I’ve previously written about my childhood love of AFL football and my subsequent disillusionment. I’ve been on a long path of rediscovery that at times has appeared rather pointless. The game is not the same. The glitter has long faded. It is a business now. The AFL is managed by moneymen. The club mentality is slowly being watered down. Players are traded like cattle. Supporters are asked for money but are largely ignored. AFL has slowly lost its soul. I did not renew my Collingwood membership this year. I felt a little alienated and taken for granted.
I’ve attended games when able and watched them on TV when I couldn’t. In the early part of the year, the team showed some promise but wasn’t really threatening to do anything special. They lost the unlosable game to West Coast and appeared pretty thin as far as depth was concerned. But they were having a crack. I could see that. There was something fresh about the way that they were playing but it wasn’t quite working. They kicked nine goals in the third quarter against Geelong playing kamikaze football that simply could not be sustained. Geelong being Geelong ran over the top of them…but there was something there.
I started to buy in. New coach Crag Mcrae was a revelation. He spoke about being grateful to have the job and about honouring the jumper. He didn’t speak guarded coachspeak. It was a breath of fresh air.
Key ruckman Brodie Grundy suffered a season-ending knee injury. I went to the next game against Richmond expecting a belting. The Tigers were too good, but the Magpies remained true to Mcrae’s instructions to keep trying to win the game regardless of the score. The team, crippled by flu limped into the next game against the Bulldogs and were flogged. Mcrae held his nerve, choosing to emphasise the positives rather than dwell on the negatives.
The Pies travelled to WA to play Fremantle who was absolutely flying at the time. It poured and Collingwood was tougher, harder and more persistent, running out clear winners. Where did that come from?
More wins followed. I wasn’t entirely convinced. There was a game against Hawthorn where I saw the first glimpse of something special. Early in the last quarter, Hawthorn was on top, controlling territory and looking to land a killer blow. I confided to the Hawthorn supporter sitting next to me that I feared the Hawks would win by five goals or more. Then, the game changed. I couldn’t explain why or how. It just happened. Once Collingwood regained the lead, they never looked like losing it. I can’t explain that.
Then we played Melbourne on Queen’s Birthday. It’s a marquee game for a variety of reasons. Most people expected Melbourne to win easily. Collingwood was “on” early. Their tackling and pressure were first-class, but Melbourne looked a class above and seemed able to score easily when required. Halfway through the third quarter, the game changed. Melbourne’s fluency deserted them. Jamie Elliott kicked a goal just before three-quarter time and I started to believe that a win was possible. The last quarter was up until that day as good a quarter of football that I’d seen Collingwood play since the halcyon days of Price and Mckenna. The ball movement was dazzling and Melbourne was unable to hold back the swarm of Collingwood runners.
Collingwood supporters around me were delirious. It wasn’t just winning. It was the way it was done, with flair, dare and a scoring capacity that far exceeded expectations. It was a win for the ages – one to be savoured in what was still viewed as a development year.
Remarkably, the wins kept coming. The team was often beaten in key indicators that suggested that they should lose but invariably would make crucial plays at key moments that would keep them within shouting distance. Nail-biting last quarters became the norm. Incredibly they won all of them. Their decision-making and capacity to run out games seemed to be the key drivers for this sustained run of success. Opposition supporters put it down to luck, but there was something else at work. I can’t tell you what it is, because it’s indefinable and magical. It can’t last. I’ve told myself at least a dozen times and there have been game days where it seemed that luck simply had to run out. And yet the pies kept finding a way.
Against Essendon, Collingwood looked beaten five minutes into the last quarter, but they simply willed themselves back into the game, culminating in one last heroic charge that saw the ball once again land in Jamie Elliott’s hands with thirty seconds of game time left. Elliott kicked the clutchest of clutch goals to steal the win.
It is the moment that I rediscovered the total love that I have for this game. Elliott’s kick, the reaction of his teammates and the response from the crowd swept away all of my cynicism and replaced it with what I can only describe as joy. Suddenly I was transported back to moments of my childhood when Saturday afternoons were spent listening to a transistor radio as Collingwood did battle and my heroes seemed larger than life.
It was my dream to do what Elliott did.
It was an amazing moment that in most years could not be surpassed. This is not an ordinary year.
Two weeks later, Collingwood was rematched with Melbourne. The Demons came out breathing fire, but Collingwood hung in. Still, it seemed only a matter of time before Melbourne would take control. Again halfway through the third quarter, the momentum of the game changed. At the last break, a goal separated the two teams. In a scintillating last quarter, the lead changed hands several times before first-year player, Ash Johnson put Collingwood in front with minutes to play. Remarkably Collingwood kept the ball trapped deep in their forward line for the last two minutes of play to ensure victory.
This wasn’t luck. This team counterpunches harder for longer than its opposition and then makes the right decisions in the heat of battle. It is simply awe-inspiring.
By this time, I was all in, but realistic enough to not believe in fairy tales. All the numbers seemed to confirm that the intangible thread running through the season was destined to be broken. A game in Sydney without two key midfielders could be seen as confirmation of this. Collingwood were simply outgunned, even though they kept pushing all the way. The talking heads on the radio and TV nodded wisely and proclaimed the bubble burst. Longtime nemesis, Carlton were widely predicted to deliver the coup de gras before we limped into finals.
On paper, Carlton had all the necessary tools. Games aren’t played on paper. For the first half, Collingwood appeared to be the superior team. But Carlton, inspired by some incredible play by captain Patrick Cripps played superb football in the third term and appeared to have the game almost wrapped up.
Mcrae’s Collingwood had other ideas. Over the next thirty minutes, helped a little by Carlton’s inability to handle the big moments, Collingwood wound the lead back, until with less than 2 minutes left on the clock, Jamie Elliott was called upon to work another piece of magic.
Of course, it just wasn’t Elliotts kick. The quick hands of Nick Daicos to release Maynard out of the backline, followed by Maynards bullet like pass to Pendlebury and young Jack Ginnivan’s clever use of the body to allow Elliott time and space were all instinctive acts made by players given licence to play the moments as they saw them.
It was breathtaking in its audacity and oh so sweet to kill Carlton stone dead.
In a game that has become too clinical and too systems based, this Collingwood team is doing something different. They’re playing on pure instinct and it’s incredibly enjoyable to watch. This is the game I loved as a kid. It is the game I have fallen in love with all over again.
This week Collingwood are drawn to play Premiership favourites Geelong in the first Qualifying Final. Most pundits expect them to lose. Statistics, personnel and history says that most pundits are probably right. It doesn’t really matter. Collingwood aren’t meant to be there. It has a free swing. Geelong will try and kill Collingwood off early. If they don’t and it gets tight in the last quarter, they’d better be prepared to play each minute like their lives depended on it, because the Collingwood boys will.
It’s been a helluva ride. Everything from here is a bonus….but I dare to dream.
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