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Opinion

Exposing the myth of Collingwood's succession plan

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Roar Guru
23rd June, 2021
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One of the biggest urban legends in Collingwood’s history is that the succession plan enabled success.

“It forced Mick Malthouse to get serious,” you hear.

“It made him go out and recruit a ruck,” others say.

Even Eddie McGuire has pushed it, claiming that once the succession plan was implemented, Collingwood enjoyed a period of success, finishing third in 2009, premiers in 2010, and second in in 2011.

And it’s all due to the succession plan!

It’s a nice story. But that’s all it is: a story.

We’re expected to believe that Mick Malthouse was just piddling around as coach, indifferent to results, and coaching purely to satisfy his ego up until 2009, and the succession plan focused him on winning a flag.

This logic discounts that Malthouse had coached Collingwood to the 2002 and ’03 grand finals – two attempts at premierships.

When Collingwood failed, Malthouse told the board that the existing list wouldn’t get them over the line, and that they needed to begin a rebuild. These aren’t the actions of somebody not focused on winning a flag.

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McGuire’s claim is also spurious. After two years (2004-05) without finals, Collingwood shot back up the ladder. In 2006, Collingwood finished fifth, only to be knocked out in the elimination final. They finished sixth in 2007, and fought their way to a preliminary final, going down in a close one to eventual premiers, Geelong. In 2008, they finished eighth, beat Adelaide in the elimination final, but then lost to St Kilda in the semi-final.

During this period, Collingwood were also overseeing a changing of the guard. Nathan Buckley, Scott Burns, James Clement, Paul Licuria, and Shane Wakelin were among the players to leave the club. Anthony Rocca would go one year later. That’s a sizeable chunk of core players.

Nathan Buckley #5 for Collingwood

(Photo by Hamish Blair/Getty Images)

Collingwood would replenish the list with Chris Egan, Scott Pendlebury, Dale Thomas, Ben Reid, Nathan Brown, Steele Sidebottom, Dayne Beams, Chris Dawes, Travis Cloke, Dane Swan, Heritier Lumumba and Nick Maxwell, among others.

So even before the succession, Collingwood had begun a proactive rebuild and were already improving as they pumped games into their next generation. The finals appearances were already happening. In the year Collingwood concocted the succession plan (2009), they would enjoy a seven-game winning streak and play in a preliminary final.

This belief that the succession plan drove improvement or success is an outright fallacy given statistical evidence that was already occurring. Actually, you don’t even need the statistical evidence. If you were watching games over that timeframe, you could see the kids brought in, played, and the team improve, a few hiccups (typical of young teams) aside.

Arguably, the squad they built was sounder than their 2002-03 grand final squads. Again, all this was happening before the succession plan.

Thus we have one final claim: that it forced Malthouse to go out and get a genuine ruckman, Darren Jolly. If you listen to people, they’ll tell you that Malthouse didn’t rate ruckmen. They just weren’t that important to him. He snubbed the role.

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Even if this was the case, this ignores that Collingwood’s number one selection in the 2000 national draft was Josh Fraser, a forward-ruck. Malthouse would also downgrade pick three to pick seven in exchange to Richmond for another ruckman, Steve McKee. And Collingwood would also draft Guy Richards at pick 37.

That’s three ruckmen from one draft in Malthouse’s first year as coach. Malthouse also kept Brad Smith on the list at a time he cut deep, and would use Anthony Rocca as a relief ruck.

(Photo by Hamish Blair/Getty Images)

In the ensuing years, Collingwood added and tried Tristen Walker, Cameron Cloke, David Fanning, Brent Hall, and Chris Bryan.

That’s a lot of ruck potential. Some might argue that most of those players are speculative. That could be true. But West Coast’s Dean Cox and Fremantle’s Aaron Sandilands were rookies. It’s a role where talent isn’t always identified early, because massive improvement can occur once the prospect has been in the system for several years, and gained size, muscle, and endurance.

In any case, Collingwood did place value on their next trade: Cameron Wood. Brisbane drafted him with pick 18 in the 2004 national draft. Following the 2007 season, Brisbane traded him to Collingwood for pick 14. Darren Jolly, acquired in 2010, would cost just a little more – picks 14 and 46.

Again, this shows that Malthouse was actively searching for a ruck well before the succession plan.

So everything that people attribute to the succession plan – improvement, focus, finals, premiership aspiration, and bringing in ruckmen – was already happening well before the succession plan was conceived.

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The succession plan triggered nothing. In 2007, Malthouse innovated rotations after watching the way ice hockey was played – a line of five players skate to exhaustion, then skate off to be replaced by the next line. This has now become a standard practice in the game.

Malthouse coached as he’d always coached. These urban legends that are circulated are falsehoods to make the succession plan more palatable, and/or to mitigate the credit Malthouse deserves, and finally to deviate people from seeing the succession plan for what it was: an unmitigated disaster.

It created an untenable situation for both Mick Malthouse and Nathan Buckley, would drive premiership heroes from the club and see players leave acrimoniously, and would fast-track the club’s descent into the wilderness for four years.

Nathan Buckley, coach of the Magpies, looks dejected

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

We’ll never know what might’ve been had the succession plan being postponed or cancelled. Opinions vary. Malthouse himself thought the club was about to embark on a mini-dynasty. Others will allege the list had played out despite the youth of many players.

Taking that speculation out of the equation, a postponement would’ve allowed for a more natural end to Malthouse’s coaching tenure – a time when results (or lack thereof) would’ve unquestioningly warranted a change, and also given Buckley a fresh starting point divorced from Malthouse’s mystique, success, and relationships.

But Collingwood love their fairy tales. They have a history of headhunting a coach, rather than any vigorous interview process.

And, upon reflection, the succession plan wasn’t new. Collingwood had done this before. They just hadn’t publicly formalised the transition with a contract. But the circumstances are similar.

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Of course, I’m referring to when Tony Shaw was appointed coach.

Shaw was a champion player and the club’s captain from 1987-1993. His final season in black and white was 1994. He knocked back an assistant coaching offer at Carlton, and instead took one at Collingwood in 1995 under Leigh Matthews. Matthews had coached since 1986, and led Collingwood to the historic drought-breaking premiership in 1990.

Throughout 1995, Matthews would often joke that his successor was sitting next to him in Shaw. It was accepted by all and sundry that Shaw would be Collingwood’s next coach. The only difference was that he took over a club that was in decline on-field.

He duly took the reins from 1996 off the back of one year’s apprenticeship and, like Buckley, coaching many players who he played with. Shaw had some good ideas as coach, loading up the half-back line with guns and playing counter-attack footy, which was unusual then but the standard today), and implementing defensive zones and set plays.

I have to wonder how he might’ve fared had he gone off elsewhere, experienced different club cultures, and undertaken a reasonable apprenticeship that could round out his skill set. Shaw would resign mid-season in 1999, and Collingwood won their second wooden spoon.

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The appointments of both Shaw and Buckley were romantic decisions – the club legend coming back to coach Collingwood.

Everybody loves the possibility of the fairy tale, particularly at Collingwood.

But, as history has shown again and again, fairy tales are just that: tales that deserve no place in reality.

And, as far as the succession plan goes, when you look at it clearly, it’s about as far removed from a fairy tale as you can get.

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