5. The 1990 flag celebrations
I walked from the MCG on grand final day thinking Collingwood could build a dynasty. They had a relatively young side. Gerard Healy would write something similar in his newspaper column the following year. The potential was there.
Cue celebrations. President Allan McAlister, who’d largely been anonymous in the wake of the New Magpies failure, was now blathering with hyperbole. There was a loss of focus in every department, and Collingwood squandered that list. Some of the players also grew complacent.
I’m not going to give them a pass either on the basis of 1990 being a drought-breaking premiership.
Coach Leigh Matthews had been a part of successful Hawthorn eras, so surely he knew the importance of refocusing. He would lament he let the players celebrate too long. Interestingly, he didn’t make the same mistakes at Brisbane.
In 1991, Collingwood played with a hangover the first half of the season, and then made a belated charge to the finals, falling just short.
In 1992, they finished equal first, but third on the ladder, and due to the final six in place at the time, lost their first final and bombed out.
In 1993 and ’94, they started well and then tapered away, although they did make the eight in ’94 and just lost to minor premier West Coast. In 1994, first played eighth.
In ’95, they struggled to get going.
It was a miasma of inconsistency and frustration. I kept waiting for them to click again, but a combination of stagnancy and complacency in their attitude, as well as a haphazardness in their list management, kept undermining their efforts. You also have to wonder how that era might’ve unfolded had Collingwood reset following the 1990 triumph.
It all felt like such a waste, and epitomises the very worst of Collingwood – getting lost in their own hype and whirlpooling into the drain while telling themselves everything’s okay and they’re still the greatest.
While the decade began with a flag, it would end with a spoon and the club gushing money. The focus that had brought them success had diluted into a largesse that again threatened the club’s very existence.
You’d think they’d learn from the past, wouldn’t you?
Yes, this is not a specific thing. But it’s become a thing.
I’d like to injure anybody who tells me Collingwood’s bad run with injuries is just bad luck. I’ll buy that for two seasons, but not eight and counting.
Collingwood had a charmed run throughout 2010 – that’s often the case with premiers. They’ll have few injuries – injuries that they can cover, or short-term injuries.
Throughout 2011, they also fared well until about the last six weeks of footy. They limped into a grand final, but they got there.
In 2012, they had five ACLs. I’ve never seen that before in my life. Five! A number of players went down with soft-tissue injuries, and there were also a series of questionable match-day decisions, such as playing Chris Tarrant against Richmond when he looked as if he could barely walk, sending Luke Ball back out when he’d done an ACL, sending Darren Jolly back out with a punctured lung, sending Marley Williams out with a dislocated shoulder, and sending Scott Pendlebury back out to test his leg when he’d actually suffered a fracture.
The injuries haven’t improved much since then. Both 2014 and 2015 started positively, and then spectacularly imploded as the injuries accumulated.
In 2018, they had a horrible injury run, which included Adam Treloar tearing both hamstrings in the same instance. I’ve watched footy for over 40 years and never seen that happen before. Somehow, somebody at Collingwood managed it.
From 2012 to 2019, they figured in the top eight for injuries. A few of those seasons they would’ve topped the list.
The club insists they’ve done the due diligence and there’s nothing untoward. Many (including myself) have queried the training surface. Collingwood insist it’s fine. Eddie McGuire has insisted they’ve looked at all the possibilities.
Maybe it makes me a cretin to still believe that something is happening – if not one big thing, then lots of little things adding up. The eight-year run (and counting) can’t just be bad luck.
3. Outspoken presidents
You know what I loved about Allan McAlister’s presidency from 1986 to 1990? I had no idea who he was.
Following 1990, McAlister became Ring-a-Quote. He’d do things like glibly proclaim Leigh Matthews was coach for life (following the 1990 flag), that Collingwood were the greatest show on Earth, and then made some unsavoury comments in 1994, for which he was widely condemned. Allegedly, the administration eventually put a gag on him.
You’d think a club would learn.
Enter Eddie McGuire, who is often vocal and has made some inappropriate comments, namely against Adam Goodes and Caroline Wilson – I’m not going to dignify anything by requoting it.
I’m not citing these comments to vilify both men. While there’s obviously a robust discussion that can be had on whether these comments reflect their attitudes or if they’re unthinking throwaways, I cite them simply to demonstrate the damaging impact each can have on the societal framework, prevailing attitudes, and the perception of the club.
