While it’s sometimes redundant to look back and speculate on how things might’ve turned out if another course has already been taken, it can also be instructive to provide context for the present.
The question I’m sure has been discussed over many a beer is: what would’ve happened at Collingwood had the succession plan, which saw Nathan Buckley succeed Mick Malthouse as coach in 2012, not been enforced?
Collingwood were coming off successive grand final appearances. They’d won the flag in 2010 before going down to a powerful Geelong side in 2011. Despite the loss, Collingwood had a young squad and the future had seemed bright.
So what would’ve happened had Malthouse remained coach?
The playing list
In Dane Swan’s biography My Story he openly talks about a number of players wanting Malthouse to stay on.
“I loved playing under Mick and I wanted him to stay on as coach, definitely,” he said. “The senior guys that I raised it with mostly were keen for him to keep coaching and while it was not an issue in 2010, our premiership year, it was everywhere in 2011.
“I can remember rumblings within the playing group about forcing the issue and there was one instance where it was raised with Mick directly.”
Swan also pointed out it had nothing to do with Buckley. It would’ve happened with anybody taking over. Players were just too allied to Malthouse. He also pointed out Malthouse doused the conversation and said the agreement had to be honoured.
So the first strike against the succession plan is that Buckley inherited a divided playing list and arguably didn’t have the experience or malleability to handle the transition and the disparate personalities – if they were manageable at all.
The way Swan portrayed it, it was an intractable situation that was impossible to navigate for all involved.
The scuttlebutt suggests that led to off-field disrespect and dissonance within the playing ranks.
The cultural change
There are two types of culture to consider.
The social culture. How are the players behaving off-field? To this point, Collingwood had suffered more than their share of off-field indiscretions. The playing culture. This alludes to how successful the club is on-field.
Given the exodus of players over the next three years, there seems to have been a focus on reinventing the former, but how successful has it been?
Jordan de Goey has had a string of indiscretions. Jaidyn Stephen placed a bet. Most recently, Steele Sidebottom went on a bender. Although Heritier Lumumba’s claims date back to 2006, he asserts it was worse during Buckley’s tenure. There are other examples.
It’s easy to excuse these problems as individuals misbehaving rather than symptoms of culture going wrong. But their existence does make you query how much has changed and just how necessary cultural reinvention was required.
Every club has problems. If Collingwood’s culture was so bad it needed to be specifically addressed, how much has it been repaired?
As far as the playing culture goes, in Buckley’s autobiography All I Can Be he clearly demonstrated a sharp understanding of the hyperbole that surrounds the club and that can be generated from within, sometimes to the detriment of what’s important: on-field focus.
In the Collingwood documentary From the Inside Out Buckley talked about the club being “arrogant” and a “chest-beating” club and that he’s working to reinvent the way they perceive themselves and are perceived.
How all this change has impacted the club only insiders would truly know. But consider these results:
- 2009: 16 wins, seven losses (one win, two losses in finals). 2010: 20 wins, two draws, four losses (three wins, one draw, no losses, and a flag in finals). 2011: 23 wins, three losses (twowins, one loss in the finals).
Following their failed 2002-03 grand final campaigns, Collingwood embarked on a rebuild and missed the finals 2004-05. They were also two seasons Collingwood had horrible injury runs to mainstay players.
From 2006 to 2011 they made the finals every season, playing in two grand final campaigns and four preliminary finals.
If there was something wrong culturally, it didn’t seem to be impacting on-field performances.
In Buckley’s first year (2012) as coach Collingwood amassed 17 wins and eight losses (one win and two losses in the finals), and in the following year (2013) went 14 wins and nine losses (one loss in the finals).
While the side was winning, gone was the fluency and purpose of the previous two seasons.
Understandably, that might be the result of adapting to a new game plan, but the side never seemed fully or consistently cohesive. There were a number of games I sat in the crowd for, and fans were perplexed at what they were seeing.
From 2014 until 2017 they missed the finals, with finishes of 11th, 12th, 12th and 13th. The only previous Collingwood coach in the last 30 years to miss finals over four successive seasons was Tony Shaw (1996-99).
