure to “his boys” as he was a coach. He was a hard man when he had to be, but there was no question as to the strength of his relationship with his players. The feelings ran deep, and the cut made by Collingwood that severed his connection to the group as their coach, mentor and father figure was one that would take time to heal.
And it took a long while.
Nathan Buckley oversaw what was largely a steady decline in the on-field performance of the Collingwood Football Club over the next several years. After taking over a team that finished top of the ladder in 2011, and were beaten by Geelong in the Grand Final, Buckley saw the team finish in the eight for the next two seasons before of the finals race in 2014 and not returning until last year’s amazing Collingwood renaissance.
But as much as the Magpie revival was about personnel, it was about personality. It was about the personalities at the club turning over and a new breed coming in without ties to the former mentor/coach/father figure.
Looking at the current list of Magpies, only Scott Pendlebury, Dayne Beams, Steele Sidebottom, Ben Reid and Josh Thomas remain from the group Malthouse called “his boys”. That shift away from one culture to the current one is the factor that allowed Buckley to drive this team back toward the top of the ladder.
Despite people telling you that football is a business these days, there are not many things in life that evoke the passion that footy does. For every part of it that is a business, there are equal parts of it that are emotive. One only has to watch Eddie McGuire in the stands at any Collingwood game. Is it a business to him right then and there? Is it a business to his sons as they jump around and celebrate pivotal moments in a tight contest? It’s passionate, it’s tribal, and it means something.
And the departure of Mick Malthouse from Collingwood meant plenty. He had the hearts and minds of the 2011 group, and even though in the business of football, players would move on and adapt, things can take time, and memories take a while to fade. As does a loyalty that was earned.
It took Nathan Buckley six seasons to truly make the Collingwood list his own. He has created a team of exceptionally gifted young men who can play football – yes, but he has also created a culture at the club that means this team plays for him, and plays for each other. The ghosts of coaches past are now where they belong – the in the past.
Watching Collingwood play Port Adelaide this weekend, there was a distinct feeling that they were making a statement. There was not one player who did not contribute. There was not one player who over-reached and tried to do too much. The Magpies gelled, and ran, and bumped and combined to produce a masterpiece of first quarter football that shook the Power to its core.
Port Adelaide were rated highly by some. Many speculated that they’d found their niche in the AFL landscape, and were playing the kind of football that would shape them as a contender, but against a Magpie team on a mission, they were helpless.
Ken Hinkley’s group was splintered, they were scattered, and they were left wondering what had hit them as they gathered at quarter time to receive an almighty spray from their coach.
It was Collingwood. Collingwood hit them. A united, cohesive unit, hell-bent on their destruction hit them with everything they had, and sent a warning to the competition in the process.; when the Pies are on, you had better be at your best.
Or you’ll be run over, just like Port Adelaide were.
The football landscape changed dramatically in 2018 for the Collingwood Football Club. They were a kick away from glory in the Grand Final, and they have taken the lingering sting of that loss and used it as inspiration and they ramp up their 2019 campaign.
This is a team no longer possessing divided loyalties. Nor is it a team with players who remember the way things were, wishing it were like that once more. This is a team that has come together under the leadership of Nathan Buckley, and they’re proving that they will be a team that should be right there when the good weather rolls around in September.
They’re now Buckley’s team. They’re “his boys”. And the football world has been put on notice.
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