That’s what happens when you have a public profile.
I don’t want to depreciate McAlister’s or McGuire’s contributions to Collingwood. Both navigated the club out of financial ruin (again, you’d think a club would learn), helped rebuild operations, and oversaw ultimate success – McAlister in 1990, and McGuire in 2010.
Both did great things for footy (and for Collingwood) that should neither be trivialised or dismissed.
I will state that doesn’t excuse what they said. But neither should be recognised or remembered just for what they said.
McGuire struggles particularly due to his broadcasting roles. When he’s hosting Footy Classified, who is he talking as? Sometimes, he clearly answers as Collingwood president. Why should he have such a public forum? Why should Caroline Wilson – a journalist – have such ready access to a president? There are times I cringe when McGuire answers something as a broadcaster, but the quote gets attributed to him as Collingwood president.
You know what I love about Hawthorn’s president? I have no idea who he is. I don’t think I could name more than a handful of club presidents. They work anonymously for the betterment of their clubs – or at least the try to. Being president is a thankless position.
Unless your club is winning, somebody’s always criticising you for something. But they do it and don’t seek the media.
I know Collingwood comes with an insane profile, where anything Collingwood is blown up for click bait. But that makes it even all the more important to just shut up.
2. That Collingwood attitude
This will be an unpopular one. And I know it’s not a specific instance, but I have seen it pop up enough over the years, and it’s frustrated (and still frustrates) me.
For as long as I’ve supported Collingwood and been able to understand and contextualise how they move through the competition, media and public perception, they have always been larger than life.
That profile was built through their dominance of the VFL competition – 11 flags from their inception in 1892 to 1936. Nobody else got close. The Melbourne powerhouse was still over a decade away. Hawthorn was nothing back then. Clubs like Carlton, Richmond and Essendon wouldn’t get going until much, much later.
Collingwood stood alone.
So I understand the braggadocio the club generated.
And you can live off that for… well, how long? How long until your pride becomes bluster?
At a certain point you have to shut up and start putting up.
Since 1953, Collingwood have won four flags. Since 1960, they’ve won just the two – that’s two in 60 years. I appreciate they’ve got there repeatedly, but this is a results-driven business. You’re in it to win, rather than just get there.
Financially, the club might be a powerhouse. On the field, they’re not. Two flags in 60 years aren’t the results of a powerhouse club. It’s better than what St Kilda’s done, but comparing yourself to the least successful Victorian club is hardly a way to build up a profile.
In that period since 1960, clubs such as Hawthorn, Carlton, Essendon, Richmond, West Coast, North Melbourne and Geelong have been more successful than Collingwood. Clubs such as Adelaide and the Sydney Swans have been just as successful.
So why the hell do we still behave like we’re the greatest? While some might point to finances, memberships, training facilities, good home-and-away seasons and the like, that’s not why footy clubs are in business. And given the flag results, we can’t even say they’re helping.
I acknowledge that the club has a great and storied history. But what does that mean now? George Foreman was a champion boxer. Bjorn Borg was a champion tennis player. But do they use those accomplishments to say they’re still great at their sports today? Or is it kept in context?
In the Collingwood documentary From the Inside Out, even current coach and club legend Nathan Buckley referred to the club as “chest-beating” and “arrogant”, which he was working hard to remedy.
From a psychological point of view, I wonder how that psyche has affected performances.
Plenty of athletes and clubs are satiated by climbing that mountain. They just don’t have that same hunger. It doesn’t have to be some huge drop-off – just enough to lose that edge against a competitor who is hungry and is pushing to go above and beyond.
We’ve all seen hungrier challengers who knock off established champions. Or talented champions who lose who lose that competitive edge and slip down in the rankings. While sport requires a physical output, it’s also the psychological drive that informs an individual’s efforts.
Collingwood exists in this cyclone of hyperbole – they have for as long as I’ve supported them.
How does that affect their collective psychology? It’s not something that can ever be proved or qualified, but I do wonder about it – often.
1. The succession plan
Throughout his tenure at Collingwood, there were times I jumped off the Mick Malthouse bandwagon. I thought by 2005 he was done. By the time of the 2007 preliminary final – which Collingwood lost narrowly to Geelong – I thought he deserved another shot. Early in 2009, I thought he was gone again.
