THE FANS are getting mighty impatient at Magpieland. Four years without making the finals is testing their faith. GEOFF HARRIS reviews the Collingwood list and has concerns for the future:
ONCE THE MOST POWERFUL club in Australian Rules football, admittedly a long time ago, Collingwood has missed the AFL finals four years in a row, but is taking great consolation from the premiership success of its neighbour, Richmond.
Having finished 13th, the Magpies are figuring that if the Tigers could come from there last year to win the 2017 flag they can do the same next year.
Except that the Pies lack key position players – no defender in Alex Rance’s class and no big forward of Jack Riewoldt’s calibre – and its midfield is over-rated, flattered especially by Champion Data’s statistics.
Collingwood’s kicking, especially for goal, too often is woeful.
Unlike Richmond, its game plan is confused.
And the Pies nowadays too rarely apply the maniacal pressure that was their trademark under Mick Malthouse in 2009-2011 that produced a premiership and a runner-up finish to a great Geelong side a year later.
Despite their absence from the September action for four years, and coach Nathan Buckley having effectively said pre-season that not making the eight this year would mean it was time for a change at the helm, he’s been given a two-year extension.
President Eddie McGuire’s faith in Buckley is unwavering, in many respects admirable, but more than that it may well be misplaced and unwise.
As Richmond did with Damien Hardwick, McGuire has staked it all on Buckley turning things around.
But there are a couple of big differences between Hardwick and Buckley.
The former understands defence, so vital to success – and certainly premiership success. And, despite the Tigers having come up horribly short so often before this year, there was never any question about Hardwick’s emotional intelligence – his ability to understand, and connect with, his players.
The same cannot be said of Buckley.
The “rat pack” that was loyal more to Malthouse has long gone and Buckley has pretty much the list he wanted – and it hasn’t delivered for him. Perhaps because of him.
Maybe his intensity is too much for his charges? Does he have the tactical nous? Has he got the right assistants around him? Does he, or will he, listen to those there to assist him?
It’s not all gloom at Magpieland.
The optimists will point out that the Pies won four of their last seven games and drew another, with minor premier and grand finalist Adelaide.
They beat Sydney in Sydney and Geelong at the MCG early in the season, then turned around a big deficit in round nine to break their drought against Hawthorn and ended up with a win over their most traditional rival, Melbourne, that cost the Demons a place in the finals.
Collingwood’s biggest defeat of the year – to another old foe, Essendon – was 37 points. Not exactly a blowout.
But some realities.
The Pies were 2-6 after eight rounds.
Then they went 3-4 through the middle of the season.
Sure, the finish was better, but the wins from mid-July were against Gold Coast, West Coast in Melbourne, North Melbourne and Melbourne.
In the game they drew with Adelaide they had been 50 points in front.
Important improvers this year were ruckman Brodie Grundy, who showed he can be handy up forward too, and third-year small forward-midfielder Jordan De Goey – after the club-imposed suspension for a fib that kept him out of the side until round seven.
Jeremy Howe, recruited from Melbourne two years ago to be a winger-forward, went to new heights – very literally – at half-back.
His marking is a delight to not only the Magpie faithful but the entire footy world.
Daniel Wells turned up from North Melbourne rising 32 and in poor nick, yet when he got going (not often enough) he was magic. The Pies had a 75 per cent success rate in his 10 games.
Jamie Elliott had missed all of 2016 with a back injury but returned to top the club’s goalkicking with 34 “sausage rolls” from 17 games – a healthy average of two a match.
In all but the first of the five seasons Elliott’s played he’s topped 30. And he’s a dead-eye dick. He kicks more than twice as many goals as behinds.
But, now that he’s 25, the Pies need even more out of him. They haven’t had anyone kick more than 40 goals since Travis Cloke in 2013, when they last made the eight.
Alex Fasolo has been around a year longer than Elliott, but his goal average isn’t as good. He came through a difficult time this year with mental health issues. Credit to player and club.
Darcy Moore is a worry. In three seasons and 47 games he’s kicked 58 goals. Of 21 games this year, he was goalless in six. His goal average went down.
He’s got athleticism, takes the occasional big mark, but he’s not a full-forward, not a centre-half-forward, nor a No.1 ruckman.
The Pies need to get him happening. Might he be best playing the Leigh Brown ruck-rover role of 2010, or some variation of it?
American giant Mason Cox is the wildcard on the Collingwood list. He’s 211cm, can take a big grab, kicks straight (because he has been taught to kick as an adult, rather than growing up developing bad habits) and his goal average is almost as good as Moore’s. Admittedly, neither average is good enough.
Cox was tried four times this year. Played round one. Dropped immediately. Back for rounds five, six and seven, then out again. Back again for rounds 15 and 16. Then the last three games.
He has the size to ruck against Aaron Sandilands and Max Gawn, but only two of the nine games he played were wins.
Cox is a longshot to truly succeed but, having been retained, the Pies have to give him a big shot. They don’t have much alternative.
Plonk him in the goalsquare when the ball is being thrown in or up in Collingwood’s defence – the opposition could not dare leave him unattended – and race the ball down to him in the air. Who could outreach him?
It will need crumbers to storm to his feet for spillages.
Collingwood have got to get something working up there with Cox. And fast.
