When recently writing of the season that just was, I mused about the possibility of writing a piece exploring our history of Grand Final defeats. Admittedly, it was never a piece that I was in a rush to get to, especially not at a point when our most recent loss was so raw. However, being a little further removed from that most recent of wounds has perhaps allowed time to act as a salve of sorts, at least enough to dampen the sort of emotion that might plague such a discussion.
I should say from the beginning that I don’t expect to come to any definitive conclusion with this – I’m actually not sure that’s possible – but rather this is just an exercise to ponder our often painful history, with a view to creating some discussion.
By comparison, as a Collingwood supporter I consider myself to be fairly fortunate. I say that as someone who has endured the evaporation of four premiership dreams, and very nearly a fifth in 2010’s first drawn Grand Final. On the flipside, I have managed to enjoy two premierships, with 2010 admittedly being the most vivid given that I was only 8 years old in 1990.
Perhaps I consider myself fortunate because my perspective often shifts to a comparison with supporters of sides who have not tasted such glory within my lifetime: Melbourne, St Kilda and Fremantle come to mind. Passionate Bulldog supporters suffered through a long drought until 2016, and likewise Richmond until 2017.
But I am mindful nonetheless of those Collingwood supporters who have loyally stood by this team through much more heartbreak. Since we triumphantly defended our four-peat in 1958, we have played off in 15 Grand Finals for a record of 2 wins, 1 draw and 12 losses. We’ve had enough opportunity to build a substantial lead on the premiership ladder, but instead trail by one to both Essendon and Carlton and perhaps more importantly, have subjected our supporter base to enough sorrow at the summit to last a lifetime.
The question is, can common flaws be found throughout the last 60 years, across multiple administrations and playing lists? Once you also factor in how much the game has changed over the course of so many decades, it seems that there are entirely too many variables in play to suggest a pattern that can be analysed and then broken.
The only constant is the club itself, what it represents and how the supporters relate to it and vice versa, but what is it about our club that makes us susceptible to Grand Final defeat?
One proposition that I see raised from time to time is that the supporter base carries a burden of responsibility for our lack of premiership success, due in large part to how we respond to such defeat or perhaps more accurately, the unwavering devotion that many have for this club. Every club has its contingent of fairweather supporters, so that during successful periods clubs will enjoy a spike in paid membership whilst in the lean years, these numbers will drop — often significantly.
A fair indication of a club’s core and overall support is the baseline membership numbers throughout those periods where success hits a trough — along with the average attendance figures. Collingwood always manages to enjoy strong enough support to generally guarantee a profitable operation even when on-field results are mediocre. Of course, when things do turn around and the trajectory trends upward, a windfall for the club coffers is assured.
The theory has two facets: firstly that the devotion of this rusted on base is too forgiving of failure and enamored by sentiment that the club is not driven, by people power, to be uncompromising in harnessing every opportunity. Secondly, that those administering the club can afford to be complacent, secure in the knowledge that enough of the faithful will remain so regardless of results.
On the first facet, that of the supporters, it is hard to objectively build a case as to how they could be held even slightly responsible. I admit, our supporter base often reverts to pride in the wake of agonising shortfalls at the final hurdle, but this has to be judged within context. From my own experience, the two instances where pride was an understandable response were 2002 and to a slightly lesser extent, our most recent defeat in 2018.
On paper, that 2002 team had no right whatsoever to even come close to victory against the juggernaut of Brisbane. The Lions were far and away the most formidable side at that point in time, and remained formidable for two more seasons. The abundance of top tier talent but also the brute and unrelenting force of that squad has, in many respects, not been replicated since. Nonetheless, a modest assortment of top quality amidst a gang of journeymen and handy foot soldiers pushed this outfit to the final minutes — and even worked their way into winning positions throughout the game.
It was, as so many close Grand Finals are, a match of moments. An argument could be made that it was another example of our football club not seizing those moments, but to do so seems unfair given that on a moment-to-moment basis, they did fight grimly to create and capitalise on enough opportunities to even go with the Lions for four quarters.
It was gut wrenching, but to feel anything other than pride for how the club had turned itself around after the dismal mid-to-late 90s would have been unfair. They did, after all, fight tooth and nail for 120 minutes against a much stronger outfit. Whilst we had some quiet players on the day, for the most part a majority of the list really played out of their skins to firstly get to the Grand Final, and then give such a credible account of themselves once there.
