Collingwood’s joyous football leads them on remarkable journey to AFL flag

<span>Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP</span>
Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

Saturday morning in Melbourne felt like an entire city emerging from its winter burrow. By sundown, there was an end-of-days feel on the MCG concourse. Collingwood’s third flag in 65 years wasn’t like the previous two. The last one, the replay at least, was a jolly romp. The one before that exorcised the demons of Neil Crompton, Barry Breen, Ted Hopkins and Wayne Harmes, but wasn’t a great spectacle. This was a classic. This was still live with seconds to go. This will go down as one of the great grand finals of the modern era.

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They won it with a mix of role players, discards, begoggled Texans, old hands and generational superstars. They all had a distinct role, and they all executed it to perfection. But more than anything, it was a premiership won with canny trading. They bought in Bobby Hill, Tom Mitchell, Oleg Markov and Billy Frampton and they all played significant roles. The club identified gaps last year. They needed someone to get their hands dirty (Mitchell), to gain territory off half back (Markov), to give them an x-factor up forward (Hill) and to be a spare parts man (Frampton). All thrived at their new club. “I’m feeling valued and wanted,” Markov says. Hill, in particular, was so important on Saturday, especially in the opening half. Every time Collingwood needed a spark, and every time Brisbane’s small forwards threatened to rip the game away, Hill bobbed up.

It’s worth reflecting on how far this team and club have come, and how quickly they turned things around. Throughout the Covid lockdowns, watching some of the fan-less games with cardboard cut-outs and fake crowd noise was like undergoing root canal work. But the crowds returned, and the football was excellent. A lot of that is thanks to Collingwood. Through 2022 and the first half of 2023, they were the must-watch team each week. They gave us some of the most extraordinary finishes in the history of the game. They played highwire, exhilarating football.

We hadn’t talked about Collingwood like that for a long time. On and particularly off the field, we were sick of them. In the depths of Covid, the club was riven. The playing list looked ordinary. Nathan Buckley often speaks about what went wrong in 2020 and 2021. He says they had the best pre-season imaginable after they’d blown the 2019 preliminary final. But then the pandemic hit. He insists Collingwood bore the brunt more than most clubs, and that the staff cuts hit especially hard. They then completely stuffed up their list management. Then came the Do Better Report. There were cracks everywhere. They were a noisy, distracted, bumbling club.

There was so much change. The president of more than two decades, the face of the club, and in many ways the face of the city, was gone. “I’ve become a lightning rod for vitriol,” Eddie McGuire said. His successor lasted six months. The coach, a champion of the club, was finally let go. The head of football, list manager, several assistants, and several board members were all gone. One of their most important players was arrested in his dressing gown. All this played out during the longest lockdown in the world, when tensions were high, when most of us were losing our marbles and spoiling for a fight.

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Craig McRae deserves a lot of credit for straightening things up. He was just the 16th man to coach Collingwood. It’s a big job. But he approached them as just another football club, and just another coaching job. McRae, like the Scott brothers, like Michael Voss, like Justin Leppitstch, and like nearly every member of that mighty side, always harks back to Leigh Matthews. He’s their reference point, their footballing compass. He was pragmatic, unsentimental, and utterly ruthless. For all the dad jokes, there’s a lot of Leigh Matthews in Craig McRae and his team.

When he was announced as Collingwood’s coach, he talked a lot about love and connection. This didn’t sound like a Leigh Matthews man. But asked whether he had the same pitiless edge as the great sides he played in, he simply answered “yes”. Buckley said this about him earlier this year: “Fly has a really strong ego – there’s an inner belief there. There’s fucking bulldog in that little poodle. There’s always been a little chip there, someone who has been perennially overlooked and underestimated and I think that’s part of the fuel that’s he’s got.”

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“We want to be exciting to watch,” McRae said this week. “I hate boring footy.” And that’s the crux of it. This is a team that’s built from the back, but it’s a backline that’s always looking to attack. His gameplan worked. He let them make mistakes. He gave them a whack when they needed one. He simplified the game. He gave them licence to attack, to play to their strengths. He didn’t sulk, mix martial metaphors, get caught up in feuds. Collingwood was a happy place, and the team played joyous football. The smarts, the freedom, the connection, the hard edge – it all culminated at the MCG on Saturday. This was McRae’s premiership, and one of the most remarkable of the AFL era.