This is the text I received from my father two minutes after the final siren in Sydney on 17 September 2022.
Having driven three hours straight from my home in Canberra to an underground carpark in Surry Hills, and then walked to the SCG to sit on the boundary with strangers that would become mates over the next two hours, I witnessed a classic that night I’ll never forget. The rest is history. We lost.
It wasn’t a traditional heartbreaker. After the game, I said it felt less like being robbed and more like Collingwood were the ones pulling an audacious heist, but they’d accidentally set off an alarm two feet from the last door. Still, it did hurt.
Driving home alone thinking about a team I have loved since before I could even spell my own name was hard after that. It was especially hard when the 2022 season inspired such genuine admiration and respect for everyone at the club from so many, me included.
I was sad we weren’t playing in what could have been an eternally famous Grand Final. The details of that were sinking in, but I tried not to focus on them. I only let the thought that, had we done it, the Herald Sun spread would have been a Jack Ginnivan-shaped magpie shushing a crowd enter my mind one time.
I was sad that those incredible young men I had spent so much time within 2022 hadn’t got that chance to prove themselves on the biggest stage of all. I was sad because again and again, they had worked so hard (right in front of me!) fuelled by seemingly supernatural belief. I was sad because I thought it was fair they be rewarded with a miracle – it would have been so their miracle.
But you know what hurt the most?
I love watching Collingwood play football, and I wasn’t going to get to do it again for months.
It was the realisation that I would have to wait until March to hear leather hit black and white-suited boots made my heart sink.
In that moment, I would’ve given anything to go back round again.
Ever merciful, footy provides a next year. Can you believe we get to do this for the rest of our lives?
Adjusting to life after Grundy
Having been essentially forced by circumstances to move on from a generationally brilliant ruck-midfielder who signed for seven years because he ‘wanted to be a pie for life’, Collingwood’s midfield has a vacuum to fill.
Now you might say ‘mate, they played just about the whole season without Grundy, what’s the big deal?’.
Well to get technical, being shit at the centre clearance without him is the big deal. According to the coach, in rounds 1-5 Collingwood was top three in the competition at centre clearance. By Round 18, we were dead last.
The team’s ability in transition – to go coast-to-coast after losing a centre clearance – was what set it apart in 2022. It won some magnificent games like that too, but ultimately, quarters like the first quarter against Sydney, and the second and third quarters against both Essendon and Carlton, are probably not sustainable.
Repeatedly in 2022, I watched periods of half an hour or more where Collingwood’s midfield lost clearance after clearance, first in the centre, and then elsewhere. A lot of the time we did get the ball into our 50 the hard way, but nobody can deny that without Grundy, we need better weaponry in the middle of the park.
Thankfully there is a plan in place. I call it the ‘Pacific Rim Grundy’ approach.
Grundy provided skills to the midfield in one, unbroken whole. Hit outs, clearances, marks, ball movement, contested possessions, gut running. He is basically the whole package.
Without him, the coaching team must assemble a group of pilots like those in the film Pacific Rim, who, by combining their brains, operate a giant monster-fighting – in this case footballing – Jaeger.
Imagine with me such a footballing Jaeger, with body parts controlled by their own pair of pilots.
Tom Mitchell and Taylor Adams are the pilots of the left arm, equipped with the hard-earned inside-to-outside handball that Grundy so often ended up performing himself, once upon a time negating the need for a second specialised inside midfielder.
Mason Cox and Darcy Cameron take up residence in the machine’s shoulders, providing their ability to stretch its arms the sky and take those earth-shattering roaming ruckman grabs we all love to see. They also actually ruck, for what that’s worth.
Scott Pendlebury and Nick Daicos, The Distributors, pilot the right arm. I imagine their banter is as heart-warming as it is cheesy and predictable. ‘Was that one good enough, old man?’ Nick quips, the machine nailing a crossed ball to win a brutal away day in the far north (the Collingwood fans know the game I mean). Scott responds plainly ‘so do it again’, but once the apprentice is looking away, we see a smile sneak onto the veteran’s face.
Jack Crisp and Jordan De Goey are stationed in the legs – exploding through traffic when defenders make the error of standing off them, and crashing through tackles when they decide to step in. What it must be like to do an interval sprint drill alongside Jack Crisp, I wish I could know.
The head, of course, is McRae – his colossal brain injecting commands to the system at chosen intervals, but otherwise allowing his pilots to revel in their connection and power.
Combined in this way, watching this midfield step up to the plate it will deliver what a single Grundy did, and more, is going to be a treat. Done right, it can achieve this with more flexibility and without the liabilities – like injury and salary – that bred, rather than artificial Grundies bring with them. All that said, this is one of Collingwood’s really important ifs.
2010’s legends preparing a succession plan
Collingwood’s success in 2022 relied heavily on the creative freedom and composure under pressure of its senior leaders, especially those trusty heroes of 2010, Steele Sidebottom and Scott Pendlebury.
Week after week I watched Steele Sidebottom make his wing of the MCG look like it was the size of the rest of the ground combined. Steele is 32 and in great nick, so if he lasts the way Pendlebury has, we may have a few years left of him, but we do need a succession plan for them both.
While Josh Daicos has the other side locked down, the Pies can’t rely on Rusty to have that wing forever and the other options that appeared for patches last year (usually to give Sidebottom or Daicos a rest at half-back or half-forward) ranged from clearly not up to it – Callum Brown and Caleb Poulter – to very promising, but still undercooked – Trent Bianco and Josh Carmichael.
As for Pendles, the club loves to lean into the ‘master and apprentice’ angle with Daicos the younger, and there is midfield time in a Pendlebury-like role in his future. Still, it must be a long time before he will be able to provide the iron-clad reliability of the 2010 Norm Smith medallist.
