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How good are Collingwood really?

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Roar Guru
29th November, 2020
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2463 Reads

What is ‘good enough’?

In light of the heavy fire directed at the Collingwood administration, two camps have emerged: the ‘for’ and the ‘against’.

The against look at a string of decisions and indiscretions over the last decade that draws the governance under question.

The for espouse the successes – namely a grand final appearance in 2018, a preliminary final appearance in 2019, and a club (as far as we know) that is financially sound and one of the powerhouses of the league.

In my writing, I might come across as against, but the truth is that I want the strongest Collingwood possible, and I’ll back whoever can deliver that.

Now is that still the current crop? And it’s important to include that qualification of ‘still’. Eddie McGuire was wonderful in rebuilding Collingwood from the ruins of a wasteful decade in the 1990s.

He recruited a proven coach in Mick Malthouse, and helped steer Collingwood back to respectability, and eventually a premiership.

But are McGuire and the incumbents still the people for the job?

Being financially sound means little given the way the AFL is structured towards equalisation, unless that wealth is used to gain an advantage over opposition.

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Unfair, maybe, but what’s the point of money if you can’t use it to better your situation and in the case of a sporting organisation, find a (legal) edge?

The bigger question sits on worth of the 2018 grand final as a gauge.

Eddie McGuire

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

I’ve been told we’re “good enough” to mix it with the best. I’ve been assured how can anything be wrong given we made a grand final and a preliminary final. I’ve been told we sit right on the cusp with the best clubs.

But, in truth, how much merit can be drawn from almost winning a flag?

Was it a brilliant effort, and a sign of better things to come?

Or does falling short – even if it’s just short – mean nothing?

Is the glass half full? Or is the glass half empty?

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At Collingwood, I tend to think the glass is full of cyanide, so the quantity doesn’t actually matter.

And this goes to one of the biggest questions about Collingwood, and yet goes unexplored, and thus unanswered: the culture.

From 1892–1993, Collingwood played in twenty grand finals, coming away with a 11–9 record.

Their biggest losing streak was four: 1920, 1922, 1925, and 1926. Then they four-peated 1927 – 1930, and went back to back in 1935–36.

In the 74 years since they’ve played in 24 grand finals, won 4, drawn 2, and lost 18. During that run, they had the infamous Colliwobbles streak: 1960, 1964, 1966, 1970, 1977 (including a draw), 1979, 1980, and 1981 – a 0–1–8 record.

It’s a tale of two clubs – the one which went 11–9, and the other who went 4–2–18.

Let’s put that in context and see how the other clubs have fared:

    • Essendon: 16 flags, 14 runners-ups
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    • Carlton: 16 flags, 13 runners-ups
    • Richmond: 13 flags, 12 runners-ups
    • Hawthorn: 13 flags, 6 runners-ups
    • Melbourne: 12 flags, 5 runners-ups
    • Geelong: 9 flags, 10 runners-ups
    • Fitzroy: 8 flags, 5 runners ups
    • Sydney: 5 flags, 12 runners ups
    • North Melbourne: 4 flags, 5 runners ups
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    • West Coast: 4 flags, 3 runners ups
    • Brisbane: 3 flags, 1 runners-up
    • Adelaide: 2 flags, 1 runners-up
    • Bulldogs: 2 flags, 1 runners-up
    • St Kilda: 1 flag, 6 runners-ups
    Port Adelaide: 1 flag, 1 runners-up

Only St Kilda outdoes Collingwood for the ratio of losses per win, but then Collingwood overwhelm them (and everybody else) in terms of quantity.

Collingwood’s reputation as a successful club is effectively built from their first 44 years in the competition.

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I just want to throw in a quick qualifier that some people are quick to dismiss early flags as being part of a provisional era – one where the amount of clubs in the competition varied (due to the war), where the minor premier had a double chance (if they lost the grand final), and other idiosyncrasies.

I think that’s unfair, because regardless of the conditions of the competition, every club played by the same rules. Are these quirks any different to the conditions on today’s competitions where some clubs have had a bigger salary cap, easier fixtures, access to talent others haven’t, etc.?

Brodie Grundy of the Magpies in action

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

So let’s accept everything on merit.

During Eddie McGuire’s tenure as president, Collingwood’s record has been one win, one draw, and four losses.

Is that return good enough?

Some will point to the reality that there are clubs who haven’t won a flag in the same timeframe, or haven’t featured in finals as prominently as Collingwood.

Some may pose that you have to be in the finals to give yourself a chance, and Collingwood’s done that, even if their success has been just 20 per cent – one win from five attempts (six, if you include the draw).

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But, again, that’s comparing down – comparing to teams who are not as successful to inflate your own accomplishments.

Great, Collingwood has fared better than St Kilda and Melbourne and Fremantle. But how do they compare to Hawthorn and Richmond and Geelong?

Surely the aspiration should be – should always be – to be the best.

In the 2000s, Hawthorn has won four flags; Geelong, Richmond, and Brisbane have won three flags; West Coast and Sydney have won two flags; and Collingwood, Port Adelaide, Bulldogs, and Essendon have won one.