2018 was of course similar, given that the club battled through a mounting injury list which resulted in key personnel being missing for extended periods, yet still secured a top four position and based on preseason expectations, an unlikely Grand Final berth. What was disappointing in the result was that we had, until the last few minutes of the first quarter, worked our way into a commanding position. To lose after being 5 goals up at one point stings, but overall the team did not play poorly and West Coast were, across the next three quarters, the better team overall.
The pride in our most recent result does echo in some ways that of 2002. A team that outperformed expectations, that performed well throughout September – even exceptionally as witnessed in the preliminary final – and of course, the element of resurgence and camaraderie. What was different however, was that West Coast were not a comparable opponent to the Lions of 2002 or 2003; rather, they were definitely beatable and we had been in a winning position, so it very much represented a missed opportunity.
Nonetheless, it remained a season – and a Grand Final performance – worthy of pride.
As for the response of fans, I don’t think there was a single Collingwood player or official who in the wake of the final siren honestly felt that close enough was good enough; who found consolation in the fact that the faithful would express their appreciation all the same. Similarly, there wouldn’t have been a player who took the field – at any stage of our history – being satisfied in the knowledge that the fans would be their tomorrow regardless of the outcome.
For the fans themselves, as valid as pride is it also acts as a coping mechanism of sorts — a way to find a silver lining or extract some meaning out of such a hollow feeling. It is, of course, not the only path one can take — frustration and anger are just as readily traversed.
I can however agree that our club, perhaps a little more than others and a lot more than some, is at the risk of falling into complacency at times given the level of devotion amongst our supporters. We have seen in recent years that we were slow to address certain issues, one example being the faith in a coaching setup that was failing, which was persisted with until the precipice loomed. On one hand, as a club you don’t want to risk being too reactive, but at the opposite end of the spectrum is the risk of becoming inert. I would agree to an extent with those who cite the devout support as an enabling factor for the club to not be more proactive on certain issues: be it making changes in the administration, coaching box or even on the list.
With that said, it is a fair conclusion to draw that if a team has made the Grand Final, then they’ve got a majority of things off-field and on-field right. I can concede that some of the weaknesses of the club’s ethos or culture – legacies of preceding years that may still be extant – can of course play a hand in hobbling success even once things have turned around.
But when it boils down to a home-and-away season and in particular, 120 minutes of football in such unique and epic circumstances as the final Saturday in September, there just seems to be too many variables and elements of chance to be able to pin it reliably down to anything that came before.
There are two factors that I feel might play a part, in terms of common causes that we can possibly point to: the weight of history and the almost otherworldly blend of sentiment and fanaticism that surrounds our club, within the inner sanctum and in the stands.
The weight of history wouldn’t be applicable for those first few Grand Final losses following the success of 1958 (1960 and 1964) but by 1966 and 1970 the previous disappointments and the weight of expectation would have been building to extreme proportions. I can’t even begin to imagine the mental burden our players must have carried, given the animosity towards us from all of those without, and the near delirium of the hopes of the vocal faithful within.
That burden no doubt continued to build, even as the complexion of the list changed, as we headed into 1977 — only to be magnified tenfold after losing a winning lead at three quarter time in the first drawn Grand Final, before it all fell apart in the replay. I don’t even want to try and imagine what it was like for the club – let alone the fans – from 1979 through to 1981.
All the same, I have to wonder how informed our current playing list would be of that history for the weight of expectation to leave them any more sleepless on Grand Final eve. For many lining up in our colours over the last 50 years however, this no doubt might have been a cross too cumbersome to bear.
Now for the sentiment, the fanaticism, the almost religious experience that is being a baracker of this club: often transcendental, other times akin to the existential dread of a bad peyote trip.
This element might work in both an abstract and a very real manner. Often our club makes list and even football department decisions that are informed by that sentiment, rather than a pragmatic and cutthroat assessment that might lead to finding the required pieces. Whether it is not postponing the succession plan in the wake of 2010 to give us clean air and every opportunity to go back-to-back with no possible derailment; or the assistant coaching jobs provided for ex-players, when they may not be the best available — we’ve seen this year what quality assistants can do.
