Walking into the 2018 grand final, a surreal optimism filled me.
The year wasn’t meant to turn out this way. After Collingwood had missed the finals from 2014 to 2017, Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley was lucky to be retained for 2018. Nobody expected any sizeable improvement in 2018 – especially as Collingwood’s ever-present injuries were hitting an all-time high.
Veteran defender Tyson Goldsack did a knee. Jamie Elliott and Darcy Moore couldn’t play due to recurring soft-tissue injuries. Adam Treloar did both hamstrings simultaneously – in 40 years of football, I’ve never seen that. Fullback Lynden Dunn did an ACL. Then talented injury-plagued defender Matthew Scharenberg followed him.
But there were good news stories. Rookie Brody Mihocek made a home for himself in the forward line. American giant Mason Cox showed dangerous signs up forward. Brodie Grundy began to realise his ruck potential. And, going into the finals, Tyson Goldsack completed an improbable recovery to play as an undersized fullback, while Adam Treloar returned from his dual hamstring issues.
After the year Collingwood had endured, here was the potential fairytale climax. Here was the chance to rewrite their storied grand final history. Nathan Buckley had toiled to cultivate a new culture. Despite the injury-riddled season, the club made no excuses and espoused a one out, one in philosophy.
Here was a chance to start a new narrative.
For as long as I recall, there has always been some controversy surrounding a Collingwood grand final failure. In 2018, it was the block on Brayden Maynard. In 2011, it was the turmoil surrounding Collingwood’s coaching succession, in which incumbent coach Mick Malthouse would hand over the reins to successor Nathan Buckley at the end of the season. In 2002-03, it was Brisbane’s salary cap advantage, plus Anthony Rocca’s suspension in 2003 and Jason Cloke’s suspension in 2002.
Go back through Tommy Hafey’s tenure of 1977 to 1982. In 1981, it was an administrator lambasting Ricky Barham at three-quarter time, which allegedly demoralised the team. In 1979, it was Wayne Harmes tapping the ball back in from the boundary. In 1977, it was champion centre half forward Phil Carman’s suspension. In 1970, it was full forward Peter McKenna and captain Des Tuddenham running into one another and knocking themselves senseless.
There is always something.
And I wonder how that contributes to the Collingwood culture. Does it create a victim mentality? Are they looking – at least subconsciously – for a reason that they will fail? Does it create a safety net that undermines genuine accountability?
We would’ve won, but…
Eddie McGuire can be wrongly criticised for tackling issues with the AFL, such as the cost of living allowance and, in 2002-03, Brisbane’s salary cap advantage. But I also wonder about the adverse reactions of such public campaigning.
For example, if your platform in 2002-03 is that Brisbane’s salary cap advantage gives them an advantage over the competition, aren’t you then suggesting that your team is inferior? That it’s not a level playing field?
How does that affect the individual player’s psyche? How does that affect the team’s collective consciousness? Already, a safety net has been set up for failure: you’re not as good as the other club.
And in the case of retrospective justification aren’t you also saying you weren’t beaten by a better team, but by circumstances? If that’s the case, why improve? Now you have this bizarre juxtaposition. You don’t have to improve. Why would you? The opposition didn’t beat you. Circumstances did. But you expect circumstances to beat you, so how will you ever beat an opponent?
This is why I love the 1990 side. Champion winger Darren Millane broke his thumb towards the end of the home-and-away season. Going into the finals, he was doubtful to play. But Millane pushed himself through excruciating pain.
In every final that he played, whatever healing had occurred would be undone. The moment Millane touched the ball, the thumb would break anew. Tony Shaw talked about how, after training and after games, Millane would struggle to get his hand through the sleeve of a jacket because he was in such agony.
Millane didn’t have a particularly brilliant final series, but he set the bar for the rest of the side. No player could say (or think) they were too tired, they were too sore, they had nothing left, given what Millane was going through.
It was the singular final series in my lifetime where Collingwood had no excuses.