Malthouse missed them during his initial rebuild of 2000-01 and in his second rebuild of 2004-05.
Leigh Matthews missed them in 1986, 1987, 1991, 1993 and 1995.
In Buckley’s autobiography he talked about an air of complacency at the club when he arrived in 1994, about how some of the players were satisfied they’d climbed the mountain once (in 1990) and that they didn’t seem to have the hunger to go above and beyond. Craig Kelly (a player during that time, now Buckley’s manager) suggests they should’ve rejuvenated the list with some judicious trading.
I’ve always wondered how much that experience motivated Buckley’s decision-making as coach when it seemed his playing list didn’t have the same drive under him in 2012-13.
The query is if they would’ve had that hunger (or been hungrier) under Malthouse.
Some argue that they wouldn’t have been given they’d got their flag. But let’s not forget their flag was in 2010. They then had a 20-2 home-and-away season in 2011, so it seemed the list was still keen.
Malthouse was also an experienced coach and had learnt to reinvigorate a club’s hunger following success.
Obviously you need players to perform. The best coaches can’t do a thing without personnel.
Coming out of the 2010 premiership, Collingwood’s grand final team broke down into the following demographics: 29-year-olds: Ben Johnson. 28-year-olds: Leigh Brown, Darren Jolly. 27-year-olds: Alan Didak, Nick Maxwell. 26-year-olds: Luke Ball, Dane Swan. 24-year-olds: Heath Shaw. 23-year-olds: Travis Cloke, Tyson Goldsack, Heritier Lumumba, Dale Thomas, Alan Toovey. 22-year-olds: Chris Dawes, Brent Macaffer, Scott Pendlebury, Sharrod Wellingham. 21-year-olds: Ben Reid. 20-year-olds: Dayne Beams, Jarryd Blair. 19-year-olds: Steele Sidebottom.
It’s a young list that some strategic list management could’ve rejuvenated – just fast-forward to 2011 when they picked up Chris Tarrant, Andrew Krakouer and John Ceglar.
The thing with any team sport is that you can identify talent and you can recruit it, but there is still an element of unpredictability. How good will these players become? Which stars don’t fulfil their potential? Which middling players transform into stars?
While drafting continues to be broken down into a science, you can’t qualify the human equation. That’s why we have all these retrospective ratings of previous drafts and how their order would unfold on exposed form. These lists never resemble the drafts as they did occur.
In the rebuild leading up to their 2010 flag Collingwood were fortunate enough to draft the likes of Scott Pendlebury, Dale Thomas, Ben Reid, Nathan Brown, Chris Dawes, Steele Sidebottom and Dayne Beams, all players who figured prominently in their 2010-11 dominance.
Dale Thomas and Ben Reid were elite players for a short period. Brown and Dawes were great in their roles. Thomas, Reid and Dawes all suffered injuries – Dawes a broken knuckle in 2011, Thomas an injured ankle in 2012 and Reid recurring soft tissue injuries – that levelled how good they were. Dawes is often wrongly maligned. In 2010-11, he was an entirely different prospect. He might not have been another Travis Cloke, but he was much more promising than what he showed from 2012 onwards. Beams proved his calibre at Brisbane.
Through a confluence of shrewd list management, luck and cultivation Collingwood assembled the best squad of talent I’ve seen in the 40-plus years supporting this club.
It wasn’t the typically Collingwood workmanlike side, but it had class, X factor and excitement on every line. I know other Collingwood supporters who feel similarly.
If it lacked anything, and this is more a result of the age profile (being a young side), it was players growing into leadership roles.
Now the query is: just how deeply did this list need to be turned over to bring them back into contention?
On paper it wouldn’t seem a lot, definitely not worthy of a full rebuild during a time that the expansion teams were monopolising all the best young talent.
Compare them to Hawthorn, who’d won the flag in 2008 and then strategically targeted top-ups, such as Ben McAvoy and Brian Lake, that filled needs and helped them dominate over a five-year period.
With players such as Darren Jolly, Alan Didak, Ben Johnson, Chris Tarrant, Heath Shaw, Dale Thomas, Dayne Beams, Sharrod Wellingham, Heritier Lumumba, Leon Davis, Leigh Brown and Chris Dawes outgoing, Collingwood created a big hole that drafting and recruiting didn’t get anywhere near close to filling.