In terms of players themselves, we tend to hang on or acquiesce to contract demands. We were, admittedly, a little more willing to move players on throughout the turbulent transition period under Buckley – Heath Shaw being the notable example – but even in this instance it wasn’t a simple pragmatic decision to reshape the list, but rather a mixture of instability within the locker room and a coach having to wield a scalpel rather than carrots to win over a list that had been thrown into unchartered waters.
It wasn’t, for example, the calculated and orchestrated list management that has been seen at Hawthorn in recent years after their dynasty. Admittedly, we’re yet to see if these moves by Clarkson and the club in moving on stalwarts will pay dividends and lever the window open again. Their ability to identify the talent they needed to build and enhance their system in the first place, then to get those deals done, was instrumental in their success — and something that any club should note.
The sentiment that often informs our list management was perhaps on display once more this trade period. I’ve already written on the Dayne Beams acquisition, but it is worth noting that entering the trade period another midfielder would not have registered on our needs list. Any club would have been happy to add a player like Beams to their list, but from the minute his intentions were made known, it never seemed likely that we would even consider not accommodating both Beams and Brisbane.
On paper, Beams is a quality addition — but I can’t help but feel the sentimental appeal informed the decision somewhat as well. It is this tendency that, whilst I don’t mind indulging every so often for the soul of the club, we do have to be wary about all the same.
Now for the abstract.
The fanaticism with which us fans relate to our club is visceral — it fills the air whenever the topic of Collingwood comes up, let alone once the ball hits the turf. For those players who may be immune to or ignorant of the weight of our history, the enormity of any moment donning our stripes with the masses riding on every firing synapse would bore into their being pretty quickly.
Are we really that different from any other club though? Is the experience for the players unique at Collingwood? As supporters of this club, we would like to think so. The reality though is that players are professionals now and this is a career, not so much a labour of love. They can undoubtedly still grow fond of a club and you’ll find those who take unders to remain, but with the ever-increasing contracts and player movement on the rise, the money motive is clearly taking precedence.
This aside and bias or not, I still suspect there is something almost tangible to the atmosphere at Collingwood. The media scrutiny, the sheer weight of numbers in the stands and also the manner in which we promote ourselves all plays a part. Having a fanatic at the helm in McGuire, who also possesses an almost ubiquitous media presence, also plays a part in expanding the magnitude of our club’s existence, both in a historical and contemporary sense.
At the end of all of this, is there anything we can actually pinpoint? Having thought about it and dragged you through 2500 words, I honestly don’t think it’s possible to come to anything conclusive. Even when we consider our most recent triumphs in 1990 and 2010, there are moments where it almost imploded. The drawn final with West Coast in 1990, the drawn Grand Final against St Kilda in 2010 — what if that ball pitched up for Milne? Best not to think about it.
There’s just something about Collingwood, something of the tragic perhaps. I’m not suggesting we should ever find peace with that particular aspect of our history, but it does add a certain richness to it. I desperately hope that we get to salute once again and, even better, manage to continue that victorious trend even if our Grand Final appearances aren’t sequential — anything to start improving the ratio.
It is what it is, and it’s not necessarily all bad. If you were a glass half full type, you would point to the fact that we at least manage to give ourselves a shot on that final Saturday more so than many other clubs. If you’re a glass half empty sort, then I guess the question is whether you would be happier following a club that rarely or never affords you the chance to experience the adrenaline rush of crashing your forehead into the final hurdle.
I’m reminded of a discussion I had with a Richmond tragic at work on the first Monday after the Grand Final. He hasn’t missed a Grand Final since the early 70s and as a Richmond member who attends on a weekly basis and even ventures interstate, he has sat witness to some extended periods of miserable football. His 2017 triumph aside, he said first thing after watching us go down by less than a kick that he would honestly rather not make the finals at all, he would forego even the elation of daring to dream rather than endure such a tight Grand Final and heart wrenching loss.
This from a Richmond member who is no stranger to success deprivation. It made me think, not so much that we’re just made of sterner stuff, but in perspective all that heartbreak we’ve endured does add something unique and invaluable to any glory we experience. And lest we forget, that 1990 and 2010 show that we aren’t terminally cursed. Given our history of making it that far, we do stand a reasonable chance of planting our flag in the summit again.
Grand Final defeat is not a part of our history that we should celebrate, nor should we ever consider close enough as being good enough. But the pain we’ve internalised through those dark passages does lend something unique to our triumphs that only us, as birds of a feather, can appreciate when we do break through into the light.