That might make me seem wishy washy, but I’m basing my judgement on results over a prolonged period. It’s frustrating when fans blindly support or criticise a coach despite what’s happening. I go on a block of time. What does that block show? Are they moving forward, treading water or going backward?
And is there a point when they hit a zenith in that block that should influence whatever decision is made next – specifically the decision to retain or discharge them?
In 2009, Collingwood set up their infamous succession plan. It would’ve worked had Mick Malthouse gone graciously at the end of 2011, and endorsed Nathan Buckley as his successor. The players would’ve accepted Buckley, the club would’ve been on the same page, and away they could’ve gone.
Having said that, Malthouse – after coaching Collingwood to successive grand finals in 2010 and ’11, and a flag in 2010 – had every right to query whether the succession plan should still go ahead. I know it was contracted, but contracts are broken – or renegotiated – all the time in footy.
The reality is that besides being afraid Nathan Buckley would go on to coach an opposition team (North Melbourne and Richmond were both sniffing around in 2009) and never come back to Collingwood, Collingwood engineered the succession plan because it looked like Malthouse couldn’t win them a flag.
He’d been there going on ten years, had fallen short in 2002 and ’03, and looked like the best he’d get out of the current list was to make them competitive. At the time, the coaches winning flags were coming from the next generation – Alastair Clarkson (2008), Mark Thompson (2007), John Worsfold (2006), Paul Roos (2005), and Mark Williams (2004). It looked like the time was ripe for a change, and coaches such as Malthouse, Leigh Matthews and Kevin Sheedy were being left behind.
The moment Malthouse coached Collingwood to a flag in 2010, that concern became moot.
What ultimately happened is that Malthouse left, he made it clear he didn’t want to go, too many players remained aligned to him and didn’t want to play for Buckley. Dane Swan talks openly about this in his autobiography – he says it had nothing to do with Buckley, as it would’ve happened with whoever took over. And the club grew divided.
Compounding that is that Collingwood then performed a clean-out and tried to rejuvenate their list, only to draft players who suffered horrific runs with injury (such as Matthew Scharenberg and Nathan Freeman) or failed to come on. Whereas Collingwood had previously had a good record trading for recycled players and rejuvenating them, their trades now – such as Clinton Young, Jordan Russell, Quinten Lynch, Patrick Karnezis and Tony Armstrong – offered very little.
Mick Malthouse has gone on record saying that he felt they were on the verge of a mini dynasty. Given the age profile of the 2010 premiership side, I agree. If they could win another flag or two, great.
The competition was opening up given the introduction of the two expansion teams was diluting the talent pool and making it harder for upcoming clubs to secure the talent needed to build their lists from thereabouts to contend. If you had a strong list (a la Hawthorn) and made prudent list decisions (a la Hawthorn), you could dominate (a la Hawthorn).
And if Collingwood hadn’t won another flag and struggled, then a change could’ve been justified without any player disharmony. It could clearly be said that Malthouse’s time was done – a statement it seemed ludicrous to make after the successive grand final appearances.
It’s an astonishing achievement that they undermined:
• Malthouse, who deserved better given Collingwood’s successive grand final appearances and flag. It’s not that Collingwood are winning so many flags that they can be glib about a premiership coach. Once they won the flag in 2010, they should’ve torn up the succession plan.
• Buckley, by handing him a playing list that was divided and had a contingent that didn’t want to play for him.
• The club, by creating this divided club that would take seven years to reunite.
• The playing careers of a number of guns, such as Travis Cloke, Dane Swan and Scott Pendlebury, who were asked to tread water while the club reset.
• The fans, by asking them to sit through a comprehensive list rebuild and terrible performances.
Instead of the best of both worlds, Collingwood somehow manufactured the worst both for Malthouse and Buckley. Malthouse wasn’t treated as he deserved as a premiership coach. Buckley wasn’t treated as he deserved as a new coach.
It feels that the club suffered collectively as a result. A friend keeps saying to me that only Collingwood can kill Collingwood. They sure do a good job of it.
Everybody would have issues with decisions their club has made over the years. They can’t get it right all the time. It’s like life. Not one of us is infallible.
The thing that fascinates me with Collingwood, though, is that they often make those implosive decisions on the back of success, or fall back on sentimentality that history has shown them doesn’t work in footy.
I love the club. I’m still here after all these decades – and I imagine I will be for as long as I live.
But I do wish we could look at history objectively as our guide into the future.