I confess that ahead of the Grand Final, a big part of me was hoping that when I did get around to writing an article about our season, it would be something bordering on epic, perhaps even akin to hagiography. As the season unfolded, I was increasingly taken by a heady emotional cocktail: a mixture of pride, humility and the surreal. That the Grand Final unfolded as it did has, not surprisingly, knocked some of the wind out of my sails and made for a heavy comedown.
But the sun still rose on that fateful Sunday, so this must be written.
At the beginning of the year, after reconciling myself to a contract extension that I did not agree with, I set a level of expectation for the 2018 season that I felt was the bare minimum to justify the extension of Buckley’s tenure as coach. The condensed version was that we needed to at least make finals, but beyond that had to play an improved brand of football and give an honest account of ourselves in September.
Needless to say, these expectations were met, with interest.
I don’t want to weasel out of my own assessments at the end of last year, I am a humble Pie whose assessment of where the club was at has been debunked throughout this year. On one hand, I feel comfortable in that I’ve always attempted to be measured in my criticism and any objective analysis of our last few years would conclude that as a club – on and off the field – we were performing poorly. I had resigned myself to the odds that our woes would continue and feared above all that the legacies of McGuire and Buckley were being prioritised ahead of the best interests of the football club.
In retrospect, I still believe these were reasonable concerns. In light of what has transpired, I’m happy to say that I was wrong.
The season that has just unfolded has been, once more, one of adversity for our football club. We lost Goldsack during the preseason to an ACL injury; Darcy Moore and Jaime Elliott were both hamstrung for virtually the entire year, with Darcy Moore breaking down mid-game on several occasions which left us structurally exposed; Tim Broomhead broke his leg in the second round; Scharenberg suffered his third ACL after beginning to establish himself as an important cog in our defence, with Dunn suffering the same fate shortly after.
We also lost Treloar for most of the back-half of the year, with Jordan De Goey also missing a pivotal patch of football. Sam Murray let himself and the team down in an awfully familiar fashion; and of course, on a more tragic note, Travis Varcoe suffered an immense personal loss on the eve of our September campaign.
It was also a storied sort of season: the redemptive arcs of Josh Thomas and Jordan De Goey; the reinvention and rejuvenation of Chris Mayne; Goldsack’s remarkable comeback in time for finals; the incredible debut season of Jaidyn Stephenson; Mason Cox’s preliminary final heroics; and of course, the aforementioned tragedy suffered by the Varcoe family.
As far as redemption goes, Buckley’s own story as coach may just top them all — which makes sense, given his turnaround to become Coach of the Year was a culmination of getting most of the moving parts right throughout the year. In a high-pressured year for him personally – one full of injury setbacks and other wrenches being thrown from left-field – he managed to navigate a team that is very much his own now through some rough waters, culminating in a most unexpected Grand Final appearance.
Credit must also go to our new assistants in Gary Hocking and Justin Longmuir, who both clearly played a big hand in turning our fortunes around. Longmuir in particular deserves special mention, as from week-to-week he had to improvise within our defensive unit. Despite losing the services of Moore, Scharenberg, Dunn and even Howe throughout the year, resulting in the selectors having to prematurely call upon Madgen and the promising Murphy, our defensive cohesion remained in place.
For much of the year, particularly after the loss of Dunn, our back six were undersized yet rarely exposed. After showing promise in the role in the back half of last year, Jack Crisp enjoyed a career-best season down back. Tom Langdon also stepped immensely to become something of a general down back on the home stretch, putting together an extremely impressive finals series.
Brayden Maynard continues to grow as a footballer also. I was in the camp of exploring the idea of running him through the midfield before this season commenced, but he has remained an extremely honest and combative defender, whilst also showing a lot more composure and maturity when in possession. He played a massive role in getting us into the preliminary final by towelling up the Giant’s most dangerous prospect in Toby Green.
He’s an absolute bull, who grew in stature once more this year and will be a vital cog in our defensive structure for a long time yet.
Credit – even apologies – must go to Chris Mayne for the various roles he played throughout this season. The consummate team player, he plugged holes and earned his spot throughout the year. There were of course moments throughout the year where he found himself cast once more as the whipping boy, but he was a valuable part of this team throughout. It must also be said that he was fantastic in the Grand Final.
As a collective, the team played some blistering football throughout the year — an honest and exciting brand. It was of course never perfect, but that was almost part of the appeal of how this team went about it. Our team was of course comprised of imperfect players, those who can oscillate quite rapidly between heroes and villains.