Beyond the Pendlebury horizon, Nick Daicos, Jack Crisp, and others will have to combine to fill the void. 2023 is the year they must prepare for that, and I cannot wait to watch them do it.
The group option – as it does with the Pacific Rim Grundy plan – has the benefit of spreading the load, but at the price of Collingwood receiving something like two-thirds of a Pendlebury any time someone is having an off day.
There’s clearly a plan here too, and not just on the park. For the first time in more than a decade, the Collingwood captaincy is changing.
The new captain
Pendlebury hanging around as a shadow captain will have advantages, especially as an advisor and confidante of the next captain. But, no matter how great a club’s culture seems to be, there is always risk involved in naming a new captain.
McRae’s approach makes this especially precarious. As a pioneering mind of the mental aspects of footy, he will need the new captain to much more than just ‘lead on the field’ and ‘get the boys going’.
For his style to work best, he needs coaches on the field – and not just footy coaches either. He needs mentality coaches, priests of the McRae spirituality, that can preach his mantras and draw their teammates into the trance-like state we saw in Collingwood’s best moments last year.
All the club’s leaders contributed to this, and they still will, but there is no doubting that Pendlebury had a special role to play – we only need to watch his reactions to the siren in Carlton game and his role in the Elliott goal to see that much.
Having such a leader in the middle of the ground was instrumental to Collingwood’s run and executing the ramp-down of his career, and Sidebottom’s beyond that, will be an important story for the Pies – if one or both are out for a long time, filling that gap will be even more important. Either way, they must get it right both on and off the field.
The class of ’22 and battling second puberty blues
What is ‘second puberty’, you ask?
Everyone knows that both men and women go through a first puberty, the big traditional one, as a young teenager or child. But anyone who works with young men, or has been one recently enough, also knows this isn’t the end of their process of maturing. Both physically and mentally, men go through another period of internal revolution right around the age of 20.
Their social circles, once built entirely on family friends and school groups, are transforming into ‘adult’ ‘relationships’ that require much more active maintenance. Their bodies are filling out, their growth plates are closing, and as they exert new-found extra high forces, they become capable of risks they couldn’t take before, and have to learn which ones are worth the punt. Their injuries start to stick around longer and hurt more.
They are also adjusting to life in an all-gas-no-brakes modern workforce, or in a university, where their success will be built on improvisation and personal initiative, rather than preparation and intense supervision from the ‘grownups’ in their life.
Footballers are no different, and while often really enjoyable, this period of turmoil in a young man’s life is not conducive to calm and seamless connection with others. Basically, being 20 to 21 is just actually more distracting than being 18 or 19, living in the afterglow of school is different to really taking on the world, and really high performance requires intense focus.
Collingwood’s young players did an amazing job of staying calm in the chaos last year. They have been part of some of Collingwood’s coldest moments. Nick Daicos looked all but indistinguishable from your average 150-gamer. Even apart from his intense tackling pressure, Beau McCreery scored a goal in the third against Carlton that looked exactly like a miss of his from the second – undistracted, he did the job.
Ash Johnson kicked the exact same frankly disgusting boundary banana in two massive games. Trent Bianco delivered the perfect ball to Jamie Elliott’s chest with seconds on the clock against Essendon.
Need I even say the next name? A young man who under immense scrutiny, repeatedly iced big goals, on both feet, in virtually every game he played. The one who laid the shepherd of the year to go ahead against Carlton. The one with the planetary nads required to wear frosted tips while doing it all.
These are the incredible young men I alluded to at the start of this article, but they face a test next year that awaits all promising early-year players – second puberty blues.
Being undistracted and focusing on footy is just harder at 20 than it is at 19, which is why so many draftees have a good start, and then a couple of slower years as they learn to balance their footy with the new distractions that come with this phase of life.
If these young players’ coldness under pressure had vanished halfway through last year, there’s a world in which we don’t even make finals. They are actually that important. They must be able to do it again if Collingwood is to compete for what should always be its only goal – a premiership cup.
They are set up as well as anyone to succeed, under the tutelage of their sage leaders, both on the bench and the mates on the ground with them – all of whom have been through the same before. Watching these lads battle to avoid that fate is going to make my year.
The Maxwell mentality
On that difficult drive back to Canberra, I tried hard to remember my favourite ever quote from a Collingwood person.
Interviewed on Open Mike about the drawn Grand Final, Nick Maxwell tells the story of his day. Taken for an ASADA drug test after the game, but unable to urinate from dehydration, Maxwell doesn’t make it out of the test room until the stadium is completely empty. He walks out into the ground and looks at the empty stands, wondering what the hell just happened.
He showers, gets down to his car, and drives back the club HQ, then the Lexus Centre. Wrecked, he walks past the treadmills in the club gym.
Running on the treadmills are Tarkyn Lockyer, Tyson Goldsack, and Nathan Brown, grinning ear to ear and laughing. They were the emergencies for the game. They’ve just realised they have a chance at a premiership medal they thought they might never see again.
Maxwell says this was the moment that inspired him to realise, and to preach to the team, that the draw ‘was an opportunity gained. Not an opportunity lost.’ We all know what happened the next week.
This is the way Collingwood plays footy. I love that I trust this team to bring that mentality to every disappointment they come across.
At the start of last year, most fans would have taken a valiant 12th and a couple of wins against old rivals.
Instead, I get to watch Collingwood fly into 2023 with a gameplan formed meticulously by a brilliant new coach, a top-class spine, a list in decent order, and a crop of in-form, connected, finals-experienced young players who repeatedly tell us that they are having the time of their lives.