This is becoming a joke now. Someone is having a lend. The fix is in, surely. Collingwood wasn’t supposed to be this good. They were supposed to be eating humble pie. They were supposed to be resetting. They started the season as a curiosity. They’re now a legitimate premiership contender. In so many ways, they don’t make sense. Their stats don’t make sense. Their percentage doesn’t make sense. All you can do is suspend your disbelief, and simply enjoy them.
It was all so different last year. At times, watching them play was like undergoing root canal work. Their president of more than two decades finally stepped down. His replacement lasted six months. The coach, a champion of the game, was let go. They’d completely botched the trade period. The head of football, list manager, several assistants, and a number of board members were all gone. Their most important player was arrested in his dressing gown. The club was in disarray, and facing its biggest fear – irrelevance.
But with apologies to Rudyard Kipling (and Ross Lyon), it’s never as good and never as bad as you think. In Craig McRae, they had a cool head, a fresh start, and some clean air. McRae has always seen himself as a career coach. He’s played and coached at Brisbane, Richmond, Hawthorn, even at Melbourne Storm – all successful clubs. There’s a lot of Leigh Matthews in him. He’s process driven, even tempered, and not a man to get caught up in the noise. One of his players said on Friday that the atmosphere around Collingwood is like a country footy team. A weight has lifted.
An hour before the Western Bulldogs game in May, fans were greeted with a three-word notification: ‘Late out – Pendlebury’. They were unmoored that night, and the Dogs were in a mood. But the Pies haven’t lost since. On Friday night, they faced their biggest test: Melbourne, the reigning premiers. The Demons’ Ed Langdon – mixing his metaphors and pushing his luck, suggested the Magpies were all duck, no dinner, and a “one trick pony”. But they won again. Walking away from the MCG, the prevailing question was once again was: How on earth does this side keep winning?
For many, it comes down to effort. A common trope in football analysis is that the losing team didn’t bring the required effort. You could buy a parrot, organise accreditation, train it to chirp ‘where was the effort? what do they stand for? and what’s in their DNA?’ and the bird would be bigger than Howard Cosell by the next trade period. Granted, there is something maniacal about this Collingwood side. Three of Jamie Elliott’s four goals came from chase-down tackles. Their fierce pressure was personified when Braydon Maynard nearly disembowelled Alex Neal-Bullen in the final term.
But there’s also some very smart footballers in there, some masters of managing time and space. The way the Magpies changed lanes and angles negated the influence of Steven May and Jake Lever. And for a team that’s built on rolling the dice and attacking through the corridor, they also know when to slow down, bottle up and neutralise. On Friday, for five excruciating minutes, up against one of the best ruck and on-ball combinations in football, the ball barely left a 30-metre radius.
Collingwood are also completely unfazed when things don’t go their way. They’ve done a lot of work with the club psychologists on embracing the chaos of the game. It’s exactly what Richmond were doing in 2017, when McRae and Justin Leppitsch were both prominent. Embracing vulnerability, as opposed to ‘power stances’ and being berated by your teammates, would appear to bring out the best in young athletes.
The career of Mason Cox is a textbook study in embracing imperfection. He has brought so much to Collingwood, and to the competition. Sometimes, when he’s flopping and floundering about, he can resemble a freestyler in a bathtub. But when he’s in his flow state, he’s more than a novelty, more than a ‘great story’. He can sink your season. For coaches, for ruckmen, and for defenders, Cox is incredibly hard to counter because he doesn’t play like anyone else. He drifts and ambles about, stoops over, reaches up, dinks it sideways. He grows into games. You can sense the helplessness and bewilderment in his opponents – ‘I’m being towelled by a Texan engineering student in swimming googles!’
The events of the past week didn’t exactly paint football in its best light. It wasn’t a good week for the governing body, and for the association that’s supposed to look after its players. But the return of Ben Cunnington, the farewell to Josh Kennedy and the extraordinary Collingwood win were reminders of the sport at its best. “This group’s got some belief, doesn’t it?”, McRae said on Friday night. Over on Fox Footy, Nathan Buckley insisted that we’ve underestimated Collingwood all along, and that this win was five years in the making. His former assistant Brenton Sanderson said there was a “beautiful mystique” to them.
In the stands, the Collingwood army was loud. In previous years – when crowds were allowed – there was a sullen din at Collingwood games. They really weren’t much fun to watch. Friday felt like a Preliminary Final crowd. They sang that song with gusto. They sang it like they couldn’t quite believe their luck. This song, every one of them would have told you on Friday night, will never end.