It is why we tend to have, at any given moment, a handful of players who can find themselves maligned. Taylor Adams often earned himself the ire of onlookers with his erratic and at times reckless disposal; Chris Mayne has been one of the most criticised players since crossing over, largely due to the contract terms attached to his arrival; Jack Crisp was another who had a tendency to cough up the football in dangerous positions, or fumble inopportunely; and then there was Tom Langdon, often castigated for his laconic manner and unforced errors.
With this in mind, it was a story in itself that these aforementioned players represented our better performers when it mattered most. Adams was our most influential midfielder on Grand Final day; Tom Langdon a rock down back and Mayne played out of his skin from beginning to end. Given the result, this provides no real solace, but it is in a way reflective of what made this team so commendable in 2018.
When those errors occurred, when we were for periods our own worst enemies, when momentum slipped from our finger tips, the team didn’t drop their heads but rather knuckled down to make amends. There were quarters throughout the year where we looked vulnerable and where the insipid performances of previous seasons threatened to return — but we were more often than not able to correct the faults, to arrest the trend and get things back on our terms.
Our coaching staff and the players themselves deserve a lot of credit for this, it was one of the most pleasing elements of our season.
Of course, we know the cruel and gut wrenching manner in which our season ended and it needs to be discussed.
There is nothing so cruel than daring to dream, to have that belief that the unbelievable might truly become reality – that intoxicating sense that emerged 15 minutes into the first quarter – only to have it snatched away. We jumped the Eagles and bloodied their nose first, we had them well and truly rattled. Credit must go to Adam Simpson and his team however, because after getting on the board in almost ridiculously lucky fashion, they managed to get the game back on their terms.
I felt that the Eagles were for the most part the better team for the final three quarters, as they reeled us in heading into the final term. We were unlucky in some respects, as many of those 50/50 calls and moments just didn’t fall our way, but the Eagles managed to force us to kick down the line more often than we would have liked. Given that they very much controlled the air at either end of the ground, our potency was nullified.
We still had our chances though, not enough of them, but the game was there to be won and sadly we came up short. It is difficult to accept given the start we had, but West Coast were a quality outfit throughout the year. The Eagles peppered the goals throughout the final quarter and it’s actually astounding in many respects how well our besieged and undersized back line held-up, given West Coast’s forward threats. In the end, it took one very good kick to sink us — a moment that I have no doubt has haunted all our minds since.
We desperately needed to gain and maintain ascendancy out of the middle, but failed to do so. Pendlebury had a very quiet game by his standards and Sidebottom was blanketed completely by Hutchings. There was a tale between two players with Sidebottom and Yeo: whilst both were heavily tagged and their effectiveness blunted, Yeo still managed to have a few big moments. His goal in the third quarter and a contested mark in the last standing out. For Sidebottom, the only highlight I can extract from my tormented memory of the game was an excellent handball to release De Goey for his third goal in the final term.
Sidebottom and Pendlebury will no doubt be ruing their performances, whilst Grundy was another who had his least influential game at the worst possible time. He won his share of hitouts, but few of them gave us clear advantage. He was worked over by Lycett and Vardy and really battled to link-up around the ground in general play. A big part of that was West Coast’s ability to slow our movement, along with a reluctance at times on our part, potentially due to the occasion, to keep taking risks. There were a few of those borderline calls from ruck contests that went against Grundy, which may have curbed his natural aggressive game.
Grundy strikes me as a mentally strong and introspective personality, so as shattering as the outcome was, I suspect there’s a good chance he’ll be better for it rather than broken by it.
There were others who could have been more involved: Josh Thomas had a few moments that he just couldn’t capitalise on and Aish – whilst honest enough defensively – didn’t provide us with much when going the other way. In saying this, we did manage to contain the potential damage that all of Ryan, Rioli and Lecras had proven themselves capable of and Aish was a big part of that.
Mason Cox struggled to get involved in the first half but stood-up a lot better in the second, kicking a couple of important goals.
Our inability to worry the Eagles aerially forward of centre – or conjure up more goals at ground level – played a big part in undoing our chances. McGovern – his impact both direct and psychologically – played a huge part in this, whilst Barrass was just as effective, if not more so.
Overall, I felt we got a fair bit right, but ultimately just not enough, for long enough.
What then, if any, positives can we take from such a heartbreaking result?
I would argue that given for much of our team this was their first finals series, they will have gained a lot from the experience. Even winning a single final would have been invaluable in terms of experience and development, so to win two – including a huge preliminary final against the flag favourites – and go so agonisingly close to our 16th premiership may – if harnessed and processed correctly – provide the foundation for another fully fledged tilt.
We got to learn a fair bit about several players. De Goey threatened to be a match winner from the beginning, kicking three huge goals at pivotal times. Stephenson looked undaunted in the first quarter, notching up two critical goals at a stage when a youngster could be forgiven for being too edgy to execute. He did struggle to get involved thereafter of course, but as a skinny 19 year old this is forgiveable — the fact that our ball movement was held up and slowed down also played a part.
