When Nathan Buckley took over as coach of Collingwood for 2012, they were coming off a 20-win home-and-away season, and an appearance in a grand final they were leading at halftime. It was like moving out of home for the first time, straight into a Toorak mansion (name on the mortgage: Edward McGuire).
In the ensuing years, the Magpies have produced ever-diminishing returns – 16 wins and a preliminary final loss, 14 wins and bundled out of a home elimination final they were favoured to win against an interstate opponent, 11 wins, ten wins, and nine wins. Hmm.
Five players remain at Collingwood from the 2011 grand final side, while four others are plying their trade elsewhere. Change is swift and brutal in the AFL industry. If you stand still, you go backwards.
Unfortunately for Buckley, he made changes, and still went down. He’s been playing snakes, not ladders.
Can Buckley coach? It’s one of the biggest questions in the game.
Some will say he can’t, because he doesn’t empathise with players that don’t bleed football, and struggles to get his team playing with an identifiable style. Others have more faith, and claim he hasn’t been able to get an injury-free crack through an entire season.
Either way, time is running out.
Collingwood Magpies’ best 22
|B||Tom Langdon||Lynden Dunn||Brayden Maynard|
|HB||Taylor Adams||Ben Reid||Jeremy Howe|
|C||Daniel Wells||Adam Treloar||Steele Sidebottom|
|HF||Jordan De Goey||Darcy Moore||Chris Mayne|
|F||Alex Fasolo||Jesse White||Jamie Elliott|
|Foll||Brodie Grundy||Scott Pendlebury||Jack Crisp|
|Int||Josh Smith||Levi Greenwood||Travis Varcoe||Matthew Scharenberg|
Emergencies: James Aish, Jackson Ramsay, Lachie Keefe
The first thing that stands out at Collingwood is the lack of depth in their talls. Brodie Grundy is the lone ruckman on the senior list, and none of the key position players are what you’d call powerful.
With Travis Cloke and Jarrod Witts unceremoniously discarded, Darcy Moore will shoulder the forward burden at the tender age of 21. We know he’s a talent, but there is much refinement of his raw materials still to be done.
Jesse White is a decent player but one of the most maligned in the industry. Chris Mayne will provide third tall forward support, but things are grim when he’s being triumphed as a recruit. Mason Cox was a story last year, but the Pies would like to be good enough to deny him a game. If he can improve enough to command a regular spot, then that’s also a win.
Ben Reid is a quality reader of the play and distributor but prefers to be third man-up than stand the big guns. We must also take into account his injury history. Carlton is more chance of winning the flag than he is of playing 22 games.
Lynden Dunn was overtaken at Melbourne last year, but he does have attributes, albeit as an undersized full-back. Lachlan Keefe hasn’t played in two years and will be relied upon as a bits-and-pieces tall.
It’s not a collection to be feared. What it means is Buckley’s running game had better be razor sharp. Thankfully, for his sake, he has the personnel to deliver on that.
Scott Pendlebury is the midfield maestro, and would command a spot in the AFL team of the century if we were putting one together. We know everything about him by now – the effortless glide across the turf, the stopping of time once he takes possession, the gentle caress of foot or hand on leather. If I was a Simpsons fan, or my name was Ryan Buckland, I’d insert a gif of Homer drooling right here.
Adam Treloar took his game to all new heights last year. His stats were up 10-20 per cent across the board, and his impact on matches was greater still. He came at a hefty price to the Pies, but looks well on track to pay it back.
Steele Sidebottom and Daniel Wells will fight for third banana, and any situation that has either of these as your fourth best midfielder is a good one to be in. Wells has to stay fit, obviously, and the length of his contract was zany, but these two running the wings will hurt teams.
Jack Crisp is the grunt support, Josh Smith will run free on the outside if he can keep his spot, Jordan De Goey will be pushing for more midfield responsibility from his half-forward position, and Taylor Adams will always find the ball running through there as well.
Grundy also has an impact once the ball hits the ground, both in the contest, but also pushing forward, running back, or linking through the middle.
In summary, the Pies have great flexibility and depth through their mids, and no shortage of quality either. The surplus of players means they should be strong through the flanks too.
The forward-line will look equal parts dangerous or non-threatening, depending on how the dynamic works across the season. The two keys to this are Alex Fasolo and Jamie Elliott.
Fasolo isn’t what you’d call a two-way player. In fact, his eyes never leave the goals, regardless of where he is on the ground or who has possession. Watch him at quarter- and three-quarter-time. His back will be to the huddle, staring at the goals, imagining himself putting one through from 55 on the boundary. He can do it too.
This is not a negative either, as playmakers who can win you games need to be nurtured and encouraged. Fasolo is one of those. Elliott is another. After missing all of last year with back troubles, he will be hungry to have an impact.
As capable on the ground as he is in the air or on the lead, it is arguable that only Eddie Betts is ahead of Elliott as a multi-tooled small forward, if his body allows him to get a proper crack at it.
Chris Mayne will go down as one of the worst four-year signings in the history of football, if not in the history of sport. Will Hoskin-Elliott could bear more fruit than Mayne if he can stay fit, and would add to the unpredictability of the forward-line.
Down back, supporting Reid and Dunn will be Jeremy Howe, who is coming off his most consistent season. Tom Langdon, if fit, and Brayden Maynard will likely have first crack in the pockets. Both are cool heads and capable of being 200 game players.
Jackson Ramsay will be trying to force his way into those positions, and looks like he could be a player. James Aish played some better football in the second half of last year, and can have an impact. Collingwood does have some depth in these areas, which they’ll need to trade out to find some talls.
The problem with the Pies is they do have a host of injury-prone players, four of whom (Wells, Reid, Fasolo and Elliott) offer things that are not easily replaced. Matthew Scharenberg, Tim Broomhead and Hoskin-Elliott are three others of whom much is expected, and have shown they can belong at the level if their bodies hold up.
Collingwood have put together an eclectic mix of players, weak in some areas, strong in others, and with physical vulnerability everywhere you look. There are 30 players that could well consider themselves best 22, and putting together their best side is not an easy one, for good reasons.
If it all comes together, then top four is not beyond the realms of possibility. A team from outside the eight the previous season usually jumps in there. But if Buckley can’t get his players on the park, or they can’t deliver on what he wants, then we could witness his sixth consecutive season of depreciation.
Your guess is as good as mine.
Predicted ladder spread: seventh-12th
Predicted finish: 11th
Best and fairest: Scott Pendlebury
Leading goalkicker: Jamie Elliott
All-Australian potential: Jamie Elliott, Brodie Grundy, Scott Pendlebury, Steele Sidebottom, Adam Treloar
Rising Star candidates: Callum Brown, Josh Daicos