Ben Reid is a quandary. As a 20-year-old in the 2010 premiership he was a star, a centre-half-back for the Collingwood family to love as much as Billy Picken and Ted Potter – who cruelly never got to enjoy the ultimate success. The next year Reid was All-Australian, although Tom Hawkins got hold of him in the last quarter of the 2011 grand final. In Reid’s defence, he went into that finals campaign injured.
He’s had other injury worries in recent years, playing little in 2014 and ’15.
When fit he can play at either end. The big worry though is that Collingwood now wins less, a lot less, with Reid in the side than without him. Of the 15 games he played this year, the Pies won only four (and there was the draw). They can’t do without him, or they would have no genuine key position player, but now they can’t do it with him.
Nor can they do it with their much-trumpeted midfield.
Scott Pendlebury is elite and, had he not missed seven games at the end of the season, might have won a fifth straight Copeland Trophy, and sixth in seven years.
As great a player as Pendlebury is, he’s not a great captain.
Indeed, the Collingwood list is light on leadership.
Steele Sidebottom has been a fine midfielder for the Pies for almost a decade and on Friday night claimed his first Copeland.
Magpie fans see him as elite, but not necessarily the other 17 clubs.
Adam Treloar arrived from Greater Western Sydney two years ago on what sounds like elite money, preferring Collingwood over Richmond because he rated the Magpie list higher, yet he’s not quite elite either.
His kicking is flawed. More so Taylor Adams, who came from GWS two years earlier than Treloar. The Giants have the luxury of letting go those with such faults.
Adams is all grunt, was a narrow runner-up to Sidebottom in the Copeland and has been given leadership responsibilities. But if Collingwood was the side it was in 2009-2011 he’d struggle to get a game.
So what – or who – has Collingwood got to look forward to in the near future, apart from any treasures it turns up through the trade period and draft?
Certainly, there’s Callum Brown and Josh Daicos, sons of favourite sons who had a taste of the big league in their first year at the club.
Indigenous lad Kayle Kirby too, who made his debut in the season-ending victory over Melbourne – although he didn’t register on the scoreboard after booting plenty in the VFL.
An undoubted talent, Kirby needs to get to grips with the discipline and commitment AFL footy requires.
The big hope the black and white army haven’t seen yet on the senior stage is 197cm Sam McLarty. Born deaf and playing with a bionic ear implant, he’s a potential centre half-back if there’s to be a resurrection of the Pies.
Key position players can take time, although Ben Reid is a reminder of how quickly they can come on under astute coaching.
Brayden Maynard now has 51 games under his belt, Josh Smith 31 and Tom Phillips 24. Now they need to blossom – and Buckley needs to show he can “make” players like Malthouse did in his time at Collingwood.
Matt Scharenberg was a first-round draft pick in 2013 but, because of knee injuries, has played only 14 games – 10 of them this year. The raps on him as a junior were huge, but as yet they are nowhere near fulfilled.
Promising though is that Collingwood’s success rate when Scharenberg was in the side this year was 55 per cent.
Of the two Magpies who came back from two-year doping bans, Josh Thomas played nine senior games and Lachie Keeffe none, when the Pies were crying out for a pillar in their spine.
Keeffe will turn 27 early next season. If he’s going to make it, or Buckley is to “make” him, it will have to be soon.
Even more challenging, if he is retained, is Chris Mayne.
Recruited from Fremantle specifically to “captain” the forward line, with defensive skills yet expected to kick or create goals, Mayne’s form in rounds one to three was below par.
Yet it was after the stirring away win against Sydney that he was banished to the VFL, never to return.
Certainly, he warranted relegation to the twos at the time to find form, but how come the great summer plan was simply abandoned?
Yes, the blame has been laid at the feet of suspended – and seemingly departed – list/recruiting guru Graeme Allan.
All may not be lost here yet though if Mayne is kept around. Perhaps it’s the remaining coaching staff who need to accept responsibility as much as, or more than, the player.
There’s lots of repair and rebuilding work to be done.
Only the almighty McGuire could have spared Buckley the axe in the face of the fans – and club greats – angry at the uncharacteristic long Collingwood absence from the September stage.
From 68 per cent success and three finals in 2012, the year he succeeded Malthouse (who he seemingly didn’t want looking over his shoulder), Buckley is now at 52 per cent over his six-year coaching career. Over the past three seasons it’s been 45, 41 and 43 per cent.
Now there’s talk of a mentor for Buckley. Might that not have been the role for Malthouse after 2011, before he – the one man in the Magpie camp who knew how to win the premiership – walked away, seemingly made to feel unwanted.
The failures since those days have taken a toll on attendances. Collingwood has lost almost a quarter of its crowds since the 2010 home and away season. This year they were 86.8 per cent of Richmond’s pre-finals attendances. They were lower than Essendon’s too, despite the Magpies having 14 games at the MCG to Essendon’s seven.
That added insult to the injury of losing to the Bombers twice in the one season.
Almost as galling as having Carlton fans sing Happy Birthday as the Blues downed the Pies on their 125th anniversary.
For Collingwood, it doesn’t get any worse.
Can it get better?
It must, but probably not in a hurry.
Author: Geoff Harris
Motor racing – of all sorts – and Australian Football are the sporting passions, even obsessions, of GEOFF HARRIS, the journo known to family, friends and Sun News-Pictorial, Herald Sun and sportshounds.com.au colleagues as Harry.