Collingwood was founded in 1892. Between 1901 and 1936, they appeared in 19 grand finals (1901, 1902, 1903, 1910, 1911, 1915, 1917, 1918, 1919, 1920, 1922, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1935, 1936) and won 11 of them (1902, 1903, 1910, 1917, 1919, 1927, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1935, 1936). They were the dominant club in the VFL. Success was never very far. It’s no wonder they were loathed by opposition, and loved and celebrated by their own fans.
They won 11 of their 15 flags between 1902 and 1936 (11 in 35 years). But in the 83 years since, they’ve won just four more flags (1953, 1958, 1990, 2010), despite numerous grand final appearances (1937, 1938, 1939, 1952, 1955, 1956, 1960, 1964, 1966, 1970, 1977 draw, 1977, 1979, 1980, 1981, 2002, 2003, 2010 draw, 2011, and 2018).
Since 1936, that’s four wins from 24 grand final appearances.
In every six grand finals, Collingwood will win one.
Only St Kilda are worse – one win in eight appearances (one of those a draw). No guesses for who they beat. However, St Kilda have had only the eight appearances.
I’ve never understood the institutional hatred of Collingwood. Some will deny it’s there. A recent Twitter poll leading into the 2018 preliminary finals asked who did people least want to see winning the flag? Collingwood sat on 38%. The other three clubs hovered around 20%.
From a neutral point of view, I would’ve thought Collingwood would be the least offensive. Richmond won a flag in 2017. Geelong won flags in 2007, 2009, and 2011. GWS is the AFL’s lovechild. Collingwood would seem the most harmless of the four.
At work several years ago, a group of kids came in and booed me when they found out I supported Collingwood. A client of mine championed St Kilda in the lead up to the 2010 grand final. When I asked her why, she said she didn’t like Collingwood. When I asked her why she didn’t, she had no answer. These are responses I encounter commonly.
This institutional hatred has, for many, been passed on from generation to generation – a holdover to when Collingwood deserved to be despised for being successful.
I understand that, today, the fans aren’t singling the team out, but the entity – the bluster of the club, the profile of Eddie McGuire, and the adulation of the supporters. Opposition fans don’t want to see that in full voice.
While neutral fans could support and be fond of a club like Western Bulldogs winning a flag, while they’ll respect Hawthorn dominating the modern era, they don’t want to open that Collingwood hype.
And I get it.
I grew up during Tommy Hafey’s tenure, which ran from 1977 to 1982. Hafey took over the 1976 wooden-spooners and in 1977 led them to a grand final draw, then a loss in the replay. They then lost a preliminary final in 1978, and lost grand finals in 1979, 1980 and 1981. A player revolt complaining about Hafey’s arduous training practices saw him fired mid-season in 1982. The same thing would happen to him during his tenure at the Sydney Swans.
Growing up, I got used to Collingwood being successful – not ultimately successful, but close. They won finals in which they were underdogs. They cobbled together hodgepodge sides and competed with premiers. Up until 1981, they led the competition for flags.
When they flopped in 1982, I expected them to bounce back. That’s part of what’s known as club culture. It doesn’t just permeate the club, but the supporter base.
In 1983, a new administration – the New Magpies – swept in with the promise of hauling the club into the modern day. The club had long held onto the ideology of playing for the jumper, and had missed out on a number of star recruits, or had failed to retain star players. The New Magpies bought up big – but too big, and seemingly without much system.
By 1986 the club was financially on its knees. The banks recommended they close their doors. Players were asked to take pay cuts. The president of the New Magpies, Ranald McDonald, resigned.
From 1987 to 1990, Collingwood’s administration were judicious and largely anonymous. They cultivated players from within, while also recruiting smartly for needs. An outsider – Leigh Matthews – was appointed coach. By 1988, they were back in the finals. In 1990, they were victorious.
And then Pandora’s Box opened.
Collingwood sprayed hype all over the face of the AFL. I don’t recall president Allan McAlister – who succeeded McDonald – saying a single word in the lead-up to 1990. After the flag, he became Ring-a-Quote, with absurd proclamations that didn’t endear the club to anybody.
While the volume has been turned down, it’s an attitude that’s remained prevalent. The club prides itself on being hated. I don’t understand why. If you want to be hated, then you should play the villain.
