The path to the finals.
Collingwood is always a victim of bloated expectations. A football club with a massive membership, huge following and the game’s most outspoken president guarantees headlines whether it’s performing or not.
Right now, those headlines scream “crisis”. The Magpies’ loss to Adelaide on Sunday was their fifth in the past six games, tipping them out of the eight for the first time since round four and in danger of missing finals for the first time since 2005.
It’s unaccustomed territory for this proud club and predictably, the fingers are being pointed everywhere, most popularly at coach Nathan Buckley and list management and recruiting decisions made over the past couple of years.
Magpies players walk off after their defeat. Photo: Getty Images
You can understand the angst. This, after all, is a team that still less than three years ago was playing off for a 16th premiership, having won 14 games in a row in 2011 and 20 of 21 leading up to the final home-and-away game of the season.
Superficially, that seems a dramatic fall from grace indeed. But the Collingwood of 2014 isn’t a pale imitation of its former self. It’s a completely different product, and a good example of how quickly the AFL wheel now turns.
Run through that 2011 grand final team and you might be surprised just how profoundly. Just 10 of the 22 who played off against Geelong remain on the books. And just six of those were fronting up against Adelaide on Sunday.
Scott Pendlebury addresses his young charges. Photo: Getty Images
Indeed, Collingwood hasn’t fielded many less experienced sides in its modern history than that which took the field against the Crows. No fewer than 10 players for the Pies still have less than 50 senior games to their names.
That’s more than even the Western Bulldogs, a team viewed as a classic example of a side rebuilding upon youth, played in their last game against Essendon.
The difference is all in perception. The Bulldogs are a far lower profile club that can go about such a mission with relative immunity from the various stumbles and pitfalls along the way. When Collingwood cops a whack on-field, the entire football world is watching, scrutinising, and often rejoicing in its demise.
2010 is a long time ago for the Magpies. Photo: Wayne Taylor
That doesn’t mean Buckley shouldn’t be immune from criticism, mind you. Some good judges on Sunday questioned, for example, his use of tagger Brent Macaffer on Rory Sloane rather than Patrick Dangerfield, a bigger danger to the Pies.
Scott Pendlebury’s use on a wing or forward at stages raised some eyebrows, as did that of Travis Cloke further away from goal, where his disposal efficiency is poor, despite Ben Reid struggling in his comeback game. But Collingwood’s structural issues are greater than some puzzling positional tinkering.
All season, there’s been far too big a reliance upon Cloke and ground-level goal sneak Jamie Elliott for scoring power, Jesse White having failed to deliver the support needed, and trailing off badly in games, kicking just two of his 15 goals for the season after half-time.
Collingwood’s defence, popularly viewed pre-season as its biggest Achilles heel, stood up manfully early thanks to the revelations that were Jack Frost and Tom Langdon, but has clearly buckled under the strain, the mid-season injury to then retirement of Nick Maxwell leaving it without proper organisation.
That in turn has placed greater pressure on the Magpies’ midfielders to lend more weight defensively, and even in Collingwood’s peak years of 2010-11, their much-feted midfield group wasn’t noted for its capacity to work back nearly as hard as it liked to run forward.
What back then seemed like the competition’s best midfield group now doesn’t bat nearly deep enough, and the absence of Dane Swan and Luke Ball through injury couldn’t have come at a worse time.
The recurrent theme when you look through those from Collingwood’s grand final side now gone are that the qualities they brought to the side haven’t been adequately replaced.
Leon Davis and Ben Johnson offered not only experience but tremendous rebound out of defence. Dale Thomas then was rated close to the best midfielder in the game, and Sharrod Wellingham was surrounded by enough talent to consistently get under opponents’ guards.
In the ruck, Darren Jolly was at the top of his game and had important mobile support from Leigh Brown. And up forward, the smarts of Andrew Krakouer and Alan Didak and work rate of Chris Dawes gave Collingwood’s attack the sort of balance it so palpably lacks now.
Most of those names were also cool-headed, efficient users of the football. Their loss and replacement by rawer kids still coming to grips with the pressure of AFL level has ensured that Collingwood’s skill level has declined markedly to the point it’s become a continual bugbear.
You’d expect that to improve over time. Tim Broomhead, for example, looks a very classy player, Paul Seedsman has already shown in patches his link-up ability, Taylor Adams arrived from GWS very highly rated, and for young ruckmen, Jarrod Witts and Brodie Grundy have both showed they have decent futures.
But will they be given the leeway to develop with the odd glitch along the way? That’s always the fundamental issue for Collingwood.
Because while the Magpies, who have won just three of nine games this season against top eight sides, now have the profile of a team sitting about where logic dictates they should be on the ladder, the profile of the club dictates that that position is never enough.