2017 is shaping as a make-or-break year for Nathan Buckley and the Collingwood Magpies, after a controversial five-year tenure so far for the club’s favourite son.
Much has been said about Collingwood’s position in the competition, the list decisions they’ve made since Buckley took over, and whether or not they should continue down their current path.
However, the bigger question to ask is what path that really is.
Not too long ago, the Pies were investing in youth – now they’re investing in Chris Mayne, Daniel Wells and Lynden Dunn.
Everyone loves seeing their club bring in a few off-season recruits, because it gives hope for the year ahead – but it also builds expectation.
Collingwood have been active in recent trade periods, making plenty of noise, and they are a club that makes more noise than most when they move, a result of their size and stridency.
They have 12 players from other clubs on their list, the equal-third most, behind Carlton (16) and St Kilda (13).
Under Buckley, these are the players Collingwood have recruited through trade or free agency: Quinten Lynch, Clinton Young, Jordan Russell, Jesse White, Taylor Adams, Patrick Karnezis, Travis Varcoe, Levi Greenwood, Jeremy Howe, Adam Treloar, James Aish, Daniel Wells, Chris Mayne, Will Hoskin-Elliott, Lynden Dunn.
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Who on that list could, beyond doubt, be called a hit? Adams and Treloar certainly, but that’s all. Varcoe, Howe and Aish have all shown enough to still potentially be good decisions – and the last four are unknowns.
When you make that much of a splash at the trade table, but have such limited success in actually fitting those players into the team in a valuable way, it is only natural that public expectations will balloon way out beyond what is reasonable.
That is what has happened at Collingwood – last year and this year again they have pressure from pundits to play finals, when really there is no good reason to expect that.
In words that will be repeated ad nauseam throughout the season, Buckley himself has said that he doesn’t expect to keep his job if he misses finals again in 2017. He is out of contract.
That really doesn’t seem like a logical expectation for Collingwood. They are still only the 11th oldest team in the league.
They have a forward line where no one has ever kicked 40 goals or more in a season, being built around a 21-year-old.
In the backline, they are reliant on the elite but not-at-all-durable Ben Reid and the rebounding ability of Jeremy Howe. It could be worse, but it could be much, much better.
The top argument most cite when tipping Collingwood for a finals berth is their star-studded midfield – the No.1 midfield in the comp, many say, including Champion Data.
However, is that midfield really all it’s cracked up to be? You can rattle off a list of players whose names make the papers a lot, but that doesn’t make it elite.
Scott Pendlebury is a top ten player in the competition, no doubt, and Adam Treloar is either an A-grader or very much on the cusp of being one.
At the centre of it is Brodie Grundy in the ruck. He had an excellent finish to the year and will only get better as he matures, Dean Cox-like.
But beyond that… Steele Sidebottom? A good bloke to have as your third-best midfielder, no doubt, and the AFL’s No.1 memorable name, but not a regular All-Australian candidate.
Taylor Adams, Levi Greenwood and Jack Crisp all provide admirable grunt, but there’s a serious lack of creative ability among them.
Daniel Wells has plenty of that, but has already been ruled out for Round 1 and possibly longer with yet another troublesome injury.
Beyond that, we’re talking guys like Jordan De Goey, James Aish, Will Hoskin-Elliott – they’ve got the qualities Collingwood needs, but they’re still on their way to being solid AFL players.
Pendlebury and Treloar might be the best two-man midfield combo in the comp bar ‘Dangerwood’, but when you look beyond that it seems laughable to compare this midfield to the elites like Sydney, the Bulldogs or Greater Western Sydney.
If you’re going to make finals while having Collingwood’s forward and back situation, that’s the level at which the midfield needs to be.
This shouldn’t be taken as a put-down for the Pies – I like the team they might be in three to five years, if they make smart decisions from here on out and develop their younger players well.
However, the virtue of patience is in short supply in the AFL, and nowhere is this truer than at the head of big, proud club like Collingwood.
It doesn’t help that Buckley has made such bold and controversial decisions in his tenure, reshaping a team that had won a premiership just a year before he took over and seemed primed for more success, into one stuck in the muck of mediocrity.
Perhaps he would’ve been better off following the example of Chris Scott, who in a similar situation made only a few minor tweaks and instead focused on revitalising his existing talent.
A regularly-changing parade of football bosses during Buckley’s tenure as senior coach has no doubt made it difficult for he and his players to build a clear and continuous picture of where they are at and what the expectations are.
In some ways it’s unfair for Buckley to have his head on the chopping block, given where the list is at. However, expectation management is part of the job, and he has no one to blame for being unsuccessful there.
I’m predicting Collingwood to fall short of finals again in 2017, though not unreasonably so. Nathan Buckley’s dismissal will likely follow. But should it? That, I’m still not sure.