Hawthorn play the villain with their ruthlessness, unparalled success in the modern game – they’ve won 13 flags from 19 attempts, and seven in just the last 30 years, with only the one loss – as well as their awful fashion crimes, and yet they’re respected.
Collingwood don’t, and are reviled.
But I understand, because at Collingwood – and here I’m referring to everybody and everything associated with the club – we talk about how great we are.
Even when we’re not.
Collingwood have struggled for ultimate success in the last 80 years. Some might assert they’ve done better than a club like St Kilda.
My answer to that is simple: so what?
Don’t build yourself up by comparing yourself to clubs who’ve achieved less. That only perpetuates the problem of hype without merit. Surely you aspire to be the best, which means you need to use the best as your standard.
I’ve had this argument with others about Collingwood, and they’ve countered that Collingwood turns record profits, that they have X amount of members, and that they have great facilities.
Tell me, what profit did Carlton make in 1995? What was Hawthorn’s membership in 1991? What were Essendon’s facilities like in 1993?
You will not have an answer. But you will be able to tell me who won flags in those years.
Because that’s what football’s about. Those other things are great in supporting the club, in helping it trying to reach its destination, but the game is about that destination. That’s all. That’s all history remembers. That’s all fans brag about.
But I worry that the Collingwood culture is self-sabotaging. Why strive for greatness when you (and nearly everybody associated with you) laud yourselves for being great regardless? Why find a way to win when it’s much easier to find a reason you’ve lost?
In Nathan Buckley’s 2008 autobiography, All I Can Be, he diplomatically talks about the club’s culture. In the 2019 documentary, From the Inside Out, he talks about how Collingwood had been “a chest-beating club”, as well as “arrogant”. He has attempted to change the club’s self-image from within.
In the wake of the 2018 grand final loss and the 2019 preliminary final loss, he made no excuses. He spoke only about needing to get better.
I hope he’s successful in his endeavours, although he’s battling a torrent of hyperbole that’s accumulated over generations and is always threatening to become a tsunami.
Where to now?
When Dom Sheed marked late in the 2018 grand final on a difficult angle, I knew he would goal. I’ve talked to other Collingwood supporters who’ve felt similarly.
Sure enough, Sheed goaled.
Collingwood lost that 2018 grand final in circumstances that are heartbreaking even for Collingwood. They went into the 2019 preliminary final as overwhelming favourites but lost, proving that nothing is a given until it’s done.
It feels as if history is repeating itself.
Looking forward, their list has some explosive talent at the top, but lacks genuine run and polish, and there’s a dearth of quality talls coming through. It’s reminiscent of the 2002-03 lists that battled valiantly, only to fall short.
They claim there is no injury malaise at the club, although for eight years they’ve figured in the top eight for injuries. Several of those years they would’ve been on top. It’s frustrating, knowing they can’t pump games into next generation talent, which means there’s a widening chasm between aging players and those who would succeed them.
Richmond were a club that was mocked for over 30 years, due to their proclivity to sack coaches and implode. When Geelong lost their own series of grand finals – in 1989, 1992, 1994, and 1995 – they were labelled the Catastrophes. But both clubs reinvented themselves.
I wonder if that’s truly possible at Collingwood. As long as I’ve supported them (1987 to 1990 aside), a whirlwind of history, adulation, and even entitlement has created a mystique around the club that is more myth than reality. Any success (e.g. 1990 and 2010) has triggered the full chorus of self-adulation and, worse, self-aggrandisement, and led to the club spectacularly unravelling. When the club has failed, there’s always something.
I can’t help but wonder if the club will always be a victim of their own self-image – a self-image that constantly acts as an anchor to stop them moving forward because they’re too busy in revelling who they were, justifying their greatness, and vindicating themselves when they’ve fallen short.
It’s a cocktail that’s inebriated the club while others have moved past them.
Walking out of the 2018 grand final, sinewing its way through my disappointment was the realisation that fairytales aren’t real.
In the end it’s about what we are and what we do to forge our own reality.
Hype, excuses, entitlement – none of that really matters.