While a number of those players didn’t enjoy the form elsewhere that they did at Collingwood, for Collingwood to remain a force they needed to find players who provided a similar input.
It’s not difficult to see why the bottom dropped out of the side 2014-17.
But the injuries…
Admittedly this is purely speculation. We cannot know if the likes of Ben Reid, Dale Thomas et cetera would’ve suffered injuries under Malthouse as they did with Nathan Buckley.
Thomas copped a knock on his ankle. Was his ankle vulnerable, and would that have occurred regardless at some point and razed him from a fast, exciting mid to a dour flanker?
Would Reid had suffered recurring soft tissue injuries under a different management with different priorities and methods?
We don’t know.
However, there did seem to be a shift in the club’s focus following the transition. In 2012 they had five players suffer ACL injuriess and a plethora of soft tissue injuries.
The soft tissue injury malaise has plagued the club since Buckley took over. Speculation has surrounded various possible contributors, such as the training regime or the training surface et cetera or a combination of things.
I refuse to buy into bad luck, though. Bad luck is something that happens over one or two years, not nine. I would concede a curse before I would consider bad luck over such a prolonged period.
As big as a leap as it is, I can’t imagine injuries would’ve unfolded the same given Collingwood’s last horrid injury run was 2004-05 and from 2006 until 2010 they didn’t endure the horror run they’ve had since 2012.
Something changed in the make-up of the club that’s contributed to this ongoing misfortune.
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Since the succession plan it’s been one misstep after another, and it feels like even to this day they’ve been playing catch-up to find parity.
The club handed Buckley a divided playing list. The early coaching models of Buckley seemed hard and inflexible and tackled this issue confrontationally in a test of wills. An exodus followed.
They dismantled this promising young list and then struggled to replenish it. Factor in the injuries and how they affected the club’s fortune and capacity to rebuild.
The game plan was a mess for four seasons and only gelled consistently in 2018. It was sporadic last season and has been so again this year.
Even before the injuries hit there were examples of Collingwood dominating a quarter and then looking stagnant for the rest of the match – for example, against Richmond, Collingwood kicked five goals in the first quarter and one for the rest of the game. This has been a common theme.
Going forward I would worry how the club’s list build compares against the likes of sides who’ve sat on the bottom, had access to the best young talent and assembled balanced lists replete with a key-position spine and a collection of classy on-ballers. Collingwood is still relying on their 32-year-old skipper to be their premier mid.
Would Collingwood have fared better if the succession plan had been abandoned?
Yes. They would’ve remained cohesive, avoided the quantity of injuries and remained competitive for longer, particularly in a league in which the talent pool has been diluted by the introduction of two new clubs, which meant middling clubs didn’t have the access to top-end talent to improve.
Does that guarantee that Collingwood would’ve enjoyed more success?
Well, that’s something that can never be definitively answered.
By the sounds of it, though, Nathan Buckley would’ve also been better served from a longer apprenticeship or perhaps getting away from the club and immersing himself in a different culture.
Naturally, he might not have ever returned to Collingwood, but clubs shouldn’t be governed by romanticism. Leigh Matthews never made it back to Hawthorn as a coach. A big driver in events seems to be that Collingwood didn’t want to lose Nathan Buckley, who was considered a hot coaching prospect at the time, to another club.
While some might dismiss it as almost decade-old mews, others still ponder where the club came from, what they might’ve squandered and if it’s been worth it.
You may disagree entirely. That’s your right. Like everybody else, I’m just another punter with an opinion.
We can never actually know for sure.
Melbourne has their Norm Smith curse. Under Norm Smith the Demons had won six flags, were aiming to reach their 12th consecutive finals race and despite a handful of disappointing losses sat third on the ladder and equal top except for percentage. Melbourne then sacked Smith, and although he was later reinstated, the club has struggled since.
Given Collingwood were on a high and had won a rare contemporary premiership, sometimes it feels as if their succession plan has invoked its own curse upon the club and cast a shadow upon everything they’ve done since 2012.