De Goey has the potential, if he continues to focus and work hard, to genuinely be one of the top 5 players in the league, as a midfielder/forward. Stephenson’s ceiling appears limitless, particularly once he adds a little size and strength and is released a bit more to run the wings.
Taylor Adams has well and truly proven himself in the cauldron of September, he was a true heart-and-soul leader not just on Grand Final day, but in our finals preceding — he left nothing out on the field. Langdon was of course huge and really stepped up as a backline general over the last half of the year and throughout September.
Brayden Sier certainly didn’t look out of place in only his 12th game, with plenty more growth and improvement to come. Treloar worked hard, with 11 tackles and 26 disposals, but wasn’t able to buy enough open space to be as damaging as he would have liked. That’s what football is about on the last Saturday of September however, but his willingness to knuckle down in close was commendable all the same.
The likes of Adams, Treloar and now Sier represent the future of our midfield at the moment, particularly in light of Pendlebury playing a different sort of role and registering lower numbers. Perhaps the pivotal point is that, whilst I have no doubt he’s still capable of being a match winner, we can’t depend upon Pendlebury doing so as often as we once could.
If Langdon and Moore sign on, the majority of our defensive line looks solid for a few years yet. Langdon, Maynard, Howe and Crisp have proven themselves to be above average in quality – even elite in some attributes. They do need to have a dependable key position hinge though, whether that is Darcy Moore or an alternative, so that they can be more potent as interceptors rather than having to continuously balance their game between negating and attacking.
Our forward line and structure was a lot more dangerous this year, with all De Goey (48), Stephenson (38), Hoskin-Elliott (42) and Josh Thomas (38) ranking well on the goal kicking table. The spread was a much welcome development and even though this quartet – excluding De Goey – didn’t all fire to the extent that we hoped in September, there is certainly something potent to build upon.
I’m also not convinced that Hoskin-Elliott wasn’t curtailed somewhat by a knee injury he appeared to suffer in the second half of the year. He wasn’t moving as freely as in the first half of the season, particularly when linking up and getting dangerous out the back.
Before finishing, I should speak on a current topic regarding how we assess and reconcile this season. Given we have added another defeat to our tragic Grand Final history, we cannot deem this year a success. Nonetheless, acknowledging that we shouldn’t be content with the end result and yet still being able to commend and appreciate the efforts of the club this year are not mutually exclusive concepts.
Appreciation and pride are not one and the same with celebration or satisfaction.
We can admit that given the consensus of expectation at the beginning of the year, the team exceeded those expectations. However, we also should not deny the reality that this was very much an opportunity lost, as unexpected as it may have been 9 months ago. For the club to view this year as a satisfactory result would be folly of the highest order — but I seriously doubt that anyone at the club, even after having a week to digest the result, are thinking like this.
Our club’s history in Grand Finals – unbelievable in many respects – further complicates moments like these. It lends itself to debate and frustration; it even carries into the supernatural or opens up speculation as to whether there is in fact something stitched indelibly and terminally into the fabric of our club. Exploring this would warrant a piece of its own, but for now I’ll leave it be.
The emptiness in the pit of our guts is no doubt shared by all of those who took the field last Saturday, not to mention all of those who were a part of it throughout. You only need look at Alex Woodward, to know how much it meant to so many at the club. We should not mistake stoicism or dignity in defeat for contentment.
This season and the tribulations and tragedy it comprised, have the potential to further galvanise a group of players who appear to have come together in a cohesive and bonded manner. There is always the fear of course that such an outcome and emotional let-down might scar a playing group, but it is the task of Buckley and the players to work their way through all of this, to keep the fire burning at an even higher intensity so that they can climb the mountain again.
Keep the beard Buckley and steer clear of Collective Minds.
Football, like life, offers up its share of glory and suffering. It is fair to say that the ratio of such has been skewed unfavourably for us Collingwood supporters, but as with life when confronted by suffering all one can do is suffer well — to learn and grow from it, and be better still.
There are no guarantees next year. Some teams may decline, many others will improve — we cannot stand still. We need to take another clear-headed look at where we can improve, in terms of personnel, list and injury management. We need to find the missing pieces. The task for Buckley is to consolidate upon the gains he and the team have made this year, and find even more.
Whilst I can’t remember feeling so devastated about a result in the longest time – even the 2011 failure didn’t bite quite as hard and was perhaps mitigated somewhat by the triumph the year before – I am appreciative nonetheless that this club gave me reason to believe to such an extent once more.
By no means am I happy with the end result, but I am proud to be a Magpie.
Onwards and upwards Collingwood.
Side by Side.