It becomes a more interesting statistic when it’s broken down into win/losses:

    • Hawthorn: 4 wins (2008, 2013, 2014, 2015), and 1 loss (2012)
    • Geelong: 3 wins (2007, 2009, 2011) and 2 losses (2008, and 2020)
    • Brisbane: 3 wins (2001, 2002, 2003) and 1 loss (2004)
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    • Richmond: 3 wins (2017, 2019, 2020)
    • West Coast: 2 wins (2006, 2018) and 2 losses (2005, 2015)
    • Sydney: 2 wins (2005, 2012), and 3 losses (2006, 2014, 2016)
    • Port Adelaide: 1 win (2004), and 1 loss (2007)
    • Essendon: 1 win (2000) and 1 loss (2001)
    • Western Bulldogs: 1 win (2016)
    Collingwood: 1 win (2010), 1 draw (2010), and four losses (2002, 2003, 2011, 2018)

Collingwood’s failure in grand finals has become something worse than legendary.

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It’s become matter-of-fact.

Everybody just accepts it now.

And fans will point to “reasons” that they lost – for example, that they often came in as the underdog.

That frustrates me.

You’ll find in many seasons where Collingwood lost a grand final, they beat their opponent in the season, and/or in a final, e.g. they beat Carlton twice in the 1981 home and away seaosn and had beaten Brisbane just a fortnight earlier in a 2003 QF, but then lost those grand finals.

Or they were in winning positions deep into the game.

In only a handful of their losses were they smashed, e.g. the 1980 grand final.

Mason Cox and the Magpies celebrate

Mason Cox. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

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So Collingwood have been good enough a lot of the time.

For some losses, we can cite exhaustion because of the convoluted path they might’ve taken, but exhaustion often gets overplayed in football. How often in the last quarter do we expect a team coming off a longer break to overrun a team coming off a short break, only to see the latter not only triumph, but dominate? Often, momentum fuels adrenaline that mitigates any potential tiredness.

So, really, at Collingwood, we’re left with the excuses – and there’s plenty of them:

    • 1977: Phil Carman was suspended
    • 1977 Replay: coach Tom Hafey overtrained them
    • 1979: Wayne Harmes tapped the ball in from out of bounds, leading to a pivotal goal
    • 1981: an administrator lambasted Ricky Barham and demoralised the team during the final break
    • 2002: Anthony Rocca’s goal was called a point
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    • 2003: Anthony Rocca was suspended
    • 2011: the succession plan lead to a loss of focus
    2018: a block allowed Dom Sheed to mark and goal.

I’ve always given Nathan Buckley credit for his handling of the 2018 grand final loss. At the Copeland Trophy Best and Fairest night that season, he came out and simply professed they weren’t good enough and had to get better.

That’s awesome. No excuses. No qualification on why they lost. Just a simple truth: lift the bar.

Unfortunately, that attitude is often an outlier at Collingwood. I’ve heard about the block ad nauseam, as well as Anthony Rocca’s kick being called a behind, etc.

The string of excuses now transcends tragedy and verges into tragicomedy.

Using excuses just insulates the club from failure, and consoles them that should they fail again, oh well, it’s not really entirely their fault, as there’ll be an excuse we can cite.

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The history books only record the final score, and celebrate the victor.

Excuses make things easier. They make it easier to accept losing. They make it easier to console ourselves that we’re still a great club. They make it easy to martyr ourselves: “We would’ve won, but …”

I’ve read and heard that frequently in the last fortnight from people defending this current administration: “Would your attitude be the same if the 2018 grand final had finished two minutes earlier?” and “The 2018 grand final proved we can mix it with the best.”

But here’s the inflexible truth: Collingwood lost.

And using “if” and hypotheticals to build arguments as the foundation of any defence is building a case on quicksand.

Nothing is going to change that.

Following the 2018 grand final loss, I remarked my frustration to my brother. He laughed and said, “That’s what we do.”

Why? Why must it be that reality? And why must it continue to be that reality?

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Back in 1998, Eddie McGuire was quoted in The Age as saying, “The culture has got to be only the best for Collingwood. I reckon Collingwood accepts defeat far too easily and accepts mediocrity far too easily.”

Twenty-two years on, how much has changed?

Can we say the culture is the best at Collingwood? Have Collingwood changed? Have they built something new? Have we stopped accepting mediocrity? Have we stopped accepting defeat?

Because even when we lay all the other queries asides – the horrors of trade week, the gaffes, the player indiscretions, etc. – arguably this is the most telling.

What’s changed culturally?

Some might suggest this is too harsh, or that we at least have that single flag, and in a tightly regimented competition, that should be seen as victory.

But why?

Again, why is the bar so low?

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From 1982–2016, Richmond were a laughingstock: a club that had a revolving door of coaches, had manure dumped on their doorstep, and are the only club in history to be knocked out of the finals by a ninth-placed team (when Essendon were bumped out of the finals due to the supplements scandal, and ninth-placed Carlton elevated in their stead).

Nathan Buckley, coach of the Magpies, looks dejected

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Many expected the Crows to beat them in the 2017 GF. Nope. The Tigers smashed them. When Collingwood defeated Richmond in the 2018 preliminary final, many wrote off Richmond’s period of contention. Through the middle of 2019 they were ailing. But they came back strong and won the flag. And again in 2020.

Geelong earned the moniker of the “Catastrophes” with grand final losses in 1989, 1992, 1994 and 1995. They won three flags in the 2000s.

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And Hawthorn’s modern-day record is well known. While their last few years has been middling, you’re confident Hawthorn will refocus because they’ve done it again and again.

Clubs can reinvent themselves.

And that seemed one of the charters of the current administration at Collingwood when they first came to power.

But, despite the best intentions, we’re just seeing more of the same.

And I’m just curious: is that still meant to be good enough?