From the moment Nathan Buckley took over as Collingwood coach, it was clear that he was a completely different kettle of fish to his predecessor.
Mick Malthouse was the ultimate players’ coach. He picked fights left, right and centre and banged on about Rommel and the ANZACs and mountaineering. But his players loved him. He gave them a lot of leeway. And they went above and beyond for him.
Buckley inherited a crack side that had won 20 games by an average of nearly ten goals. But everything slowly came unglued. In his first year, four key players had knee reconstructions. Former player John McCarthy died in Las Vegas. His teammates attended the funeral a day before the preliminary final.
Before long, many of the most popular and talented Collingwood players of their generation had been pensioned off. Alan Didak, Andrew Krakouer and Leon Davis were lost to football.
Dale Thomas went to Carlton, Heath Shaw to GWS and Darren Jolly to The Block. Some of their parting shots were savage. Jolly called Buckley a “coward”. Shaw, who had a series of brain fades in the 2013 elimination final, hasn’t spoken to him since.
The fall out with Herritier Lumumba was the saddest of all. “You are an insensitive fuck,” Lumumba told him. “Your problem is you are a fantastic coach and one of the greats of the game. You have fantastic football knowledge but you lack sensitivity and you lack emotional intelligence.”
Through all this, the team was going backwards. They lacked spunk and any semblance of luck. Their recycled players were mostly busts. They had the most wretched run of soft tissue and collision injuries.
The back office was in a state of flux. The President was constantly flapping his gums on radio and courting trouble. Following the Caroline Wilson controversy, he ended up fleeing oversees, saying he was “emotionally and physically flattened.”
The club lurched from one eye-rolling scandal to the next. Some of the stuff was utterly uninventable. Jeremy Howe broke his finger playing frisbee with his dog. Two players ended up on the cover of Woman’s Day following a nude selfie leak. In 2016, the Herald Sun reported that eleven players had tested positive for illicit drugs. On Fox Footy, Buckley confronted the journalist responsible and looked as though he was going to throttle him. A few minutes into that season, Dane Swan shattered his foot. He never played again.
2017 was even worse.
They were a horrible team to watch. They played a slow, tortured brand seemingly built around retaining possession. But they were a bedraggled bunch. Braydon Maynard says they were “a shambles”.
The President was at his lowest ebb. No-one was watching his revamped Footy Show. He was subsisting on a diet of cucumber slices and seaweed. They lost to Carlton on the afternoon of their 125-year anniversary celebrations. Fewer than 23,000 turned up to watch them beat West Coast.
After they lost to Essendon, while most people were still asleep, McGuire gave one of his rousing radio rev-ups. “We were the scum of Victoria in the depths of the Great Depression and we stood side-by-side.
“We don’t get spooked by headlines, we don’t get spooked by people who celebrate one day, dance on your grave the next. We know what it’s all about. This is a club that has endured for 125 years, not because we flip-flop in the wind when it gets tough.”
Eddie is prone to getting a bit carried away. When he announced the coaching succession plan, he likened it to the moon landing. But he has an excellent grasp of footy history.
He knew Buckley had never really had a proper run at it and that the players were finally in his corner. The final round win over Melbourne, who had everything to play for and gassed it, was probably the clincher. Collingwood people refer to it all the time.
It showed them exactly what they were capable of. The assumption was that the coach would get the chop. The headline in the Herald Sun read “Nathan Buckley’s Time Has Come”. But Eddie, the playing group and the club were all in with him.
Thirty minutes into the 2018 season and they were probably second guessing themselves. The Hawks were in complete control. Tom Mitchell was rampant. Mason Cox looked lost.
“Different Day – Same Magpies” was the headline in The Age. The pressure intensified when they lost to GWS the following week. Tim Broomhead barrelled into a goalpost and broke his leg. Rodney Eade, a former employee, potted them on his first foray onto Twitter. David King said Carlton was closer to a Premiership.
But they held their nerve. They travelled to Adelaide as rank underdogs and pummelled them in the wet. It was clear they’d changed the way they played.
The way they moved the ball was a far cry from the stodgy, unwatchable fare they’d dished up previously. They played manic football, took risks and kicked long – the Richmond blueprint.
And despite the usual injury calamities, their drafting and trading was finally on the money. They pulled the right rein with Jaidyn Stephenson, who was a risky draft proposition because of his heart problems. Brody Mihocek – a forklift driver last year, slotted in perfectly. Chris Mayne, who was something of a joke in 2017, was reinvented as a defensive wingman. Travis Varcoe, who looked done in his final year at Geelong, played some of the best football of his career.
By the time they met Richmond for the second time, the Tigers appeared to be purring towards back-to-back premierships. It was the perfect winter’s afternoon.
It was billed as a mini final. But the Pies’ rotten luck continued. Matt Scharenburg ruptured his ACL for the third time. Howe was knocked out. The Tigers eventually ground them down, the way they did every side.
Despite having no real scalps of note, Collingwood earned the double chance and a trip to Perth. The whole carry-on when the Eagles ran out was unprecedented. It was part laser show, part soft rock concert.
The Pies’ players said it was infinitely louder than any crowd they’d played in front of, including ANZAC Day games. There was a minute’s silence for Maggie Varcoe, who had died that week. Twenty minutes later, her brother slotted a superb running goal, just when the Eagles had all the momentum. It was a vintage final. A bit of luck here and there and the result could have been reversed.
A fortnight later, they met Richmond again. “The Tigers are gettable” was the talk all year. Within a few minutes, it was clear that Dustin Martin was nowhere near right, that the Tigers were flat and fumbly and that the Pies were on.
In years to come, it will be remembered as Mason Cox’s night. There was a touch of the absurd about his dominance. Even ten, twenty, thirty years ago, big forwards weren’t plucking grabs like that in preliminary finals.
He’s supposed to be working for Exxon Mobil in Houston. He can’t fit in a car. He sleeps diagonally on his bed. But in just under an hour, he took seven contested marks and kicked three goals.
He made some of the best defenders in Australia look like park footballers. His parents were in the stands, filming on their phones, laughing at this crazy game of ours.
As Brian Taylor roamed the Collingwood rooms, about half a dozen of his interviewees mentioned the word “connection”. It’s a word we heard a lot from Richmond last year. For years, Collingwood players carried anvils on their backs. This year, that weight has been lifted. From the President down, the whole place has been unusually united, low key and calm.
None more so than the coach. As a player, he was as intense as footballers come. He would get so wound up and demand so much of himself that he’d often burst into tears during training drills.
As a young coach, he simply couldn’t cop players who lacked his messianic drive. But he’s learnt to let go. He no longer has that permanently pinched expression.
There’s a humility and empathy that’s taken years to reveal itself. He’s focused on his players’ strengths and embraced their quirks “rather than chasing those marginal improvements”.
Buckley was a sublime footballer, one of the best to never win a premiership. As a coach, he’s been challenged, scrutinized and written off more than most. At any other club, he would have been sacked.
Say what you like about Collingwood. But they ignored all prevailing opinion, chatter and logic and backed their man in. On Saturday, he may well deliver them a premiership. It’s hard to think of anyone in the game who deserves one more.