Craig McRae’s journey to become Collingwood’s new coach has seen him work with legendary AFL leaders, including “father” figure Leigh Matthews.
The Magpies on Wednesday announced McRae as just their third coach this century, after Mick Malthouse (2000-2011) and Nathan Buckley (2012-2021).
A three-time Brisbane premiership player, McRae was put through a lengthy and arduous interview process, with his former Lions captain Michael Voss among the candidates vying for the job.
But his time spent as a player under Matthews during the Lions’ golden era, followed by coaching stints with Malthouse (Collingwood), Damien Hardwick (Richmond) and Alastair Clarkson (Hawthorn), made him the Magpies’ top choice.
McRae, 47, hailed Matthews’ influence on his personal and professional development.
Only last week, Matthews talked up McRae’s ability, calling his former Lions charge as a “coach of the modern era”.
“Leigh said some kind words about me in the press, which I made sure I acknowledged,” McRae said.
“I said this in the process that Leigh’s like a father now; he probably won’t like hearing that.
“Just such a great mentor, he’s shaped me so much in my career as a player, then even just the words he said the other day.
“He texted back saying if there’s anything he can help me with he said he’d be there for me.
“To be honest, a lot of my coaching stems from Leigh’s principles and I think you’ll see a lot of that, well the playing group will anyway.”
McRae’s appointment is a popular, but somewhat low-key appointment for a club that has traditionally lured the biggest name available.
Before premiership coach Malthouse and favourite son Buckley, Collingwood had Magpies legend Tony Shaw (1996-99) and Matthews (1986-95) in charge.
McRae had stints as an assistant at Richmond, Brisbane, Collingwood and Hawthorn, headlined by coaching the Tigers’ reserves team to the VFL premiership in 2019.
McRae served as Hawthorn’s forwards coach this year, but previously worked as Collingwood’s academy head between 2011 and 2015.
His most notable coaching achievements came at Richmond, leading the Tigers to the 2019 VFL premiership as well as working as an assistant with the AFL side for five years.
McRae is now the fifth member of the Lions’ premiership era to become a senior coach, after Chris Scott, Brad Scott, Michael Voss and Justin Leppitsch.
“I have been fortunate to witness up close and share in some very successful programs and I know that teaching solid habits can build a winning habit of its own,” McRae said, while acknowleging he was far from a marquee choice.
“I’m not a star of the game, or a retiring great – a big name, if you like. But I wouldn’t want it any other way,” McRae said.
His appointment is welcome news for Collingwood after a tumultuous period, which started during last year’s trade period.
In a dramatic fire sale, the Magpies traded out key players Adam Treloar, Jaidyn Stephenson and Tom Phillips in a bid to relieve salary-cap pressure.
Long-serving Collingwood president Eddie McGuire resigned in February after his bungled handling of the club’s ‘Do Better’ report into racism.
Despite making the semi-finals last year, the Magpies stumbled to a 2-9 start this season with Buckley exiting after the round 13 upset win of premiership favourites Melbourne.
As well as the struggles on the field, new Collingwood president Mark Korda has had to contend with the threat of board challenges and member-led emergency general meetings.
But McRae’s long journey to become a senior coach, combined with a strong debut press conference, have Magpies supporters more optimistic about the future.
Captain Scott Pendlebury has committed to playing out his career at Collingwood, while star of the future Nick Daicos has confirmed he wants to be drafted to the club as a father-son pick.
Korda said the club had moved the annual general meeting forward from February to December to deal with disgruntled challengers.
Former AFL legal adviser, and close friend of McGuire, Jeff Browne has made no secret of his desire to roll Korda as Collingwood’s president.
However, McRae said he had no doubts about taking on the role after one of the most trying periods in the Magpies’ history – and after a 17th-place finish in 2021.
“I’m pretty pumped, this is a significant part in my journey – and it’s been a long one,” he said.
“We’re in the position of just getting as good as we can as quick as we can – we don’t want to put a ceiling on that.
“I spoke to the playing group before and my appointment offers opportunity and possibility.”